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?