Issue #7 - Beta and Testing

Diablo 3, DotA 2, Firefall, World of Warplanes, Star Wars The old Republic, Minecraft, Vindictus, Brick Force. Various games have public Beta phases nowadays. All of these betas show something different, though. Some are merely server stress tests, others are bug hunts, and some are still mid-development feedback betas.
We see this tag all over the place recently: Beta. Many games pretend they were in some kind of testing phase they call a “beta”. The result of this differs, though. While games like Minecraft and Firefall use the beta greatly to gather feedback from the community on what direction the game should take, some games (mostly ports to a different region) use it merely for server stress tests. Other games are fully finished already, but they’re pushed into a beta to “outsource” the bug hunt to the community.
Then ... What makes a beta?
Well, the model used to be split into a developer-internal alpha phase, a consumer-focused beta and then final release. The alpha phase was used to build the game and try out whether or not the components implemented fit together and actually work.
The beta phase on the other hand was used to get gameplay feedback from consumers. In the long run, the extensive use of paths the developers couldn’t even think of and the difference in thought the various testers present led to discoveries of not-yet-found bugs and issues when it comes to multiple players involved (regarding multiplayer games or modes, of course).
With the Internet on the rise and gamers being more informed about their favourite games, another phenomenon popped up: Marketing betas. Consumers felt “special” when involved in a beta. As such, creating a beta for the sake of attracting consumers became a common practice. Using the beta tag to tell gamers they could join an elite group is simple marketing – and it works.
The model of a closed beta as opposed to an open beta supported this just as well. A closed beta would result in an even more elitist feeling, while an open beta still has the tag – therefore makes people feel more like game veterans if they stick to the game over time. Gamers want to feel special, in any way possible. This also led to a common perception in a gamer’s mind:
I am playing it before others can!” – not “I am testing this game!
But then, what happened to the testing?
Testing turned out to be secondary. Games would enter beta phases as fully finished games, close to the release. The main focus was on rooting out major bugs that just weren’t found yet, and stressing the servers. While this may be considered “testing” in regards to the game’s playability and the server capacity, it is just a minor part of the testing involved when releasing a game.
Looking for every small bug, trying to root out typos in descriptions, checking whether it is playable across hardware, giving feedback on game features – This all moved out of the focus of a common gamer. But it’s the common gamer who wants to join betas at any cost, rather than being an honest tester.
The companies lost the focus just as well, though. Why test game features if that’s exactly how we want the game to be? Why look for minor bugs when we had a huge QA internally looking for these bugs on the one path we want the player to take? These conceptions cause the companies to not even ask for the feedback on their beta-introduction or not providing any means of communication.
This doesn’t happen quite too often, though. But these two extreme views from the consumers’ side and the company’s side are becoming much more common and might at some point even make up a large chunk of our industry.
Where do these movements come from?
The answer is simple: Game ports. A fully finished game from Asia can be copied, translated and released in Europe or the US cheaply and easily. Once that’s done, all that needs to be tested are the servers, and possibly some errors in the translation.
Such games pop up every now and then, and they remain rather successful in an era of manga and anime loving youth. The artistic style is appealing and the stories resemble what the other media provide.
The aforementioned marketing betas are just as counter-productive for the old mindset. Gamers get used to the beta phase being a “special” release, and companies get used to a working model to attract players.
Then, when an actual beta shows up, a full testing phase, possibly even mid-development, the average gamer is frustrated. Why isn’t this a full game as he expected? Why are there so many bugs and missing features?
The player either sticks with the game through the entire beta phase, suffering from the testing phase, or he leaves over it simply not fulfilling what he wants it to.
As such, the modern mindset hurts the games that fulfil the old beta standards.

