When studios are getting down to the final year or so of MMO development they need an audience to test their game, to stress the servers, search for bugs, exploits, imbalances and things that just don't work as well as they should for the average user. To do this they use beta testers. Beta testers may initially be friends and family of the developers but eventually the need to get more testers into the game requires the company to look elsewhere. The usual way to do this is to let people sign up as volunteers on the game's web site.
Beta testers aren't professional software developers or even real testers. They don't get paid for their time and they have to put up with incomplete or even missing systems, tons of bugs and an almost completely unpolished product. They can expect to encounter crashes, lock-ups, rollbacks, and character wipes as well as constant changes to their character's skills and abilities. Things will change dramatically, without warning and the most troublesome bugs may persist for weeks or months before they are fixed. Considering all that you have to wonder why people would spend hundreds of hours playing knowing that everything they do will be wiped out before the game goes live. They do it because they love the genre or the product.
Beta testing is as old as the MMO genre itself. It started with Ultima Online and Everquest and has been continued with every MMO since then. Now there are people out there who have participated in many beta tests and have more experience (from a player's perspective) than the developers do themselves. This is somewhat of a mixed blessing. On one hand there are mature, seasoned testers out there who understand what to expect but on the other there are thousands of malcontent, armchair designers fully prepared to offer suggestions on how you should completely rewrite your game one week before release and will climb upon their soapbox at the drop of a hat to prophesize doom the second they think you aren't heeding their every word.
If the tester audience responds favorably to your game then the community they create by word of mouth will be a great boost to your subscription numbers. If they don't like it then even before your game hits store shelves they will have begun poisoning the community against you. NDA's do little to deter the spread of information. Testers who don't like your game don't fear getting caught. Those who do like it, or aren't sure, may not go posting where you can see it but they will, undoubtedly, share every detail of your game with the people they play with. Even if they say nothing at all it isn't difficult to tell if your friend the tester likes or hates his current beta and that impression will spread on its own. Testers can provide much needed feedback but they can also turn on you if they are unhappy and make life, on forums at least, hell for your game.
So who are these beta testers anyway? Where do they come from and what do they want? Mostly, beta testers appear to be people who are very enthusiastic about the MMO genre. They have played a wide variety of MMO's and keep a constant eye out for new ones. Many people who sign up to be beta testers are either between games or growing tired with their current MMO or else they wouldn't have bothered to sign up. They would have been too busy playing. This poses a problem. The core of your beta testers are going to be people who don't like, or have grown bored with, all the other games out there. They are going to have some very strong prejudices against whatever it was they thought ruined those other games and the more vocal ones will do everything they can to turn your game into their game. This is fine if what they want and what you have envisioned are the similar but is problematic when those ideals conflict. If you have designed a pure PvE game with a strong emphasis on group play you can rest assured there will be a camp of testers who want to turn it into a solo-centric unrestricted PvP event. What every tester wants if for your game to be exactly what they are looking for and they will do their best to try to make it that way.
The best thing you can do is be up front with the testers. Let them know exactly what type of game you are making and how you expect it to be played. Don't go overboard and start talking up features that haven't even passed the design stage yet but do keep your beta community aware of what they can expect. If one aspect of your game is designed for the casual, solo player don't be afraid to tell them. If it is meant to require groups make them aware. Testers need to know where to set their expectations especially because your systems may not (ie. will not) be balanced perfectly the first time around. If testers become accustomed to easy solo play where one character can take down groups of mobs when what you have planned is something much more difficult they will react negatively when that changes. If you set expectations early then they can report things that don't work the way you intend and will be prepared for changes when you finally balance things out.
Keep communicating with your testers throughout the process. Make sure to show them you are listening. You don't have to answer every post but it is helpful if you respond to widespread issues with public statements about how you see them being addressed in the future and how they work into your overall plan. Don't be afraid to tell the testers 'No' as well when they start asking for features or changes that don't mesh with your design. It is better to stamp those things out as soon as possible than let forum debates rage for weeks or months. Sometimes you need to treat the testers like small children, tell them no if you need to, explain why, and leave it at that. Don't ignore issues or delay responding any longer than you have to. If testers see you or your community managers posting in other topics or just being social on the message boards but leaving ten 100 page threads about the viability of the hairdresser vs the cosmetologist unanswered they will resent it. You should also avoid making rubber stamp responses such as 'We are looking into it'. If your response could be copied into a completely different thread and still make sense you aren't responding adequately.
The cumulative experience of the beta tester has grown as the genre has matured. Many testers are veterans of several MMO's if not more. They have built characters up to maximum level, they have PvP'ed, raided, built guilds, made friends and, as a whole, exhaustively experienced every facet of every MMO ever written. If you listen carefully there is a great deal of wisdom that can be extracted from their opinions. The problem is separating it from all the crap.
