Gambling with pre-order bonuses and beta access

gamblingphoto by waffler@flickr

The current trend in MMOs is to include early access to the game, pre-launch, as part of a pre-order deal. So if you pre-order a game like Aion (no bias intended, I’m just picking it as the next big game to launch), the publishers throw in free access to the closed beta and to any other headstart type early access. You may get other perks also.

So what’s to stop you taking the pre-order to get the beta access and then cancelling? Nothing. In fact, if you aren’t sure that the game is for you  it’s a smart way to check it out. Embrace the pre-order as a way to get a free trial. Be careful of whatever NDAs are in place. When the NDA drops, tell everyone what you thought. If you don’t fancy the game, cancel the pre-order.

This is a very different scheme from actually charging for closed beta access. As a customer, a pre-order is a declaration of intent to buy when the game is released. Usually you’ll supply payment details when you make the pre-order, on the understanding that you don’t actually pay until the release date. That means that you can cancel at any time before that and pay nothing.

When a company chooses to make beta access complicit on a pre-order, they understand that too. The majority of people who bother to pre-order probably won’t cancel, and it’s nice to have some upfront numbers for PR purposes. For example, Aion announced recently that they have over 300k pre-orders. Just bear in mind that those aren’t solid cash until the fat lady sings, the game gets released, and they find out how many of those pre-orders were still valid. Also, the pre-order crowd are likely to be the hardcore gamers, the guys who read official sites and bulletin boards, the guys who are influential in other games’ communities.

So actually, giving beta access to pre-orders is a way of getting some experienced gamers into the beta. Who is to say that’s a worse way to test the game than getting any other random selection? There is really no moral issue with cancelling a pre-order. Especially if you played the beta, spread the word, and helped to stress test or find other bugs too.

So I was talking about gambling in the subject line here. With a pre-order bonus, it is the developer who is taking the gamble. They’re gambling that getting some experienced gamers in will pay off in terms of PR, word of mouth, and making those customers feel special, and feel so attached to the new game that they want to buy it and spend lots of money on it. The customer has no risk, they can try the game and still not pay if they don’t like it. So I would absolutely encourage anyone to take out pre-orders which offer beta access if they want to try a new game out before it is released.

Just … bear in mind that a beta isn’t really the same as a free trial, even if it is being sold that way.

When is a Closed Beta not a Closed Beta?

Selling beta access as part of a pre-order will change how players feel about it. There’s no notion that you had to fill in a form explaining why you’d be a good beta tester to get in (I’m sure no one reads those forms but just the fact that you often have to fill them in for beta makes people think about the whole idea of a beta test). A player might not be told anything about the beta except that characters get deleted before the game goes live.

If the beta client is not very up front about offering obvious ways to report bugs and tell players what functionality is currently being focus tested, then pre-order players will ignore the test side of things.

This may be fine. It may be that the devs want to just let players loose in the beta version and see what happens. Again, grabbing some experienced players to do this is at least as good a test corps as you’d get from random applicants. The fact that these are guys who have shown interest in giving you money at a future date is just a bonus. If however the beta client is still very buggy, some of those pre-orders will be lost. Players may have come in with the mindset that they’ll experience the finished product unless it is made very obvious to them that this is not the case.

Clearly a free to play model won’t need to charge for beta access, either in real cash or via pre-order. So maybe in the future this odd status of the beta test will either resolve into a free trial or a free test.

But right now, it’s peculiar. If you have actually paid for goods or services then you’re entitled to certain levels of quality (the phrase ‘fit for purpose’ is used a lot in the law here, for example). If you haven’t, then who knows where consumer laws fit in? If you didn’t get your beta access for technical reasons, then you can hardly claim damages when you hadn’t paid in the first place. This is why beta agreements can be quite arcane – no one sane thinks you can reasonably expect test code to perform like live code. But when it is being sold as a free trial, even when people say that they understand it is a beta test, their expectations say something different.

Like I say, I think it’s perfectly sensible to pre-order if you want the pre-access, and then cancel. Would you do that? Are you planning on doing it with any games in particular and if so, why?

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11 thoughts on “Gambling with pre-order bonuses and beta access

  1. No. I won’t put down money to beta test a game, even through a pr-order.

    When we beta test we’re providing an essential service – and most of us are willing to do that free of charge. To tie it to “intent to buy” is ludicrous.

    • It is ludicrous, which is why I want to encourage people to call them on it. I’ll get my free trial one way or the other.

      (I also think it’s a bit silly to try to game gamers.)

      • I’ve complained about this on my blog before, and the overwhelming response was “meh – whatever – at least we get to play the game before release”.

        That’s exactly the wrong attitude to take into a beta test though….. you’re SUPPOSED to be there to try to help make the game better, not decide if you want to play it. (You may make that decision in the end anyways – but it shouldn’t be your motivation.)

