Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Betamaxed - Paying for early access is a bad for everyone

As I have touched on in previous posts, in recent years, consumers have had increasing options for obtaining games and the pre-order system seems to exist in its present form only to line the pockets of the publisher. In an effort to incentivize pre-ordering, publishers/developers have taken to offering beta access in exchange for pre-ordering. While I feel that, in general, providing beta access to the broader community could lead to a better overall product, I suspect that the scheme will ultimately be a losing deal for all parties.

A Bit about Beta
When a game hits beta stages, it generally means that the primary content has been implemented and most development resources are now spent identifying and fixing bugs as well as generally glossing up the game for proper release. Before the prevalence of high speed internet, the beta phase was sometimes the last development that would ever take place on a title and any bugs found post-release were very difficult to fix. This makes sense as the difficulty in disseminating a patch presented a logistical nightmare; good companies would generally offer some sort of snail-mail option to obtain a patch, okay companies would offer the patch online where, depending on size, a 14.4 modem could take hours or days to download, and other companies (most commonly for console games) would either only release the patch in subsequent retail versions or simply not patch the game at all. It should be obvious that, provided the developer is actually working, more people testing over a longer period of beta time generally leads to higher quality (less buggy) finished product. As such, it is generally a positive trend that developers have started to bring in the broader community to beta test rather than keeping things strictly in house.
Until recently, the privilege of playing in a beta was not one you had to pay for. While a plethora of models exist, hitherto, access to a beta was usually provided through some form of selection process (i.e. lottery) and often necessitated the signing of a non-disclosure agreement. Later beta phases might be opened to everyone but typically blocked off large portions of content and often functioned as a glorified demo. These models provided positives for consumers, publishers, and developers. For the consumer, they would have the opportunity to play something before everyone else and establish some initial impressions to aid in the decision to purchase the final product, publishers could generate buzz for an upcoming title, and developers could get crucial feedback for squashing the worst bugs. More recently, the practice of monetizing beta access has been taking place by offering early access to those who pre-order the game. While, theoretically, the benefits for the three aforementioned parties still exist, some serious pitfalls can be foreseen if this trend starts to become the standard.
Consumer Conundrums
To start, as beta-access is usually tied into pre-ordering, I think all the standard consumer negatives of purchasing a product sight-unseen still apply; the pre-order system gives the publisher money with little incentive to subsequently provide value for that money. I suppose that beta access now provides a little bit more justification for the pre-order in the first place, but it does not change the fact that the consumer is paying for something that was previously available for free (albeit not guaranteed). Perhaps guaranteed beta access is worth it to some, but I feel that the rational consumer should not be ponying up full value for something that is overtly incomplete. In cases where less than full value is charged, this concern is proportionally mitigated (but never fully). A further negative for the consumer is that reputable journalists (a major source for reliable purchase information) will typically not give a final score until a product is fully released. The trap here is that any negative press published in ‘previews’ can be easily dismissed by the developer/publisher by stating that it will be rectified in the final release (while not actually beholden to these claims). The result is a slew of extra coverage for the savvy consumer to wade through with contradictory claims that could lead to confusion and diminished genuine information to facilitate making a purchase.
Developer Dystopia
The above point can also be used as a negative for the publisher/developer. If beta previews are negative, it may be impossible for the well-meaning publisher/developer to put out all the fires and, even if the product is fantastic in the end, they may lose out on sales due to initial negative reaction to an unfinished product. Of further concern, for the developer, is that the quality of beta tester they recruit through a pay system may be substandard. Part of the reasoning for the selection process is so that a broad cross-section of players can be sampled including those who may not be heavily invested in the game. Further on this point, those who have already effectively purchased the game may enter into the sunk-cost fallacy whereby they fail to perceive flaws in order to justify their investment (this, of course, dilutes the value of the beta process). Of further concern for the developer, especially in the long term if pay-for-beta becomes the standard, is that consumer expectations may hold that a beta is in a playable and in a polished state. While this consumer expectation is unreasonable (an unfinished product by definition will have some rough edges) it is easily foreseeable. Concurrent to this is the legal tangle when it comes to refunds, should a consumer be refunded the cost of a product sold ‘as-is and unfinished’ because they perceive it is low quality?
Publisher Perils
For the publisher, while undoubtedly okay with an influx of guaranteed money pre-orders, beta-access sales can make a revenue stream unpredictable in the short term as data models for this scheme are in their infancy. In short, an uncertain model will no doubt lead to some publishers making bad decisions. With time, the modelling problem will be resolved and likely the spreading out of sales from the beta period to release will yield a smoother revenue stream. That said, the inherent incomplete nature of the beta product opens up many more opportunities for risk of interruption of revenue. For example, it is conceivable that the latest patch breaks the game for a large portion of users, this would undoubtedly negatively impact sales until the issue is resolved. Assuming overall sales remain about the same, publishers will have to prepare for small day-to-day revenue instead of lump sum revenue at release and any interruption to this day-to-day revenue could be catastrophic to operations. Again this problem can be rectified with smart planning but my cynical side believes that smaller publishers won’t save for the rainy day (larger publishers will likely have enough products on the go at the same time to insulate themselves).
Conclusions and Some Talking Points
Beta testing is a crucial part of the development process and opening it to a broader community is generally a good thing. However, a pay-for-beta model is ultimately to the detriment of all parties. Consumers should flat out not accept such a bad deal, developers end up diluting the quality of the testers, and publishers expose themselves to a riskier revenue stream.
  • I think the allure of beta access stems from a general impatience in the gaming community. This “me-first-now” attitude is generally troubling.
  • MMORPG’s seem to have wholly endorsed the pay-for-beta approach. It is accepted by consumers that some features are not available at launch. In many cases, the unimplemented features used to be considered fundamental.
  • Most of the pay-for-beta trend has been restricted to PC games. Certification processes have aided in mitigating this for console games.
  • My points on publishers are probably the points I am least informed on. I would not be surprised if they came across as unintelligible to some.