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Anatomy of a Failed Insurrection

The recent release of "Founder's Packs" for EverQuest Landmark seems tailor-made for controversy. Here we have a precursor to the actual name-brand game, not the game itself (although it will have many game play elements), which will be free to play when it eventually launches sometime next year. The Founders Packs are priced at $20USD, $60USD, and $100USD. For $20, you get into the Beta. For $60 and $100, you get into the Alpha. Each pack comes with additional perks like titles, buffs, and cosmetics.

The idea of "pay for access to alpha/beta" is understandably questionable, although the "why" isn't above suspicion. For the longest time now, a "beta" for a game has been more about "early access" and less about "finding bugs". Personally, I think a lot of companies are leaving money on the table by not charging some nominal fee -- with perks -- to get in ahead of everyone, but I do believe they should term it something other than "beta". In fact, this is also not a new development. Firefall did it. MechWarrior Online did it. Neverwinter did it. There's undoubtedly many others who have offered these "Founders Packs" before the actual launch date, and there are legions of people who have jumped on that bandwagon, myself included.

You know it's becoming endemic when Steam, the leading digital distributor of PC games, allows, and then explodes with, "Early Access" options. Developers who get their product onto the platform can ask for money in exchange for an early, undoubtedly broken product from people who are so excited about the concept, the art direction, the implementation, or the names behind it that they're willing to spend money on this unfinished item, sight unseen. That there seem to be so many Early Access products on Steam tells me that it's a pretty lucrative tactic, especially if it takes the place of/augments the Kickstarter route (which deserves special mention in this context in it's own right).

So when I read something written by a "journalist" that lambasts Sony for offering Founder's Packs for EverQuest Landmark without even the slightest hint that he has a clue about these prevailing winds, I have two suspicions. The first is that the author really is clueless. That's sad, because it doesn't take a grad-school-level research attempt to open Steam and find Early Access items (they practically throw them at you), or to do a cursory review of the MMOs that launched or were made available to a subset of the public this year alone to see that yes, people are charging for early access, and yes, people are buying into it.

The second suspicion is far more sinister, because it centers around a manufactured outrage for page views. This is the cynical yet prevailing view of "video game journalism" among people I pal around with, that headlines are link-bait, that people start reading (if they bother to read at all) with a mind made up courtesy of the article's title, and that their indignation will compel them to share the anger with their social networks as a "call to arms", or at least a "call to mouth off in the comments". The author will receive a pat on the back from his editor for driving traffic to the site, and the author...I have no idea what the author gets out of it. The article could have been written in cuneiform, so long as the emotional purpose has been served in the name of business. In fact, it seems that the emotional purpose was the ONLY one being served. Otherwise, the author simply has an axe to grind with Sony, EverQuest, or the business model that is clearly trending towards greater acceptance here in the West.

I'm buoyed by the response in the comments section, which is something I never thought I'd say, because as far as I read (the first page), most folks are asking "what's the fuss?" People seem to understand that this is an OPTIONAL PROGRAM for die-hard fans, that it's not as unusual or clutch-the-pearls unseemly as the author makes it out to be, and the majority of the commentators seem to recognize that when such tactics are sanctified by the august Steam, it's a tactic that's here to stay.

On one hand, I groan at these shallow attempts to draw in viewers by appealing to outrage, and then which follow-up by saying absolutely nothing. On the other hand, I had to smile to myself when I realized that the indignation that the author was attempting to foment was blowing up in his face as people didn't seem to have much of a problem with Sony's behavior (aside from obligatory "NGE Whiners Committee" members who follow news on Sony like hippies followed the Grateful Dead). As much as I'd like to envision the author's downcast eyes as the commentators take the wind out of his sails, the cynic in me knows that it was just the opposite the moment I clicked the link through to his article.

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