One thing I didn’t really discuss in my last entry is using NDAs in a Beta test setting. This is because I consider this tactic counter-intuitive and generally just a bad idea.
Let me explain.
When a game primes for release it enters Beta testing. Beta testing is usually a stress test. It’s a great way to get a broader range of player feedback. You can also work out bugs and get an idea of the game’s probable success in the marketplace. Warhammer: Age of Reckoning Online is currently in Beta testing. As with many Beta tests, the testing pool is selective—individuals and/or guilds register with the website and hope to get a registration key in their e-mail boxes in the following months. Once you are accepted as a Beta tester, you’re required to accept the terms of a NDA. You are not allowed to discuss the game with third parties. If you do talk about the game, there’s a chance your Beta account will be subject to a permanent ban.
This isn’t entirely unreasonable. It just isn’t very smart, and it’s about as effective as a bouquet of fine smelling lilies in the hands of a Choppa.
Warhammer has been in Beta for a fairly long time. This is probably for the best. The leaks on the game don’t exactly indicate glowing reviews. The fact that there are leaks in the first place is the primary indicator of why NDAs in a Beta test are ineffective. The only people talking about the game are doing so anonymously and are therefore at liberty to trash-talk it endlessly, or are people who don’t like the game enough to want to keep their beta accounts. People who actually like the game and who probably would defend it are unable to do so because they don’t want to lose their Beta account. The only "press" WAR is getting is bad press. While this hopefully means that the development team is working REALLY hard to improve what could very well be a decent game, the only impression the outsiders are getting is a bad one.
Beta testing is an absolutely excellent opportunity for MMOs to market their product prior to going live. It’s a way of getting people hooked before you start charging them. If MMOs were heroin, Beta Testing would be the free sample. It’s a way of figuring out what you need to fix, what your community wants, and rounding out the core values of the game in a way that is fun and engaging. It’s also a great way to get brand loyalty, because Beta testing is typically when developers are able to interact with a smaller group of players via forums. Those players would ordinarily be the best marketing tool available—if they weren’t subject to an NDA.
Let’s assume, for a moment, that the trash-talkers are correct. Maybe WAR really is broken at this point. WAR already put a halt to one Beta test because they admitted that the game wasn’t much fun and they wanted to take it in another direction. The game is already suffering severe backlash from that, and many of the Beta testers left the game because it just wasn’t enjoyable. Most will not go back to it and will continue to trash talk the game freely.
The new Beta testers are still covered by the NDA and therefore can’t say one way or another whether the game’s gone in a better direction. This puts WAR in a very difficult situation—the number of critics is increasing, the press is still bad, and they’re trying to recover from a major snafu. Whether the NDA’s long term effect will be positive has yet to be seen. As far as I can tell, unless the only press they anticipate is bad press from the player base, keeping the NDA in place looks a great deal like self-inflicted sabotage.