It might seem as if Shroud of the Avatar has been in early access for a very long time, probably because it has. Technically, it’s still in an early access state. But according to Richard Garriott, whom I spoke to at this year’s PAX East, a great deal of that has to do with the fact that our traditional terms for test phases have little to no meaning any longer. The game is on Release 28, its servers have been up aside from scheduled maintenance for more than a year, there have been no unexpected patches of downtime. In every way, it’s ready for something closer to release.
So this year is the year of its “release,” but it’s also not really that big of a change. In July, the final character wipe will take place, freeing players from any concern of lost data and marking the de facto launch of the MMO side of the game. By December, the first episode of the game’s story content will be fully released. At that point, the game is out and it’s launched, so if you want to mark your calendars accordingly, it’s 2016 as the year of the launch.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the game will be finished; again, there’s the issue of our traditional terminology not working very well in light of the changes to how games are developed and tested. The game state is being controlled in part by the need for marketing, using early test terminology so that players don’t expect something the game won’t deliver. A marketing push will accompany the full story launch, but it’s still not quite the same as a launch, and much of that comes down to the nature of software terminology as we understand it.
Garriott sees the issue being one of having set most of our publicly discussed goalposts at certain points. Classically, he stated that an alpha was feature-complete but not content-complete, while beta testing was complete but buggy, and launch was complete and (hopefully) not buggy. The problem becomes that all three stages of development are very close together to one another, all taking place right before the game is ready to go live.
The result, then, is a situation wherein there’s no real terminology for markers that are further apart, especially in an environment where launches are more or less not launches, since there’s always the possibility of patching later. The existing terms no longer mean what they once meant, but that just means we collectively need better terms to describe the reality of game development and release.
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