Just like real human beings testers have divided opinions on nearly every subject. They know their material inside out and every one of them is absolutely certain that they are the sole repository of divine insight into what is needed to make a game fun and what will kill it. (This is of course a wild exaggeration since most testers wont even read, much less post, on your message boards. Reading what is posted however reveals the kernel of truth in the hyperbole.) Forum flame wars revolve around a handful of divisive issues. These reflect the personal preferences and play styles of the gamers that become the root causes of conflict both among players and between developers and testers. The most prevalent factions in the beta and MMO community are these:
The simple vs complex debate is defined by a how much involvement they want the game to require. The positions are often tied to other aspects of the game such as 'solo vs group' or 'ease vs challenge' but can be viewed independently. Sometimes this is spun as a 'casual vs hardcore' debate but more than anything those terms are loaded with value judgments and prejudice that is best avoided. The arguments are also frequently characterized as being related to the amount of time a person devotes to playing the game but in reality a person who plays 100 hours a week can prefer the simpler or more complex playstyles just as much as the person who logs in for only two. The defining factor is how they play the game, not for how long or what they achieve.
The complexity player wants rich, detailed systems. They want an experience that is deep more than broad. The complexity player enjoys making a study of game mechanics, of learning every twist and trick that will give them even the slightest situational advantage. The more maladjusted players use this knowledge as a bludgeon to prove that they are 'better' than the ordinary 'noobs' but many simply enjoy knowing how things work and being able to figure them out. These are the people who will sit and run tests of 10,000 attacks vs a known opponent with 200 different combinations of weapons, buffs and skills then post the results on your forums. These are also the people who will devour every cell of that spreadsheet as if each one contained the secret name of God granting them ultimate power. The most dedicated will know your systems better than you do. They will be the first to find and exploit any weakness and constantly monitor every trivial detail.
The simplicity players on the other hand aren't interested at all in what DPS advantage can be gained by using a 2.8 speed weapon in the off hand rather than a 2.7 or how much mitigation 10 more points of armor on his ankles will give when fighting albino rats on Tuesday. The casual players just enjoys the game. They want to be able to start playing immediately and expect an intuitive understanding of all systems. They will be upset if barriers or layers of complexity are added which disrupt their experience. Convenience and accessibility are the key to keeping them happy. Let them get into whatever they want as quickly and as easily as possible and get out again without jumping through hoops and they will be hooked.
This grouping also gets confused with the simple/complex crowd but what these people are looking for isn't really related to the goals of the others. People often mistake repetition as being part of what the challenge group wants. Frequently they ask for alternate means of advancement such as faction points, pvp/pve rankings and reputation systems. Because developers have always implemented these systems in such a way as to require hundreds or thousands or repetitions of the same task(s) people mistake the desire to have multiple measures of accomplishment as a request for tedious grinds. Repetition and tedium is perhaps even more offensive to the player seeking challenge than most others. What would be preferred would be a series of tasks that increase in difficulty as you progress that require little or no repetition at all.
The easy group prefers things to go quickly and offer little resistance. They are more interested in experiencing as much of the game as possible without having to really work for it. They approach the MMO sort of like watching television. Things happen that are interesting without much exertion. They move from place to place doing whatever is done in a particular area and then move on. Their goal is advancement and entertainment. They don't feel any meaningful or lasting sense of accomplishment from defeating difficult encounters or winning rare loot and they aren't particularly competitive. This group is unhappy if they see other players reaping rewards that are too difficult for them to obtain. Critics will accuse them of wanting everything just handed to them and at the extremes that isn't far from the mark. Their response is often that they don't pay for the game 'to be a second job' or that 'they pay the same fee as everyone else and deserve the same rewards'.
The opposite is the type A personality of the MMO, the challenge faction. This group desires difficult gameplay. So difficult few, if any, players ever complete the hardest tasks. They are highly competitive and actively seek out the hardest game activities. These are the people who will try to solo the 5 man dungeon or take great pride in being the first to reach max level or defeat a raid boss. These players will go out of their way to do everything first, fastest, and best. They need the sense of accomplishment to be exclusive. If there are too many people accomplishing the same things as they are they feel the game is too easy and the accomplishment is meaningless. They need to be able to easily define the pinnacles of achievement even if they aren't at the very top. They want to be part of, or identify with, what they consider to be the very best players of the game. If the game isn't difficult enough to stratify players into clear layers of achievement they aren't happy. This species can be identified by the mating cry 'lolezmode', the way they refer to anyone who disagrees with them as a 'newb', or by the retort 'lrn2play'. Opponents don't often bother to attack this group, they just think they are crazy. When they do argue on the forums it is usually along the lines of 'this is just a game and no accomplishment in it is worth anything' or simply 'go play Vanguard'.
