I just watched a storm-trooper gun-down an army of rebellions. Bullets whizzed past in 4k HD sound so crisp I gasped. And over my head explosions screamed and seared with the intensity of a thousand suns. I then feel a whisper in my ear. A whisper that “this is only an alpha build”.
With E3 2017 wrapping up gamers have seen some truly incredible game trailers. And inevitably they have also been told some huge porkies by game publishers. My favourite most blatant tiny lie that developers love to play on gamers is their use of the term ‘alpha’.
‘Alpha’ is a stage of delivery in software development; it’s a milestone point in a course of a project to measure progress. But what Alpha is defined by can greatly vary from studio to studio. Some studios will say an ‘Alpha’ build of a game is where the critical path of the game can be completed. And others may be more lenient and will say ‘Alpha’ is where no placeholder elements are in the game. There are articles all over the internet defining what Alpha and Beta mean in software development, and none of them are incorrect. It just comes down to what the studio itself defines as Alpha (or more likely what they agreed with their external stakeholder who is fronting the cash for the project).
What nearly every studio can agree on though is that ‘Alpha’ is a stage that is early in development. Alpha is not a confident version of your game. It’s a declaration things will be ropey. Your in-game horse may suddenly fly into space. Your players hands may suddenly begin increasing in size like that of the Incredible Hulk. And that there maybe buildings present that will just be a square blob because the artist hasn’t finished the textures for it.
And yet E3 would lead you gamers to think Alpha was something else together. Ubisoft showed off their new Assassins Creed game set in Egypt. As the lead character scales buildings, takes in vistas, and plummets into murky oasis water to fight a crocodile I couldn’t help chuckle at the ‘Alpha’ moniker in the corner.
This is not an alpha version of the game. No Alpha build of a game is this polished. Maybe that’s just what Ubisoft in-house call an ‘Alpha’; in that the game is basically done with a few bugs. But this seems highly doubtful. Purely because the gaps of time between alpha, beta, and submission candidate would be a mere few weeks. Unlikely for a game that has spent years in development.
Lucasarts went one step further by adding ‘pre-alpha’ to their trailers at E3. This rises my chuckle to a belly-laugh. Before ‘alpha’ games development is just an ongoing process. Most studios will just have monthly milestone goals which they stick a version on. In summary, pre-alpha stages of development start from the first line of code written.
So why do game studios do this?
Well it’s for a few reasons. Firstly is bugs. Bugs are always going to exist in games and putting your game into the hands of the public for the first time is truly terrifying for any developer. Any QA tester in the games industry knows never to underestimate just how easily gamers can break your game. It’s truly insulting and impressive when you work on a game for two years and on day one of release witness a fifteen year old in South Korea destroy your high score tables like it was nothing.
And in a world of social media and trigger-happy Twitch streamers it can be even scarier. xXxslayer76 plays your game at E3 and finds a bug. When he shouts to his 26,000 subscribers on his youtube channel about how shit your game is you’ll feel great knowing as the games publisher you can point desperately at the pre-alpha tag to defend your broken baby.
The second reason is more interesting. Take a look at this youtube video for The Crew 2 :
Now this trailer is a cinematic cutscene that is apparently in-game (the topic of what defines in-game is a whole other post for another day). So how can a cut-scene be termed as pre-alpha? Sure maybe the game engine is lacking advanced lighting effects that will be in the final version, but overall saying a cutscene is pre-alpha is odd. It’s because the term ‘alpha’ carries a certain impression.
One of the main reasons game studios stick pre-alpha and alpha labels on their trailers is simply the mentality it puts in gamers head. It simply says “Look how amazing our game is… and it’s not even finished yet!”. Nothing is better than having your mind blown by a trailer and then being told “buddy, this isn’t even my final form”.
But what does an Alpha actually look like?
Most studios would never show what their ‘alpha’ actually looks like. Because simply they’ll look terrible. No-one wants to run around a untextured environment shooting at enemies with missing movement animations.
But sometimes unreleased games can show us a glance into the stages of development.
Here’s what a really good alpha version of a game looks like. This is from now-closed developer N-Space and their unreleased Mega Bloks game of Halo. This is one hell of a polished alpha build of the game with the majority of core game mechanics present. But notice it still looks a little plain and rough around the edges. It lacks that real polish expected of a final game.
Realistically if this game was shown at E3 it would have been received badly by gamers. Gamer who are used to seeing polished shiny textures and tighter core mechanics on display, despite the Alpha branding.
Has there been any examples where a studio has shown a polished alpha and gone to greatly improve upon it by the time the game was released? It can happen, but it is rare as hell. Id showed the difference a year can make on a game with their release of DOOM. The demonstrated version at E3 2015 was marked as an Alpha. Again a very polished alpha, but when compared to the final product the difference is obvious. It likely means that ID have good definitions of what an Alpha is at their studio, and how much more development work will take place.
Gamers are rarely ever given a chance to peek behind the curtain to see how their games are made. E3 is after all a marketing show floor and not a developers conference. Publishers try tip the odds in their favour anyway they can.
But the next time you’re watching a trailer rendering at 4k that is so crisp you can see the polygons of a snowflake melt on the eye lashes of a resting deer, keep an eye out for the allusive Alpha game tag on the trailer. It’s a good flag to measure if a publisher is willing to tell a small lie to you to impress.