The other day I was on a conference call with SOE and said something like, “That build will go to testbed on Monday and to beta a week later.” Since we are going live tomorrow, they were confused by my calling anything “beta”.Â I meant “live” of course, but we’ve been in closed beta for two years and just finished a month of open beta. Old habits die hard.
It did get me thinking about the difference between the two and the big change we’re going through when our first paying customers log into the game. The shift in vocabulary is really the least important change that launch day will bring. The biggest change is that we shift from doing players a favor by letting them play to them doing us a favor by being our customers.
When you’re in closed beta you have a huge pile of applicants begging for a small number of beta slots. They have to play by your rules or you will kick them out, and those rules are pretty draconian.Â They can’t let anyone know they’ve been accepted to beta. They can only play during select hours. Their characters could be wiped at any time. They work for you.
When horrible bugs or completely broken builds happen in beta, people are upset, but they understand that such things are what they signed up for. The people who rant about stability problems in the beta forum are invariably attacked by other testers with cries of “It’s a beta!” These “beta-cops” have much more tolerance for downtime than the developers do, and often need to be reined in.Â Extending downtime to debug a serious server problem is a frequent occurrence in beta. Beta downtime is often unpredictable and usually not announced more than a few hours in advance. You also tend to push the limits of your systems to see where they break, even though the breakage means hardship for players.
All of that changes when you go live. Once your game is live, yours is just one of many ways your customers can spend their time and money. You are lucky they picked you, and if you want to keep them, you will treat them well. You can’t tell them what they can say or when they can play. You can’t ever delete (or lose) any of their data without serious repercussions.Â You work for them, and can’t ever forget it.
Your game must be up as much as it possibly can be. If another half hour of downtime will let you diagnose a problem that will take two days to figure out otherwise, tough.Â (Obviously exceptions can be made if the half hour of debugging will save you a hour of downtime down the road.) Planned outages have to be announced at least a day, and preferably a week, in advance. Major changes can’t be on the test server for a few days, they need two or more weeks. Nobody gets check-in permission on the closest-to-live branch(es) unless multiple high-ranking staff members have signed off on the change.
Some things don’t change when you go live. Communicating honestly and frequently with your community remains essential. In fact, communicating with the community gets much more interesting after your NDA drops. They start to have an idea what they’re talking about when they can see what game you actually made. Of course keeping them involved in your decision making process is just as important in beta as in live, the audience just gets larger because the whole world can see the discussion.
At least I think that’s how it will go. I’m still 14 hours from launching my first MMO. Maybe those of you who have done this before can tell me how far off I am.