When players buy your game before it's done: Expert tips on alpha funding

Interested in alpha funding? Find out what you need to know first -- from Dean Hall (DayZ), Chris Simpson (Project Zomboid), and of course Markus "Notch" Persson (Minecraft), among others.

On the face of it, alpha funding sounds like a relatively easy-to-implement ride. You develop part of your game, you put what you've created onto the internet with a price tag, and then use the money that comes in to fund the rest of the game's development.

Of course, anyone with even the slightest idea of what this process entails knows that there's nothing simple about it. There's frequent updates to implment; there's multiple methods through which to offer your alpha; there's community interaction to keep them keen. If anything, you have to wonder whether offering an alpha build of your game could potentially distract you from actually making the damn thing.

But do the pros of alpha funding your game outweigh the cons? As part of Gamasutra's Alternative Funding Week, I spoke with numerous developers who have tackled alpha funding campaigns, or are in the process of alpha funding a game, about the ups and downs of such a campaign. 

Dean Hall - DayZ 

Dean "Rocket" Hall is best known as the creator of the DayZ mod for Arma II. Hall originally built the open-world zombie mod as a side-project, and released an alpha build for free.

When the mod seriously took off (to the point where his mod put the three-year-old Arma 2 on top of Steam's best-seller charts), Hall realized the full potential of the concept, and began working with Arma studio Bohemia on a full, standalone release for DayZ, reworked from the ground up.

Now Hall stands on the precipice of his second alpha-build launch in as many years, as the developer plans to also release this standalone version as a paid alpha.

"I think the biggest benefit is that you can get real momentum going for your game at the gestation period of the design," he says of going down the alpha route. "Without doing this, the game can only become 'hot' when the design is already locked down and finished."

He cites the recent Kerbal Space Program as a great example of an alpha release that has benefitted from this. "It became popular very early in its development, and allowed the scope and the direction of the game to adjust proportionally to this," he notes. "If they had made the game completely first, I don't think its scope and direction would resemble at all where it is today."

But Hall is well aware that there are numerous disadvantages to alpha funding too, telling me that whether you should opt for alpha funding on your game or not all depends on the type of project that you're working on.

"The primary [disadvantage] is probably that you fail to impress the community and so the sales stop in their tracks," he says. "I think another tendency is to rush the project out either through meeting fan mania or financial pressures."

Alpha funding can also mean that the development team becomes overwhelmed by success, and cannot cope with the pace of development, he reasons.

"A good example of that is possibly Project Zomboid -- they faced really tough issues during their development (that they overcome and then some)," he notes. "I can't help but think they were caused by the tremendous pressures they were under to succeed and develop at pace due to strong early interest from the community."

There's also the fact that a lot of people who pay for the alpha builds don't completely understand the nature of game development, and misinterpret what the point of an alpha build is: "The best example there has to be Prison Architect [from Introversion]. They actually had to price their product such as to discourage people from buying it!"

(Don't worry, we'll be jumping back to Project Zomboid later on when we speak to the development team, while more in-depth discussion regarding Prison Architect is coming up later this week as part of a different article.)

And there was an added problem for Hall too, due to the nature of his development cycle. Since Hall built the DayZ mod first, this gave outside parties oodles of time to notice the surge of popularity for open-world zombie survival games, and attempt to recreate that setting before Hall could even get his own operations up and running.

We're talking, of course, about The War Z, which was brutally panned by critics and gamers, and has since had its name changed. I asked Hall if, in hindsight, he would have done anything differently with regards to his alpha approach.

"How many words is the article?" he answers. "I could write a book on things I would do differently. But realistically, I think what matters most now are the things I think we did right."

"One of those was opting to develop what best met the vision, no matter what that meant for timeframes and community reaction," he continues. "We felt that the game engine needed to be radically changed in order to deliver the right experience. That meant enduring tough times."

The most important things he'd do differently if he could go back essentially revolve around "more planning before leaping in, no matter how tempting it is just to get started coding."

"I also think my messaging was confusing at times," he admits. "In hindsight I could have been much clearer and more professional in my public image. But perhaps that's part of the charm."

Despite all this, Hall isn't worried about clones, and has no qualms about the alpha funding method. "I like to think we're trying to compete based on being an innovator, not just the innovation we've already done," he notes. "While someone is developing ideas based on what we did last year, we like to think we're developing new things."

