Thursday, October 13, 2022

Talking About Not Talking

There was a time when I'd have done just about anything to get access to a closed beta for a game I was looking forward to playing. Okay, not "anything". I mean, I wouldn't have gotten a gang together to steal a diamond necklace from a museum by abseiling down through a hole in the roof, just in case anyone was thinking of asking...

No, I mean I'd have been happy to fill in all kinds of forms and sign all kinds of waivers just to get to see some half-finished game before most other people got a look at it. I'd have been willing to enter contests and make new email addresses and register new accounts, all that bureaucratic malarkey.

Then, if I was lucky enough to get an invite, I'd dutifully have put in my hours, posted my thoughts on the forums, submitted my bug reports and feedback and generally played the role of a good little unpaid QA. My reward for all that self-effacing effort, other than the smug satisfaction of knowing something other people didn't, would have been the knowledge that most mmorpgs genuinely are better in beta. 

Seriously, they are. Or they used to be. But that was in the days when developers didn't just let anyone in. They didn't generally start sending out invites until the bones of the game felt solid. I did play one or two "betas" that barely ran (Horizons, I'm looking at you...) but mostly there was already a game there, waiting to be tested, not just an engine and some promises. 

These days, I'm not at all sure the old "better in beta" meme stands up any more. Most developers don't even bother waiting until they have what would have passed for a beta-quality product before they throw open the doors to anyone with a credit card. Early Access and Paid Alpha have all but done away with real betas.

Or so the theory goes. It's not a theory actually supported by facts but then who bothers with facts any more?  

This week I had an email inviting me to apply for access to a Closed Alpha for a game I am very interested in playing. A couple of days later I saw a news item at MassivelyOp offering access to an alpha preview for another game, one I hadn't heard of before but which sounded interesting. Both seemed like opportunities.

Had I signed up for either of them, I wouldn't be posting about it now. Well, to be strictly fair, I might have been able to mention the bald fact that I'd applied but that would have been all. Both games have positively draconian NDAs, one of which even requires a digital signature, the first time I've ever been asked to supply one for anything outside of my paid employment.

Both games have forms to complete that come with boxes to tick to confirm you've read the Terms and Conditions and Rules of Conduct. Being the suspicious, nit-picking, rule-fearing kind of person I am, I clicked through and did exactly that. Yes, of course I skimmed but I stopped and read in full all the sections about which I had concerns.

Having done so, I declined to proceed with either of the applications. I have to say, hitting the "Do Not Accept" buttons was a bit of a buzz. As Barbara Pym so aptly puts it in her first novel (Some Tame Gazelle, pub. 1950.) which I happened to be reading at the time, "there was a certain pleasure in not doing something".

It wasn't just bloody-minded awkwardness that led me to turn down the offers. Nor was it any lingering concern that to play now might spoil my pleasure later. No, what put me off participating in the testing was something much more straightforward, a purely pragmatic, practical concern: the NDAs for both alphas absolutely forbid any kind of reporting whatsoever.

The last time I signed an NDA for an alpha was for New World. As it happened, I really liked what I saw in that first test; anything I might have said would have been highly complimentary. Ironically, by the time Amazon Games were letting people into testing without an NDA, the game had changed to the point where I was no longer quite so sure about it.

That was an educative experience. I fully appreciate why companies don't want opinions to be formed by early builds that will almost inevitably change out of all recognition by the time the game launches. This isn't a complaint about the existence of NDAs in this context; asking would-be testers to sign them seems to me to be an eminently sensible precaution.

What I learned from New World and now from these two games is that I personally am no longer sufficiently interested in the process as a player to abide by such restrictions. It came as something of a minor epiphany. I think it's entirely possible that I now play games almost wholly because they give me something to blog about, not because I want to play them in their own right.

Not being able to blog about New World during the first alpha irritated me no end but at the time I was still sufficiently motivated to log in and play just for the experience. It's hard for me to imagine doing that now. If I'm not going to write about something, these days I don't generally feel the urge to bother with it at all.

Conversely, when I do play something new, I get twitchy if I don't have a way to take screenshots at a moment's notice. Almost the first thing I do in every new game is to open the Settings and look for the screenshot commands. If I can't find them, which is disturbingly common, especially in games still in a pre-release version, I immediately exit the game and fire up FRAPS. If that doesn't work, I prepare myself for the laborious process of using PrtScr, cutting and pasting individual images to as I go, which makes playing the games feel juddery and disjointed and not much fun at all.

And yet I persevere, because what really interests me is reporting on what I see and do in the games, not just seeing and doing it. It's been like this for a while, now, and once again I'm not complaining. My suspicion is that if I wasn't blogging about most of these games I wouldn't be playing them at all.

Which isn't to say I wouldn't be playing any games. I'd be playing far fewer games, that's true, and probably I'd be playing the games I did play for fewer hours, but I haven't lost my interest in or love for the genres I favor - mmorpgs and adventure games in particular. It's more that I'd be doing boring things in them that no-one would ever want to hear about... even more than I do already.

