Open Beta

"Beta is Live." - Jonathan Hanna, Director of Community Relations, Turbine

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Lord of the Rings Online launches on April 24th, 2007. Or March 30th. Or April 6.

On March 30th, Lord of the Rings Online enters open beta. Often, the open beta for an MMO is when the game goes downhill. The early beta groups disband, the unwashed masses arrive, looking to freeload for a few months, and the game becomes a mess of patches, grumpy die hards and people predicting doom. But Turbine realizes that open beta is something different. They're giving pre-order customers a chance to play in the last open beta, before it's really "open" on April 6th. And they're letting them keep their characters.

Turbine's changed the very idea of a game launch, and it's a very, very smart move.

Turbine's open beta has replaced that first struggling month of pay-to-play retail launch that can be so painful in MMOs. This is nothing new for Turbine. Jonathan Hanna, Director of Community Relations at Turbine, has always thought the focus on the newly-entering retail customer put the pressure on too late. "The truth is, our strategy for that is treat them like customers even during beta," he says. "My mantra is 'beta is live.'" But it's the first time in history that so much focus has been put on the last month before retail.

This beta-is-live mentality makes the LOTRO launch a kind of midnight opening. But unlike the mad rush to buy a PlayStation 3, there's no camping out involved, and you don't even have to pay full retail. Instead, pre-order customers have an opportunity to get a discount for the rest of their lives.

It's a brilliant strategy. Most likely the people who participate in the open beta will be familiar in any MMO release. They're the zealots. The ones who needed to get Burning Crusade the night it went on sale so that they could get their World of Warcraft characters to level 70 as fast as possible. Because LOTRO's open beta will not end with a character wipe, the incentive for the true believers to get in early is phenomenal. In short, this last phase of beta is where the strongest players will be.

By calling it an open beta, Turbine also buys themselves an out. "The beta community, they tend to be much more forgiving," he explains. And of course he's right. "If there's a server crash, eh, it's beta, whatever, who cares, I'm not paying for this." Flipping the switch for paying customers has traditionally been very jarring, both for the players and for the developers. This new kind of paid-for beta mixes things up. Hanna, who spends his days thinking about and interacting with the beta and live player communities, has seen it happen over and over again. "It's sort of a challenge for the community folks to pull ourselves out of the beta mentality. They're no longer just beta players, they're customers."

And the first few weeks of an MMO can be brutal on these new paying customers. Server loads, rarely predicted accurately by stress tests, beat down those servers that mystically become the popular ones. And the interactions of thousands of players with varying objectives (including, for the first time, real griefers) expose the flaws, balance problems, and economy bugs that often escape beta testers, who, by the end of beta, are rarely as interested in stressing the corners of the system as they are in just playing for free, and catching the occasional typo. The really good beta testers, who really love the game and want it to succeed, leave the game before the end of beta because the thought of the character wipe becomes too much to bear.

Thanks in part to this early soft launch, LOTRO will suffer none of these problems. Don't get me wrong, if there aren't load issues and asshats, I'll buy you a peach. But these issues will have had weeks to shake out before anyone can complain about how the game performs once it's gone gold. Theoretically, Turbine could enact massive, world sweeping changes in the coming weeks if they need to.

Other MMOs do this too. They just do it after the game goes live.

There's little question that for Turbine's developers this is a good thing. Their getting a free ride -- a chance to be live, without the pressure. A chance to really polish and feel good about their work. But for Turbine the company, it's less clear.

In order to entice players to get in and *really* beta the game, they dangled three carrots. The first and most obvious is that the loyal core gets to keey their characters -- they get to forevermore be ahead of our friends. While a pure win for the hard-core, I'm sure there's someone in a conference room arguing that they may alienate the casual player who buys the game off the shelf at Best Buy, only to discover a larger part of the community way ahead.