Dean Hall's advice for studios thinking about going for alpha funding:

Plan for three different scenarios: big success, success, and failure. If you have a big hit and you aren't ready, it's very hard for your project not to get speed wobbles.

Carefully examine your pricing structure. Consider your audience, what consumer behavior you want, and then finally how people will perceive that. People's perception is really important here and blowback is easy to get.

Make the design fun. People can handle bugs, missing content, and all manner of other things. But if the heart of the game isn't there, and you find yourself constantly having to explain away "in the full version you'll be able to do x..." when watching someone play it then people won't get the game. Kerbal Space Program was excellent because when I played it, I thought "why has someone not made this before?" I could instantly see what they were trying to do, despite the fact it crashed within five minutes of me loading it.

Get the base foundation right. If you want to do multiplayer, you're really going to have to do it at the start. Multiplayer in a patch? It's unlikely and you'll just end up upsetting the fanbase. 

Markus Persson - Minecraft 

It's fair to say that Markus "Notch" Persson is the figurehead of the recent alpha funding movement in video games.

After Persson put up his game Minecraft as an alpha-funded title back in 2009, the game's popularity snowballed to the point where the Swedish developer was pulling in thousands of sales every day.

Of course, everyone in the industry now knows of Minecraft's roaring success, and much of that can be put down to the way in which Persson initially offered the game as an alpha build. His Mojang studio clearly still believes in the alpha route too, given that its second game, Scrolls, recently launched as an alpha.

"I don't think there's a magical best time for doing this," he tells me of alpha funding. "All projects are different, and things fit in on different stages."

"For a game like Minecraft, it makes sense to release early and fund early," he continues, "but for other games (such as story-heavy games) it makes no sense to release an incomplete product. Then it might be better to look into something like Kickstarter if you absolutely need money up front to fund it."

From Persson's perspective, alpha funding is perfect for developers who have built up a close relationship with their fans, to the point where the fans become as excited about the possibilities of your game as you yourself. Of course, even in this instance, it's always worth keeping in mind that you might still fail.

"The benefits are that you don't have to rely on a publisher, and that you can get people passionate about the game early on," he notes. "The added pressure of people already having paid for the game can help motivate you to work on it as well."

And Persson cites one of the same issues that DayZ's Hall brought up -- that if your game isn't very fun from the get-go, "you can't really stop working on it and move on to something that actually might be fun, unless you have very understanding fans."

I asked Persson whether, if Kickstarter and crowdfunding in general had been as massively popularity back in 2009 as it is now, would he have considered going down that route instead of alpha funding?

"No," he replies. "I think the business model of 'give us money now, and we might give you a full game in six to eighteen months' is a bit shady, personally."

"I'm much more comfortable saying 'give us a smaller amount of money now and you get the game as it exists now, and when (and if) the game finishes, you get all updates for free.' As I said, this doesn't work for all games, but it works great for a game like Minecraft."

From his experience with his Minecraft alpha funding project, Persson says that the number one thing to keep in mind when going down the alpha funding route is to make sure you clearly communicate exactly what you are selling from the moment you put it up for sale, what exists in the alpha build, and what might change in the future. 

Chris Simpson - Project Zomboid 

Another massive alpha funding success story is Project Zomboid, an isometric open-world zombie survival game that has been in development for a couple of year snow.

Chris Simpson, one of the founders of development team The Indie Stone, says that the key factors to take note of when considering alpha funding for your game are whether the genre and style of your project will work well in an alpha setting.

"Sandbox games, or multiplayer-focused games (or even more so, both) are definitely the best suited to alpha funding," he reasons. "This is because the first experience of the game is not as highly valued as it would be with a heavily narrative-driven game, for example."

"An equivalent would be going to see an early cut of a movie with incomplete CGI sequences and green-screens," he continues. "It would ruin the experience, not let the player get invested in the story, and ultimately not be satisfying."

Without the sandbox or community-driven elements, the number of surprises is reduced, and therefore someone coming back to an alpha build months later might not find much to talk about.

If you do have a game that fits the bill, though, Simpson argues that alpha funding can be the greatest thing for both your game and your studio's creativity.

"It puts indie devs in a position where they can be much more realistically ambitious in the games they want to make," he notes.

