Back in the golden days of video games, there was no such thing as a soft launch. Nintendo didn’t send out test copies of Super Mario World to special “backers,” and Sega didn’t ship half-finished Sonic games with promises of further content updates. Games, for the most part, were played only after they were finished, printed, packaged, and shipped. Even on PC, beta testing was more of an earned honor exclusive to players that showed dedication to a title and its community.
Here in these modern times of Internets and always-ons, however, things are different. It would seem as though developers need only make enough game content to shoot a reasonably convincing trailer before the publishing team can begin collecting money by slapping a “BETA” sticker on the webpage and offering fans early access.
Over the last few years soft launches have become increasingly common — especially for creators of online games. The line between “in testing” and “done” is becoming blurred, and publishers are reaping the benefits while players suffer.
You keep using that word
First, a clarification: If players are paying money to access a game in any way, shape, or form, that’s not a beta. It’s a launch. It doesn’t matter what the publisher calls it. Beta testing is a service provided by dedicated fans interested in seeing a title succeed; it should never, ever, cost players money to help a developer or publisher work out the kinks in a game.
Live cash shop? Launch. Founders pack up-front payments? Launch. Anything with a dollar sign on the download page? Launch. If a publisher is accepting money and giving players game access or items in return, that game is no longer in beta; it’s out. The word “beta” indicates that a game requires more testing; if a game isn’t finished, if its in-game items haven’t been proven, if it’s offering an experience that is in any way incomplete, it is irresponsible and unethical to take a dime of player money until those issues are resolved.
This is separate from the issue of crowdfunding. In crowdfunding, players back an idea and hope it comes to fruition. Soft launches, however, demand money for a product that has already been developed but is still obviously not ready for release. The promise made with crowdfunding is, “We’ll do our best to make this a reality.” The promise made by a soft launch is, “We will probably fix all of this broken stuff eventually, but in the meantime please keep buying things in our cash shop.”
Certainly there’s something to be said for indie developers who rely on early payments to keep games in the pipeline. Without paid betas, for example, Minecraft wouldn’t be a thing. But Minecraft and games like it fall closer to crowdfunding than early access, as they’re generally upfront about the fact that the title is in no way ready to be seen by the general gaming public. Players participating in those paid betas know what they’re getting into — they know that what they’re buying isn’t necessarily a thing that will function correctly.
One would have to ask the Neverwinter players who suffered through exploit-driven rollbacks if they received a similar disclaimer.
QA as a privilege
If there’s a person out there willing to suffer through a broken, incomplete game in the interest of making it better, the publisher should be paying that someone for the service — not the other way around. Quality Assurance, or QA, is usually an in-house (or outsourced) position at a games studio for which employees are paid to track issues with a game, yet somehow publishers have convinced a large chunk of the gaming populace that this is some sort of privilege to be unlocked by investing money before everyone else.
Before this method became the standard, players paid money and received a game. It was a simple transaction. Now, players pay money to receive the promise of a game that will probably, eventually, be something worth playing, and oh, hey, wouldn’t you mind testing it for us along the way? There’s no finished product, just a series of never-ending updates. The game can (and does) change, and it doesn’t matter if it changes into something players want. The money’s already in the bank.
There’s no accountability in a soft launch. Publishers open the cash shop and line up the founders pack rewards, but at no point in the purchasing process is it ever established what “finished” actually means. There’s plenty of language in EULAs about betas being betas, possible wipes, resets, or problems occurring, and the publisher not being responsible if servers go down for a few days or if the game wipes any hard drive to which it is installed. But players looking for the part of the EULA that outlines at what point they can see their investment considered officially returned are sure to be sorely disappointed.
Soft launches are a problem, and their rising popularity is concerning. They’ve created a scenario in which publishers can outsource QA testing to the people who care most about their titles and force those people to pay for the privilege. If those passionate players lose money to server downtime, cash shop item changes, or a massive round of rollbacks and wipes, well, hey man, that’s just betas, right?
At the moment, players have a choice: stop paying for games that aren’t finished, or stop complaining about games being unfinished yet equipped with fully functional cash shops and “early adopter” payment tiers.
It’s either one or the other.