Issue #6 - DLC and Expansion

A short glance at the Steam Store reveals: For 1443 games, there are 556 DLC available for purchase. A large part of these are those beloved trains for various simulators, and card packs for MTG. Nonetheless, the few games that do have DLC, have plenty of them.
‘Back to the roots’ might best describe this week’s AGL. We’re discussing wording again, and on top of that we’re addressing gamers, not the industry. Complaints about DLC being too expensive, too small and exploitative in any way imaginable compared to the good-ol’ expansions are heard from the gamers’ side. Publishers on the other hand use it to give special deals and maintain a flow of income after the initial purchases dry out.
Downloadable Content – Money grabbing or content?
Here we have it again ... “content” ... Interesting, how important it became, especially with retail games. Downloadable content usually caters to the ‘fan’. The player who sticks to the game through each and every episode, through any experience they can find. Now, this is the group of players that knows most about the game and feels the deepest emotional relationship with the game.
DLC can feel exploitative. Launch-day DLC makes the player feel as if something was ‘cut out’ of the final game, since obviously there is something else that’s been developed before the release. Offering pre-order DLC as common DLC later-on makes the player feel as if he just lost some of his ‘special’-ness ... and when the common DLC contains a package of multiple pre-order DLC, this also means the player gained less than someone who buys the new DLC, although he was supposed to feel as if he had more as a ‘reward’ for pre-ordering.
Two major abominations in the DLC department. But there are more. The ‘content’ they provide is often nothing but a new texture, or maybe a new item. The few times it’s a new storyline arc, it’s implemented for ease-of-use rather than immersion. The player immediately gets access to it, regardless of his current position in the default storyline and his acquired abilities. This causes frustration upon failure and drops the entire DLC’s content almost instantly, once it’s been played (which is rather early, due to it’s availability).
This concept is not new, though – Ever heard of Expansions?
Yes, certainly, Expansions are the good-ol’ equivalent of DLC. Aren’t they? Well, expansions used to be a little more pricy, but they provided a lot more storyline, items, abilities, content as a whole. They actually majorly expanded the game, and as such deserved their name.
They did have other flaws, though. An expansion is always yet another disk needed to be secured, and causes some issues with installing. Expansions also are much easier to mistake for an actual game, due to their price and contents. And finally, expansions can be just as loosely tied to the game as DLC is.
So, neither is good, what then?
Well, DLC aren’t the abomination they’re made to be, but they certainly have some flaws and are abused to an extent where they are slightly off the track.
Expansions on the other hand, with an adaption for the digital distribution model, could change this. The original idea of DLC was exactly this, though: Move the old model of expansions to the digital distribution world. It failed when gamers became ‘dependant’ on the DLC and companies used it to get every little bit of money they could, though.
As such, it is yet again both the companies’ and the gamers’ fault for allowing this to happen. If gamers didn’t pay as much, companies wouldn’t have a reason to milk it like that. If companies gave us a possibility to alter the pricing without having to outright boycott it, there would be no reason to pay as much.
A solution is unlikely to be found, unless we manage to stick to either one of these examples: boycott or changes in pricing.

