Tobold's Blog
Thursday, May 03, 2012
The future is now

Once upon a time people on the internet talked about the games they were currently playing, and websites as well as print magazines reviewed existing games. Alpha versions of games weren't accessible at all, while betas were for a few select testers to give feedback. It appears that this was very long ago, with those habits now forgotten. Today a beta attracts millions of players, who are even willing to pay for that access. Blizzard sold a million Mists of Pandaria beta accesses at the hefty price of a year's subscription to World of Warcraft. ArenaNet sold access to the Guild Wars 2 beta at the price of the full game, and was so successful that their own website listed the digital edition of GW2 as being "sold out". I know of several games which are available for the general public for alpha testing. And in print magazines as well as on websites and blogs it seems as if 80% of the talk is about games that haven't been released yet, or are still collecting funding via Kickstarter. It seems as if we are living in the future of gaming, instead of in the presence.

The advantage for the game companies is clear: The digital edition of Guild Wars 2 costs *more* than the price you are going to pay on release day in a brick and mortar shop, ArenaNet gets all the money instead of only part of it, and by having to pay that price before the beta the customer can't reverse his buying decision if he doesn't like what he sees in the beta.Blizzard pretty much ensures that people are going to buy Mists of Pandaria, as they already paid for the subscription. Kickstarter is a way to monetize the hype for a game, with the first scammers just having been discovered and kicked out instead of kickstarted.

The advantage for the customer is less obvious. Personally I find it somewhat frustrating to read a magazine about PC games and find that I can't play all these nice games they talk about, because they haven't been released yet. And I can't help but notice that months later when the game is actually release, the review is a lot cooler than the glowing enthusiasm of the preview. I liked the old-style *free* beta access as enabling me to make a purchase decision (I got into the Diablo 3 beta for free and decided that I will buy it, I played the free TERA beta and decided that it was not for me).

But to me the biggest problem is that the future by definition is uncertain. Did you get all excited by the previews of Prime: Battle for Dominus, later renamed Dominus, promising to bring back Dark Age of Camlot like 3-faction PvP plus sandbox gameplay? Well, that game just got cancelled. Games getting several hundred thousand dollars, or even a million or two on Kickstarter sounds great, until you realize that it takes about a hundred thousand dollars to pay one guy for one year (about twice his salary due to other costs of employment). That million only pays for 10 man years, which might result in a great iPhone game, but probably not a triple-A PC title. And if funding runs out before the game is ready to ship, you'll never see it.

I wonder whether this focus on games that aren't released yet has something to do with us being disappointed by the games we actually have. Do we still have the time to play games that came out, or are we already too busy to actually play while getting excited about games that are still far away?

i liked the last point you made - we're so dissatisfied from the games we already have, that we grasp at straws.

( i liked a lot my gw2 straw, but that's irrelevant :) )

the future market is selling hope
I agree with what you say. I would even grumbly add that I find released products to be too buggy without seeking out Betas.

I would quibble with some of the numbers if it goes from being one or two driven people with sweat equity into a "real company" with investors expecting a return.

Before the recession, California software developers (albeit non-gaming) were into six digits and their fully burdened annual cost was closer to a quarter than a tenth of a million. Is it unreasonable that a minority of the budget goes into development? Legal, packaging, PR and especially promotion eat into the budget. It might even be possible to spend more on click ads than programmers. If you have to set up a web site, forums, customer service tickets, billing, billing resolution, accounting the cost goes up. Perhaps there are 0.5 and 10 million dollar companies but no 2 million companies. I.e., I could see a million budget only paying for a couple of person-years of development.

I am in no way saying Apple runs the iOS store for altruistic reasons (similar for Steam) but they do address some issues, excluding promotion and development.

If someone gave you a decent, already written game for free, I am not sure it is a given you could profitably turn it into a company after paying all the legal, accounting and advertising fees. Google (or Bing) would make money but would you?
Isn't the reason for this is that the current games are bad and people don't play them but look into the future hoping that it will be better?
I'll borrow a line from Louie C.K.: Everything is amazing and no one is happy.

I love playing TOR...I just left Rift after an amazing year and plan on revisiting AoC before The Secret World comes out. I still have Cata in a box on the shelf, unopened! I want to get into it before MoP but maybe like LotRO I've moved on from WoW?

Who woulda thought, when BC came out, there'd be so many choices. I've been gaming over 35 years now...maybe when you start on an 8 color Atari unit that runs on 8 d-cells and plays 3 games period it's impossible to be jaded or -gasp- angry. Who knows.

Back to my games :)
I like the way you have tied all of these "pay now play later" schemes together. From an economic perspective the customer is sharing some of the risk that the project fails or delivers a lousy game.

I have no problem with customers sharing the development risk as long as they get an appropriate reward for it. If the project is a little known start up game then the reward for sharing some development risk could be a pretty steep discount on the release price. Minecraft and Mount and Blade are two successful examples of this model.

If the project is a game from an established developer with a good track record then customers may judge that the risks are lower and therefore they might be content with lesser rewards like early access or an in game goody bag.

As long as the customer appreciates that there is a risk and makes an informed decision that the potential reward is worth that risk I see no problem. When unthinking customers jump in because of hype then there is a problem and tears will surely follow. Caveat Emptor as always.
I'm usually focused on the games I'm playing. I've decided life is too short for betas - I'll play the game when the software works properly, when any items that drop or levels I gain are not going to be wiped and when the community is at its peak (numerically).

