Edit: Update! My “final” word on Atlantica Online is here:
So, I’ve written what, four articles about Atlantica Online? I happen to really like the game. There’s more that I want to write, I just have to make time for it.
Yet… I goofed. The first two articles I wrote were while the game was in open beta. Now, I’m not sure, but I think that I may have breached an agreement not to talk about the game during that period. Oops.
The game is completely open now, with an item shop and plenty of players. I really don’t see changes from what I’ve written, so it’s not like I’m misrepresenting the game. The two changes they made during the Open Beta were a change to Stamina regeneration and making AutoMove a perpetual option. (Both were great ideas, prompted by feedback.)
It’s just… I totally spaced on remembering whether or not I was supposed to stay quiet during the Open Beta. I find that the game is lots of fun, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who is a fan of either MMOs or tactical RPGs like Suidoken. It’s not a perfect game, but it’s one that I’ve spent many happy hours playing, and see no reason to discourage anyone’s interest.
I mean well, I really do. I may have just… oopsed. If I did so, and breached an agreement to keep mum, I’m very sorry. I’m not sorry at all for promoting the game, but I do like to keep my word. In my defense, I don’t honestly know if I really agreed to be quiet. I’ve just recently taken a look at Free Realms, and they are asking for quiet during their Beta.
…now, whether or not this means that the Atlantica Online people will get mad at me, it does raise an interesting question or two on the nature of Beta testing in online games. MMOs live or die on a critical mass of paying customers. Their servers need testing under fire to see what will break once the game goes live. Beta testing serves a vital purpose in making the game ready for the market. (Even if that market is the free-to-play microtransaction world that AO is playing in. Perhaps even more so, since the critical mass for financial success requires a larger player base than a subscription game.)
So, when is it a good idea to let the players speak? In Beta, the game might still be changing, so it makes sense to keep things at least somewhat under wraps. Even so, what of those players who, like me, really like the game, and want to see it succeed? Is there a way to channel that sort of spontaneous promotion without the potential problems of a leak? Early adopters are often the lifeblood for a game, especially MMOs which are heavily influenced by social factors and herd leaders.
Is this the threshold between Closed Beta and Open Beta?
Also, a lot of Beta testers are self-selecting MMO fans. This goes back to my earlier articles about CoW and the notion of defining your target audience. If your target audience is the hardcore sort of player who actually seeks out new MMO experiences, the Beta population will work out well. You really need some of these players to find problems, as they are uniquely equipped to do so. But what of the casual player if you’re hoping to get those players involved? Getting the word out early might be the key to getting an early critical mass that allows the game to grow. Those first few months are vital to an MMO’s long term health.
I’m not sure that I have answers, but as I often do, I take my experiences and try to see how they might affect business and game design decisions. I feel bad for (maybe? I still don’t know, and I’m afraid to find out…) potentially breaching an Open Beta ToS, but I do not feel bad at all for promoting the game. I wish Atlantica Online well.
Interestingly, it’s one of only three games that I’ve seriously considered giving money to. The first was Puzzle Pirates, and I did wind up giving them some money because I found their game to be worth it. I’ve also purchased Guild Wars, but that’s because I hope that it will be worth it. (I’ll test it out here in a week or so.) This is the third, and I’m considering giving the company $15 in real USD for something as simple as a perpetually extended inventory bag.
On the surface of it, if you’re a WoW nut, that probably sounds silly for a few reasons, but think for a bit. If WoW were a microtransaction game, you can be certain that Bags of Holding (or whatever… Netherweave Bags?) would be an item that would have sufficient demand to monetize. It’s not something that would appreciably destroy any PvE or PvP balance, so “buying power” wouldn’t be an issue, but it would make the game just better enough to play that there would certainly be a demand that the company could take advantage of.
It’s the same story with a mount; how many WoW players love their mounts, and wouldn’t take the chance to bypass the grind of Dailies or what have you to give Blizzard the money to outright just buy one of the darn things? Then there’s that Zhevra Mount that you can effectively buy outright via the Refer-a-Friend promotion. In Atlantica Online, a mount is one of the Item Shop purchases that you can get with cash. A microtransaction game lives on these sort of convenience items that makes the game a better place to spend time, without totally breaking the core game design balance decisions.
Of course, in WoW, a subscription game, it would rankle to have to buy even such convenience items. It’s assumed that access to such is part of the subscription model. In a microtransaction game, though, such is the lifeblood of the game. There’s certainly an argument to be made that the game design shouldn’t introduce inconveniences only to counter them with stuff that must be purchased, but there’s a similar argument to be made against WoW introducing grind (that means players eat up more subscription time and money) for faction rewards, mount costs (and training!), and so on. It’s really the same supply/demand equation, it’s just that microtransaction games like Atlantica Online monetize the demand in more granular fashion (a la carte), while WoW goes with the buffet “one size fits all” model.
I tend to lean heavily to the honesty and granularity of the microtransaction model. I’m a discerning shopper, and I need to make the most of my limited time to play. WoW’s business model just doesn’t work for me, even though I like the overall game design. Atlantica Online, whether or not they beat me with the banhammer for improper Beta behavior, is an excellent microtransaction game, and I hope that they find their audience and stay alive, healthy and profitable.