Issue #5 - Content and Immersion

Over the past few decades a new genre popped up alongside the development of new networking technology: Massively Multiplayer Online Games. But these games suffer from a great threat: Competition. Why do many MMOGs lose players? Because they lack new content, and the existing content does not make the player feel immersed. The game just doesn’t have any appeal to the player anymore and therefore he or she has nothing to look forward to.
Yet another week has passed and we’ve hit the point at which we will discuss some terminology again. We will talk about content in MMOG and the need for immersion for a player to be kept as a customer. We have players asking for “more content” and complaining about how they “don’t feel immersed” in MMOs and we have developers who are constantly forced to keep pushing updates and changing the game to work against these complaints.
What kind of “content” do they demand?
That’s the big question. Content can be many things, ranging from simply adding in new items to entirely new areas and storyline. We should not ask the question of what to add, we need to ask “What is missing?”
Whenever a player comes to the forums or any kind of communication and asks for “more content” he has the feeling that something is wrong. He does not know what it is neither can anyone really put their finger on it. It’s simply the game as a whole that doesn’t fulfil what it’s expected to.
Therefore: What is content? Content is each and every mechanic available to the player – or the lack thereof – causing the player to act. Any object they can interact with, any item they can use. Now we have one issue, though: Interact with it once and the “magic” is gone. Most games have a limited – albeit large – number of objects to interact with. Once the player used them up, there is nothing left to do.
Three major solutions exist: One, add in more content every now and then. Not really a solution, but the problem hardly shows up, so ... we’ll consider it one. Two, create content through the players themselves. Allow them to define a part of the game, either by social interaction or by actually creating content through a toolkit.
And three: Don’t even let the player feel the magic disappear. The player is supposed to feel as if he was pulled deeply into the game – deep enough for the world to become real around him.
Immersion – Cure or Cancer?
This is interesting, actually. We just touched the core topic of immersion: Make the player feel as if the game world was real. This has one major drawback: The player might lose connection to reality and become addicted. We don’t want that either. Let’s be honest: An addict will stay with us for a few months, maybe years, then he runs out of money, has his life ruined and will sue our asses over intending so.
Immersion is therefore not only this “make the world real” part. It’s about creating a believable world – a world the player can relate to, albeit knowing it’s a game. Immersion is based on smooth and authentic gameplay and interactions.
A player who feels immersed in a game world is much more likely to ignore the actual lack of content, as the magic of the existing content is still there, regardless of it being “used up” already.
We face one major issue, though: The Uncanny Valley.
Personally, my opinion on the Uncanny Valley is that it does not only apply to audiovisuals, as we know it from the basic thesis, but also to gameplay. The concept of the Uncanny Valley is centered around the idea of “almost-realism” being hard to relate to, while “non-realism” and “full-realism” are near-perfect.
Creating a believable world can be hard when we end up in the middle of the Uncanny Valley in terms of gameplay. As such we have the choice to stay away from realism in this domain, or push our limits to the point at which we get out of the Valley again.
Player retention is a core issue for MMOs, but it is easy to achieve through any path that retains the feel of “new content”. Achieving that, though, can be quite hard, given the problems standing in our way.
MMOs redefined the way, content can be altered. Thus, we should try any possibilities of development in order to remain successful.