The second, riskier carrot, is the price break. By getting in early, new players get the opportunity to play for $10 a month, forever. On the surface, this seems like pure lost revenue -- a 33% discount that Turbine will be saddled with forever. But, the trick is you have to keep playing. For the serial Warcraft player, this price structure will work. Many people (myself included) reactivate their WoW account for a few months every year, effectively giving Blizzard the equivalent of one-retail-game's revenue. There's no disincentive. Characters live on forever there in digital limbo, waiting for you to press enter on the billing screen. In the case of LOTRO, once you step off the train, your price goes up. There's no coming back for the discount later. You can play the dip-your-toes in once a year game, just like you did with Blizzard, but if you even think you'll play the game long term, the loss of that $5 a month discount will give you pause.

The last carrot is also financial: a "lifetime" subscription for $200. This is much harder to justify in the long term. It ensures that Turbine will have a very good month, and little else. Pollyanna would say that they're simply rewarding the core audience -- those lore-focussed players who will hang around the Tolkein bar until the last stool is upended and the lights go out. But the cynic in me counters with the notion that an actuary in coffee-stained cubicle at Turbine's office has determined that the average player who pre-orders will only stay for 18 months, and thus the $200 is a chance to get an extra twenty bucks, and even better, get it now. The deeply antisocial part of me worries that said actuary thinks the game will LAST for 18 months.

We'll likely never know how many players opt in for the one-time-offer of a lifetime membership. It's not the sort of thing they're likely to broadcast. But it won't take much for it to make April a very, very good month. If you figure 100,000 players pre-order, that's something like $400k in box sales for the launch month before the game officially goes live. If just 2,000 players opt in for the big ticket, they double their first month. That kind of early revenue gets attention, no matter how it's collected. Attention from investors, employers, and the gaming community.

My hope is that there's a benefit to players beyond these carrots. That the game won't suck. MMOs end up sucking for a variety of reasons, but the two most common have little to do with pixels and stories. The first suck-factor is when a game community devolves into a battle of asshats. This is usually a local phenomenon, and one which can often be mitigated by having a solid clan to play with. Several games have lost my interest for this reason -- the in-game spam, random dancing, complete lack of context, role playing, and an endless flood of teenage griefers. The second, far more common suck-factor is that servers become empty wastelands. While this is often the case because something just doesn't work in the game, it's more often because the players didn't have the dedication to stick with the game the story evolved. Some of my favorite games -- most especially Neocron and Planetside -- all jumped the shark for this reason.

With luck, LOTRO will be able to avoid these issues. The nature of the world should help limit the idiot-child participation, at least a little. After all, if you *hate* the Lord of the Rings, why would you be playing? I have a hard time assigning the behavior of 'that kind of player' to someone with a deep love of the books. And these non-idiots should stick around longer too. By keeping the game inexpensive (at $10), or notionally free (one time payment), Turbine has in essence made a pact with the players. Stick with us, and we'll show you a good time.

I'm not so naive as to think LOTRO will be a perfect game. It can't be. But I do think it has a chance to captivate me far more intensely than most MMOs have. Jonathan Hanna is on my side. He understands the emotional connection the game can have to a certain kind of player. "They just want to make sure that were doing the right thing for the Tolkein experience." This beta-as-live strategy is, in a very real way, an attempt to do just that. To get it really, truly right for the hardcore player.

Hanna puts it cleanly.

"We're going to make it work. "

Comments

LOTRO has a lot of good ideas going for it, but most, if not all, are structural rather than thematic, which is what I feel is the game's biggest problem. It delivers exactly what it promises... Lord of the Rings, online. But I really don't see much appeal beyond that.

I do hope some of the new ideas catch on. I particularly like the lifetime subscription option, even if the price is a bit high for a game that has yet to prove its success and longevity.

LobsterMobster wrote:
LOTRO has a lot of good ideas going for it, but most, if not all, are structural rather than thematic, which is what I feel is the game's biggest problem. It delivers exactly what it promises... Lord of the Rings, online. But I really don't see much appeal beyond that.

