Is Paid Early Access a Good Thing for MMOs?

We just had the launch of early access for H1Z1 this past Thursday and it was not an unqualified success.

H1Z1DisasterIt started with delays as bringing servers up and getting out last minute patches ran through the 11 am PST kick off target and well into the afternoon.  Then when things were finally up there were G29 errors and G99 errors and “you do not own this game” errors and “no servers visible” problems and the overwhelming of the login servers, which actually affected other SOE games.  And, of course, this being based on PlanetSide 2, the hacking seems likely to commence.

That was all exacerbated by the fact that SOE was clearly trying to make this a big deal, an event, and was hyping the whole thing up, making sure people who wanted to stream the game had access, and that there were hundreds of servers online, so the whole thing was rather a public spectacle.  I tried watching LazTel stream the game over at the TMC feed and every time I checked in there was an error on his screen.

And that leaves aside Smed riling up the carebears earlier in the week and the whole controversy over “pay to win” air drops that was brewing as well where, despite early statements on how H1Z1 would be financed through cosmetic items, things changed. Smed was taking a tough line in defending the air drop scheme.  (Plus air drops seemed to be having their own issues.)

anyone that wants to “complain” about H1Z1 being P2W shouldn’t buy it. In fact I encourage you not to. Let’s not let facts get in the way.

John Smedley, Twitter

Scathing quotation marks around the word “complain” there from Smed.  Feel the burn.

(Also, in looking at some older posts this past weekend, I see that I need to quote Smed rather than simply embedding his tweets.  He appears to go back and clean up his feed, deleting quotable items later on.)

Cooler heads were apologizing about the change in views on buying things like guns and ammo in the game on the H1Z1 Reddit, SOE’s favorite forum of the moment.

And then, I gather, at some point over the weekend, the game started working more reliably… or people gave up on it.   Either way, I pretty much stopped hearing about it, except for Smed on Twitter assuring people that things would be fixed and posting links to posts on Reddit detailing what the latest patch would include.  Maybe the Massively post More Boredom than Terror rings true?

Either way, I was happy I was only reading about it.  The whole thing seemed not ready for prime time.

Of course, it was “early access,” so that much is to be expected I suppose.  Certainly that is the line that Smed, and SOE, and their more ardent defenders will stick to.  SOE had to offer up refunds again, as they did with Landmark, for people who were expecting a bit more.

So SOE has themselves covered by that “early access” label.  But it does feel like SOE was trying to be on both sides of the fence.  The whole thing was built up like a game launch.  But is it reasonable to set those sorts of expectations, with that many people piling in and all those servers being put online, along with charging money for the box and running your cash shop from day one, for something a company is running under “early access?”

My own view is that if you are charging money and have worked to get a cash shop in the game, your ability to hide behind words like “early access” and “beta” is somewhat diminished, an opinion I have held since the FarmVille days, when Zynga products seemed to be in eternal beta even as they earned buckets of money.

Anyway, while what SOE does with H1Z1 is of some interest to me, I had no interest in being part of their “pay to test while we develop the game” agenda.  That is pretty much the same song I have sung about Landmark, which has been in early access for nearly a year now.

My cynicism on display

My cynicism on display

At the end of the day though, I have to ask myself how these sorts of early access routines affect my desire to play a given game.  And the answer isn’t exactly favorable.  I am happy enough to have passed on an early investment in both games, but the drawn out nature of even watching from the sidelines has diminished Landmark for me, while H1Z1 running through what looks like PlanetSide 2 problems… which PlanetSide 2 is still having two years after launch… makes me willing to wait for a long, long time before I will bother trying.  Add in the fact that pwipes will be unlikely after a very early point in order to keep the hardcore fans invested and sweet in both games, where it certainly seems like location will matter, and it feels like SOE is selling advantage on top of charging people to test their incomplete visions over the long haul.  Both make me less likely to buy in.

And at some point in the middle-to-distant future, we will be getting EverQuest Next and the current pattern from SOE indicates that it will go through the whole early access routine as well, which gets something of an eye rolling frowny face from me.  Certainly the way Landmark has gone and the way H1Z1 has started has not endeared me to the early access idea.

I am not convinced that early access is a good thing, even when it is done better.  Over in the realm of Lord British, Shroud of the Avatar is also up on Steam for early access.  It is still in a rough state, too rough at least for me to want to devote much time to it.  I log in once in a while to see what it looks like, but am otherwise biding my time.

However, I feel differently about Shroud of the Avatar.  I bid on the Kickstarter to get a copy of the game, which was expected to cost money at some future date anyway.  And, despite the real estate focus of the game, I feel less like I will be missing out by not getting in early, there being a whole campaign to follow.

So maybe it is just the type of games that SOE has been launching of late, where there is contention over location.  Or maybe it is just the way they have gone about things in the traditional SOE way, where there are intense moments of hype and energy followed by long periods of quiet.

