Friday, May 09, 2014


Over the last couple of weeks there's been a discussion going on between me and a certain person on my Twitter feed on the nature of what Alpha and Beta Clients, especially in relation to Warlords, will actually entail. It made me wonder this morning: is this is the very start of the process with Alpha Client notes? Should I even be seeing these to begin with? As a result I went and did a bit of research. Fortunately for me, Wikipedia had a diagram to explain:

All very logical.

Okay then. So Warlords is in what I've been seen referred to as a 'Technical' Alpha in the same way as the Heroes of the Storm MOBA. They even have a graphic:


Looking at other releases I am aware of away from Blizzard (Landmark and ArchAge both spring to mind) Alpha has taken on the mantle of something quite special, away from what I suspect was traditionally a testing period where nothing went outside the Blizzard Campus and its employees. Alpha appears to be a place where gaming companies will pick and choose from their playerbase or from particulars sectors of the gaming community in order to get their game 'tested' in a way which will provide them with a far wider range of feedback than perhaps would normally be the case in simply a Beta. However, as has been the case with Blizzard's pre-order campaign, players are being increasingly asked to part with cash for the privilege.

This appears to be the dawn of the age of the Paytester, an idea Blizzard pioneered themselves with Mists of Pandaria.

Both Landmark and ArchAge, which have a lot in common (sandbox, self-construction worlds with inbuilt secondary crafting and gathering systems) have attracted players and interest via the use of Founders Packs: pay a set sum and you're in the game at Alpha, playing content long before anyone else even gets their hands on a finished product. This gives players a vested interest in what is produced even before the general public get to play: it helps the gaming company generate world of mouth interest via Social Media and through the gaming press. It also means that if the gaming company does something the founders don't like their displeasure's also likely to be aired in the same channels. It puts the responsibility on the company to listen to it's 'paying' testers in a far more significant fashion than might transpire during a large access Beta event.

Most importantly of all, it allows the gaming company working capitol to continue their development efforts.

ArchAge Founders Packs. Operators are standing by.

Blizzard used the Annual Pass method last expansion around in much the same way as the Founders Packs are working now: pay for 12 months of game time and we'll give you guaranteed Beta access. So why are so many people disappointed with the results when so many players got to test the game? There's a fundamental difference between Blizzard and everyone else that often gets overlooked when considering why they do the things they do: time. This game's a behemoth in MMO terms, and what is abundantly apparent is that what works for other titles won't work for this one. There's also one major issue that the 'large' Beta threw up, and why letting player buy into certain concepts is actually very attractive for gaming companies: feedback.

Obtaining information from players is great, but it's not as useful as the right or very specific feedback, especially if you have systems you're deliberately trying to test. Making sure you're targeting groups who you know will give you the specific responses you're after is something Blizzard have become very adept at over the years. You only need to look at the YouTube and Twitch streamers Blizzard targeted with the Heroes Alpha to grasp they're pushing product in distinct directions. Letting people play your game, whether they pay to do so or you specially invite them, is more likely to produce positive results if you're listening to them from Day One. I strongly suspect that's why they ignored the Annual Pass this time, and instead decided to gather their working capital in a far more subtle fashion. The net result however is pretty much the same.

They tried to break us, looks like they'll try again...

This time, paytesters have been given the most precious commodity Blizzard can offer: a L90 character. That means, come whenever we see the Release Candidate on the Live Servers, the one million people who paid to pre-order a copy can come back from whatever they're doing and simply take part in the finished product from the first moment it launches. All the work will have been done and they'll be able to experience a game that a selected number of players will have made great for them... because the lesson Blizzard learnt from letting everybody play last time is that it means that many are far less likely to want to stay around to begin with.

