Alpha-Funded Development

The term “alpha” is pointless. It serves no purpose. What does it mean? The whole point of any term is to add clarity to something and “alpha” absolutely does not do that. Well it did, but now it doesn’t.

Here is a diagram of a traditional game development process:


Nice and straight-forward. The “Alpha” is the bit before the “Beta”, so we can intuitively expect the game to be a bit more crashy and incomplete but still very much towards the end of development – so you’d be getting a really decent feel for the game at this point regardless of whether or not some of the textures and models aren’t quite finished.

Let’s contrast that to something that’s Alpha-Funded:


Hmm… Yes. See, there’s the problem. If all of that red stuff is called “Alpha”, then there’s absolutely no way to know intuitively whether that means the game is barely functional, practically complete, or at any point in-between. In other words, if you’re having to explain why your alpha is so considerably less developed than somebody else’s alpha, that’s a good sign that the word “Alpha” is woefully insufficient for your purposes.

You may as well just swap the word “Alpha” for “Fundamentally broken in many key areas”, although while it gets points for clarity I agree that it’s not quite so marketable.

For me, Alpha-Funded games should use the term “pre-Alpha” for significantly longer and keep the term “Alpha” for that bit towards the end which then correlates to the equivalent builds in traditionally developed games. Keep these terms consistent in order to retain any meaning to them what-so-ever.

Because if we break down a game’s development into its component pieces, what we end up with is something like this:


In other words, certain features of your game (for example combat, NPC behaviours, whatever) may be at an alpha-level before other features, but on the whole the game itself could not be said to be in Alpha, until all of the key features (with a bit of wiggle room) have been fairly well developed.

That makes much more sense, if you ask me.

3 Replies to “Alpha-Funded Development”

  1. I agree with almost all of this. I will say, though, that in the interest of clear, solid definitions it’s incredibly important to differentiate between beta and alpha with a solid line.

    In my opinion that line should be the feature completeness or feature lock. It’s obviously kind of hard to define for games like Minecraft that are always evolving, but I still feel the distinction is important, even for them.

    There must be a stage in every games dev where they say “this is it for 1.0 and now we need to focus on bugs, not content.” That line has got to be there every bit as much as the pre-alpha and alpha distinction in my opinion.

  2. I agree, Rathlord – of course, as you say, with an alpha-funded development model there’s not necessarily a feature ‘lock’ per se, but it *would* make sense to have a defined set of goals for what would be considered version 1.0 even if you intend to develop further beyond that point.

  3. I see I’m a bit late, but this made me think so I wanted to share.
    I always had this straight line between Aplha, Beta and a finished product, but it was not measured in bugs or implemented features. For me an Alpha is any software which do not have enough implemented to meet it’s objective defined in the scope at the begging of the project, while Beta is a pre-launch phase for final adjusts.

    Whit this “new” concept of “Alpha-Funded” games it seams to me a much more fundamental and relevant matter comes up: Am I communicating properly with my public?
    It’s not a matter of a proper use of one term or other, but to have the consumer’s expectations properly managed so you create more supporters and less detractors. Great part of the indie success is about the word that goes around, as anyone today has all the tools to impact your project in either way, affecting directly the team’s ability to capitalize to actually see the project through to a “final” version.

    So in summary, the discussion about the meaningfulness of the word “alpha” is really relevant, even more then what the word mean or should mean.

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