"Before we were aware of alpha funding, we just wouldn't have ever considered any remotely sandboxy game. By that I mean the game we want to make ultimately, perhaps years down the line from today. The coding time, the art demands, the writing for that envisioned game would be so monstrous a development time [so as to make] funding it full time until completion an impossibility."

Without alpha funding, The Indie Stone would have opted to create a multiplayer platformer for Xbox Live Indie Games instead of Project Zomboid. How fortunate for both the team and the players that they chose to go all-in!

"As long as, obviously, you know you're capable of ultimately making the thing some day, and can keep moving toward that goal, then you can have as lofty ambition as you like," Simpson says. "That's quite liberating. And if you do well enough to expand, you may get there quicker than you set out to do."

I asked Simpson why a studio would choose to go with alpha funding rather than crowdfunding, especially given just how popular Kickstarter is these days.

"Kickstarter is the better route for those kind of games where the backers don't want to have the game or story spoilt before it's finished," he reasons.

But he also notes that using a combination of Kickstarter and alpha funding can potentially have great effect. "If you do a Kickstarter then do alpha funding, then Kickstarter is a great way to bring attention to the game as well as fund it, and directs people to [Steam] Greenlight too," he says.

Simpson's tips for those studios looking to jump on the alpha funding bandwagon are as follows:

Listen to your community. Let it steer your priority list of planned features and take on board popular ideas. But at the same time, keep to the principles of your core game idea. Immerse yourself into the community, even if there are bad spots. The good times are good! Support the YouTubers and streamers as they are your life blood. Modding is awesome.

The price point on the first version should be cheaper than every version thereafter, both morally and also for the understanding and support of your community if there are bumps in the road. They are paying alpha price.

DRM seems to make no difference at all from what we've seen.

Keep updates regular. ...But don't let the (sometimes rather intense) pressure get to you with updates, and hold [the updates] back a few days if it needs it. The code has to evolve over years, as the game design often does also, so don't be afraid to have to rip something major out and replace it -- otherwise repeatedly bending code to your -- or the community's -- will takes its toll on the stability of the game. Maintain multiple branches of the game for different severity levels of development, and merge changes.

David Rosen - Overgrowth 

Wolfire's Overgrowth is easily one of the longest-running alpha funding campaigns for a video game to date.

Anybody who has preordered the game since 2008 has been able to grab the latest alpha build of the game, and Wolfire has now been providing regular alpha build updates for nearly five straight years.

"Alpha funding is more appropriate for games that are driven by mechanics, and less appropriate for those driven by content," Wolfire's David Rosen tells me. "Action or strategy games usually find the fun pretty early on, and progressively expand and refine it, so they are engaging to users at any stage of development."

He echoes the sentiment of other developers that I talked to, stating that both multiplayer games and procedural single-player games are good candidates for alpha funding.

"Dota 2, Don't Starve, and FTL are good examples of this approach," he says. "Puzzle or story games don't usually work as well with alpha funding, because they are only meant to be experienced once, and usually don't become fun until the game is mostly complete."

For Wolfire, alpha funding has helped the team unify its Overgrowth development and marketing.

"Development milestones actually become interesting to press and to fans, because they can actually try out the changes immediately," he reasons. "It also helps grow a community around the game, which can provide feedback, report bugs, create mods, and evangelize the game to new users."

And, of course, it's helped that getting pre-orders in so early has helped fund Wolfire's game without the need for much capital up-front.

I asked Rosen whether the length of his alpha funding campaign has caused any backlash from fans. He says that as long as his studio is constantly looking to improve the game and release new stuff for pre-orderers, the fans mainly stay happy.

"There are always some who are impatient," he says, "but most of them realize that we are working as hard as we can."

Rosen says that alpha funding was a better route for Overgrowth than Kickstarter, since the latter takes a cut, gives you nothing if you don't reach your target, and only runs for a finite period of time.

As for Overgrowth, Rosen says that "Let's Play" videos have played a key role in the game's steady sales build-up.

"It is helpful if your game is interesting to watch as well as to play," he reasons. "Similarly, videos are a great way to demonstrate the changes in each update, especially if you put some effort into making them entertaining to watch! I try to make sure that each video concisely shows the changes for existing players, but could also provide a compelling intro for someone who has never heard of the game." 

Jamie Cheng - Don't Starve 

Klei Entertainment's Don't Starve is an interesting case study in alpha funding. The game was originally released as a paid alpha via the Chrome Web Store, and then became one of the first "Beta" games to launch on Steam, even before Steam's "Early Access" functionality was launched (essentially allowing alpha and beta games to be sold on Steam.)

