Monday, 12 June 2017

On Early Access and Alpha Nonsense

Ever since Minecraft, I have had a huge liking for the survival-crafting-open world type of game. I've thrown countless hours into titles like Terraria, ARK, 7 Days To Die, Empyrion, Starmade, Even a lot of my other favourites have some portion of that kind of gameplay in them - State of Decay being an obvious example.

With the exception of Terraria and State of Decay, though, all these games have one thing in common:

This Caption Is Not Yet Complete

In fact, the whole survival-crafting-open world kind of genre is completely overrun with "Early Access" games. Most claim to be in a state of early "alpha" development, with endless new versions being uploaded to rapturous responses.

Another favourite genre of mine is the roguelike simulation genre popularised by Dwarf Fortress and recently given a new lease of life by Rimworld. Here's a recent Rimworld release note. There are 97 bullet points in that list and each is a significant game change. It took them a large chunk of a year to release this "alpha".

So what's the problem?

Well, it's not exactly a problem. I play these games all the time, and I look forward to each new Alpha release as much as the next frothing fanboy. Indeed, I'm currently fighting off the urge to fire up 7D2D and get eaten by wolves. Again.

The Age of the Wolf Is Upon Us

Alpha 16 of 7D2D. Alpha 17 of Rimworld. Alpha 6.0 of Empyrion (they like to do lots of point releases). All of them extensively tested before being released to the public; hell, the latest Empyrion Alpha went through half a dozen experimental releases before reaching a "release candidate".

Yeah. A "Release Candidate" for an Alpha.

I know not everyone reading this is a software developer, but most people are sufficiently au fait with computer terminology to know what an Alpha is supposed to be. Much as with my recent attempt at getting Gestalt to Alpha. it's meant to be an initial working version of the software, built so that in-house testing can begin but with the express understanding that content is still subject to extensive change. Calling these releases "Alphas" is wildly distorting the meaning of the term; they are extensively tested and (usually) fully playable games in themselves. They are not released until the main showstoppers are worked out, when working out the initial main showstoppers is the entire point of having an Alpha test!

The question then becomes, why are these releases referred to as Alpha? Well, you'd have to ask those developers, but the answer is at least partially historical, and seems to mostly go back to Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress.

Both of these games began as one person projects. This carries with it a bunch of implicit limitations, some of which can be countered by a developer of sufficiently broad talents, or failing that, a game design which is intended to ameliorate the developer's limitations (for example, Toady One/Tarn Adams' inability to create art drove the ongoing roguelike "style" for DF).

Dworfe. Such Art, Many Wow
But the one thing that no quantity of talent can ameliorate is the inability of a sole developer to properly test their own work. Yeah, unit tests are a great help. But ultimately, user testing cannot be avoided, especially in games where behaviours are far more important than batch-friendly test cases, and user testing needs pairs of eyes that do not belong to the developer.

Enter the public alpha. Now you can release a sketchy, half-functioning version of your software and people not only line up to help you find the holes, they actually sing the praises of your product into the bargain! They do so because they get access to the game, and if it grabs them, they want ot keep access to the game; and every new update feels like a whole new upgrade to the product they already fell in love with. Unsurprisingly, many such games remain in alpha for a long time. And Minecraft took it one step further - taking pre-orders for the game in return for continued alpha access.
It wasn't a new idea, but it was certainly an idea whose time had come, and soon enough "alpha access" became the order of the day.

But once you have a large(ish) team and an in-house testing regimen, you're not selling alpha access any more - the entire premise that drove public alphas in the first place has gone. Now, you're selling the early access to the game content; this was, after all, what drew people. But you start to get disagreement between devs and players; players want new content and new experiences, while devs want to sell more copies; and when the sales dry up, that is when the game "goes gold" in an attempt to drum up a few more sales (which rarely works) and then it's on to the next project. Ultimately, the idea is to increase sales massively by sustaining them over a long period of time. It's long-tail marketing, only the tail is in front.

In this context, then, I don't think Alpha 16 of 7DTD or Alpha 6.0 of Empyrion etc etc can meaningfully be called "Alphas"; they are well-tested content deltas. Nor are they truly "Early Access"; what is being sold is not truly "Early".It's instant access, along with the promise of ongoing development. And there really isn't anything wrong with that! I just wish that the industry was being a bit more honest about it.

Here are more accurate terms.

"Early Access" -> "Continuous Updates"
"Alpha Releases" -> "Delta Releases".

(I'd suggest Season Passes for the first one, but the DLC mobsters already tainted that term.)

To be clear - I'm serious when I say there's nothing wrong with this model. I may even use it myself one day. But if I do, I'll be very clear about what I'm selling, and not use misleading terms like "Alpha" or "Early Access".


  1. Gold Release -> end of life bugfix

    1. Very true, though sometimes it's not even that. Starmade's "Gold Release" took it from "just about playable but hideously broken in half a dozen ways and didn't fulfil any of its original promises" to... "bugged in new and stupid ways and still doesn't fulfil any of its original promises".

    2. Starforge, sorry.

      StarMade continues to surprise and delight me, despite clearly not being in any meaningful way an Alpha.