Although games, websites or software in beta state always have the touch of banana software ("ripens at the customer's"), testing and using a feature-complete, but buggy version is popular these days. You don't even recognize the "beta"-button anymore.
In contrast to the beta, the alpha version of a game lacks the implementation of most features, levels or functions. The game is just a skeleton that needs to be fleshed out and wrapped into a nice skin, before anyone can estimate where this new thing will walk to. Some developers go even so far to present just a grid you can walk on as a first gameplay demo.
How did game development come this far, to sell even the slightest appearance of gameplay? Are we that desperate? And why do so many of these pre-pre-alphas pop-up these days?
Coincidentally I'm one of them, selling my game in an early development phase. Although we fuel a culture of incompleteness with this approach, that - above all when it comes to indie games - creates a certain reputation, I try to give you some insights on my opinion about alphas.
First of all - why should a player be bothered with this early versions? This is a question you should ask yourself when you sell an unfinished product. Your argumentation should be clear, more so if you want money for your game-to-be-made. If you have fans that really wait for your game, this will make some things easier:
Have a clear vision what your game will be worth when it's finished, to give a visible discount (e.g. 50% off). Players love discounts and get a price deduction for their patience and trust in your upcoming game project.
- "Try it before it's finished!"
Only those players who fund you will be able to try your gameplay in this early state. This is convincing if you have gameplay that is unique and fans that are eager to try it. Why should players wait a year, when they can have a piece of this tasty cake now? Just make clear what features the current version contains and which one will be added with future updates.
- "Fund your developer <3"
An appreciating fanbase and people loving to support your kind of games is awesome! If you already have fans, you should communicate why you need the money and what you need it for.
Many developers therefore use different alpha packages in regular priced and higher priced versions with more extras like soundtrack, artworks, etc. For example, Tale of Tales are quite successful with the "extravagant" version of their upcoming Bientôt l’été, which costs $32 instead of the regular $8.
- "Participate in game our development!"
How much you want your players to be part of the development process is your decision, but don't use this argument only because it sounds good. People love to bring in themselves with opinions and solutions. If you ask them to take part, you must not ignore that in updates.
We did a survey about the good, the bad and the ugly right in the beginning.
- "Watch the evolution of a game!"
Regularly updated alphas are a playable time-lapse. With every update the vision gets clearer, more beautiful and filled with textures, characters and decoration (well, at least that's our plan). Many people love to take a look behind the scenes. Combined with blogging and video documentation it is interesting how a game evolves.
Although I am a game designer, I am a player myself, too. I have stabs at many alphas and love to play upcoming and promising games in this early state. Playing games before even the press got an eye on these games!
One argument that really kills all the above enumerated pros is one contra though: Players will never have the certainty that a game they bought will get finished! The more alphas are out there, the more developers will occur that abort their projects or never show up again.
We hope to eliminate this impression by updates and postings. Even if there will be a bigger pause of development because of different engagements or other circumstances, you should communicate this to your players.
But to be honest: The one that benefits most from an alpha is the developer, of course. There are many arguments to sell your game before it's finished:
- Fund your game!
Naturally, there won't be that much coverage about an alpha than a finished game. It's hard to really get recognized, taken seriously and funded in this state! We would need to sell 800 copies a month to really be independent from doing contract work (with the current price of $5 for TRI and extremely economized lifestyle).
But it is possible and we try to achieve that with the next updates, hopefully.
- Marketing is easier step-by-step
When it comes to marketing, I make tons of mistakes. Writing press releases too late, forgetting that things need to be tested or news need to be approved by certain sites. Timing is something I'll never learn!
In my opinion marketing an alpha game is easier. You failed to write about your last update? There will be another one soon that makes everything better, with cool character art and exclusive environmental decoration updates.
Selling a game in the moment it comes out proves to be extremely difficult. Everything has to fit in this certain time frame. With the alpha you are able to try out different approaches in marketing and failures are not that much punished with ignorance.
- Feedback and play-test
An immense advantage of our alpha version is the survey we are doing. Many people participated by answering what they liked, hated and where they got stuck. Of cause we did do play-tests at our headquarter with friends. But having more than 10 people testing it by their own desire (instead of being forced by friendship) is priceless!