        The last game I beta tested (Web Wars, two months ago, just went live this month) actually gave testers Amazon gift certificates at the end of the process as a show of appreciation. It was both unexpected, unasked for, and appreciated.

      • I understand where you are coming from but I think it is the dev team who have to decide what they want to get out of a closed beta.

        If they want feedback, then they need to communicate this to testers and provide a clear path for them to do it.

        If they want people to play the game as if it was live so that they can monitor it for performance issues, then there’s no reason not to treat it as a free trial. The main thing is that if you play it, the devs get their tests.

        Personally I prefer to be more involved with testing. But they might be past that phase.

  2. Personally, I stopped playing betas if I have no intent to actually help anything in the game. I played the Aion beta for a day to make sure I wanted to keep the pre-order and that was it. 1 day of all of CBT and OBT. The game had already been out in Korea and China so… all they were working on was polish. They didn’t really need me.

    Now, when I beta’d Tabula Rase, I submitted MANY bug reports (a lot of good that did eh?). Some of them got fixed, many didn’t and when stuff like that happens, it makes you question why you’re even betaing at all, aside from playing the game before others.

    I did the alpha for Stargate for a bit, but I could never log in to actually test, so I stopped. Again, why even try?

    One thing I’ve noticed though, is that on my recent pre-order of Aion through Gamestop, once I’d redeemed the beta codes I could no longer cancel my online order. If I don’t pick it up they charge me 5 bucks or something like that, but there’s no option to cancel it. Kinda sucks since I pre-ordered from there first before finding the Collector’s edition on Amazon. So I won’t pick it up from Gamestop and they’ll probably charge me 5 bucks, but whatever.

    Dunno if places are getting smart about people pre-ordering just to play (since I think Amazon had the same warning on my order from them), but I guess I kind of agree with them. If you’re pre-ordering the game just to get in the beta and check it out, you’re doing it wrong!

  3. I find it a bit disappointing to see the hobby becoming more us vs them in terms of players vs developers.

    It is lame to tie beta testing to purchase. It is kinda cheesy to preorder with no intention of buying (not immoral as you rightly say but still cheesy).

    For me though the overriding consideration is that my time is simply too valuable to be wasted playing unfinished games. I’ll play it when it works.

    I would be interested in beta testing if it were genuine beta testing but these things are just exercises in getting bums on seats for the marketing stats.

  4. Stabs said, “I find it a bit disappointing to see the hobby becoming more us vs them in terms of players vs developers.”

    Hmm, then you won’t like these two links at all:

    Activision games to bypass consoles with the already infamous quote from Activision Blizzard CEO Kotick:

    The goal that I had in bringing a lot of the packaged goods folks into Activision about 10 years ago was to take all the fun out of making video games.”

    And when you read Free Realms Tallies 5M Users; No, Really, note Smedley’s remarks about marketing, advertising, and analyzing every click a player makes.

    • Interesting link to the post about Free Realms. I’m intrigued that Smedley said:

      “((the market for kid oriented games)) is a market where you have to stay fresh, and you have to stay ahead of the competition in a way that you don’t have to do with your core MMOs,” Smedley told VirtualWorldsNews.com this evening.

      He also claims that the MMO market is 15% female in general. And I’m sure I’ve seen numbers much higher than that (WoW is supposedly 60:40 male:female?)

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  6. I agree with most of this post. I don’t have a problem with pre-ordering and then cancelling if you decide its not for you.

    But really, I havent pre-ordered too many games without having a pretty good idea beforehand that I was interested in playing at launch, even if I decide it’s only going to be a month or 2.

    My wife and I both pre-oredered DDO when it came out several years ago, played the beta for about a weekend and found it so bad we cancelled the pre-orders.

    And even more recently, we pre-ordered Champions. Since retailers seem to have that silly restriction that only 1 beta code goes out per order, I ended up having to buy one copy from Gamestop and one from BestBuy. I ended up enjoying the beta and paid for one copy, but my wife didnt like the game at all so we cancelled her pre-order.

    Like the guy above me said, Gamestop charged the 5 bucks for cancelling, but BestBuy had no fee, so I picked my copy up at Gamestop and cancelled the BestBuy order. If they all start doing that though, 5 bucks vs the whatever the box costs is worth it to me anyways. Still, glad to have been able to save the fiver…

    Also, interesting link there with Smed. I think it’s pretty understood by many that he’s taken his own advice to heart, considering “staying fresh” and “keeping ahead of the competition” in his core MMOs doesnt really seem to be his focus :) (Sorry, I know, I know… as a long-time VG player, hard to pass up that snarky comment)

  7. Pingback: Aion: First Weekend Thoughts and Impressions « Pearls of Unwisdom

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