A new era of soft launches
Neverwinter soft launched this week. What’s a soft launch? It’s when a game really shouldn’t be launching yet and knows it and yet has to launch anyway for reasons probably involving money. Soft launches are incredibly confusing to old school gamers who are used to a certain kind of testing and release cycle, the uncomplicated kind that involves, you know, some testing and a release. Soft launches make games writers uncomfortable too. Why won’t your weird special snowflake of a game launch fit into our perfectly planned box?
Massively reader zmeul expressed his annoyance with us thusly: “I can’t understand why some games get this ‘soft launch’ from you and others do not, even if the criteria are met.”
It’s a brave new world out there, zmeul!
First, let’s address the “criteria” bit. Almost a year ago, we purged Betawatch, our weekly beta roundup column, of all the games that met totally arbitrary criteria we dreamed up to determine whether something was really, truly in a beta. If a game was in open beta, had a functioning cash shop, and had no plans to wipe, we considered it to have soft launched. There were games on the list that had literally been in “open beta” while taking money from players for years. It was pointless to keep these games on our list as if they were still in testing when in reality they were just coasting along unfinished but making money. Plus it was unfair to all those other games that had actually launched and were no longer getting a free shout-out every week from our roundup. A purge of offending games would be easy. Right?
Well, no. See, some games took money and still planned to wipe the servers for launch. Some games planned a server wipe but didn’t have a functional cash shop. Some games took money, didn’t plan to wipe the servers, and yet were in closed beta such that no one new could join the game (hi, Glitch!). And with the rise of Kickstarter, plenty of people were paying for games and sideshow goodies before some games were even started, let alone finished. “Open beta” cash shops no longer seemed like the worst crime.
Meanwhile, we were still trying to fit MMO launches into our old school box. If a game soft launched but didn’t admit it was soft launching, we didn’t give it the usual pomp associated with an honest launch because it wasn’t an honest launch — no one even realized it was a launch at all. In our old-school minds, it was just another open beta, surely not worthy of launch impressions and roundups (and server outages and tear-filled rants) and all the other things you’ve come to expect out of a Classic MMO Clownshoes Launch. Those things would come with the real launch… whenever that was. Games that never officially launched just trickled into existence and paid for it in hypelessness.
But the free-to-play invasion of the last few years has changed how testing works, and I’m not just talking about East Asian import games with their endless betas. Western MMOs like Guild Wars 2 have popularized standoffish, truncated beta weekends and testing cycles that work better for the development teams (or at least their hype squads). With Neverwinter, we’re actually witnessing one of the first AAA MMORPGs that is soft launching with absolutely no shame. Perfect World Entertainment and Cryptic didn’t try to hide the launch of open beta like so many other studios have done. They’ve been honest that the game was still in testing, honest about the cash shop, honest about not wiping characters, honest about the head start. You may have issues with the game — as I type this, one of my guildies is #7103 in the login queue — and you may not like the idea that soft launching is a thing, but at least it’s honest.
It’s certainly a lot more honest than calling an unfinished, buggy game a real launch and taking your money anyway, which is what most AAA games do. With Neverwinter, you can play it and give the game money, or you can wait. You get to choose.
This is why we’re calling it a soft launch and why it’s getting the launch-week treatment from us. A soft launch is exactly what this is, and Cryptic gave the entire community so much warning that we were able to prepare for it.
So what about other games? zmeul suggested three titles that likewise deserved the soft launch moniker: War Thunder, Star Conflict, and Warframe. Part of the reason none of these games got a massive launch festival is that they’re not core games for us. Warframe actually soft-launched back in March. We even called it a soft launch, which makes me all proud. War Thunder got a nice hands-on last Sunday, and Star Conflict is one we haven’t covered much (but we plan to in the future). You are absolutely correct that all three have soft launched and should be removed from Betawatch. We appreciate all the help we can get when it comes to corralling betas and cash shops and their associated shenanigans, so when we make a mistake in Betawatch, we want to hear about it.