Aside from that you can check if your game really interests anybody or if you better cut development for your own good.
- Get rid of mistakes in an early phase of development!
You are not sure if people might like certain features or you recognize that 'some' people stumble upon certain obstacles? With every update your game will get better. There is no need of perfection in the first place. But the game should, of course, be playable and deliver an impression of what lies beyond this first version!
Why you should not publish your game at (pre-)alpha state:
This arguments sound like alpha release is totally convenient for everybody. We all should push our games on the market unfinished!? Needless to say, there are many reasons to NOT do so.
- Losing your reputation.
If you don't have one - don't worry, I guess the alpha release will serve you well. But if you are famous for highly polished, good-looking games you should consider to not make a pre-alpha for your customers.
Another example of losing a good reputation is getting bad reviews after a long delay, which happened to "Survivors of Ragnarök", a cute pixel-graphics sand-box city-building-management-survival game. The developers are selling their game in alpha state, but couldn't afford to do updates and bug-fixes all the time, which annoyed many fans and ended up in unnecessarily bad reviews on Desura!
Haters gonny hate, always, even with well-managed communication and updates. If you can't stand this kind of critics or criticism - don't do an alpha release!
- "This game is finished?"
... is something you might hear when your communication fails that this game is alpha state. Many people judge your game - even knowing that this is not the final version - by what they see now. Some players could be alienated by buggy versions, sluggish controls, destroyed savegames or crappy textures.
- "Can you change this now?"
The more players your game has, the more requests of changing certain issues you might get. If you sell your game that early means permanently updating your game for public testers and players.
If you think writing blog posts and delivering playable builds is annoying while developing a game, selling an alpha version is definitely not what you want to do!
Although we recommend using your own website for alpha sale, we also use Desura to sell our unfinished game. Indievania allows alpha and beta release (and even prototypes), too, but be aware: the more platforms you choose to publish, the bigger the hassle is to make sure every player is up to date.
- update info through client service
- own category for alphas
- different alpha editions permitted
- fees: 15-30%
- update info through client service
- games can be marked with "prototype", "alpha", "beta"
- no fees for normal price
While 15-30% of your price stays at Desura, you might gain more attention thanks to them, especially because they got a useful direct connection to IndieDB.
Alpha funding doesn't work for us at the moment, even though we try achieve this with future updates. But our game highly benefits from the feedback we gained in the first weeks, especially after evaluating the survey. Through web analysis and conversion rates we know that the game itself works fine, but we need to have better graphics and gameplay videos. The current ones look a bit underwhelming or don't show enough gameplay features for most people.
Without the closed alpha and its demo we wouldn't get that many honest criticism and attention. Like I mentioned above, all these alpha versions floating around might create a certain reputation of incompleteness for indies, but on the other hand it's our independence to use everything to make OUR game if it wouldn't be possible otherwise.
Hopefully I introduced alphas to you well, or changed your mind about them (in which way whatsoever).
About the alpha of our game TRI
TRI is a first-person 3D game with environmental puzzles. It is inspired by great games like "Portal", "Thief" and "Zelda". The main gameplay: You create triangles to build platforms, overcome obstacles, walk on walls, reflect light rays and lasers, and more.
The final game will cost around $10 and is available 50% off at the moment on our website tri-game.com and on Desura.
More alphas I recommend
- Against the Wall (3D Platformer)
- Under the Ocean (Sand-box-survival-building game)
- Survivors of Ragnarök (Sand-box-survival-building game)
- Gnomoria (Dwarf-Fortress inspired)
- Towns (Real-Time Strategy)
- Gnoblins (RPG)
- Lemma (Action-Adventure, Mirror's Edge inspired)
- Kairo (Adventure, Exploration)
- Bientôt l’été (Tale of Tales game)
This article is by @RottenHedgehog, artist of Rat King. You may know me through the Indie Buskers, "Me against the Mutants" or Pitman.
Other articles on Gamasutra are:
The Indie Buskers - Yet another gamejam?
Indie Distribution Platforms that are not Steam