“Alpha”. It’s just not done yet

dg2

I do wonder how many times Dave Georgeson and EQN Landmark’s community team had to repeat above line over the past few days. I admire the patience. No matter how many times you explain “alpha” to somebody who is also paying money – and even to those that do not – there’s always a person who thinks your game could really be a bit more polished and optimized right now.

It seems public or paid-for alphas are becoming more and more common in the game industry and many are making their first steps into such early territory. Even more so than betas, alphas need capitalized words of caution; gameplay is fraught with bugs and frustrations, so there better be a conscious choice of what you’re signing up for. While satisfying curiosity is a thing, quite often it isn’t nearly as great to see the gemstone being cut before its made its way into that hopefully shiny diamond ring you intend on buying.

I don’t feel particularly drawn to MMO alphas, let alone paying for one (but hey, that’s what I used to say about betas). Syp doesn’t seem sold, yet Jewel and many other bloggers around the blogosphere have caught the bug of early sandboxing greatness once the servers finally went sort of stable. I can relate too well; when I joined Minecraft pre-launch, I fell deeply into the rabbit hole for several weeks. It was absolutely amazing. And I also burned out quickly once that fatal question of so many sandbox games hit me: and what next?

I know what I’m getting into with game testing. I’ve played in many betas and a few alphas, the latest being the DayZ standalone – one of the more remarkably playable alphas. At the same time, Bohemia Interactive have done a commendably transparent job of communicating what players need to expect from their early game development. Dean Hall, game designer for both Arma and DayZ and frequent twitterer, has continuously warned of joining early access for the wrong reasons, jokingly admitting that even he himself wouldn’t yet want to play it.

dayz

As far as I’m concerned, in alphas there be dragons. It’s a stage for implementation and debugging a lot more than gameplay and I don’t usually have the patience. Many of the final features are still missing so it would be wrong to draw too many conclusions from anything. For those who are into active feedback and “that NPC didn’t give me any gold” or “it would be neat to have dual specs” – really, wait for beta. Make your wish-list on the forums while you wait and still dream.

Alphas are for the rough cuts and while players are sometimes invited, it isn’t really about the things that tend to concern us later just yet. It can absolutely be exciting and interesting to see a game grow though and to feel like you’re a part of something, a lot more so than in certain open betas that kid players about much fine-tuning three weeks before official launch. Alphas can have their own magic for sure – I  just advise to bring your good shoes for the rocky hike ahead.

I will wait a little longer, cheering from the sidelines and savor this Vorfreude while I still can.

23 comments

  1. bhagpuss

    Since the day I read about Everquest’s Test server sometime around January 2000 I have always felt that that’s where the “real” game is. The one and only thing I don’t like about alphas and betas is not having a permanent character.

    Other than that, it’s the dream of Dynamic Content, isn’t it? Real, meaningful changes to the game world in a perpetual stream. In busy phases in various betas or Test servers I’ve had to patch several times in a single day. Whole systems and mechanics can change between when you went to bed and when you got up in the morning. Every play session can throw up weird anomalies that have you screenshotting and laughing like a hound.

    MMOs after release, of course, are also continually in a state of flux, never finished, never complete, never fully and perfectly functional but going from the development and testing stages to the commercially released stage is like hitting the slo-mo button. Everything crawls. Testing environments are fast, frenzied and fun. It’s almost always a disappointment when an MMO transitions to Live.

    • Syl

      There is a special atmosphere to test phases but then, so is there to launch weekends :) I prefer MMOs in the more polished state where you can actually play on stable servers but hey, I’m all for randomness and funny bugs too. :)

  2. Tremayne

    Alpha testing is a term that’s starting to be horribly mis-used, just as beta was. Alpha is component or component integration testing – if something is in alpha testing then it’s not going to be feature-complete, let alone polished. The only alpha I’ve been in was for Dominus, and at the point we started it the tests were along the lines of “see if you can log in and make your character walk around” type stuff. Alpha is not fun. Alpha is a job, and I would only do it if I was a) getting paid (and really, you can get software testers for a lot less than MY hourly rate) or b) if I was so invested in a project that I was willing to give up my free time to work on helping develop it. If you just want to try before you buy, wait for the marketing exercise that beta testing has become.

    As an aside – is it possible that a lot of the “ESO sucks, why haven’t they removed the NDA?” noise is because Zenimax haven’t got the memo and are actually doing testing and development in beta? I’ve only just grabbed a beta key for ESO this weekend and I’m still downloading it, so I can’t answer that question myself yet.

    • j3w3l

      it seems reading comprehension or a basic sense of attention to detail is in high demand these days.
      When your buying into these products they make it pretty clear about what to expect. Most alphas you buy into don’t have an nda either so information and gameplay is everywhere.

      • Syl

        No idea what they’re up to over at ESO and honestly, I’ve stopped caring. what I will say at this point however is kudos to SOE for trusting their playerbase enough to check their product out in this early phase without any NDA. says something about their confidence in landmark (and their fans).

  3. Carson

    I have to say, I find it really hard to have too much sympathy for someone who charges money for access to an alpha test, and then gets harassed because the alpha is.. well, alpha.

    If you’re not ready to deal with unhappy customers.. don’t charge money for your product yet.

