How to Pre-AlphaHow to Pre-Alpha
You’ve finally received a pre-alpha key and can finally try out this new game. You’ll be talking to the developers over at SunSpear Games and playing the earliest iterations of IMMORTAL. So… what should you expect? How do the folks at SunSpear handle new content and design, and how can you help to fulfill the vision of IMMORTAL: Gates of Pyre?
The SunSpear Process
Whenever we tackle a new design (be it a unit, UI system, faction mechanic, and so on), we try to approach it in a way that produces the best outcome for the game. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this happens to resemble the scientific method.
- Observe: As designers, we’re always keeping our eyes not just on the game’s ecosystem. But part of the job is seeing what systems or mechanics could work for IMMORTAL, so we want to take inspiration from as many places as possible by observing other ecosystems as well, games or not. Once we’ve identified a potential improvement, we move on to the next step.
- Hypothesize: This is the theory-crafting stage of the process. Here, we utilize a method called “Criteria-Based Design,” which has some fairly simple steps.
- Define the Problem Space: Listing the areas marked for improvement as identified through Observation.
- Define Target Audience and Use Cases: Who is it for? How will the solution be used to help them?
- Set Criteria: List out the criteria that all of our solutions have to meet. All solutions are measured against this criteria. Often this includes stuff that seems obvious, like “what play pattern should this system encourage/avoid,” “players should have obvious counterplay available against this ability,” and “are we using the simplest gameplay to achieve our desired effect?” These kinds of questions get all of our designers on the same page without constraining or biasing ourselves towards a specific solution.
- Explore Solution Space: The solution space is a place to throw out wild and wacky ideas that solve our problem and meet all of the above criteria. The more ideas that enter the space, the more ammo we have to test and tweak. Often, several wild and bad ideas can be hybridized and simplified to create a good idea. May the fittest solution win!
- Experiment: Once we have a populated Solution Space, we settle on the best, easiest-to-test solution and focus on getting into the hands of playtesters. This is where we engage in Rapid Iterative Testing as well, refining our chosen solution to approach its best version as quickly as possible. On occasion we opt not to choose the best solution, but the solution that can teach us the most through testing. This is where some wild ideas can have their chance.
- Analyze Results: As we receive feedback on our solution and review testing metrics, we check the results against the criteria. Is it meeting all requirements? Can we deliver on a criteria better than the current solution? Did the solution create unexpected opportunities we should investigate? Did it introduce new problems? If a solution isn’t working, or we see more potential, we cycle quickly between steps 3 and 4 for Rapid Iterative Testing. Once our solution is fully realized, we return to Step 1 to observe and see if we need to make more changes.
Stages of Production
Obviously, our game is in a very early pre-alpha state, but if you’re not deep into the industry (or at least spend a good amount of time learning about industry practices) it can be difficult to really get an idea of where we are. To make this easier, we’ve defined a few stages for IMMORTAL’s production:
Full Release is pretty self-explanatory: the game is finished and released. In the context of a free-to-play game, bugs have been squashed, implementation is finalized, and otherwise things are stable and polished.
Beta can mean a lot of things; in the gaming space it means something very different from what it normally means in the tech industry. Most people understand it as a game that just about has all of its content, is mostly optimized, and is focused on squishing bugs, balancing the play experience, and polishing implementation before release. In the case of IMMORTAL, our beta will mostly be multiplayer-focused, and as we polish the look and feel of our game and complete our onboarding experience, we’ll also shift some resources towards refining our co-op and single player content.
Alpha refers to the milestone where core gameplay systems are complete—that is, the tech required for the main gameplay loop is finished, playable, and mostly stable. Visual assets are still missing and the UI still needs plenty of polish. Throughout this stage, we will add features focused around the PvP experience, so you will be able to play a match from top-to-bottom, with stealth mechanics, transports, research and upgrades, Vanguards, and so on. Features outside of playing a match of Immortal, like computer opponents and co-op, a spectator client, equipment and gear, and other systems are not required to enter the Alpha stage.
So, naturally, Pre-Alpha means the game is far from feature complete. Technology necessary for the core gameplay loop is missing, the game is not necessarily stable, and visual assets and UI are way off from finished. Some assets can be pretty rough (much of Q’rath will need to undergo a polish pass), and many others are referred to as grayboxes (on account of being composed of gray boxes).
This is where IMMORTAL sits in development today: despite the aesthetic appeal and the fun of the core gameplay loop, we are missing a lot of gameplay features and a ton of visual assets and polish. We don’t have customizable hotkeys, camera hotkeys, shift-command indicators, replays, or fully-functional fog of war… but all of these (and many more) are coming.
So what does this all mean for all you testers out there? We put together a ton of gameplay mechanics, greyboxed units and structures, and a few polished art assets into a build to begin Rapid Iterative Testing. Once we get certain key features in, we cut off this process and go through a “stabilization cycle,” where we focus less on adding new stuff and more on improving stability and polishing the systems and assets we’ve added.
Sometimes these are also collated into a super-stable “demo build,” where we cut out grayboxes and put out the most stable build we can on a separate, isolated server to share with our partners.
In a way, you can think of the playtesting build as a Public Test Realm (or a Private Test Realm, in our case). For folks that are unfamiliar, a PTR is a version of the game that is assumed to not be stable, not be balanced, and is mostly there for hardcore players to come in, see the newest content, participate in balance discussions, and help squash bugs before the PTR build goes “live” as we approach our real Alpha.
You folks in our playtesting server are that hardcore, early access, bug-squashing squad. So what’s the best way to be helpful in this Pre-Alpha environment?
- Bug-Hunting and Repro. The most important thing you can do is to help us find and squash bugs. Obviously reporting bugs is very helpful, but more helpful is giving us Repro Steps: knowing that the bug exists is only the first step, and we can really act once we know how to reproduce the bug so we can track down where in the code the problem actually comes from.
- Find Unintuitive Behaviors: We want IMMORTAL to clearly communicate what’s going on and what you need to do in order to play. When things feel unintuitive (and aren’t obviously placeholder) we want to hear about it. Being so early in the process, a lot of the game currently consists of placeholders, but the community can help fill you if we’ve revealed future plans for a particular feature!
- Identify Repeat Frustrations: If there is a recurring frustration in your play experience (and it doesn’t appear to be a placeholder), we want to know about it. The most points of friction we can smooth out, the more welcoming and straightforward the experience will be in the end.
- Don’t Worry About Balance. At this stage of development, no factions have access to all of their tools or abilities, map variety doesn’t exist, nothing is gated behind research or tech, the movement system and pathing isn’t where we want it, and absolutely no values are final. While we’re keeping an eye on “balancing” the game so it’s fun to play, the game you play now is not what we’ll be seeing even in a few months, much less when we hit true Alpha, Beta, or Release, where competitive balancing will be a higher priority.
- Check the Roadmap. There’s a lot that isn’t in the game yet, and a lot we know we’ll be changing in the future. Head over to our Discord server for the #roadmap channel, where we show off our next top priorities. Knowing what’s coming can help frame your current experience around features we know we’ll have in the future.
Have Fun! We want IMMORTAL to be a game for everyone! Have fun with the game, and if you’re not, let us know so we can improve the functionality, core gameplay, and feature set so we can make this the best game it can be!
Written in collaboration with Colter Hochstetler and Tom Labonte