Alpha funding was only one method of many we tried to fund Natural Selection 2, the sequel to our Half-life mod. We had a long and tortured development, mostly due to deciding to make an ambitious game and custom engine with very little initial funding and a tiny team. However, it’s not an exaggeration to say that alpha funding changed everything for us.
The first experiment with receiving funding from our players was in the form of the “Constellation” program, which was a donation for our orginal Half-life mod. Players that donated $20 got a special scoreboard icon which showed everyone in-game that they supported the game’s development. I made about $20,000 / year off this, which was just barely enough to keep working on the game full-time. It also let me save up over $10,000 after I moved in with my parents for 6 months, in preparation for my move to California. My dream was to last long enough to find ‘angel’ investors to help fund a commercial sequel to our popular mod.
I moved to California, and eventually did end up finding our angels, but we still needed more. We had underestimated the time we needed to make a polished and interesting multiplayer shooter and so we turned to our fans. We saw what the Overgrowth guys were doing and were inspired to try it out. We worked hard on our first game teaser, writing the tools and technology we needed for it alongside it. All the while we knew we had a very limited amount of funds left before we had to release the teaser and pray that our fans would support us.
We launched the teaser along with our NS2 pre-order program. $20 for the Standard Edition and $40 for the Special Edition, which granted you early alpha access and limited edition black marine armor. We were blown away when we raised over $200k in the first week and eventually went on to raise over $1M. Surprisingly, over 90% of our players opted for the Special Edition. That’s when the trouble began.
The first alpha we shipped to our players was a dreadful buggy mess. It’s no wonder: we were a team of 4, building a next-gen engine, tools and game. We were laying the tracks in front of a speeding train. We promised that our beta would be much better, but we were doomed to fail. It was another two years after our “beta” before we shipped v1.0 on Steam, and our fans were not happy about having a junky game in the meantime. We heard from many players that they were happy to support us just on the merits of the original free game alone, and that they would be happy even if we never shipped NS2. But we’re sure many players didn’t feel that way and often let us know it. Opening e-mail was dreadful. Reading our forums was downright painful. This reaction also caused our investors to panic and lose faith in us.
But we kept releasing builds and engaging with our community, through our ups and downs. We ended up releasing around 50 alpha builds, and taking feedback seriously, which our community seemed to appreciate. By the time we released NS2 v1.0 on Steam at the end of 2012, our alpha players had logged thousands of games. We knew we had a solid game on our hands and the launch went smoothly. So not only did the funds help us, but the game was much higher quality as a result.
It can be very stressful. Releasing software before it’s ready isn’t a stroll through the park, especially if you’re still “finding” your design or building substantial technology. We found ourselves burdened with tech and game support, when we were still working on the core.
Give away juicy early-access only items. Our Special Edition black armor marine seemed to take our orders way over the top, with over 90% of our pre-orderers buying it. It was extra money to make and took support time to administer, but it got our fans really excited about early access, and they were able to show they were around from the beginning. This may be especially important if your game isn’t in top form yet.
It’s not just about money. It’s hard to create a big launch event and tons of followers quickly, so building incrementally over time is a great alternative. We were also able to attract “superfans” - players who’s contributions far outweighed their monetary contributions. We hired our main game programmer and our PR person from this audience.
Not just cash, but cash flow. We earned $1M with our pre-orders, but it wasn’t all up front. The tail was a long one, but we never knew how long the money would last or when it would arrive, making hiring and planning very difficult.
Think about hidden costs. There is future inertia and issues when you start selling your game early. It’s hard to change your game’s features or pricing without unhappy customers and backlash. When we moved our alpha access to Steam, we had an administrative nightmare, moving from our own game keys to Steam keys. And when we corrected our price for our v1.0 launch, we felt like we had to give a free extra copy of the game to every person that initially paid more.
Looking back, it was clear that alpha funding saved our tails and allowed us to get to where we are today. It was wonderful and it was horrible. If we do it again (and we probably will), we will make sure to manage expectations of our supporters so they don’t expect a finished, polished game any time soon.