DC Universe Online is set for a November 2 2010 launch date – exactly two months from today. Although you’ve been able to pre-order the game for a few weeks now, there is still no announcement of when any kind of public beta will be starting. Although it is concerning that some kind of public beta hasn’t started 8 weeks before launch, the fact that Sony Online Entertainment can’t even make a statement on when the beta is planned to start is curious at best. Although I’m sure SOE can move quickly when they need to, announcing a beta start date is some easy publicity for a title this close to launch. Instead, they are currently releasing screenshots and making announcements long on promise but short on detail. I recognise that MMOs change in the run up to launch, but statements from DCUO Game Director Chris Cao like:
“Well we aren’t going into all the details just yet. In fact, this week we found some things that [made us] fundamentally change the way some powers work. We are actually going to [give a list of powers] once we are pretty certain that they aren’t going to radically change.”
don’t inspire much confidence. It’s 2 months to launch and there are concerns that the power lists may still radically change? Surely since there are “literally hundreds of powers” some are finalised enough to talk about in detail. Comments that there will be stats but Cao doesn’t want to “break it down actual in detail” until he can “make sure everybody understands what the stats are” are also odd because surely if anyone out there should be able explain the stats system, it would be Cao and Massively.com would love to hear the detail.
So, what’s going on?
I’m Gonna Beta It Out Of You
There’s plenty of discussion about what is going on with DCUO’s beta, especially in light of issues around how betas are used by MMO developers. In general, MMO developers use public beta testing (both open and closed) to:
- Test the infracture behind their title (stress testing) and refine it as required.
- Test in-game systems to ensure they are as bug free as possible and refine them if possible – this spreads from “game won’t work with ATI graphics cards” to “please fix Astor the Ulliterate’s spelling and punctuation”.
- Test reactions to in-game content from potential players and take on those reactions… sometimes. If possible. Maybe.
- Build community around the title.
- Build interest in the title.
(I’m not going to go deeply into what players get in return, but “play a game for free and maybe influence how it turns out” ranks up there as reasons why players sign up to beta tests.)
All MMO betas have these elements. There is a view that modern MMOs are too heavily focused on the marketing angles (community and interest) but a successful beta can’t be untied from getting players to want to buy the title at launch (or perhaps: you can have a technically perfect beta but still go out of business if no-one wants to play the game it helps shape, and devs don’t want that). Internal quality assurance teams help catch major and minor bugs, but their capacity to test is outstripped by unpaid beta volunteers – there is no way a paid QA team of 20 people who work 8 hours a day can match the testing capacity of 20 000 public beta testers, even if every one of them only tested for half an hour a day and spent most of that time playing with the costume options.
So why doesn’t SOE want DCUO to be put through this kind of public pacing?
Console Bashing From A PC Thug
SOE has been trying a few different things with DCUO compared to their other MMO releases. There is still no official forum – the community building role appears split between the official Facebook page (35 254 fans at time of posting) and the unofficial fansite DCUO Source, which gets dev posts from time to time. SOE appears to be trying to build interest in the game through dev interviews and live play sessions (of the same limited locations) at game conferences, but I’ll assume that Warner Bros – who own DC and all that lovely comic book IP – will ensure DCUO gets an advertising budget prior to launch. Perhaps attaching DCUO to the Sony Station Access Pass has SOE management believing players will come in droves through that route, providing an instant player base.
This isn’t typically how SOE does things for its PC MMOs – it isn’t hard to add an official forum (especially given SOE’s infrastructure) and assign a few community managers to deal with the posters. There are lots of good reasons to have official forums rather than rely on fansites. However, let’s assume that the marketing side of things is taken care of from a beta perspective.
This leaves the testing of instructure and game systems as something public beta still needs to do. The reason this is important for PC MMOs is that PC systems can vary wildly, so that even systems that technically exceed minimum specifications might run into issues because of driver conflicts or program-related bugs. Letting lots of players in for free so that the devs can collect data on where these conflicts exist – and try to fix them – is very important, because it means that when players come to put their money down the title will actually work for them.
… but that’s if it is a PC MMO. DCUO has the distinction of being released for both the PC and the PS3. Since the PS3 is a closed system and has a limited number of variations, system compatibility issues don’t need large-scale public testing. Certainly, having a public beta test for such a title can help (MAG had a public beta for a few months) but the larger concern is likely to be network performance rather than system compatibility. If DCUO is having Playstation Network problems, the devs will have one or two months to fix it prior to launch (depending when the public beta starts), which is probably enough time to iron out the PS3 bugs. One to two months isn’t really enough time to iron out any more than one or two large PC-related bugs.
If SOE’s focus is on the PS3 version, it helps explain the lack of official forums – they’d be mostly PC players, whereas Facebook would be perceived as more ‘console player / casual gamer’ friendly. The lack of beta to get feedback on internal game systems – to answer the core question of “but is it fun?” – can be done using that paid QA team to iteratively test for bugs and the use of smaller player test groups (potentially playing through the same limited areas, since that could test core gameplay during short sessions).
Focusing on the PS3 release also leaves time for DCUO to continue development much later into the cycle than for PC MMOs. Beta testing takes up a lot of dev resources as PC bugs are chased down and fixed, so by not having it SOE can consider radically changing powers or sorting out stats until much closer to launch. Some games aren’t fun until the last few weeks before launch, where the final changes can come together into something special.
Countdown to Launch
Although DCUO is being developed for both the PC and the PS3, the signs point to SOE primarily focusing their attention on the PS3 release. There are a lot of good reasons to do this – the complete lack of MMO competition on that platform certainly helps – but it feels a bit dishonest to talk about the platforms as being equal when they actually aren’t going to be treated as such. I wonder if the PC version will see a delayed launch while the PS3 version is still released on November 2.
Right now I’m sure that SOE is crunching behind the scenes, trying to get DCUO ready for launch. If DCUO launches in November however, I can’t see that this lack of beta is going to anything but hurt the PC version of the title. The PS3 version may flourish, but that is going to depend heavily on gameplay… and not having extensive player testing on systems such as PvP (which a beta would provide) may be something that comes back to bite DCUO very quickly.