I think early access has worked well enough for other games.  At least I can point and some good examples, like Minecraft or Kerbal Space Program, where early access delivered something worthwhile, made people happy, and kept on evolving.  But for MMOs I feel less certain.  Is there a good early access story for an MMO? Should we avoid judging based on SOE?  How about ArcheAge or Trove?

What do you think about early access for MMOs?

 

Anyway, at some point H1Z1 will actually launch, at which point maybe I will give it a peek.  Until then the eager supports are welcome to it.

17 thoughts on “Is Paid Early Access a Good Thing for MMOs?

  1. SynCaine

    Early Access as an overall concept is fine.

    SOE Early Access is a disaster, but that’s because SOE is SOE. They screwed up the sequel to EQ1 for gods sake, of course they are going to screw up stuff like Early Access, telling the truth, and understanding the concept of Pay-4-Power.

    Funny that Smed cleans up his twitter btw, such a coward move.

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  2. Noizy

    Isn’t there a difference between SOE’s early access and that of SotA? SOE is charging for access for a game that will be F2P. It looks like Garriott is going for buy to play around the $45 being charged on the site for early access. So basically SOE is charging for the alpha/beta experience while SotA is charging for the game, and you just get earlier access, if you want to put up with the bugs.

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  3. bhagpuss

    I’ve started this comment several times and then deleted it because it appears I actually don’t know what I think. The best I can come up with is “it depends”.

    Take Landmark: I very much feel I got my money’s worth on that. Mrs Bhagpuss got a birthday present she wanted and enjoyed and we both got about 6-8 weeks steady play, which is about the same as we had from The Secret World, for example, which was certainly “finished” at launch, insofaras any MMO ever is.

    What’s more I would say without any hesitation that the extremely limited product that we got during Landmark’s alpha was more to my taste than any of the subsequent revisions. By buying in at that very early stage I definitely feel got to experience the most interesting version of Landmark. The more it starts to look like an actual MMO the less interesting I find it.

    On the other hand, how can I really tell? My impression of what it has become is colored by my memory of what it was. If I hadn’t played the alpha I’d have no such memory and maybe if I played a finished Landmark at launch I’d think it was top class. That. though, is an inherent problem in alpha or beta testing MMOs, not in paid early access. The list of MMOs I’ve betaed that I preferred after launch to before is a very short one indeed.

    So, it’s a complicated picture, made even more so by the fact that I am more interested in writing about many of these Early Access MMOs than I am in playing them. If I wasn’t a blogger my feelings would be different again.

    On balance, though, and as things stand at the moment, I’m minded to say I disapprove of the trend. It seems to be accelerating and spreading to the point where the whole concept of finishing a product, making sure it’s of merchantable quality, and then selling it seems to be becoming a thing of the past.

    If I had to choose I’d choose waiting longer and buying in when the game is ready to play. Then I remember Anarchy Online, Horizons, the first version of FFXIV… all supposedly “ready”, all in a worse state than most of the Early Access we’ve seen. I don’t know…

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  4. C. T. Murphy

    I have some serious concerns, especially with SOE. For starters, I feel like they are incapable of releasing a true AAA product anymore, so they are content to hide behind Free to Play expectations and Early Access shields. Even if Landmark and H1Z1 end up being good games, their releases have utterly killed any serious hope I had in EQN.

    I think Early Access games need to be a bit more feature-rich. I don’t like the idea of playing a game in its alpha stage, at all. In all honesty, I much prefer something like Terraria where it released as a full featured game, though far limited from its scope, and then slowly was patched into an absolute behemoth, free of charge.

    I don’t mind Early Access, more generally speaking, but it offends me when your first priority after launch is to get your cash shop functioning. I think that speaks volumes about SOE’s priorities and its lack of respect for both its fans and its own name as an established and historic MMO-making entity.

    That last bit is probably hog-wash.

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  5. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @C.T. Murphy – You hit on one thing that I was thinking about while writing this, but then totally forgot to include because of short term memory issues, which is how far along should a project be before it starts in with Early Access?

    Historically, people are able to look past issues if they see something in the game. EverQuest and World of Warcraft both had a lot of problems at launch, but they could get enough of a taste of the game that they were not just willing to stick with it, but told their friends to come and play.

    I wonder if you would get that same sort of impact if, say, people had been let into a 2002 closed beta version of WoW for $50 as an “Early Access” item. Do people still see the good bits at that point? Does the next two years of slow updates wring the enthusiasm out of players before it officially goes live? How much game is enough to start in with Early Access?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jeromai

    I think Early Access has some benefits for a company, in that they get an influx of cash and only the truly dedicated knocking on their doors, meaning they’ll put up with more, sing praises faster, and hype the product for you most of the time, especially once cognitive dissonance kicks in and rationalization to justify their spending.

