It was recently announced on the official 'Age of Conan' forums that invitations to the General Beta will be going out to forum "veterans" (yes, they're using that term loosely - a lot like President Clinton and his definition of a "sexual relation") very, very soon (if they haven't gone out already before this editorial gets published), which means General Beta itself is a closer reality for all those that applied for beta way back just before the Easter long weekend (even now it's still not too late to sign up). Given this, I thought it would be a good idea this fortnight to revisit a topic I touched on earlier this year as we join Funcom in the final push of information before the game's release.

Last month there was some footage leaked on YouTube of a recent Technical Beta test that occurred in late June (don't get excited; the video has since been taken down), so I guess it comes as no surprise that I will be discussing the Non Disclosure Agreement (NDA) and how it affects you, the beta tester and future subscriber to 'Age of Conan', as we count down the days to the game's release just under 90 days away now.

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I'm not going to bother going in too deep with what an NDA is as I've done that in a previous edition of Mitra's Method (linked in the opening paragraph), but what I would like to touch on this fortnight are the implications that breaking an NDA has on a game - in particular what implications it has on Funcom, the company, and 'Age of Conan' - and those not lucky enough to be involved in beta testing but are eagerly awaiting their chance to give the game a go themselves. First, we'll revisit some basics and then lead into the nitty-gritty: some truths about business, the gaming industry, the imprudence of [some] testers, and how loose lips sink ships.

What needs to be kept in mind first is that an NDA is a legal contract. That is, if you're accepted into beta, you're expected also to keep that fact that you are in beta a secret also, and of course not to disclose any information regarding beta to anybody not involved in the process (i.e. the wider public). This means, for example, no sending screenshots or video captures of a beta tests to friends, guildmates, coworkers, etc., and especially no uploading of beta gameplay footage to online video community sites like YouTube or Stage6. Until the NDA is lifted (which will sound the sirens for an information smorgasbord), these are the things you cannot do.

Secondly, you're there to test, test, and test. No one's suggesting that you should not enjoy the testing process, but public beta testing is a very important stage in a game's development, and so it needs to be kept in mind that things in the game might change as a result of testing feedback. In other words, a feature that you tested yesterday may not make the final cut, so to speak. Beta testing doesn't always run smoothly either, so if you experience high latency, disconnects, server crashes, animation and graphical glitches, and so on in the beta, it doesn't necessarily mean those are going to end up in the retail product. Usually these sorts of things get fixed before release, but this is why it's very important to keep to the NDA during this time: product image and reputation. I wouldn't publish one of these editorials without doing a bit of proofreading and correcting of spelling or grammatical errors first, and because I take a professional approach (as Funcom would when making their games) to writing these pieces, to publish a piece that protrudes an absenteeism of flow, that is riddled with errors, and that is fundamentally unworthy of publication, would no doubt put out a message about myself, and you might certainly think less of me for doing so. In fact, you might not even bother reading my editorials at all.

Business is business, and companies are out to make or buck or two, that's a fact, and these days consumer loyalty means close to nothing if a company cannot produce something worthy of the consumer's dollar(s). As consumers, we want "better", "faster", "convenient", "helpful", "unique", "innovative" (you know, those flashy adjectives and superlatives you see about), and if a new product is the same old hum-drum, do you think consumers are going to buy into it? They might, but what good is a product if it cannot offer anything new? The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer.

Writer, management consultant, and university professor, Peter F. Drucker, once said:

"Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision."

Sony's Walkman™ (first sold in 1979), for example, was one such courageous step in business as it offered consumers a new and innovative way to enjoy their music. Consumers first would have been skeptical of such an innovation in personal media entertainment, and no doubt it would have asked if the Japanese [now] multinational corporation could pull off something so new and bold. The rest is history, as they say, but the same sort of questions can be asked of Funcom and their bold efforts to implement real-time combat in an MMO setting. Can they pull it off? The Funcom devs seems to think so, which is reassuring, and so we put our confidence in them, but of course consumers are a fickle bunch and something new does not always guarantee something good. But this is business: you have to take risks, and this is echoed by Drucker's words of a "courageous decision" being made; to "boldly go where no man has gone before".

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The gaming industry is big business, and since technology has made leaps and bounds especially in the last decade, as have the games we've played on our PCs. To be frank for a moment, many MMOs have been accused of being "WoW clones", but this is a statement of the gaming industry in particular: consumers want "better", "faster", "convenient", "helpful", "unique", and "innovative" in games as well, but unfortunately games that claim to have these end up being the same old hum-drum (but at least in a different shell). I won't give a specific example (I'm sure you all know what they are anyway), but the same question with a new product needs to be asked within the gaming industry also: What good is game if it cannot offer anything new? With the competition being so diverse and strong today, if you haven't got a stand-out, what chance do you have?