"In general I think games that are inherently replayable are more likely to be successful as an alpha/beta as players can return to the game and enjoy the changes as they're made," Klei's Jamie Cheng explains.

"Making sweeping changes once the game is in the hands of the public was difficult, but we did it nonetheless," he says. "We spent huge efforts to let our players know what we were doing and why, and throughout the development major features and changes to systems were made."

Getting on Steam with his pre-release build wasn't too difficult, thanks ot Klei's past dealings with Steam, first as an indie with Eets, and then with Shank, Shank 2, and Mark of the Ninja.

"Somewhere in there we approached Valve and discussed testing the waters with the game on Steam," he says. "This was quite a few months prior to Early-Access Beta being a real thing on Steam -- we certainly didn't know it would be a 'thing' yet." 

Carsten Boserup - Interstellar Marines 

Another studio that has taken a similar funding route is Zero Point Software's Interstellar Marines -- although Zero Point has waded just a tad bit longer into development before offering early access than most studios I talked to.

Interstellar Marines was first announced back in 2005, and after several years, players could pay to become "Spearheads" or "Frontliners," and receive alpha builds of the game.

Earlier this month, the game went up on Steam via Early Access, meaning that you can now preorder the game and grab an early build before its release.

If you're unable to find a publisher for your game, or you simply want to be able to work more quickly on your game, then alpha funding is definitely worth considering, Zero Point's Carsten Boserup suggests.

This second point in particular is something that Boserup is keen to stress. "Alpha funding can help enormously with speeding up development of a project," he says. "Handled correctly, it can result in a positive spiral where more funding results in quicker updates, which results in more funding."

"Additionally, being funded by players releases a developer from the binds a publisher may put around it -- freeing you to make the game you want to make, rather than one you are forced to make."

"Alpha funding your game can also help with marketing," he adds, "as it can draw in a large crowd of players who spread the word through social media channels and their friends."

Carsten stresses the same point that Minecraft's Persson put across when it comes to the most important element of alpha funding: "Be clear. Absolutely, unambiguously, massively clear on what it is your game is offering today, what you’re planning to add in the near future and what your vision is for your game."

"Do not leave anything on your store page or media which could be misinterpreted," he adds. "Some people will still unfortunately miss the message about your game being an alpha, but you can always refer them back to the store page. Make your vision clear as well, because this is what most people are purchasing from you -- not the game as it is today."

And if you're going to go through Steam Greenlight in the hope of getting a Steam Early Access campaign for your game, Carsten suggests that you need to have a large and active community first.

"If at all possible hire at least one full-time community manager (we have two) and give them the leeway and tools to work with, and for, the community," he says. "Not only will they build up the momentum and mass you need to be voted up on Greenlight, but they will also remove a lot of pressure and time-consuming activities from your job as a developer."

"If you feel you have the game and the community to be greenlit, then absolutely go for it. But please do remember it is a long process, it’s hard work, and you still have to focus on creating a game which lives up to the expectations of what your players are buying into. This is no mean feat, but if you manage to achieve the alpha funding you require, then it can make bringing your incredible new game to fruition that much easier!" 

Richard Perrin - Kairo 

Kairo is a 3D exploration game that focuses on puzzles and minimalism -- you can learn more about it from this earlier Gamasutra interview.

The game's developer Richard Perrin chose to go down the alpha funding path prior to its release, and found that there was an obvious point during development at which he could safely offer an alpha build to paying players.

"It's going to be different from game to game, but essentially once you're at a point where there's at least an hour's worth of gameplay and there's enough meat in there for players to give you meaningful feedback," he says is when alpha funding comes into its own.

"I did it for an adventure game which isn't necessarily a good fit, but it actually worked really well for me."

"The most obvious benefit is feedback," he continues. "To make a great game I think getting constant feedback from both players and other developers is absolutely essential. An alpha funding program means that feedback is going to be really easy to get from players, otherwise you have to rely on specially run testing sessions or going to trade shows."

As a small indie, alpha funding also has other pro points. Offering an alpha build meant that the press was suddenly interested in posting up previews, while players began sharing options on forums and the like. Essentially, the release of the alpha build led to many more tongues wagging.