The people paying for Founders Packs have a vested financial interest in the outcome of the game, so they'll stick around to make that investment worthwhile in their minds. That's why so many people played Beta before Pandaria: they'd paid for it, so they were going to take part... but for many it spoilt the experience of the game proper. This time however, Blizzard have managed to get people not to pay for the 'chance' to beta the game but to take a 'guarantee' of an instant start on new content come release, which is clearly a far more attractive and time-effective solution for many players. There is no paytesting required here any more. Blizzard tried that idea and it didn't work, so now players are simply provided with something useful in exchange for the product itself. There was also clearly a lack of useful feedback on gating gear to rep grinds and dailies too from that massive exercise for Mists. One suspects testing will be FAR more focussed this time around. What Blizzard require this time is a different approach on many fronts, and that looks like it's going to happen.

But only when Blizzard are good and ready.

Listen to what the man says...

The Chief Creative Officer of Blizzard Entertainment, Rob Pardo, gave a talk on Wednesday 7th at MIT as part of their Media Labs Conversations series (details are here) This Tweet stood out for me in a selection of notable comments on the Blizzard philosophy to game production, and it's a telling statement on how gaming companies understand the significance of 'product' for consumers. I'd suggest checking out this Twitter Search term timeline too, because it's interesting to see how non-players react to Pardo. What is apparent, even after almost a decade, is that the corporate culture of Blizzard as a 'brand' is very much front and centre. Yes, it matters about player choices, of course it does, but the bottom line remains continually intractable. These guys are here to make money from you and me. How they do that is a constantly evolving process, and sometimes what works for one company won't for another.

Paytesters may be the future: it is hard to tell with the speed at which gaming changes. Wildstar is already promising players a means to pay for real-world subscriptions using in-game gold, and you can be sure Blizzard will be keeping one eye on every such innovation, but the other firmly fixed on maintaining the integrity of its product. Although there will be those who will say that allowing players to buy 90's for cash is already a step too far and a compromise of what the world of Azeroth is all about, the company are simply responding to the understanding of what their players want. Gaming is a very fast-moving world, yet Blizzard refuse to be compromised. What matters is their brand, and if it's going to take until December 2014 to get Warlords right, then that's what is going to happen.

Like it or not, this will be ready when its ready.


Grimmtooth said...

Having spent my fair share of time wandering the internals of the software development life cycle, a few things jump out at me.

The terms alpha, beta, delta, gamma, etc are extremely mutable. Common sense and a moment of critical thought brings this out in sharp relief. Blizz didn't suddenly "grow" a new form of software in between Panda and SavageLand. The "alpha" stage has always existed, or, more precisely, the state of the software that they have CALLED "alpha" has always existed internally, same as it does now.

That THEY choose to muddy the waters a bit pretty much smacks of PR, not software development. They desperately needed something to counter the despair (let's call it what it was) that people were expressing at having to wait ONE . WHOLE . YEAR. for the next expansion. Those Alpha release notes were the thing that fit that bill, plus a bit more exposure to the alpha process than they wanted, plus a lot more talking about it than they had planned. All to tide us over until the AWESOME AWESOMENESS OF AZEROTH CHOPPAS. (insert most sarcastic sound in all of history here)

They have a huge challenge now. Maintain, internally, the integrity of the software development cycle (and a few of those boxes up there are probably a lot more formal than they seem to use) while outwardly stringing on the crowd in order to keep the bailouts at a manageable 200K per quarter level.

Because what you call the development phase you are in may be mutable, but actual gubbins are not.

The quality of the final product is not a PR football to be kicked around. Well, it can be, but at the expense of actual "quality". Because of whatever happened behind closed doors during the last half of 2013, we may find out what that entails.

Audrena said...

Couple of things about the "Annual Pass" though: first, it for me as well as a vast amount of others was a zero cost. We were going to be subscribed anyway, so why not promise to stay that way and get $50 of free D3? Blizzard effectively paid ME ;)

Second, the reason there was little to no testing of level 90 content in beta was that they stubbornly refused to offer level 90 template characters. I doubt more than a handful would have been willing to do the vanilla-MoP 85-90 grind just to help out for free ;) Also, spoilers!!! :)