I do hope some of the new ideas catch on. I particularly like the lifetime subscription option, even if the price is a bit high for a game that has yet to prove its success and longevity.

True, though to compare it to our favorite MMO-esque game free of monthly fees, Guild Wars, if you bought all three installments at around list price, you'd have paid around $150. If you add the upcoming expansion, which I expect to be in the $30 price range, you're talking $180.

The "lifetime" fee doesn't look so bad in that light.

That's true, DevilStick. But what if there was never a second or third campaign, or an expansion, because Guild Wars Prophecies had failed?

I think a lifetime fee is fine for hardcore fans and rich people, bit it's not going to be the silver bullet to remain profitable in the face of other, larger MMORPGs. The monthly discount is ingenious though, people ducking in and out of these games may not matter to behemoths like Blizzard, but to the smaller groups like Turbine, it can represent a fluctuation in cash flow that could hurt them. Incentivising consistency will probably help, but it also creates an added barrier of entry for people who may be drawn by good buzz, but feel thwarted by the head start and cheaper monthly fee that founders get. Dare I say, a sort of caste system, with true believers reaping benefits while late-comers start behind both the level curve and pay the same for two months for every founder's three.

I won't be surprised if they extend the lower monthly fee into the retail launch, making the definition of "founder" hold true for people signing up within the first month or two of the game going live. It's really going to depend on the momentum going into release.

This is all targeted at getting new players to try the game, not keeping them playing.

FYI, Turbine was the first company to have a (free) MMO open beta, with Asheron's Call.

Souldaddy,

What new player is going to drop $200 to try the game. And if the low monthly fee which goes away if you suspend isn't designed to keep you playing, well, I guess I don't get it. The whole "try before you buy" thing has been done endlessly in MMOs.

rabbit wrote:
Don't get me wrong, if there aren't load issues and asshats, I'll buy you a peach.

It's a deal.

I'm likely a dunderhead here, but I'm unclear as to how little one can pay to try out the game during one of these beta periods. I've never been eager to shell out a monthly fee for a game, so what I'm looking for is whether the game will be a free download and a short trial period that's also free. The $10/month or $200 once aren't the issue so much as whether I've got to pay anything to try it out, particularly as I expect that no MMOG will be fun enough for me to be worth the costs.

Croaker, in my case, I preordered the game through Amazon, and they won't charge me until they actually ship it to me. So I'll be able to jump into the open beta starting March 30th, and can still cancel my preorder if I wish to. If you preorder, you'll get a code to get you into the beta, and you'll be able to download for free at that point.

If you choose not to preorder, you can get into the open beta one week later, April 6th. At this point, I'm not sure if there will be a 'trial' period included with the retail version after the April 24 launch.

Hope that helps. I think the open beta might be the only download for free and try for free option.

There's also the possibility that they might try to make a new LOTR movie (Silmarillion?) without Jackson, and if it sucks, the game will fail. In fact, if anything pops up to sour people on LOTR, it'll fail.

LobsterMobster wrote:
There's also the possibility that they might try to make a new LOTR movie (Silmarillion?) without Jackson, and if it sucks, the game will fail. In fact, if anything pops up to sour people on LOTR, it'll fail.

I think the success or failure of any future movies will have little bearing on the success of the game. They're based on the same subject matter, but they aren't tie-ins at all. LOTRO is based on the book license, not the movies. It's a factor, but not a very big one.

It's "The Hobbit", not the Simarillion. God help us all if they ever try to make a movie out of that one.

LobsterMobster wrote:
That's true, DevilStick. But what if there was never a second or third campaign, or an expansion, because Guild Wars Prophecies had failed?

Well, that's true as well. But LOTRO is not on a "chapter" model.

Certis wrote:
I think a lifetime fee is fine for hardcore fans and rich people, bit it's not going to be the silver bullet to remain profitable in the face of other, larger MMORPGs.

Definitely agree there. But there are some folks for whom this will be attractive.

