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At Goblinworks, we like to do things a bit differently where we can. We've learned a lot from our relationship with Paizo and their focus on embracing customer feedback. We also have a long history of game development and want to avoid working too long without being connected to our players. MMO's are ultimately a service business, and finding out what the customer wants is the most important part of the business.
Our Early Access Beta program is not the same Beta experience you may have seen in other MMO's, but is part of an overall trend in modern development.
Most importantly, we expect to maintain a low bug count throughout the Beta program. There will be a separate phase before Beta, called Alpha, in which we find as many bugs as possible on lots of different test systems and make sure we get those fixed before going into Beta. I can't promise that we can find all the bugs (we never will in a project this size). But if you've participated in another Beta program that was focused mainly on bug hunting, that won't be the focus here.
Modern development practices tend to keep bug counts low throughout the whole project. Having open bugs just slows everybody down and isn't an effective way to manage a project. Scheduling becomes a nightmare because you never know how much time will be needed for the bug fixing before you can ship.
Keeping the code clean allows Internet startups to have stable but feature-incomplete Beta phases. This way they can implement features while observing real customers. Google famously left the Beta label on Gmail for five years and Minecraft had four million purchases before it left Beta. When Tiberium Alliances released, it had a Beta label for about six months because not all the features had been implemented yet. I still enjoyed playing Beta quite a bit, and yes I paid for it.
So why is it still considered Beta?
We don't want to throw open the doors to everyone too quickly. Because we are not in Open Release, we can carefully restrict the number of 'invites' available and grow the player base smoothly and naturally. This helps the programmers because we can scale the software and hardware up each month. It's even more critical to making sure the territory control aspect of Pathfinder Online works as designed. We will also be scaling up the size of the world at the same time so that we keep the right tension in the territory control game.
Slowly growing the player base is a great advantage, but we also want to get players involved before all the big features are locked in. The most important goal during Early Access Beta is the Crowdforging process.
We want the community to be involved directly in the features as they are being created and added to the game. Some of the player feedback will come from forums or direct email to and from the design team. Other feedback will be purely analytical - we will be able to track and see exactly how players are playing the game, and we hope to get some insight into what is fun for them.
I'd love to get this sort of information from day one, but it's not really useful data until players are enjoying themselves. That means we need all the basic systems in place and a reasonably bug-free, fun experience. We will prioritize those basic features first and implement them before Early Access. Monsters, fighting, questing, even crafting and PvP around basic player-owned structures will be available when we begin Early Access.
It's the higher level PvP play that will be implemented and then refined during Early Access Beta. We have some fantastic ideas on these features, but they need tuning based on how the player base uses them. The Early Access players will get to see that tuning happening and contribute to the process.
That brings me to what I expect to be the toughest part of Beta - gameplay changes.
It's difficult not to feel frustrated when balance changes affect a character you've spent hours training and making careful adjustments to. It will be even more frustrating when an entire guild has focused on a particular tactic in the territory game, and we realize that the tactic has become a bit too powerful. There's no way to get around the fact that we'll be making large gameplay changes throughout Beta. This is another reason it is called Beta.
Many publishers wipe out player accounts after Beta. We want player-controlled settlements to develop during Early Access so that on Release, there is an existing structure to the world and existing chartered companies for new players to join. This means we will not be wiping after Beta. Players who are in the Beta program early will be the most advanced players in the game, and will have lots of time-based experience before Release.
I'll apologize in advance that some of that experience may end up in skills that changed after you invested in them. On the positive side, you'll know that you were able to invest in skills before the vast majority of the player base. We will have a very flat and wide skill system, and more skill time allows for more player flexibility in roles and actions you can take in the game. You will never nerf your overall combat ability by having a few extra skills on the side, you just have the ability to do more things.
We will endeavor to make these changes as smooth as possible. But at the same time, our priority is on creating a fun experience for everyone in the game. We need the freedom in Beta to make larger changes than we will expect to make after Release.
The biggest reason the Beta is paid is that it is a real running MMO. We have bandwidth costs, server costs, a customer support team, and live operations to keep the servers online. We are running the Early Access period exactly the same way the final game will be run after Release, just on a smaller scale.
We will have customer support reps so that if you have a problem with billing or some sort of in-game bug is preventing progress with your character, you will have a real live person to contact. We will probably run with email support as the first line, and do phone conversations only as required to resolve issues.
We'll also be operating with a focus on data integrity and the most important aspect of this is our backup procedures. We'll have a full normal backup system running with multiple live database servers, and offsite backup at least once a day. In the event of a catastrophic data-eating bug, we will endeavor to roll back at most a single day worth of progress, and we hope to avoid even that. Managing that infrastructure has a substantial overhead cost.
Our data bandwidth costs will probably be higher during Beta while the game patches are large. When we make a major patch, every person who plays the game has to download the patch and as the player population grows, the cost to do those patches grows too.
Because the game design will be evolving during Early Access Beta, we don't feel it is appropriate to monetize through micro-transactions. We will require anyone participating in Beta to be a subscriber. After Release, we plan to roll out a hybrid microtransaction/subscription model. It will be easier to tune that model and make sure it works for all players then.
Not everyone wants to pay for Beta access while some of the major gameplay systems are still being developed. That is certainly understandable, and we will look forward to having those players with us after Release. Don't feel that Release players will be too far behind players that began playing during Beta. Our wide and flat skill system means those players will be effective in combat in short order and ready to contribute to settlements immediately.
If you choose to join us for Early Access Beta, we will make sure that you have a great time! A lot of the game systems will be implemented around you, and you'll be able to see them evolve and change to meet your needs. More importantly, we'll be paying lots of attention to your feedback and trying to make a game that facilitates your gameplay style - whatever that is.
Early Access Beta requires a leap of faith for both the community and Goblinworks. But this is how Pathfinder has always been developed -- in collaboration with the fans. We're excited to be part of that tradition. See you online!
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