Thursday, July 24, 2008

WAR press beta

I received a mail from Mythic's PR agency, inviting me to the Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning press beta. Interesting, I didn't even know there was such a thing as a press beta. In the earlier stages of the WAR beta, press was excluded; so if they are now opening up it appears as if the game is getting closer to release.

What is a beta actually? I think everyone understands that word differently, just look at all the Google "betas". As I could see in the comments to yesterday's thread, the WAR beta is a particularly touchy subject. Mythic made lots of advertising to get people to sign up for the beta, then used the large number of people signing up for the beta as marketing tool ("look at us, we got millions of people signing up for the beta"), and then only let a small number of people actually get into the beta. And as this beta is already running longer than some other MMORPGs had in total lifetime from release to being shut down, that leaves hundreds of thousands of beta applicants unhappy for never making it into the beta.

From the people who actually made it into the WAR beta there also have been some negative comments. These can to a certain degree be explained by Mythic having a different idea of what a beta is than many of the beta testers. Some beta testers just want to play for free, but Mythic actually wanted the beta test to, well, test their game. There are stories that for testing purposes the graphics were toned down up to recently. And you couldn't just make a character and play whatever you wanted, the beta test was very structured, and only specific races, classes, and levels were available at various times. So you might log in and find your character from the last phase deleted, and you having to play a new character of level X of some other race. Which *is* a good method to actually test stuff, but requires a certain dedication from the beta testers beyond playing for free. Mark Jacobs recently explained the decision to cut 4 classes from WAR by the feedback of beta testers, and them watching the numbers and seeing that people didn't play those classes in the beta because they weren't as much fun as the others. Compared to lets say WoW still struggling with the fact that people find protection warriors not so much fun since 4 years, using a beta to make sure all of your classes are popular is probably not such a bad idea.

But for marketing purposes the WAR beta isn't ideal. Because many other companies used their beta very differently, people are used to much shorter beta, inviting everyone who applies, and showing off the game near completion. These "marketing betas" serve better as free trial version, and to fuel the hype just before release. Their testing value is limited to stress testing the servers, and even there beta testers complain if during a stress test there is lag or login problems. Doh! I think Mythic did many things right with their beta to improve the actual game. But they shouldn't have asked everyone to sign up for the beta when they knew that is was still a long process not suited for the general public. It's not good to have potential customers disappointed before the game is even released. I hope they make up for it by inviting every applicant to some open stress test beta two weeks before release.

Personally I'm irrationally happy about my WAR press beta invite. Irrationally because it's for the wrong continent, and I'm already in the regular closed beta for Europe. I won't see anything new, and the press beta is still under NDA, so I can't write any more than I could before. But the simple fact that my status as blogger has risen to the point where big companies send me press beta invites, let me interview their top people, and give me press passes for events makes me very proud. My apologies for that pride, but the blog is a huge amount of work, and I get zero financial benefits from it. Positive feedback from readers and companies alike is my only reward. So you must excuse if I appear to be bragging about things like special invitations, reader numbers, and blog milestones of numbers of visitors, posts, and years. Consider them to be my salary.

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