    • Syl

      It certainly cuts both ways in the sense that they have to expect a certain ‘enthusiasm’ shall we call it from their fanbase if teased in such manner. but then, they’re not complaining about it, so. :) I don’t like the idea of paid alphas much myself but at the same time, as long as they’re transparent about what it is they’re selling, the choice lies with consumers.

  4. theB

    gamer for over 30 years now and i gotta say i love participating in the dayZ SA alpha. bohemia and rocket are handling communications very well. they even react extremely quick to bad bugs within new versions just to keep the game playable for the fans. they even pushed a hotfix out just yesterday. instead of releasing next week wednesday, as it was planned.

    i’d never expect such but appreciate it even more.

    theB

  5. Kadomi

    I am not a fan of betas but I love the bubbling excitement of it all. I get excited about open betas, when people flock into a new game and everything’s fresh and new. The one closed beta with NDA that I participated in left me cold and it turned out to be a game I am not interested in at all. To me, that beta was cold and lifeless and additionally used not the greatest forums to report and discuss the game.

    I think Early Access is quite cool a concept, but I have a feeling it won’t be long until publishers start abusing it, getting paid for games that should still well be out of players’ reach. I like to play highly polished games and already dislike betas like WoW does them, that are basically not for testing but for keeping people interested enough while the main game doesn’t get any fresh content anymore.

    • Syl

      It’s a very fine line and easy to cross or obscure, aye. I’m a bit of a fatalist in the sense that I ask more of consumers usually than creators, aka vote with your wallet. and I absolutely love the high-flying enthusiasm myself – even watching it from afar on twitter brings a smile to my face. :D nothing beats beta (or launch) rushes.

  6. Wilhelm Arcturus

    The comment cuts both way. Smed and Georgeson can sing the “It’s Alpha” song all day long with a thousand fanboy back up choir and I would still point out that SOE opted to sell access to this alpha to the general public. They chose that route, eyes open, and likely with a very good idea what it would mean. No surprises here.

    In its way, it was a gutsy move, and it was a good plan to give refunds freely. They will likely end up with a good core of free testers who will get in and exercise the code. But there will also be a subset of people who will walk away from this thinking, “Landmark is shit, SOE sells garbage” and will never come back. That is one of the costs of this alpha access plan.

    And that isn’t the only risk. The path from alpha to a finished product is going to be a long one. People are going to lose their stuff over and over. Cool features are going to get dropped or nerfed into oblivion due to practical considerations. There will likely be a group of people whom will complain endlessly about the final product because they thought everything was perfect at some point in alpha or beta. Bitter beta vets is already a common phenomena, will it get worse with alpha being included?

    SOE has taken a risk with this alpha access thing, and saying “it’s alpha” over and over again won’t make it go away.

    • Syl

      That’s all too true. I didn’t include SOE’s side much here but they’ve obviously chosen this path and they know how avid gamers behave, so it’s not like I feel too sorry for them or anything. ;) the different effects this choice can have is interesting, especially trying to weigh the longterm cons against the pros. I can’t speak so much for alphas but not having such long NDAs as Zenimax or Carbine seems widely appreciated and is winning lots of favors at the moment.

  7. Telwyn

    I fall on the side of I should be paid to test a game, not the other way around. Yes, signing up for a late beta is a good way to try a subscription game I am dubious about. But alpha testing if it is truly an incomplete gaming experience is not for me. Maybe I’m just not patient enough to deal with the bugs…

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  9. Clockwork

    I think the waters get muddy when we’re talking about alphas you pay for; I think most gamers still expect some degree of playability. Not to mention that we’re in an age where “betas” can last for years, even when the dev is collecting subscriptions, and the line between “alpha” and “beta” is blurry as ever. Still I agree that one should go in knowing full well that they are headed into the digital wilds but I feel like the players have some right to complain. If nothing else, SOE is going to pay for it when those complaints fall on undecided ears and turn them away from the product.

    That said, DayZ kinda cheats because it got a lot of testing as an ARMA mod.

    • Syl

      One problem in general is that the type of early access bundles we’re talking about often come with extras and goodies etc. and generally also free access later on. so it’s all blurred as to what you’re really paying for. many players feel like they’re buying more than just beta testing.

      and yeah, DayZ has a very noticeable headstart already, that’s for sure.

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  11. Belghast

    For me playing landmark is no different than paying to play Minecraft back in the day when it was in alpha as well. Sure the price tag is different, but I don’t mind paying for early access to a game. For me it democratizes early access to games. I have been in literally hundreds of alpha and beta processes, in the past this was a matter of either being lucky in the random draw of names from a hat, or knowing just the right person to get you on that friends and family list. Now it is starting to work similar to how development for new hardware in general works. If you want to get the jump on your competition, you buy a development license and get in now. Otherwise you wait until the product is finished and get the final SDK. I realize that is not a 100% analogy, but it is similar. In a scheme like this, anyone can have access pending they want it bad enough.

    The thing I like the most about it though is up front they are admitting it isn’t done, and in the processes I have been part of like this… it seems like constant evolution becomes the norm rather than rushing to some completely unattainable finish line. MMOs are never truly done, they are just less buggy.

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