At the far ends of the spectrum the solo vs group players either want to be able to play through the entire the game all alone or they want grouping to be mandatory to the point it is impossible to wander out of a safe zone without having at least two friends along with you.
The solo faction is often closely aligned with both the easy and casual factions but not always. Their primary objective is independence. They don't want to rely on other people to enjoy the game. The most grievous sin a game can commit in the eyes of the solo faction is to force them to sit around spamming 'LFG' or shove them into a group with a bunch of strangers. These people are introverted and not particularly social. They can get all the human interaction they need from tells and whispers without actually being in the same place doing the same thing as other players. They could explore the entire world without running into another living soul and it wouldn't bother them one bit. They like playing the game on their own and having other people around to talk to or ask questions of is all the multi-player they require.
The group faction is harder for me to understand. They range from wanting groups to have significant advantages over solo play such as xp bonuses or better loot to 'encourage grouping' to wanting the world to be designed in such a way that you simply cant advance at all unless you have other people along. I often think that these people may be such social outcasts in real life they cant imagine anyone spending time with them unless local authorities held a gun to that person's head or offered substantial bribes. Thus they demand there be as many deterrents to playing alone (read: not playing with them) as possible. The people in this faction often are aligned with the faction which wants the game to be more challenging since generally if it is too difficult to do alone it obviously requires a group. Challenge isn't their goal though, it is to force people to be social. The rallying cry of the group faction is "it's called an MMo for a reason".
This is one of the oldest factions in the MMO. It was introduced in MUD's before the MMO was ever born and rode along with Ultime Online into the modern era.
The PvE faction eschews player vs player combat at all costs. They have no interest in fighting other people and view the game designers and AI as the only proper opponents. Their view of PvP players is that they are all a bunch of back stabbing griefers who would gank their own grandmother if they had three friends along to help. At best they are willing to tolerate PvP as long as they aren't 'forced into it'. If they can play the game with a reasonable expectation of being safe from 'sociopathic bastards' while still reaching max level and decent gear they may be willing to co-exist. Most of all they detest the disruption of their game by someone killing/griefing/camping them, or otherwise intentionally ruining their fun with anti-social behavior. To them the thought of unrestricted, open world PvP invites a hobbesian nightmare to be avoided at all costs.
The PvP faction is all about the conflict between players. They feel that the AI and scripted encounters offer no challenge at all and that playing against a human opponent is the only way to have any fun. They want PvE to be downplayed or eliminated so that they always have opponents to fight. At the very extreme they desire total freedom when it comes to fighting other players. They want to be able to attack anyone, anywhere and at any time even to the point of being able to loot their kills and take everything their victim owned. The most maladjusted variety will go so far as to state the desire to be able to permanently kill other players. Die-hard PvP'ers will attack anyone who does not share their views. They openly mock anyone who plays on a PvE server, avoids PvP, or runs from a fight often referring to them as 'carebears'. They shun even instanced or balanced PvP preferring to roam in groups looking for opponents they can outnumber and kill. Some prefer this style of game because of the thrill of being under constant threat, never knowing when they might be attacked. They savor the moment of surprise and tension when two opponents first spot each other and have to decide what to do. Although, on forums, they are generally outnumbered by their opponents they make up for it by being extremely vocal. They shout down any opposition most often with insults. They like to think of themselves as being 'hardcore' and are often aligned with the 'challenge' faction because of the belief that fighting a human opponent is more difficult than one that is controlled by computer.
These factions are based around how the designers manage large numbers of players in small areas and how players are insulated from or exposed to each other. The first MMO's were all 'shared' worlds. On every server there was one and only one copy of any location. If two players were at Mt. Happyface they would be able to see and interact with each other. As developers tried to bring more and more people to single shards population control became a serious issue. When too many people gather in one place both server and client performance is greatly degraded even to the point one or both may crash. To accommodate more people the idea of instances was introduced. If there were too many people at Mt. Happyface a second copy of it, called an instance, could be created. Then half the population of the area could be in one and half in the other greatly easing performance problems. Anarchy Online was the first to create private instances for groups which allowed missions to be completed without any interference from other players. City of Heroes was the first to create multiple copies of outdoor zones to prevent overpopulation and ensure there was enough world content to provide players with easy access to opponents. EQ2 and WoW were the first to create instances for raid groups which allowed more than one group or guild to defeat the most challenging and rewarding encounters in the game per reset cycle rather than compete against every other player on the server for the kill.
Players who belong to the instanced faction strongly support providing as much instanced content as possible. This extends to both PvP and PvE. They prefer not to compete with other players for quest completion or raid bosses and to have at least numerical equality in PvP. They like how private instances let them, grouped or solo, explore an area at their leisure without running into others camped out at the best spots in the dungeon or find out someone else has already killed all the monsters and taken all the loot.