Certis wrote:
LobsterMobster wrote:
There's also the possibility that they might try to make a new LOTR movie (Silmarillion?) without Jackson, and if it sucks, the game will fail. In fact, if anything pops up to sour people on LOTR, it'll fail.

I think the success or failure of any future movies will have little bearing on the success of the game. They're based on the same subject matter, but they aren't tie-ins at all. LOTRO is based on the book license, not the movies. It's a factor, but not a very big one.

I wouldn't be so quick to attribute LOTR's popularity on the books rather than the movies. Especially since the books aren't exactly quick, easy reads.

LobsterMobster wrote:
There's also the possibility that they might try to make a new LOTR movie (Silmarillion?) without Jackson, and if it sucks, the game will fail. In fact, if anything pops up to sour people on LOTR, it'll fail.

I don't think anyone could make a movie about the Silmarillion and keep it interesting enough to not put the audience to sleep. I love reading it, but even so, I still doze off at times.

LobsterMobster wrote:
Certis wrote:
LobsterMobster wrote:
There's also the possibility that they might try to make a new LOTR movie (Silmarillion?) without Jackson, and if it sucks, the game will fail. In fact, if anything pops up to sour people on LOTR, it'll fail.

I think the success or failure of any future movies will have little bearing on the success of the game. They're based on the same subject matter, but they aren't tie-ins at all. LOTRO is based on the book license, not the movies. It's a factor, but not a very big one.

I wouldn't be so quick to attribute LOTR's popularity on the books rather than the movies. Especially since the books aren't exactly quick, easy reads.


I didn't say that, I just said that the movies won't have much bearing on the success of the game, one way or another. Like it or not, the latest Star Wars trilogy was highly successful and Galaxies still tanked.

Malkiel wrote:
in my case, I preordered the game through Amazon, and they won't charge me until they actually ship it to me. So I'll be able to jump into the open beta starting March 30th, and can still cancel my preorder if I wish to.

Doing this, you'll get just over three weeks of play before you'll have to cancel your Amazon order to keep from paying the $50, if I understand things.

But, what's the April 6 "open" date about then? It isn't something for folks who've preordered since that's March 30. It isn't when the game's actually "in stores" since that's April 24. I was hoping it was the date when a downloadable free trial (beta) version was going to be in place.

I agree that Turbine is doing a lot of smart things with LOTRO. I also think LOTRO will sway a significant amount of WoW's population, and the load on their servers will be so overwhelming that come the REAL release date, they will be barely ready if at all - despite the open beta test.

croaker wrote:
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But, what's the April 6 "open" date about then? It isn't something for folks who've preordered since that's March 30. It isn't when the game's actually "in stores" since that's April 24. I was hoping it was the date when a downloadable free trial (beta) version was going to be in place.

croaker, I thought that is what the April 6 "open" date was. Which would give you a good 18 days of free playing before they release the game. I gather they will also have some kind of free trial period you can get either from them or by asking people who are playing the game, but that might take a few months to put in place.

I'm still unclear if you don't pre-order if you'll be able to keep your character if you do end up buying and playing the game?

If you're in the open beta, you get to keep your character. They're rolling the whole kit & kaboodle over to live.

LobsterMobster wrote:
I wouldn't be so quick to attribute LOTR's popularity on the books rather than the movies. Especially since the books aren't exactly quick, easy reads.

Ooo... did they come out with novel versions of the movies? That would be so cool!

From their FAQ: Only preorder customers get to keep their characters. People who just play the downloaded open demo from some place like fileplanet are out of luck.

Also, those who preorder will be offered the price of $9.99 monthly or $199 lifetime. My take on it, if there's even a chance you'll like it and play for a couple of months, its worth preordering. If you then play the beta and don't like it, cancel your preorder, and you haven't paid a cent.

If you buy the preorder box from BestBuy or another store, they might charge you for it, $5 - $10. Amazon.com didn't.

