Beta tests are now commonplace, especially for games with expansive multiplayer. The term “beta,” however, has changed, as it’s unlikely that more than balance tweaks can change when a beta test occurs just weeks before a game ships.
Obtaining valuable feedback is a constant struggle for the games industry, and a problem I hear about constantly from developers I’ve talked to over the years. Friends and family don't usually work because it's hard for them to be honest, and focus tests are notorious for being tough to gain workable feedback from.
The success of Minecraft has changed everything. Suddenly, there is a business model for players to become involved early enough in the development process to have a profound impact but late enough that designers can still maintain ownership over the design process.
“We are very much going to listen to the feedback of the community,” said Martin Wahlund, executive producer and CEO at Fatshark.
Wahlund told me Fatshark is “quite” flexible when it comes to changing Krater's design, based on what the community says. Right now, combat involves controlling three characters in real-time, but if players say that’s too complicated and demand something akin to Dragon Age’s pause-able combat, that could happen.
“At the same time,” he continued, “I think it’s important we have a clear vision where we want to go with it. Because if it’s too open, people will go ‘Oh, an FPS would be cool, third-person would be cool, maybe we could fly it around and have an aircraft simulator.’ [laughs] And [we start] getting spread thin. In terms of that, I think it’s good to have a clear vision.”
“They tend to want to have more to say about it,” he joked.
The idea was spurred by both Minecraft and Fatshark’s experience with Lead & Gold, its western-themed multiplayer shooter. The beta test provided needed feedback, such as adding dedicated servers, but it took weeks for Fatshark to respond. By then, most players have made up their mind and moved on. It’s very difficult to win back players after a first impression.
“We thought ‘The next product we do, we should do this earlier, so that when we have a bigger team on the project,’” he said. “Because now we have maybe two or three people working on updates for Lead & Gold.”
Minecraft charged people to gain access and start providing feedback. It’s undecided whether Krater will follow that model, too, but Wahlund sees the benefit of having players financially invested.
“Sometimes, I’ve seen that people come with a lot of feedback and we check and they don’t even own the game--they haven’t even played it,” he said. “They just like to be vocal about their opinions. I think, in terms of that, it would be quite nice to have feedback from people who actually have a stake in the game, and have bought the game.”
There will be way for non-paying fans to participate, too--the details are still being worked out. In fact, all sorts of details realted to this are still being worked out, and Fatshark is playing everything by ear. So much of what will happen with this program will be figured out on the fly, but if you're interested in being a part of it from day one, head to www.kratergame.com.
“It would be hard to go back to the old model,” said Wahlund, when asked how Krater might influence the rest of Fatshark. “I hope this is the first of the rest of our projects, so to speak, as the way to develop games. “