Star-Fired Beef

Reasons not to discount the value of early (alpha) access

4 Comments

So Liore over at Herding Cats has expressed her opposition to the practice of companies selling early access to beta and lately, alpha games. While I can understand that position, I don’t think the main justification, that “we shouldn’t be encouraging companies to sell us unfinished games”, outweighs the potential benefits.  So what are they?

(Disclaimer: I am not and probably never will buy in to an alpha or beta. I just don’t have any interest in participating in such things.)

Firstly, the obvious point applies that all these people are not being forced into buying into alpha. There is no shady dealing here, no dishonesty about what people are getting into. Compared to a rushed release where people are being charged for a supposedly finished product (mechanics-, balance- and content-wise), I don’t think there is anything misleading about alpha buy-ins. And with a rushed release, you have to cop a big hit to your reputation. What is the worst that can happen with alpha buy-ins? Some bad ‘reviews’ from unhappy people? Not only can you shrug that off (“it’s alpha!”) but you can then point to the ways you have incorporated that criticism into your development process later. That can turn out to be a PR win if you do it right.

Isn’t one of the more common problems on release for MMOs that certain bugs, balance and server issues only come to light when hundreds or thousands of players are playing together at once? Obviously, normally developers can’t afford to employ that many people for testing, so it is left until open beta – quite close to release, almost certainly after an official launch date is announced – to do that testing. Now, this might well be the best way to do such things, I don’t know. But I find it hard to imagine that it is better than having a willing, extensive tester base from alpha onwards. Surely being able to identify problems earlier is going to lead to a better product, right?

The idea behind crowd intelligence is that when a large number of people work on a problem, it is more likely the best solution is found. Surely this applies to MMO development. Not only will these early alpha buy-ins help identify problems earlier and faster, they can suggest ideas for improvements or solutions that the devs may not have considered. Also, a larger testing population means that balance problems come to light earlier, something that a lot of developers only discover after a game has launched. I can only imagine that the hundreds (thousands?) of alpha buy-ins will end up making the finished product better – with the assumption, of course, being that the devs are open to using the feedback and ideas. This means a better, more accurate marketing platform as release approaches, which in turn should mean more sales.

Speaking of sales, the financial upsides should not be overlooked either. Several people have commented that they are backing a game (kickstarter, early alpha buy-in, etc) because they want to support and encourage studios. The alpha buy-ins are good not only for a better end product, but they would reduce the reliance on shareholder/corporate investment approval, possibly encourage the suits to allow greater budgets since the fan support or customer base is clearly there, and reduce the chances of a studio pulling the plug on a title due to a perceived lack of interest or profitability. Or reassigning staff to other, more ‘important’ titles.

I don’t know whether I am even making any valid points here, but I think the above reasons are significant benefits for alpha/beta buy-in practices, and IF IT IS DONE RIGHT, will result in better games for us all in the long run. The next few years will tell, I guess.

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4 thoughts on “Reasons not to discount the value of early (alpha) access

  1. I don’t have a ton of experience with alpha/beta gameplay so you can take this with a grain of salt but I do think you make valid points. I think the “crowd intelligence” in particular is an important aspect in fine tuning a game and keeping in mind that the game isn’t fully polished, I wouldn’t be upset running into some glitches. The appeal of getting the early scoop on a game outweighs the potential negatives, imo.

  2. Pingback: Early Access Revisited | Sheep The Diamond

  3. Just a few points to this one:

    “Firstly, the obvious point applies that all these people are not being forced into buying into alpha. There is no shady dealing here, no dishonesty about what people are getting into.”
    True. And still, i consider it a bad thing for the development of games. People pay for early access and a product with many flaws. So where is the incentive to deliver a high quality product, if people are not only ready but even eager to hurl money at unfinished and broken games?

    And even if the developer actually wants to deliver a finished, high quality product, the publisher is only interested in making profit, so if we players again and again deliver the message that we prefer “now and bad” to “later with quality”, what will we get in the future?

    “Isn’t one of the more common problems on release for MMOs that certain bugs, balance and server issues only come to light when hundreds or thousands of players are playing together at once?”
    That’s true. This is why you first do a few stresstest weekends and then a few weeks of open beta shortly before release. But bringing in the crowds at alpha already is just a joke. (And don’t get me started of what the term “alpha test” actually means in the software world, outside of what the gaming world made out of it. )

    “The idea behind crowd intelligence is that when a large number of people work on a problem, it is more likely the best solution is found. […]”
    No. My experience with MMOs is that a higher number of players “testing” just results in more effort for the developer to find the actual useful bit of information within the piles of junk-feedback.

    All in all, the recent “buy for early access” is a dangerous mixture. Your points of “showing support” and kickstarter sound fine for me, but for the sakes of all of us gamers, it would be better to “only” found a game and not get all the early access.

    For actual testing, though, it is preferable to either do that internally or, if that is really not an option, at least filter your testers appropriately. I have applied and been inside open and closed betas several times as i was curious on how they are done in the gaming industry, and was severely disappointed.

    Of all the games i signed up for testing, only one of them at least sent me a questionaire to check if giving me access to testing would actually make sense. (Of course, i could just fill in whatever i liked in that questionaire, it’s not like i had to send in accredited copies of my certificates, but that’s already a completely different topic. ) All the other games just selected testers by “random number” or “who paid money”. Neither of them would be a criteria which anybody outside of the gaming industry would use for selecting testers for most stages of testing. (It indeed works and is a good idea for the last teststage before release. )

    Thus i dismiss the actual quality of “testing” done in pay-for-access-betas as minimal, the effort to sift through huge piles of feedback to gain minimal actually useful information is too high in comparison to other ways of testing. Their only advantage for developer and publisher is that they earn some money with an unfinished product. The disadvantage for the playerbase is that if developers and publishers get used to be able to make plenty of money with unfinished and bugged products then it’s quite obvious which products we have to expect in the future.

    So, actually it’s us, the players, who currently pay a lot of money to make sure that our future games are of lower quality. There’s nobody but ourselves, the playerbase, who we can actually blame for this.

    • All good points.

      I do stand by my argument about crowd intelligence, however you are right that the devs need to be willing and able to sift through the noise to actually find that best solution. It may very well be more trouble than it’s worth to use that method.

      Basically I rest most of my arguments on the hope that studios do early access “right”, i.e. actually using the benefits and not viewing it as a ‘bonus round’ for sales. I am probably being naive about that, but all it takes is for one high-profile project to do it, and set the bar high, for it to be a boon for the industry.

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