Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Beta Leaks

The issues we discuss around MMORPGs are often similar, if smaller in scale, than the issues of the real world. One hotly discussed issue of the real world is leaks and whistle blowing: should people reveal secrets if they think that the revelation is in the best general interest, and should journalists report those leaks? If a chemical company is poisoning the ground water, Enron is fiddling their accounts, or the CIA is falsifying data on WMD or torturing people, would it be better to reveal that, or should they be allowed to keep those things secret? The equivalent subject in MMORPGs is leaking information from beta tests: If a game sucks, should beta testers leak that information, or should they keep mum and let the company make money by selling lots of games on the day of release before people realize how bad it is? Vanguard apparently sold over 200,000 copies before crashing to under 50,000 subscribers, should beta testers have warned potential players earlier?

It is easy to claim that "you signed an NDA, you shouldn't talk about that beta". Obviously the people who alerted the authorities and press about the Enron account fiddling also had a contract with Enron forbidding them to pass on secret information about the company. Making a bad game is not as bad a crime as ruining your investors, but then an NDA is not as strong a contract as an employment contract. Both Age of Conan and Warhammer Online have been announced for May, just two months from now, and unless they are postponed there isn't much time left before release, and neither game has even announced an open beta yet. Either there will be no open beta at all, or a rather short one, with very little opportunity to spread the word about possible flaws in these games. But as especially in MMORPGs the drive to be in the game right from the start is strong, that can lead to many people buying the game without being able to test it before, and then being disappointed, having wasted $50+ on a flawed or incomplete game.

A reader alerted me to a site called Beta Leaks, which does exactly what it says in the title: it is a forum for leaking information from MMORPG betas. And I was reading a thread called "AoC Beta Leak FAQ" there which gave me a lot of information I'm sure Funcom doesn't want me to have, and especially not write about. Now I never signed an NDA with Funcom, but that information is obviously tainted by coming from somebody else's breach of his NDA. So I'm not going to report it. But although I'm sure I'll get another one of those idiot comments that me linking to that beta leaks site is already breaking a taboo, I would at least like to start a discussion here about how legitimate beta leaks are. The people who leak obviously think that it is in the better interest of the players to have that sort of information, while the game companies obviously think this stuff shouldn't be public knowledge. Where do you stand in that? Could you imagine to ever leak information from a beta, if you thought the game was really, really unacceptable? With companies buying favorable reviews from bigger game sites, at which point does revealing information become a legitimate guerilla tactic instead of just a breach of contract?

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