What Is “Alpha” and How Can It Help You Develop Indie Games?

In software development and games, in particular, there’s an order in which things are done. For indie devs, especially those working on their first games, their development process probably isn’t as structured, but it should be.

Last month, we looked at why your indie game needs a vertical slice so make sure you read that if you haven’t already developed your game’s prototype or vertical slice.

Today, let’s see what exactly Alpha is and why this stage is another hugely important part of development.

What Is Alpha?

As with all parts of game development, what they are in practice will vary from studio to studio, but for the purpose of this article, we’ll look to go with the definition that we feel most broadly applies to the industry and will be most help full to indie developers.

“[Alpha] is the point at which the game shifts from starting to get ready to ship into actually starting the process of shipping”

Mark Darrah, Bioware

Of course, your mileage may vary, but the important thing is to enjoy the benefits of having a structured development process for your indie game, especially if you’re working with a limited budget!

What Makes a Game Alpha?

During alpha, the bulk of your game’s mechanics and features should be included, but a lot of studios prefer to wait until all features are complete before moving into Beta.

Games in alpha can be usually played from start to finish or thereabouts. The mechanics mightn’t be fully locked down, but it should be playable and look like a really unpolished version of what the final product should be.

The vision of the game should be clear by this point and you should be able to see where the developers want it to go. There’s still space to change things like mechanics, some of the writing, level order, and layout, but Alpha builds should feel like the game you want to make.

Though mechanics can be changed, developers need to be wary of feature creep and we can’t stress enough how important it is that indie developers don’t fall into this trap.

It’s more common during alpha to rework and alter mechanics rather than add new ones. This is when developers will likely start noticing what works and what doesn’t in their game.

What Is Alpha Testing?

One of the main reasons game development has an alpha stage is that games need testing. Alpha is the stage of development where a lot of mostly-internal playtesting and bug testing can take place.

Don’t panic if you find lots of bugs, Alphas are often buggy messes (even for AAA studios) and this is the best time to clean up and fix the larger ones. The important thing during alpha is that you can play the game and get a feel for it.

You won’t be looking to eradicate every issue with your game, but you’ll be looking to get the game to a stage where all your features are in the game and the major bugs that would render the game unplayable have been eradicated.

Your goal during Alpha should be to make sure that your game is “feature complete” and that your game has everything that’s going to be in the final version. Once all your features are in and your game’s mostly playable from start to finish, you’re in a good stage to move from Alpha to Beta, where you can test and polish the game.

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