There are many ways to play games before they’re finished.
You can buy your way into any number of massively popular early access games or you can just sign up for beta or alpha access.
Titanfall went through an alpha and beta play session, while games like Rust and DayZ have seen amazing interest in their early access promotions. There is never any shortage of people who are willing to play games before they’re finished, whether or not that they have to pay to get in. We used to complain about games not being finished, and now we rush to play games that we know haven't been polished into their final shape.
Take Chroma, the upcoming rhythm-based first-person shooter from Harmonix Music Systems. There are a relatively small number of players testing the game right now, but what they’re playing and, hopefully, enjoying on some level is far from what we’ll see in the final product.
"We have quite a ways to go — we are still hammering out the core mechanics, and so the player input we are getting right now is having a big impact on our development priorities," Greg LoPicollo, the project director of the game, told Polygon. "We started this process very early, so player input is really making a difference."
This is why people love to play games in alpha form. They want to make a difference.
A crash course in game design
This is why these alphas can be so attractive. If you’ve ever been interested in game design, why not see what it’s like from the inside?
Players post Chroma discussions in the game’s forums, and that’s where the majority of the game design discuss take place, but what people do and what they say can be two very different things. One of the most useful things for players to do in these programs is just to sit down and play the game. Every match creates data that that can be used to balance the game or even aid in the creation of levels.
Ideally, the written reports match up with the data, or you see where the two differ.
"Mostly we have been looking to the data to confirm or refute what we hear on the forums, which is where most of the design conversations are taking place. The data is great for resolving disputes; for instance, which classes are over- or under-powered based on actual K/D ratios."
"We are not burying ourselves in a blizzard of data at this point — there are a few straightforward stats we are tracking, and these are mostly confirming our instincts."
But those instincts are sometimes wrong. One character class requires the player to match the beat a specific way, and the alpha players mastered this idea much faster than anticipated. The pattern had to made harder within the first week of testing. The balance the team had assumed they had found in the character classes didn’t line up with actual player behavior.
These are interesting notes, and in finding these issues the testers are helping the game along. "I gotta say, we are overall very impressed with the resilience and patience of these folks — as any developer will tell you, unfinished video games are not generally total fun — you have to cut them a lot of slack," he said.
Seeing the world take shape
He’s right, this process isn’t always fun: Many options may not be functional yet, the core mechanics are still being worked on and polished not to mention the fact that the classes or weapons may be wildly unbalanced.
In fact, those were the two takeaways given by Greg LoPicollo. "Alpha players are into the basic concept — we should keep going! This was not guaranteed, so it was pretty reassuring overall," he explained. "We got a very clear idea of what to fix first, and learned that we should fix up what we have and explain it better before introducing new features."
They’re not working on nailing down specifics at this point of the game’s development: They’re making sure the very basic pillars of the game work at all. And that’s why this process can be so exciting for the players.
We don’t often get a chance to see games this early in development, and it’s even more rare to be able to share our thoughts and playing habits while it could still make a difference.
If you’re a student of game design or even just a fan of the genre who wants to know what makes the heart of a well-designed game tick, these alphas are an opportunity to be there as the game is polished, improved and adjusted.
You get to see what each update does to the game, and your notes and data from your playing session will help you understand why these changes were made. Your ideas, shared in the forum, could even make it in the game.
This adds to the "problem" of trying to balance whether to polish the existing content, or try to implement some of the features that have been inspired or suggested by players.
"So now we have more ideas to process than just our own, but a lot of them are really good, so that is a good problem to have," he said. "We try to be open to changing our minds, because we have had this experience on past projects — sometimes the really great idea that shapes the play experience shows up later than is convenient for the schedule."
Students have film have long used the behind-the-scenes features and commentary on DVDs and now Blu-Rays as a sort of crash course in how movies are made, but this is more like the director sending you dailies to go over before they’re edited. It’s not always pretty, and it may not be fun, but you get to be a part of the process, and that’s an intoxicating feeling.
You’re able to say you were there while the team worked to discover the game, and you know what bits were kept and which thrown away during development. In the future people will discuss what Rust was like back when it had zombies, and players who were there on both sides of that update know exactly how it changed the game and also changed the behavior of the players inside.
To extend this already tortured metaphor, this is almost like being inside a film as it’s being directed.
This isn’t for everyone, and being invited into an alpha like Chroma is a very different value proposition that buying a $30 game that is far from finished. There are plenty of people who are fine waiting until version 1.0 before thinking of playing a game, much less buying it, and that’s perfectly valid.
On the other hand, it’s not hard to understand the draw of early access or participating in the alpha. Most of us will likely never make a game, but it’s still fun to be able to touch the process, especially from inside the product itself.