My opinion on soft launching and paid betas has been well established on this site. I dislike the idea that players must jump in to aid a flailing development team while it buys time on a project the team clearly should have reigned in. I also hate the environment soft launching creates in which studios are not accountable for their mistakes; a game like Firefall can have its entire PvP system wiped while its developers say, "Oops, our bad, beta! But thanks for all the money."
However, there is another enormous problem with the prevalence of the soft launch system. Namely, it kills fans.
Living on passion
Like films and novels, a great number of video games survive primarily on the raging enthusiasm of a select few fans. Sure, Guild Wars 2 is the fastest-selling MMO of all time, but it could not have reached that success without the fervent loyalty shown by people who loved the original Guild Wars and helped to build its community into a lucrative marketing target. Fanbases serve the development of a new game by lapping up its coverage, sharing its trailers, commenting on its dev diaries, and downloading its demos. Those same fanbases also allow sites like Massively to exist; our core mechanism for generating revenue hinges on your willingness to care deeply about one or more games.
It is also an exploitable weakness.
The games industry is a business. Studios exist to make money. Certainly developers care about their creations, but those creations rely on your dollars to become reality. There are very few, if any, game creators out there who are working entirely for the love of the field, never hoping to receive a financial return on the time they spend buried in code, painting textures, or sculpting revealing breastplates. People who work for free are hobbyists, not professionals.
"The people who care the most...are the ones being treated the worst."
The only way this scam works is by harnessing the loyalty of the people who care most about a project and transforming that loyalty into income. Average Joe Gamer isn't going to buy a founders pack or early access rights to a game he's curious about. Instead, passionate, caring fans are the ones who bear the financial burden for a soft-launching developer's mistakes, and they are the people who end up slammed by server outages, glitchy mechanics, broken economies, and unstable releases.
The people who care the most, who should be the most valuable to the development team, are the ones being treated the worst.
There is a potential danger to turning passion into profit and riding to riches on the backs of those who truly care about a product. Eventually, that bright enthusiasm turns into a bitter hatred. A casual visitor to a game might indeed be able to enjoy it for a while and leave amiably, but an individual who cares deeply enough about a title to invest in its beta, participate in testing, offer up feedback, and work with the dev team to steward the game toward release might not be so accepting of that same dev team's inability to finish the game as promised on a reasonable timetable. A studio running in paid beta/soft launch mode can only re-scope its project so many times before those early adopters start demanding results. Frustration kills enthusiasm.
In short, a continued run of botched soft launches and paid betas will sap the enthusiasm of fans and drown passion in a sea of microtransactions and progress wipes.
There is room for community involvement in the development process. Studios seeking beta testing and other such assistance should simply offer it free to fans. Instead of punishing the people who love a game by asking them to pay money for a broken product and dragging them through development hell, perhaps developers should try rewarding those fans with an opportunity to take part in a title's evolution without shaking the coins out of their pockets.
Fans won't feel burned, the industry won't continue down this black hole of "buy now, play later," and studios might even end up with stronger bonds to their communities. In the end, it's those bonds that help ensure a game's long-term success.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared by Massively as a whole. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!