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4 Dec 2013

Selling the Alpha Version of Your Indie Game

It seems like a plan that shouldn’t work. The very thought of selling your game before it is ready goes against everything developers have been taught by their peers over the years. Yet we are living in interesting times, and a lot of indie developers are finding success in allowing players to purchase the alpha version of their game. This allows players to play the first playable alpha version of the game and witness each subsequent version of the game, thus watching the evolution of the game and experiencing new features and additions as they are added. Again, it sounds like an insane plan, but for many indie developers, it works for them. Here is what you need to know before deciding to sell an alpha version of your game.


State in the description of your game it is currently unfinished

There’s a funny story regarding Introversion’s Prison Architect (one of the best games I have played this year). It is currently being sold on Steam in alpha, yet the guys over at Introversion had to price it at an inflated rate because so many people were coming across the game, buying it instantly because it looked so cool, and complaining about how the game was ‘broken.’ Yeah, compared to a final version of the game Prison Architect may appear to be broken, but those that purchased the game failed to read the description properly and realize that it was currently in alpha.

Thus, Introversion found out that stating that the game was currently in alpha was not enough. In addition, they discover they had to actually price the game at an inflated rate, Introversion kept individuals wanting to purchase the game on a whim and instead attracted people that were actually interested in buying the alpha version of the game. As a result, if you take a look at the Steam community, the subreddit associated with Prison Architect, and more, you can see that it is full of people discussing the latest updates for the game, what they want to see in future updates, and so on rather than random customers yelling, “what a piece of crap, I can’t even play this game!”

You guys know the type of people I’m talking about.


Decide if your idea is compelling enough to be sold in alpha

Sandbox games are ideal for games that can be sold while still in alpha. By releasing the groundwork for the game early on, developers can easily add updates to the game via features, new gameplay mechanics, and so on while ensuring players can continue to have fun with the game between updates. Yet, not every game should be sold while in alpha.

You need to seriously consider if your game is ideal for being released in alpha. For example, if you are releasing a platformer, you could gradually release one level every month, and along the way add new mechanics to the levels while adding more new levels. It could work if you have a compelling platformer, but again, you need to also consider inflating the price of your game so casual players will not purchase your game spontaneously, otherwise you may have a flood of angry players posting and blogging about how unpolished your game is. While they would be misinformed, any bad press is just that: bad press, and it will follow your game forever. The trick is to keep the uninformed players out while keeping the players that truly want to play your game.

Thus, this brings you to a question you will have to answer for yourself:


“Is my game appealing enough to be purchased early?”


If you believe it is, great. If not, you may want to rethink releasing an alpha version of your game.


Releasing alpha versions can provide you with a much-needed funding for your game

Minecraft really revolutionized the concept of releasing a game early to obtain funding. Other games have followed suit such as Prison Architect, Kerbal Space Program, and most recently, Maia and MouseCraft (just to name a few popular early access games). What’s great about this approach is that when it works, it can provide you with a steady flow of funding so you can finish the game earlier than expected while still making a living. If you attract enough people to the concept of your game (and releasing your game for purchase in alpha makes sense), you can make a considerable amount of money before the game is even released. And if you pull this off right? You’ve achieved the best outcome you could possibly have during the development of your indie game.


You will gain an early following , you will generate buzz throughout the development process

What indie developer could ask for anything more? When selling an alpha version of your game when it makes sense (and, of course, the concept is appealing to enough people where they want to be early adopters), you will (hopefully) gain a strong following early and will be able to generate buzz about your game as you develop the game. Thus, when the game is finally released, you will have set yourself up for having a ton of people purchase your game. When it works, it’s one of the greatest marketing strategies you could ever use – and one of the most profitable.

Again, selling an alpha version isn’t ideal for every game, yet when it works, it can be the difference between getting a steady stream of funding early on and having to delay and struggle to complete your game. I’ll turn the discussion over to you guys. Have any of you sold an alpha build of your game? If so, did you find success and what lessons were learned during the process? Let us know in the comments below!

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