    However, jilted loyalists are the worst thing to unexpectedly have to cope with, as that good word of mouth can do a complete 180 fast, and presumably they make a lot more noise on forums/social media due to their commitment level that someone has to keep track of, and may inadverdently become a ‘yes man’ echo chamber for development.

    For the customer, I assume some people enjoy the experience of being an armchair developer and feeling like they have some say or some input in the process of game development, though how each company runs things may impact this experience for the better or for the worst.

    On my part, I guess I’m fairly old school. I prefer to check in on alpha/betas free and pay for the finished product, someone else can do the early guinea pig testing for me. If I do buy into an early access, and I can count the number on one hand, mostly Minecraft and Prison Architect, it’s got to have had really good word of mouth and be set at a price I feel is reasonable (usually under $20 and preferably around $5-10) and look like it’s going to be a finished product sometime soon, not two years later…

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  7. zaphod6502

    The worst part of the H1Z1 launch has been Smedley’s “fuck you all” attitude. The guy comes across as a Class A dickhead. He was just as bad during the PlanetSide 2 server nightmares/mess. I am constantly amazed the Sony parent company puts up with him. He does SOE no favors.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Klyith

    > how far along should a project be before it starts in with Early Access?
    There’s the old saying about software development, the first 90% of the code takes 90% of the work, and the last 10% also takes 90% of the work. In the spirit of that rule, early access games shouldn’t be put on sale until that first 90% is done.
    I’m willing to give smaller indie games a bit more leeway there, because they have fewer resources and often less exact of an idea about where their game will go once people get their hands on it. Smaller projects are a bit more mutable that way. But for a big game like H1Z1, taking money in this barely out of prototype stage is just awful. Arma 3 is what I’d point to as a good example of a near-AAA size game that did it right. It was early access to the nearly-finished product, not early access to the pre-alpha.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Dahakha

    To me, Early Access for MMOs is only justifiable on the home stretch of development. If you don’t even have a release date in mind – at least a month, if not an exact date – then you have no business selling access to a game. The only form of EA that I can support unreservedly is the preorder headstart perk, where you get a few days to play before the official launch. Otherwise, it needs to be handled very carefully indeed,

    The factors that affect my view of the company/product offering EA include:
    – Is it a F2P title? If so, there are all sorts of issues surrounding cash shop purchases and how they are affected by character/server wipes. If, like with H1Z1, you’re charging money to play a F2P game early, then you auto-lose.

    – Is the developer a large studio, with the capability of funding the product anyway? If so, then EA looks like a greedy cash grab to me. Contrast H1Z1 with, say, Shards Online or even Camelot Unchained or Shroud of the Avatar.

    – How far into the development process are you? If you’re still designing or implementing core features, I don’t want to be paying you for the chance to play something that is nowhere near the full experience. This is why I didn’t buy into Landmark or Star Citizen. I honestly don’t want to have to deal with the frequent server wipes, patches and bug fixes that come with very early access, and I would be side-eyeing any developer that wants to charge a premium for the privilege of doing so. EA as a perk of preordering, fine, but some of the EA packages (*cough*Landmark*cough*ArcheAge*cough*) are way overboard with their pricing.

    I get that some people like to see the guts of a game as it’s being developed, but I see it as a major problem that so many players are getting involved with an MMO way before it is finished enough to launch. It seems to me that most of those early adopters will end up being tired of the game by the time it launches. The magic of discovery, of walking into a new world, would be lost.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. C. T. Murphy

    I think alpha is far too early, at least for Early Access that is currently in an easy to find marketplace. I could get over it if SOE were selling Early Access codes out of the backseat of their car, but to sell us on yet another alpha just seems dishonest/taking advantage.

    What are you purchasing with an SOE Early Access? Even if they give you the money back in some way, you are buying a promise. To me, considering how slow Landmark has moved, that seems like a bunch of fairy dust to me!

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  11. carson63000

    I’m definitely with you on the definition of “launched”. If a game is available to anyone (e.g. you don’t need to apply for a closed beta and hope you get picked), and if the developer is accepting money in exchange for the game or purchases within the game .. then it has launched. End of story.

    (ESPECIALLY if the developer is accepting money in exchange for access to the game from anyone who wants to pay it)

    So I guess my opinion on “early access” is that it doesn’t really exist. What’s early? You’ve launched the product and you’re selling it to people.

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  12. Topauz

    While I never play any early access or betas for a few reasons, the problem with this game is that SOE/Smed can not be trusted. Yes I play a lof of their games but you have to go in expecting them to back on what they may have said in the past.

    Smed is the champion of the F2P model. A lot of people are asking why he is still there and my guess is that he is making SOE a lot of money. I bet after he transitioned their MMO model there numbers went up. At the end of the day, Sony needs to keep investors happy and that is by maximizing profit.

    That last paragraph was a little off topic. Anyway, early access is awful. It is a money grab to get you to test their game. They should not be charging much less have cash shop. I understand the need for a Beta test but it shoud be limited access and those players should be rewarded for the testing not charged.

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