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