The Road to Pre-Alpha
Updated: Aug 22, 2019
After the art issues which I'm coping with, the next biggest obstacle for me as a single-person studio was always going to be the actual launch of the game. I don't have a backing marketing team or anyone to handle the business side of things. I have a future post planned to talk about how I'll be handling those specific things, but for now the focus should surely be on actually finishing the game first, no?
Well, sort of.
In my experience, there are many reasons why a game might be released before its completion...where even "released" is a somewhat vague term. The first occurs most frequently in the AAA industry. Strict deadlines cause features to be cut from the main game, to be released later under the guise of a patch or DLC. Now, I love DLC, but sometimes it's painfully obvious when the content was originally meant to be part of the full game. There's also the notorious "day one update", where the game forces you to download huge amounts of content labeled as a "patch". It's annoying and makes you wonder what they could possibly be patching on the day the game releases. It's a way to sneak in more stuff.
Another example is the Patreon model. Patreon is a crowdfunding website, where small indie studios (not unlike me) can get money from internet strangers who are interested in the content they're putting out. It's an opportunity to generate revenue from your work without needing to be hired, and, most importantly, it allows you to get paid as you're working and not only when you've finished your product. It sound pretty ideal, but Patreon isn't without its own problems. First, you obviously need patrons, the people willing to pay you. And how do you get patrons? Step 1: Have content. Step 2: ??? Step 3: Profit. That's where that marketing department would really come in handy, but often there are problems with even Step 1. If you manage to draw paying people in, you'll need to keep providing content over time, or they will stop paying. So you see the paradox. The dev needs to provide a decent amount of content up-front, then keep going for long enough to gain more popularity and more supporters to make enough money to make it all worth it. It pretty much forces a release in stages. Now, I've played Patreon games, and they are annoying. No matter how good the game is, if you suddenly hit an "unfinished content" wall, you are going to be mad. This is the worst in story-centric games, and I hate how it's become commonplace for the finished game to be released sometimes years out from the first public build...if at all.
The real question is whether that's a necessary evil. My last example is one I'm intimately familiar with, and that's just the normal development cycle. You create part of a game, put it on a website or give it to specific people to test, and roll their feedback into the next version. These playtesters can help you find bugs or tweak the game balancing, and like I said, it's an integral part of the normal development cycle...but when it comes down to it, it's still people playing your unfinished game.
My plan for Alien Cow Farm is to do five "releases" total. I've designated the first, currently scheduled for "as soon as possible", as "Pre-Alpha", and it will include everything that I feel is necessary for a "wholesome" gameplay experience; in short, you can navigate through all the menus, play a game session, and loop back around and do it again...all without encountering any bugs. You will not see things like an options menu, persistent high score recording, or ten different playable maps. Those things will be added to the Alpha or Beta as time permits and feedback demands. Make sense? The last release will be the official Steam release, which I understand requires some SDK integration past what would be needed to just put the game here or on itch.io, for example. But that's still potentially months off. In the meantime, the Pre-Alpha at least will be available here, for free, as a demo as soon as it's finished. Stay tuned for another announcement about that!