Players who fall into the shared faction disdain instancing because it disrupts the illusion that the world is a real place and diminishes social aspects of the environment. The extreme PvP'ers don't like the idea of instanced PvP because it removes the tension and surprise from PvP by letting you know, more or less, when you will be in PvP and when you wont (and to most of them a fair fight is a dirty word). Others dislike pervasive use of instancing because it reduces the chances that they will run into others during the course of play. They like finding other people as they explore the world and worry that everyone will hide in their own private spaces. If everyone is in an instance then no one will ever see each other and the game world will feel like a unpopulated ghost town. Still others dislike instancing because of the confusion it can cause. If you tell someone to meet you at the giant statue in Atlas Park you don't want to have to tell them which Atlas Park you are referring to or jump through contrived hoops to end up in the same one.
These factions are as much about an element of world design as they are about a style of play. They represent two different approaches to creating the world in which the characters exist. The Theme Park style takes a very directed approach toward world construction. Areas of play will be laid out like rides in an amusement park and players will be directed by quests or pathing from one to the next in an orderly manner. It is similar to having an invisible tour guide leading you through the game. The sandbox on the other hand tries to create an environment that has a more realistic layout. World regions will be loosely defined and players will be left to find their own way through the game. Ultima Online, Asheron's Call, Shadowbane, Eve, and Anarchy Online are all examples of Sandboxes. As of right now there are no pure theme park worlds. EQ and DAoC took the first steps away from the sandbox toward the theme park and the style is taken further in that direction by WoW and EQ2. Though it has some elements of the sandbox, Tabula Rasa is definitely among the Theme park variety. Without knowing exactly how they will turn out it appears that Age of Conan will be more toward the sandbox end of the spectrum and Warhammer Online will be perhaps the most extreme example of a theme park design yet released.
The theme park faction prefers the directed approach to the game. They want to feel like the world is ordered and controlled, that they are in the 'right place' and doing the 'right thing'. They rely on the designers to build the world in such a way that they can always be assured that they are where they are supposed to be. The challenges will always be exactly what they are ready for and the loot will be just what they need. They don't enjoy exploring or running into things that are either beyond or beneath their character's ability. They like the carefully planned layout of the theme park and the way it keeps them moving linearly from the start of the game to the end. In a sandbox style of game the theme park player feels lost and confused. They expect to be told where to go and what to do and when the sandbox does not provide clear answers they become frustrated and bored.
The sandbox faction on the other hand doesn't want to be told what to do and often finds the neat arrangement of encounters and funnel-like terrain of the theme park world absurd. In a theme park world these players don't feel guided they feel leashed. They want to go out and explore but the nature of the theme park world is to deliberately prevent players from getting outside their intended boundaries so the sandbox player feels fenced in or trapped as if they were glued to rails unable to control their own destiny. The sandbox player requires little or no direction from the game, only that there be places to go and things to do. They will work out the wheres and whats on their own. To many the feeling of discovery is important and being lead around by the nose destroys it for them. Most of all players in the sandbox faction dislike environments which are obviously fake. They want their game world to resemble a real world and be as plausible and immersive as possible. If they kill a particular creature they don't want to see the exact same creature reappear in the exact same place one minute later. They find the theme park worlds too reminiscent of the movie 'groundhog day' where every single moment is exactly like the one before and no one can see it but themselves.
Very few people will fall entirely to one side of any of these pairings. Most will stand between the two extremes of more than one. As I mentioned in the descriptions some factions are more easily aligned with others but all of them have enough independence that players can fall into any combination fairly easily. There are probably more lines that could be drawn which would further refine the groupings of player preferences but these are the major ones. Nearly all beta forum debates will include concepts and motivations from one or more of the themes presented above. These factions wont completely disappear once the game goes live but they will give way to more localized concerns such as class balance, economics, or other issues unique to the game in question.
World of Warcraft has had a tremendous impact on the MMO gaming community and its beta testers as well. It wasn't long after WoW's release that the very mention of it in public chat would ignite a firestorm of anger and argument among testers. During the Vanguard beta you could be publicly lynched for even suggesting that something Blizzard implemented was not the most vile and abhorrent thing imaginable. The most visible change it has had on beta testers is in their expectations for fun and for polish. WoW set the standard for letting players progress quickly while keeping them entertained and still holding their attention once they reached max level. Games being made now cannot avoid being compared to it and will be judged harshly if they don't appear to measure up. This is probably most clear in the growth of the solo and casual factions. WoW showed people that they could be freed of the long, tedious level grinds that Everquest introduced and few players can imagine ever going back. The hardest fought battles are over solo vs grouping and the nature of PvP, if it is included at all. It is now widely accepted that a game must support solo play to be viable, much to the chagrin of members of the group faction, but exactly where the line should be drawn is a hotly contested issue.