And that's why tests with NDAs really aren't going to work for me, not so long as I'm writing this blog. It'd just be too frustrating. The thing about hotly-anticipated games that haven't been released yet is that they make for really good copy. It's not so much that posting reveals draws a crowd; it's more that new stuff is really, really easy to write about.

It's self-evident in the choices I've made here over the last two or three years. I enjoy writing about games when they're new and confusing. I find the learning process compulsive and I like to go over what I'm learning at inordinate length, partly because it helps me clarify things but mostly because i just like the sound of my own voice.

Eventually, when things start to become clear and the shine of the new has faded a little, I can settle into just playing for the fun of it without feeling I have to write everything down. That's about where I am with Noah's Heart now. Athough there's still an uncomfortable amount I don't understand, I no longer feel compelled to discuss my lack of understanding in front of an audience. I just do my dailies and enjoy it.

To sign a legal document forbidding me to share my thoughts and opinions about a new game here would be to condemn myself to an indefinite period of frustration, which is reason enough to opt out,  but there's another reason as well. 

I'm not at all happy about some of the exaggerated claims of ownership over anything I might write about the game even when permitted. I understand I'm playing off other people's copyrighted work here and I'm very willing to respect things like image rights over the screenshots or video I might take in the games but when it comes to writing about my time playing, my words are my words. 

It's not just NDAs for testing environments that make these land-grabs, either. I've uninstalled more than one released game over content creation rights clauses in the EULA. I may not be making any money off the things I write here but I'm damned if I see why anyone else should.

This, then, is most likely the only post I'm going to get out of these two games until they hit some kind of open access testing, if not launch itself. I remain interested in them but I'll defer any comments until I'm allowed to make them freely and without restraint.

I'm not even going to mention which games they are.


  1. "This isn't a complaint about the existence of NDAs in this context; asking would-be testers to sign them seems to me to be an eminently sensible precaution."

    Is it, though? I mean, maybe for J. Random "Tester" it is. But it would only take a quick glance through your blog history to see that you write fairly, clearly and creatively about the betas you participate in. You even have a bit of reach, with a strong readership among other bloggers who collectively have some influence on folks' opinions of new games, I think: I know you've strongly influenced mine.

    Part of the problem here is indiscriminate mass betas, I think. It's really a problem for MMO devs: how do you get enough beta players to get the feel of a realistically sized game without mass invites? I think the nearest thing to an answer is to release qualified beta players from the NDA, while limiting the rights of folks who haven't demonstrated the ability to use them responsibly.

    Muzzling everybody demonstrates a marked lack of confidence in the product, I think. If I were about to release a new game into the world, I would want you and people like you to come try it out and talk about it publicly. If nothing else, Barnum's Adage applies: there's no such thing as bad publicity.

    Thanks much for all the blogging you've done about all the games for the many years I've been reading you. If the devs don't want me to find out about your game, I don't really want to find out about it either.

    1. You're welcome! It is a little odd that game companies court streamers and influencers to the point of giving them preferential access and yet still run scared of what information might leak from large-scale closed testing. I don't think Barnum's Adage really stands up the way it used to do or review-bombing wouldn't be such a thing but on balance I'd say games generate more interest from open testing than closed, even if the reports aren't universally favorable. (If they're universally unfavorable then probably the game wasn't ready for public testing at all.)

      At least one of the two games I'm (not) talking about will definitely feature here as soon as there's some kind of more open access. I'm really looking forward to it. The other one, though, I'll probably have forgotten about by the time it comes out. So many new games popping up all the time, one won't be missed.

  2. Windows has a built in screen snipping tool (win + shift + S), you don’t need to be using the old PrintScr method.

    1. Oh, yes. so it does! Thanks for reminding me. I have used it occasionally but for some reason I always forget it's there.

  3. I’ve never minded NDAs, and always respected them. Even so, I only desire to test World of Warcraft content these days, and more narrowly, the Classic version of the game. In The Old Days it was a sort of badge of honor, I thought, to be invited to betas, particularly closed ones. I’d play as much as time allowed, wrote bug reports galore, and commented on forums. Since the advent of paid alpha and beta access, it seems not to be a community of dedicated testers as much as a sad money making scheme. I wonder how many testers these days actually test. Wouldn’t you think the developers would miss having knowledgeable feedback from people who have broad experience rather than whatever the “Play Force” is like now? Atheren

    1. It's true. Seeing a game before release used to take some effort whereas mostly now it just takes some cash. That said, the alphas and betas that have NDAs also tend to have fairly rigourous selection processes and take the testing part very seriously. We seem to have a straight split between something that's called "testing" but is actually marketing and genuine testing that is hermetically sealed. I'm not sure either is the best solution and the frequent, major issues that surface during and after both approaches would tend to support that view.


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