"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.
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."