Offering an alpha build also helped to keep Perrin on focus. Suddenly he had customers, and therefore the pressure to deliever -- although this turned out to be a double-edged sword.

"I could no longer just abandon the game or work on other stuff as I had people I owed the finished game too," he notes. "If anything that ended being the biggest down side of the project because I had some real lows working on that game but because of the alpha funding I had no choice but to keep plodding onwards."

Why did Perrin choose to go with alpha funding rather than the increasingly popular Kickstarter route?

"It's not something I'd personally be comfortable with doing myself," he says of crowdfunding. "Firstly I think Kickstarters are really unfair on the players as they ask you to buy a game based on the promise of what it could be rather than what is actually made."

He continues, "A lot of the most badly made games were put together by teams that thought they were making something good or at least trying, it's hard to tell until you're finished where you've landed. I would feel like a con artist if I took money based on what I hoped to make and couldn't deliver it."

And on a practical level, Perrin says that he's not enough of a self-promoter to run a successful Kickstarter anyway.

"I'm pretty hardwired to be humble about my work and I don't have the personality to spend an entire month pushing how awesome my games is going to be," he says. "I think by day two I'd be fed up of hearing my own pitch and wouldn't be able to stomach keep spamming news sites, Twitter accounts, forums, etc."

As for the ins and outs of alpha funding, Perrins suggest that studios looking to start their own campaign should heavily consider the logistics beforehand.

"Have a decent payment provider and download service," he says. "Obviously you want to be on Steam but whether you can get on there or not, speak to the Humble Store to handle your direct sales."

"Tell people about your game without being an obnoxious spammer," he continues. "Take all feedback graciously and don't get shitty with customers who have complaints. Be vague about release dates because you'll probably miss them and better to have been vague than to break promises." 

Chris England - Xenonauts

An upcoming turn-based strategy game inspired by 1994 release X-COM: UFO Defense (aka UFO: Enemy Unknown in Europe), Xenonauts is another game that is currently in the middle of its alpha funding campaign.

Chris England of Xenonauts studio Goldhawk Interactive tells me that "these days, studios really need something playable and interesting before they start taking money, unless they are already established studios."

"It's not that you lose sales by accepting preorders too early," he clarifies, "but once people have paid for the game you have an added responsibility to keep them informed about the progress of the game, to take their views on board and ultimately to pay the money back if you decide to end development before completion."

This in turn leads to a reduction in the agility of your studio early in game development, England reasons, and also limits the size of your community to those who have paid you money.

"We probably started taking money too early for Xenonauts," he admits. "If we use alpha funding on our next title, we'll definitely have a few months of free development on it to generate some buzz and create a community around the game before we start charging for it."

The main benefit of alpha funding a game "is the extra money it brings in," England continues. "You get access to more funds and can make a better game, which brings in more money and gets your customers a better game at the end of it.

England describes the same "virtuous circle" that Zero Point's Boserup described: If you can get it right, you find yourself in the position where players are paying, the money allows you to make the game faster and better, and even more players sign up as a result.

"We've been very fortunate with Xenonauts, as there is absolutely no way we'd have been able to get to where we are now without the support of our community and the financial backing they have provided," he adds. "And most of them seem very happy with the results too, so I'd consider us to be a case where it has worked well!"

Xenonauts is an interesting case, in that the Goldhawk studio utilized Kickstarter alongside alpha funding.

"The customers can be very different for the two different sales channels, so in my book it's a great way to reach new audiences," England notes. "In many ways, I actually think Kickstarter funding is superior due to the absence of the pitfalls of alpha funding, but there's no reason at all not to mix the two."

And what exactly are those pitfalls?

"Alpha funding is one of the easiest methods to generate funding, I think -- but it can be a bit chicken-and-egg if you don't have much money to start with," England says. "Most people won't invest their money until you have something worth playing, but often you'll need money to make something worth playing in the first place."

And then even when you've got started, the problems don't stop there. "What happens if the preorder money dries up and you can't afford to keep developing the game, but you've not delivered a finished product to the people whohave already bought it?

"That would be a terrible position to be in for all concerned. Kickstarter is all-or-nothing funding, so that can't happen, but it is a real danger with alpha funding and there's no easy way out of that situation."

At the end of the day, England reasons that "there isn't really a way around it either -- you just have to trust your instincts, sink a lot of time into the project and hope you get enough pre-orders to let you finish the game."

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