NDAs vs Betas

To continue my thread of NDA discussion, and related to the comments those posts generated, a few more thoughts come to mind.  First, a dev quote relating to why more people aren’t in the WildStar beta.

Some quick answers:

a) We’d rather have the game be as ready as possible before most people see it. Now, it’s pretty ready in many ways, but we still have work to do: Overhauling UIs, elder game testing, etc. etc.

b) The pent up demand is pretty extreme, honestly. I won’t mention signup numbers in case we want to do a press release or something, but: Big. We don’t have anything like the hardware ready to handle it yet.

c) We’ll open up more mass exposure and testing during different phases of beta going forwards as well – we need the 24/6* testing everyone’s getting now . Why? So we can have people legitimately make it all the way through the levelling content and test the elder games with context. But not every stage needs to be like that; some will be aimed more at giving people a taste of the game so they can buy it or not with full info.

(*we shut down the servers on Mondays to incent everyone to come talk with devs on the forums)

Still here?  Good.

NDA’s protect assets that are unfinished.  While betas provide access to unfinished material, they do so gradually.  Pre-alpha is usually the devs, alpha is a closed knit of testers, beta is a significantly larger pool who “stress test” a particular feature to find balance/bugs and provide metrics to the developers.  Open beta is nearly always around final polish and stress testing.

Taking that into consideration, at which point is a developer comfortable opening the kimono?  If a vendor has an NDA and they are offering a collector’s edition and few specs around their product, a veteran player is going to be skeptical.  EQ:L sales are going to be indicative of what a NDA/pre-buy combination looks like.  I would expect sales to increase now that the NDA has dropped.  TESO has likely hit critical mass when it comes to pre-orders, until the NDA drops, when a new spike occurs.

If the NDA only drops a few weeks before launch, does that not cause a rather large lull in potential sales and a super spike at launch?  It certainly makes it difficult to plan server capacity for launch day if you’re unable to judge interest.  I understand this problem from the past, what with box sales dominating.  Today’s Steam mentality, where you can buy digital copies should provide more than enough metrics to accommodate launch.

Having and NDA makes sense if there are parts of your product that are under design review.  You want to control expectations.  Lowering the NDA means that you’re likely in polish mode for that feature.  It provides positive (hopefully) hype for your game and will likely drive sales.  Staging beta by features also makes sense.  MMOs are massive and opening the entire thing to the world early on doesn’t provide a whole lot of useful feedback.

I am arguing that the timing of an NDA drop, relative to Beta status and release window is a significant indication of the health and quality of a product.  The longer that curtain is up, the more pessimistic people become.  The timing of the drop is important, so that the positive spin and hype can be ridden right up until launch.

NDA’s Are Bad

Let’s say you have a new product coming to market.  You budget about 10% of your overall budget to PR.  That’s a fair chunk of change on a $100 million project.  Now let’s say you realize later on a few things.  You have something that exceeded your expectations and you think there’s solid interest.  You also realize that your PR budget allocation wasn’t well allocated, in that what you spent didn’t really get you much or that you spent the money elsewhere.

Today’s internet is exponentially more interconnected and fast than 5 years ago.  I get a dozen tweets a day, multiple facebook posts, tons of feedly, a sub-Reddit and then the old school emails.  I can watch a stream on twitch or a series on youtube, with voice commentary.  What a team of 10 can do for a company pales in comparison to what 1 person with social skills and a solid social network can do (e.g. the Lazy Gamer comes to mind).

You know what NDA’s do?  They protect assets from espionage (no really, that’s what they are for).  The end result is that any word of mouth becomes basement driven and usually negative.  People are much more willing to be skeptical than trusting, certainly without evidence.  One post that says “stay far away” without content to back it up will do more damage than a PR video showing combat.

NDA’s today serve a single purpose in the minds of gamers.  They hide bad games from the masses until launch.  Aliens – Colonial Marines is a prime example.  Movies that do not have critic screenings are the same (R.I.P.D. is a recent example).  You either are confident in your product when you allow people to test it or you are not.

That brings me to the elephant in the room.  EQ Landmark dropped their NDA yesterday upon launch of alpha.  Alpha is before beta and always lacking polish.  But given that it cost $60 to get into alpha, they know everyone wants to have a good experience, so they are likely to talk about it in a positive light, even if there are bugs.  This is a really smart move because you now have a few thousand people talking about your game and generating hype. WildStar is driving me mad with their player streams because it looks just like the game I’ve wanted to play for years.

If TESO doesn’t open the doors this coming week, or Bethesda doesn’t start with a massive PR blitz, I have a strong feeling that they are going to get swept under the rug.  My Feedly on that game is near dry right now, and you know it’s going to fill up with EQ:L soon.