Issue #4 - Creativity and Money

Double Fine starts a kickstarter crowd-funding project for a new point-and-click adventure. 24 hours later, this kickstarter has surpassed the aim – three-fold. It has yet to run for more than 30 days at that point. These are the basic facts around Tim Schafer’s new project and the cause of this new tie-in entry about “creativity and money” instead of an entry about what we call “content” in MMOs.
So, this week we ask the question about independent funding, and the role of publishers. We have seen multiple cases of either self-publishing or crowd-funding recently, but the most surprising ones to date are certainly Mojang’s Minecraft and the still ongoing Double Fine Adventure kickstarter. Do these mark the end to publishers and their careful balancing of both creativity and money – which isn’t bound to success anyways?
Creativity – judged, or simply blocked by publishers?
Publishers fulfil three basic roles, says the industry consensus: a) Funding, b) Marketing, c) Quality Control. The core issues are both funding and quality control, we’ll start with the first, since money is our second topic anyways:
Quality control refers to publishers deciding which project is to be worked on, refined and brought to the market. What is a factor of success for a publisher? Grand revenue and a big consumer base to provide merchandise for.
This ideology conflicts with a simple concept of creativity: Innovation and filling niches. Creativity is based on new ideas, new means of achieving something, innovation as a whole. Anything “new” causes a risk, though. Will “they” buy it? Will they adapt to the changes? How big is the consumer base anyways?
Some of these questions are ruled out by “testing” these new ideas in already established IPs. How about a hybrid of an RPG and a Tower Defense game? How about combining some nostalgia with an already radically changed IP to get the lost players back?
It may work, but it is still risky, and most publishers still drop such ideas to prevent loss.
Publishers, therefore, attempt to keep the creativity to a minimum – allow it only, when it is expected to be successful.
Money – Cause and effect?
Well, of course this is all influenced by money. A publisher’s decisions are based on what changes to the income they expect.
As said before, a publisher seeks grand revenue and a good market for merchandise. This only works with already established IPs, and only with established features. Not with any offspring of some random creative minds.
As long as a developer has to rely on a publisher to get his ideas out there, they are unlikely to succeed. Either accept the fact that a creative project won’t be funded, or do the fundraising on one’s own – be independent.
With Double Fine’s kickstarter hitting a million dollars in less than 24 hours, we have seen a successful attempt at being independent already. This requires reputation and contacts in the industry, though. These can only be gained over time, with a loud voice to get one’s concepts out there.
Therefore, independent fundraising is ... ?
... a good idea, and certainly a path that takes us away from a publisher-focused model.
Why is it a good idea to move away from the publisher-model in the first place, one might ask. Given that this model is established in almost any medium’s industry, this is actually a valid question.
The answer is rather simple: Games are an interactive piece of art. They create a bond between whatever-company-is-written-onto-it and the player himself.
Publishers use this bond to evaluate their consumers. They are focused on catering to a certain base of people with money, willing to spend it on the publisher’s products. Publishers want to cater to as many people as possible, to gain the most income.
Developers see the “consumers” as the community. It’s a much friendlier relationship and the developers seek the most joyful experience for their community. This is the reason as to why we see developers communicating with the people playing their games, quite directly even.
Publishers still serve a purpose in our industry, and with a shift of focus on their end to a much more community-focused attitude, there will be no need to reduce their influence.
As it stands, though, publishers have way too much influence and block projects that might bring a whole new twist to the industry – even if it isn’t successful.

Issue #3 - Copycat and Competition

These days, our industry has seen multiple accusations – especially against Zynga. What was somewhat known to large parts of the gaming community already, has now been said by the companies affected. Zynga’s response? These types of games have to look and feel familiar and Zynga merely enhances their social features.
With that said, this week we will get some things straight about Zynga’s copycat tactics and the competition they pretend to present. Yes, this issue is directed to the industry rather than the gaming community and we’re going slightly off-topic regarding the intention of this blog.
So, you said copycat … Sounds biased.
Of course it is biased, with the blatantly obvious comparisons we have now. We all knew about it in one way or another before these accusations popped up. But now we’ve hit the point at which we do have the evidence – no doubts involved anymore.
But Zynga is only one case of such copycat tactics in our industry. It often strikes us … A game looking similar, familiar … somewhat like something we hardly remember, but we know it was somewhat the same. Will we be able to be more wary on such things in the future? Most likely not. Will we be less surprised than now when we see it? Definitely.
These incidents have already done a great deal of damage to the industry and the consumer’s perception – and expectation. But there is another threat: They might cover it up as „competition“ or even „innovation“.
While many articles and blog posts these days discuss this topic, we will focus on the market aspects rather than development. The flood of posts about how Zynga focus their „development“ on the social features and either are lazy when it comes to anything else, or innovative in their own way … Well, there is enough of that already.
What does this do to the market? Can we call it „competition“?
It certainly is a similar product with some changes to it, and it is thrown out onto the market to compete with the other such products. With that said, it is definitely some kind of competition.
Whether it is fair, legal and what kind of impact is has, though, is an entirely different topic here.
Let’s get some facts straight first of all: Zynga are a large company, they are established on huge social platforms – most notably Facebook, who even defend them these days. They attempted to buy some companies, or at least buy the IPs for some of their games. When those offers were refused, they copied the games. Small companies were forced to decide whether they take the money and lose their game and drop dead, or don’t take the money, lose their game to a larger company and then drop dead.
While this may be how capitalist pioneers believed the free market would work out – Darwinism hooray – it is definitely not how it should work out in the market we have nowadays. We had this issue with piracy already, and it pops up every now and then: Our market does not support the tactics that are used – at least not in a morally acceptable way.
What should we do to Zynga then? Pitchforks out?
Definitely not. Zynga needs to be taken to court, present their “innovations” to the law and hope for them to survive.
But the question isn’t what we should do to Zynga. The question is: What can we do to improve the situation for those smaller companies. The solution is simple: When a game reminds you of one you already saw, do some research. If you come to the conclusion that you can’t find the other game, or it is different in enough aspects for you to believe they didn’t just blatantly copy: Fine, go ahead and keep on playing.
Else: Tell those companies, throw up some threads on gaming forums. Ask for others to help. Get your assumption out there and get it judged by the hive mind of the internet.
It is up to us to decide where the line is drawn, but we need to draw it clearly.