I made an exception for Diablo 3 and will probably make another exception for something else next year but my hobby is playing games, not wishing I could play them.
I have bought the annual pass from blizzard, but I didn't played the beta and I am not gonna buy the expansion...It was the biggest mistake I have least I will get diablo 3..

on topic now, I agree with what you say even if I don't like it. I am fan of the old nice game boxes and I have all my games in a library with their beautiful boxes. Now it seems that is not a choice even more...even if you want to wait to get the box, they are so limited that you are not sure if you will manage to get one :(
I find that the "beta" label has become a quick solution to shipping an incomplete/crappy product. Someone complains on the forum? Standard answer: what do you expect, this is only a beta.
"I wonder whether this focus on games that aren't released yet has something to do with us being disappointed by the games we actually have. Do we still have the time to play games that came out, or are we already too busy to actually play while getting excited about games that are still far away?"

Nowadays gamers are older and have more money - they also are a bit jaded which is probably as much to do with them as with the games. So they spend money to recapture their youth. I think that is part of it.

Also it is the application of social gaming techniques to game development.
I guess. Certainly I don't see a huge advantage to paying early for access. And the "pre-sale" of GW2 comes right after WoW's "pay for a full year, get D3 and into the MoP beta" which (from a business standpoint) looks a lot like "we are not sure Cataclysm year 2 has enough value to retain customers."

But... OK, lets take the GW2 Beta event. You pay $60 or $80 USD and have a weekend gaming. What else could you do for that cost? That's not that far off from me taking my family to dinner (and not a fancy place, but not fast food either). Or taking them to the movies, if we don't buy popcorn or drinks. Or I could buy one ticket (low end, not high end) to a concert or sporting event -- again, refreshments not included.

If I look at "a full weekend of entertainment for $60" and compare it to my other paid for entertainment options, it's not a bad deal. That's ignoring playing the game itself as long as I want once it is released.

Now, I'm *not* advocating a position that says that if what you want is the game itself, that you can't get a better deal by waiting. In all probability, you can get a much better price by holding off until 6 months after release.

But I've payed more to purchase an out of print D&D module that I wanted to run.

I do worry, just a bit, about how gaming companies expect to pay the rent and the bills off of one time fees like this. I suspect that the GW2 cash shop will *have* to make money, good money, for ArenaNet to survive. $60 a seat isn't that much from the perspective of filling a building of developers. I wonder how many copies they'll have to sell just to hit "break even" on the four year development cycle.
@jongreece: The preorder actually works out better for Anet than selling only at release would. Any person who buys a preorder, but buys a box, pays the same amount of money to Anet, but the money comes earlier. Anyone who buys a preorder who would not have bought a release game is extra money for Anet.

As for buying a game when it is not officially released, after the Minecraft and Achron betas, the "release' version seems more an arbitrary dividing line than a solid boundary. These two games are ones where buying the game during the beta was a worthwhile purchase, since the games already included most of the final features, and were effectively a full game to play in fun terms even in beta. (Of course, there are plenty of games that are the opposite, and not worth getting until some time after their release.)

I do agree that a lot of players seem very easy to hype up, and than get disappointed, and am quite surprised at how one game after another is able to build up so much hype, even with the disappointments before it. (this doesn't necessarily mean the games aren't going to be fun and worthwhile, just that it seems players should be more skeptical before the game is shown in detail.)
It seems like our current culture encourages people to rush through games as fast as possible. Then wait again for the next big release. The average player does one playthrough of a game (maybe 20-40 hrs) and never touches it again.

I admit I used to be like this until I moved out of the house and had much less disposable income. Now I try to spend more time with each game. I do not keep playing a game I don't like though. Otherwise, I will try to get every ounce of gameplay by playing every class and game mode available.
"Once upon a time people on the internet talked about the games they were currently playing, and websites as well as print magazines reviewed existing games"

This still happens today, except by your own admission, you find these blog entries ("My experiences as a troll shaman" etc) less interesting than those that tread fresh ground.
You're not the only one that feels this way, so the blogosphere is beset with debate and analysis of future titles.

I would also argue that this fever for future titles is nothing new. I remember print magazines such as PC Gamer and PC Zone that would boast of their exclusive previews and revealing screenshots as the main monthly story.

Conversely what has changed is wider access to these previews (betas), as you indicate in your article.
"You pay $60 or $80 USD and have a weekend gaming. What else could you do for that cost? "

Buy a copy of a released game and play ALL of it whenever you want to.
@Spinks - Well, sure. But if you pre-buy GW2, you get that and get beta access on the event. The difference there is really one of Future Value vs. Present Value, plus the risk that Arena Net either vapors GW2 or goes under (a pretty small risk in that category).

But lets go with that -- instead, you could buy some other currently released game and play that. Or, heck, buy a ton of older games from a Steam Sale.

My point is that a $60 price tag is a fairly routine cost for an "event." People pay that cost for a 2 hour program all the time. You can say that it isn't worth it, but in the end, it is to some people. I just checked at StubHub -- If you want a seat at tonights Boston Celtics / Atlanta Hawks NBA playoff game, the cheapest seat is around $45 now.

You could, instead, watch the game on TV. Why would anyone pay to go? Clearly it has some value.

Is paying a few months early for something you already have budgeted to buy in order to gain some early access crazy? Why? And if that is crazy, why does anyone ever go to see a movie?
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