The MMO market is huge, and a lot of us have had quite a bit of experience in MMO gaming, so it comes as no surprise that most of us are on the hunt for something fresh from the gaming industry and within the MMO market. Most of us have turned to 'Age of Conan' because of what it is offering: real-time combat is a large selling-point for the game, but it is only one great feature of a fresh MMO license. In this period of beta testing, it has to be remembered that in the build up to release such features are still being polished and fine-tuned, which is precisely why those testing the game must abide by the NDA and allow the development team to get things right before release, and if you're a tester, do help them in this process by giving them the feedback they need. For those that have blatantly broken they NDA by posting even on the official forums of the apparent flaws the game has in its Technical Beta stage, you point out problems, but what solutions are you offering?

So that brings us to the imprudence of testers, well some of them anyway, and yes, I am referring to those that have leaked information regarding past beta tests, uploaded beta gameplay videos to YouTube, and even gone as far as making brash comments on how the game is going to apparently fail because the Technical Beta was unstable, choppy, laggy, blah, blah, blah! Did this person suddenly forget they were in a Technical Beta test? Now thankfully the sensible type will shrug this sort of thing off and course remember, "Technical Beta, oh yeah", but because the gamer can be fickle in nature, something like this spawns a lot of doom-calling and nay-saying - panic and gamer-hysteria sets in. This affects both Funcom's image and reputation, not to mention it has implications on their credibility as a company on the stock exchange. Word gets around particularly fast on the internet, and I'm sure investors would not like to hear that their hard-earned dollars (or Kroner?) could conceivably offer no or little remuneration.

This is why NDAs are so important, people! Loose lips sink ships! Now, if you know of the origin of that phrase, you'll know that the consequences of such an action would not be as dramatic an outcome for Funcom, but it's not just about revealing information to the "enemy" either. This has implications on the game's image and reputation, but more poignantly, Funcom's ability to release a stable, smooth and well-polished game. As earlier mentioned, Funcom must be allowed the time to make their improvements, tweaks, and what not, but with the full support and feedback given by the beta community without the ever critical and leering eye of the wider gaming public. The same goes for any other company developing a new product of any kind.

The question that needs to be asked of every beta tester is "how well can you keep a secret?" There's no finger-crossing involved: once you've been invited to beta you're expected to abide by the NDA - it is not negotiable nor are there any special circumstances, so don't even try and rationalize you even considering telling your friends, guildmates, or pet monkey(s) about what you've seen and heard in a beta test. All you need to do is hold off until the NDA is lifted, which doesn't seem to be too far away since the game is only three months away from being released (the joy is in the discovering, after all).

If you want some tips on how to best vent your beta findings-out, then here's some recommended reading, but if you think you might struggle keeping a secret, don't get involved. If you just want to try the game, that's fine; you're a consumer after all and have a right to make a decision about a product before investing in it or not (it's your money); but don't spoil it for others (mainly Funcom) by blabbing what is desired to be "hidden" information for the time being. I polled my guildmates about it, and most of them agree that yes, NDAs should not be broken, but for one of my guildmates, "Daworm" as he goes by, believes that it's more of a matter of trust:

"It [NDA] means you are chosen because Funcom has a belief in you, a belief that you are trustworthy: you'll actively find any bugs that exist and report them as required; you won't goof off and waste your privileged Beta Key Fraps-ing what you do only to upload it to some website."

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The thing is though, you can never be too careful, and I'm quite certain Funcom were not expecting anyone to reveal anything about their beta tests, be it footage, information and what not. However, essentially an NDA is a legal contract (and I've highlighted that in the same way I did in my first editorial about beta), and so by accepting a beta invite, you agree to the contract - no bones about it! Beta testing is a privilege, not a right, and we should be grateful that any game developer allows the broader public to participate in such a process. So if you abuse it, you'll lose it!

Funcom wants us to join in the experience and share in the hype that is constantly growing for this game - beta is part of this experience. Your job as a beta tester is to help Funcom make this game the best is can be before release, and that's only going to happen by providing the appropriate feedback in the appropriate manner. Be responsible, be smart, by Crom, and if you are invited into beta in the very near future, the future of the game is in your hands in more ways than you think! Just prove to us that the art of keeping a secret is not lost.

Until next fortnight, this is Stephen "weezer" Spiteri,

Out.

Want to contact me? Then email me here.
© Stephen Spiteri, August 2007

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