Issue #2 - Quality and Graphics

A new generation of gamers is coming, and their focus is yet again moving. When did this start? Where will it end? With the widespread use of the Internet to “review” games, anyone out there can place his opinion. And often this opinion is not only biased, but also inc­redibly wrong in focus.
State-of-the-art graphics have become a requirement for any game on the market. Long-established games are expected to upgrade their graphics engines to mirror that. But what are we talking about here? Graphics became a measure for quality, but can a game’s quality be based on the graphics?
What do we define as “quality” when speaking of games?
“Quality”, first and foremost, is a term we use to describe whether or not something is “good”. But that encompasses what exactly? And how do we determine what is good and what is not?
For the most part quality is a matter of taste. Our brain takes impressions and experience into account in order to tell us whether or not we “like” something. This means, first of all, that every single person out there has their own definition of quality, and their own impressions. With that said, we need to accept one thing: Quality cannot be globally depicted at all. We can come to a general consensus. We can have the majority decide on an average quality “score”. But we cannot objectively declare the quality of anything.
Nonetheless there appears to be such a general consensus, based on what the loudest group says. A 15-year-old YouTube reviewer with a graphics-focused definition of quality with a mass of subscribers will always have more impact than the voice of a games veteran who still believes in mechanics “making a game” on a small review site.
By this point it should have become obvious: Many people out there don’t come to their own conclusions about the quality of games, they merely adopt one they have been given. And this is the opinion given by the loudest group.
Why the hate on “graphics”? They are an important factor nowadays.
They shouldn’t be the main factor, though. And that is exactly what we see “nowadays”: Games getting judged based on their graphics. Sure, eye candy is fine, and always a good addition, but it should not be the core.
In order to get this point cleared fully, we need to take another turn here and first of all discuss tech demos. New technology, such as graphics hardware and engines is usually presented alongside some basic program displaying a large share of the potential this new technology bears. Such a program is a tech demo.
Current games do exactly the same, though. They make full use of the state-of-the-art technology to cater the aforementioned focus on “eye candy”. This is the point at which one has to judge as to whether such a game is still a game, or merely a tech demo. Why do we need the most recent technology to run a game that could easily run with a dated technology?
Why do we produce games which use technology that isn’t established yet, especially regarding PC gaming? Consoles work with an easy system: Generations. Games for the PlayStation 3 are sold to a sum of customers which already owns the required technology, even with launch day games. This is caused by the fact that there is only one setup for a suitable console, except for some minor tweaks. PC gaming on the other hand has a wide variety of setups for the same “generation”. Heck, one can even emulate Windows on most other systems.
And still, most PC versions have a higher graphics tier than console games, while the share of customers able to fit into the small area between lowest and highest settings is far, far smaller than on a console.
This, my dear friends and fellows, is not how our industry should operate, and our definition of quality, induced by the “next generation of gamers” is as responsible for this as our own naïveté for heeding their call.

