Monday, December 19, 2011

Star Wars: The Old Republic, And Why I Avoided The Beta

Free beta testing is one of the more fantastic things about the gaming industry.  Those lucky enough to make their way into a beta test often end their sessions with a better idea of whether or not they will purchase the final product.  The beta testers also provide valuable opinions and information to the masses once they take to the forums and share their opinions on their time in-game.

It's not that I'm jaded, but after spending the better part of a decade playing most major MMO releases I really feel like I didn't miss a thing staying out of the Star Wars: The Old Republic's (SWTOR) beta test, even though I received an early invite.

It's not that I don't love Star Wars - quite the opposite.  I also not very concerned that Bioware, despite this being their first MMORPG, won't do something profoundly stupid like make another cookie cutter end-game equipment grind.  And despite my inner gamer's best efforts I've mostly stayed away from the forums as well - except to assure myself the world hadn't changed yesterday, when I checked around a few places and made sure that people were still complaining about waiting in long log in queues during early access launch events.

Everyone always complains about the queue to log into a server.  You see, game companies often throttle (or slowly let in) players onto each server in an attempt to accomplish two things:

1 - Keep the server load from getting too high.  More players = more chances of things going wrong.  Letting them slowly grow in a production (real) environment means they can be monitored and logged as they eventually expand.

2 - Monitor the popular servers and discourage overcrowding.  When anxious gamers get into a game for the first time, the last thing they want to do is wait another four hours (or even longer) to play.  Sure, some will stick it out to play with their friends, but more often then not the tactic of bumping up the queue time on the popular servers will help keep the crowds away and eventually lead to them picking another server to play on.

In the end, opening more servers is a dangerous proposition; open too many and you end up with unpopulated servers that ultimately cause more trouble then they are worth.  If you open too few and potentially turn off customers.

It's a balancing act really, something that most game companies fail miserably at.  The end result is usually a two-thirds scenario (in popular and well-received games). Two thirds of the servers will have healthy populations, while the remaining one third will be ghost towns (relatively speaking).  Ghost towns usually get merged into other servers once its obvious that they're failing (if the company is smart, which is rare).  But in this industry server mergers are often taken as a sign of a failing game - and this eventually leads to those ghost town servers being abandoned by the population for greener pastures (or just a more populated server).

Despite the pains of log in queues - early access is actually brilliant idea.  It's when companies provide those who pre-order their game before release day with a week or so worth of 'early access' into the game.  This gives players a head start, and ultimately ensures that everyone isn't crowing the beginning areas of the game when the doors open to the masses on launch day.  It also keeps the population relatively small should something catastrophic occur and cause the game company to shut off their servers for a few hours in order to fix a problem.

And lastly, early access provides a nearly complete image of what the final product will be on launch day, the beta testing period usually offers only small (and buggy) glimpses of the big picture. 

And that's why I stayed away from SWTOR.

Not because I wasn't willing to put up with bugs, or restricted access, or even incomplete content - because when I enter the game for the first time, I don't want to be on the look out for all the things I hated in the beta.  I don't want to deal with previous experiences guiding my play time through different locations, and I certainly don't want to deal with whiny idiots who think they're entitled to complain about something they aren't paying for.  I don't miss any of that one bit.

I also don't miss playing unfinished games.  So many times over the past few years I've gotten access to a beta and logged into a world half built, with a multitude of missing features (and broken promises).  I've had a lot of great experiences with Bioware, they make nothing short of incredible games.  But an MMO is a different monster all together, and I suppose I just wasn't ready to have my heart broken again.

I'll be picking up the game this week, and cataloging my adventures extensively.  Keep checking back for more updates - hopefully my first few days will be good ones.