If Peter Jackson makes The Hobbit, this game will have a jump in subscriptions, no doubt.

rabbit wrote:
What new player is going to drop $200 to try the game. And if the low monthly fee which goes away if you suspend isn't designed to keep you playing, well, I guess I don't get it. The whole "try before you buy" thing has been done endlessly in MMOs.

I'm looking at this from a business perspective, this does have benefit for Turbine after all. These incentives seem aimed at hardcore MMO players, I doubt many casual players or non-gaming Tolkien fans recognize the value of the $200 plan, or keeping your character after beta. No, these efforts are to get a sizable player population when the game launches, so it doesn't die before it has a chance to gain momentum. You need hardcore MMO players to do that.

Yep, I agree souldaddy.

Ah OK, I agree.

Certis wrote:
I think a lifetime fee is fine for hardcore fans and rich people, bit it's not going to be the silver bullet to remain profitable in the face of other, larger MMORPGs. The monthly discount is ingenious though, people ducking in and out of these games may not matter to behemoths like Blizzard, but to the smaller groups like Turbine, it can represent a fluctuation in cash flow that could hurt them. Incentivising consistency will probably help, but it also creates an added barrier of entry for people who may be drawn by good buzz, but feel thwarted by the head start and cheaper monthly fee that founders get. Dare I say, a sort of caste system, with true believers reaping benefits while late-comers start behind both the level curve and pay the same for two months for every founder's three.

I won't be surprised if they extend the lower monthly fee into the retail launch, making the definition of "founder" hold true for people signing up within the first month or two of the game going live. It's really going to depend on the momentum going into release.

I do not get the people have a head start on me argument.

I mean not everybody buys a game and starts at the same time. Not everybody levels at the same pace.

There will always be people higher then you and lower then you in these types of games. Even the super power levelers only stay on "top" for short times before they have company.

To make it even less of an issue open beta is level capped at 15. So nobody is getting too far ahead of anybody. For those that do not know I can make level 15 in 1 day if I really try 2 easy if I wanted to concentrate on leveling in this game.

Allowing people to carry over like this will make the real launch that much easier as there will be less people in the newbie zones.

The only problem I have with the $200 deal is that you have to play for $21 months for it to be a better deal then $10 a month. I just never plan to play a game for basically 2 years. I do play games that long if they keep me entertained but to say right now that I will play for 21 months is a bit much to ask.

For those asking you do get a free month with retail purchase. So pre-order basically get 2 free months and lower pricing.

I am just kinda curious how this pay to beta is a new or inventive idea? I mean most games you "pay to beta" at release anyway. Is it just different because they are actually calling it beta? I don't think the rolling over characters from beta thing is super new either. VG had something similar and another game I had played in the past (can't remember which) let you roll over beta characters to live.

And honestly is this in the consumer's best interest? I'm sure it makes plenty of good business sense but as a consumer I think I'd prefer that the industry doesn't move towards providing incentive for players to pay to beta every MMO?!

I am not sure I will play this game though I have preordered it. Does it really offer anything unique gameplay wise or is it just the standard fantasy mmo in the tolkien universe? I seem to recall reading that it sorta progresses you through a story as you level kinda similar to how Guild Wars worked? You complete an area and then you can't return to it? Or did I misread that?

There is a master storyline that a character moves through -- I didn't play so much with many different characters to see if you have to play through it with a new character as well to advance.

It doesn't offer any massive earth-shattering variant of the WoW model, but then, i don't think WoW did that much that EQ didn't do either -- it just did it all better. So far, my opinion is that LOTRO does it better than WoW. I know it hooked me enough that I had to stop playing the beta because I didn't want to spoil live -- or Open Beta, as it were.

mven wrote:
I am just kinda curious how this pay to beta is a new or inventive idea? I mean most games you "pay to beta" at release anyway. Is it just different because they are actually calling it beta?

mven, I'm not sure what you mean by 'Pay to beta'. In this specific case, there's an open beta period where its free to play, followed by the live launch. You can preorder the game, which gets you into the beta a week early, but there's no commitment to by the game once its released. You could beta test up to the launch and not pay a dime.