Issue #1 - Piracy and Theft

With SOPA and PIPA gone, but ACTA almost through, it is time to yet again discuss our (mis-)conceptions on the topic of piracy. While it definitely is a topic with various shades of grey attached to it, it also is a topic misunderstood fairly often. But why is that the case in the first place, and why does this topic split the gaming community even more than “console wars” already do?
First of all, I would like to explain what you should expect from the upcoming lines. “A Geek’s Lingo” is supposed to touch some of the current main topics and look at the discussion itself, and the issues we have when trying to talk about these topics. Are our definitions correct? Do the terms we use express what we want them to? And most importantly: What is the conclusion, the solution?
As such, we’ll start with piracy, which is effectively the word with the widest variety when it comes to definitions. We have publishers calling it outright “theft”, which we’ll talk about later-on. We have pro-piracy gamers calling it “a means of protest” or “a way to avoid regional and financial restrictions”. We have regular people pretending “piracy hurts no-one”, as it does not bring actual loss. And we have politicians using it to push for intrusive – and fishy in regards to censorship – bills such as SOPA, PIPA and ACTA.
But what does “piracy” actually mean?
“Piracy” – in regards to media – is the act of copying and redistributing data without the creator’s consent. This does not even mean it needs to be free of charge for the final consumer. Said charge just doesn’t go to the creator, and whoever else is involved in the original distribution.
Now, this means there is a product distributed to some people, which has not been “produced” by the ones in charge of “production”, and does not generate any revenue for them either. If we consider the model of a free market, that would actually be legal, as it is part of it: People have the means to duplicate the item, and as such the right to redistribute the copies just as well as the original, since they “produced” the copies by themselves.
A socially regulated market on the other hand secures one’s rights to keep their hands on their brains’ offspring. We call that “copyright” and it’s the core of the issues with piracy in the first place – and it causes a monopoly on a certain item – as it is produced and distributed by its creator only.
This is no different from the rest of the market, though. A very specific product is only sold by its creator and from that point on only this one unit that has been sold can be re-sold by a vendor. In theory, one could invest some time and money and create an identical copy of this item. This actually happens to clothing and footwear quite often, but it is still illegal, as it equals fraud – since people believe it was produced by the creator, not someone else, with a different quality as a result.
Now, the issue is … With data this doesn’t work. Data can easily be copied, as it is really only a series of zeroes and ones, not a complex combination of materials and the way they have been processed and stored. As such there is no loss of quality when copied.
With that said, piracy is not fraud.
Could it be theft then?
“What is theft?” is the question first to be asked. “Theft” is the act of taking an object from its owner, without his consent to do so.
When copying the data of a videogame, music track or movie, one does not steal a unit from the creator, obviously. Redistributing the copy to someone on the other hand “steals” a sale, one might argue. So the next question is, whether or not a sale can be “stolen”.
Stealing a sale would mean that the sale was removed from where it originally was supposed to be. Sounds weird, but it is quite simple: This model implies that the “customer” actually considers buying it at the official store before the choice goes to the – mostly cheaper and more convenient – “pirated” distribution.
In that case, yes, it is theft. A sale was stolen. There is no way around that.
Sounds like a “but” incoming …
Indeed, there is. When speaking of piracy, there are shades of grey. We do have the outright theft when it’s literally just about getting the same product at less of an investment. But we also have the people who don’t even consider the “correct” path. Be it those, who cannot afford the product and as such would not buy it anyways. Be it those, who use it as a means of protest and as such would otherwise just pull an all-out-boycott on the product … while they do want to use it nonetheless. Be it those, who cannot obtain the item due to regional restrictions.
Yes, those are morally questionable, as they use the product without any reward for the creators whatsoever. But they aren’t “lost sales”, as they would not buy it otherwise either – either because they can’t, or because they don’t wish to support the creators for whatever reasons.
As such these people are hardly “thieves” either. What are they then?
The answer to this very question is the answer to the entire debate about the moral grounds of piracy as a whole. Due to the nature of the question, though, it cannot be answered fully.