Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online: Hands-On With the Open Beta

EA talks about the features in its upcoming browser-based golf game, debuts open beta today.

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Fire up your browsers, golf fans, because EA Sports has announced that the open beta of its upcoming online-only golf game, Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online, has entered its open beta phase as of today. Earlier today I attended a media presentation on the game hosted by the game's producers. Much of the information they went over we had previously covered, but there were a few tidbits and features that will be part of the game that are worth going over here.

For those who aren't up to speed: Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online is a streaming version of the popular Tiger Woods franchise and is playable on either a Mac or a PC. Because everything is streamed from the EA Sports servers, there's no huge client download (in fact, the only thing you need to download is something called the Unity Web Player, a 3MB file) and the game runs in your browser.

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During the presentation on the game, executive producer Mike Taramykin discussed several edicts around which Tiger Online was designed, namely an authentic gameplay experience, a robust online community, and giving the player "lots of things to do every day." You can read my brief impressions of Tiger Online's gameplay below, but it's clear from the outset that the focus of the game is on your golfer. You can play as Tiger Woods--and producers said they might add more real-life PGA pros as the game evolves--but why would you want to when you can focus on your virtual duffer?

As in the console versions of Tiger, you can improve your golfer's skills using money you've earned on the course. And though the Pro Shop is not yet open in the beta, the plan is to sell equipment and clothing (some of it based on real-world gear) through the Pro Shop, with items available via in-game currency or with real-world-cash microtranscations.

If you've played the console version of Tiger online, you know that there's fun to be had with a good multiplayer session, sharing stories, making fun of your buddy's bad shots, and loading up on the trash-talking. With Tiger Online, EA is placing those kinds of social connections front and center. Not only can you chat with anyone on the course, but you can also see ball flight paths of people who are playing the same course and hole as you (both chat and the ball arc paths can be turned off in the options).

But the connection options don't end there. You can earn cash and XP bonuses by inviting friends via Facebook to be part of your Tiger Online "gallery"; the more "fans" you have, the more cash you'll earn when you play. You can also play in groups--think of them as the country club equivalent of clans--and can play rounds with your group and even challenge other groups to matches.

Whether you play solo, with strangers, or as part of a group, there's plenty to do. In addition to daily tournaments, there are features like the daily cutline--a score based on the results of the previous day's rounds played. The cutline score isn't centered around a particular course; instead, it’s a single score for the day--shooting a score below the cutline will earn you bonus cash and beating the cutline multiple days in a row will give you a streak bonus. You can even sponsor friends--betting that they'll beat the cut on a particular day. If they do, you'll win a cash bonus. If they fail to beat the cut (or don't play at all), you won't win anything.

EA went through eight months of closed beta, with 70,000 players playing in the final closed beta. Producers told us that beta participants have racked up somewhere in the neighborhood of 500,000 rounds played. The open beta is expected to last a couple of months at least, according to Taramykin, as the team continues to refine the gameplay and experience based on feedback from open beta players.

Asked if he felt Tiger Online on the PC would be undercutting the console-based Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11, which is due this June, Taramykin said he felt like there was room for both. "We look at this as a way of expanding this product. If you look at the demographic, it is a very different audience than is playing our Wii title or our Xbox 360 title. For us, it's actually an opportunity to reach beyond what we have on [consoles]."

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The demographic Taramykin mentioned appears to be considerably older than your typical gamer--nearly three-quarters of beta participants were 34 years old or older. An older player base means a different approach to game design, and at least one feature--the ability to stop rounds at any time and pick them up during your next session--seems designed to appeal to busy working people. There's a reason, after all, that Taramykin refers to this feature as a "boss button," a nod to working guys who might want to sneak a round or two in while at work.

Gameplay Impressions
As I mentioned earlier, I've played one full round of Tiger Online so far. My biggest challenge? Reacclimating myself to the three-click swing system again. It has been more than a few years since I've played a PC golf game, and I've lost a lot of my timing apparently. Tackling Pebble Beach, with its demanding drives and sometimes cruel layout, put a hurting on my score early. Putting, in particular, was challenging, if for no other reason than it's using the pre-Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 putting system, forgoing the single putt meter for a tiered approach depending on your distance to the hole. Couple that with the aforementioned three-click trickiness, and I had several greens that I didn't manage to hole out until three or more putts.

Your created player starts with $10,000 to spend, and because the Pro Shop isn't currently open, I put all of that cash into my swing. Tiger Online handles swing improvements in a more granular way than the console game--for every swing type (full, punch, chip, putt, and so on) you can spend money on swing aspects such as tempo, swing plane, swing speed, and more. These aspects affect your power, accuracy, and workability--the beauty of this system is that you can spend your money on the kinds of shots you want to focus on. For example, I don't use punch shots very often, so it doesn't make much sense to sink too much cash in them. That said, it doesn't seem like it will take that much money to max out your different swings, especially considering the copious ways you have to earn money.

I played the game on my work PC and it ran at a fine pace; however, the game struggled on my Acer netbook, with a terrible frame rate, which essentially screwed up the timing of my swing and put everything in the rough. Even with graphics settings turned down to the bare minimum, I found it tough to play the game on my netbook, which has me a little concerned that I won't be playing Tiger Online on the road as much as I'd hoped. With additional tuning in the beta, however, perhaps things will improve by the time the game launches.

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Seven courses are playable in the open beta--Torrey Pines, Sheshan, Wentworth, Pebble Beach, Wolf Creek, TPC Sawgrass, and St. Andrews--and Taramykin said the goal is to add at least one course per month in the final product (including introducing courses that will follow the actual 2010 PGA Tour schedule). Of course, all of that content is going to cost you, and while EA has admitted that the game will have a tiered subscription model and will include microtransactions, the actual out-of-pocket expense for golf fans remains a mystery. It's a key factor to the game's success, and with open beta not expected to last for too long, it's just a matter of time before this final piece of the puzzle is unveiled.

If you're playing Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online, let me know in the comments below. I'd love to show you in person just how badly the return of the three-click swing system has screwed up my game.

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