I'm excited to announce that as of today At The Gates is now in Alpha II! Hooray!
So, uh... what the heck is "Alpha II", anyway?
"Alpha II" is the new name for the milestone we had been calling "Beta" for the past 15 months. So why the switch?
When most people hear that a product is in "beta" their immediate expectation is that it's, you know, almost done. AtG is coming together, but with over a year of development left it would be unfair to set the bar quite that high. Calling it "beta" has lead to some confusion among both players and partners over the past few weeks, so I decided to bite the bullet and give it a more appropriate name.
What this all means in the real world is that if you contributed or pre-ordered at the $50 level you can now download AtG from the Humble website!
If you haven't used the Humble Dashboard before just head over to Humble's Key Resender and enter the email address you had associated with your Kickstarter (or PayPal) account when you contributed. This is also where new versions of the game will be posted, so keep the address handy.
Alpha II also, at last, includes working Mac and Linux versions! These gave Jonathan and I a bit of a headache over the past couple months, but I'm already glad we spent the effort, and I'm sure our non-Windows fans will agree.
(As an aside, you can pre-order the "Early Access" bundle from our website at any time, should you be interested in joining the Alpha Test Group. I'm no longer able to refund Kickstarter pledges because of how much time has passed, but if you are willing to buy the Early Access version I'd be more than happy to refund your pledge via PayPal instead.
I should note that while AtG is a lot more fun than it was back when alpha testing started in October, it's still very, very rough. If you want a complete, polished experience I would honestly recommend holding off for now.)
I know many of you will be patiently waiting to play AtG until it's officially released, so I'll use this post as another opportunity to provide a peek behind the curtain of game development. In the next week or two I'll also be posting an in-depth review of the cool new features we've been busy with, along with our plans for the next few months. Later this year I plan to start streaming my playtests on Twitch.tv. In the meantime, feel free to follow or bookmark my new account, and I'll make an announcement once we get rolling.
The AtG Test Group will continue to be 'closed' and private, as I want all our effort to remain focused on our one and only goal: making the best strategy game of all time. The relationship between these might seem tenuous, but both this and my decision to rename the Beta milestone are rooted in the same logic. Let's dig into the issue a bit deeper.
Why Games Keep Secrets
If I were granted just one wish by the game development genie, I would ask that the only factor which determines a game's financial success was its quality at release. But alas, there are many examples of how this isn't the case. Consumers have a budget of both money and time, and few are willing to spend a large chunk hunting around for the 'ideal' entertainment product.
However, an advantage game developers have is that those who play games tend to be pretty invested in their hobby. Not only do they talk about it with their friends, but many also read gaming websites, watch YouTube videos, visit forums, look up review scores on Metacritic, etc. But this marketing head-start can turn into a ball and chain if you're not careful.
It never takes long for a 'narrative' to be woven around a game once it leaves the shroud of private development and goes 'public'. This is usually beneficial in the Age of Social Media, where more eyeballs is always better - but there are times when the narrative skews in wild and unexpected directions and the court of public opinion renders final judgment on a game long before it's finished. Needless to say, this can seriously hamper a game's chances of doing well.
Developers put a lot on the line when they offer their game up to the world, so they naturally want their work to shine. Many projects have been compromised because of how much time was spent making a game look good for the public, press or upper management. That isn't to say this is always a dumb route to take. The very survival of a project or studio can based on how shiny their pre-alpha looks, and I absolutely do not envy developers in that position.
Strategy games in particular take a while to come together. Much of their charm is the way every system makes up a massive interconnected web, but like an actual spider's web the price you pay is that pulling a single thread too hard causes the entire structure to unravel.
To be sure, it's also possible to be too protective of your game, hiding it away for so long that the perfect diamond you finally end up forging is only enjoyed by a handful of people. Putting out one cult classic after another might be good for the ego, but it doesn't keep food on the table!
So later this year we'll be loosening the screws a bit on AtG and allow people to post impressions, videos, etc. outside of our private forums with the goal of spreading word about this awesome game we're making far and wide.
But how do you draw that line between "not ready" and "ready"?
There's never a perfect answer, and for me it's one part gut feel and one part analytical process. A few weeks ago I sat down and thought again about what AtG "is" and made a list of what's truly essential and what's just complementary. My rule of thumb is that anything that goes unnoticed by someone mildly interested after playing for an hour can probably wait for later.
Based on this line, my list of essentials includes things like Competent Tactical AI and Finalized Art Style. A strategy game with a heavy emphasis on war obviously needs an AI that can at least defend itself. Major intercontinental invasions would also be nice to have, but can definitely wait for later.
While hardcore strategy gamers might roll their eyes about my second requirement, first impressions are hugely important in the entertainment business, and the way something looks is obviously the first thing you notice. I probably wouldn't have shown AtG's pre-pre-pre-alpha screenshots back during the Kickstarter campaign had that been an option! (On a related note, we have some really exciting things coming on this front - stay tuned.)
Unique faction abilities and victory conditions are a couple features I've deemed less important, so they will come online after we open up a bit. Both have an important role to play and are absolutely necessary for a finished release, but take either one away and the core essence of AtG remains unchanged. And alas, it pains me to say as a UI junkie, but making the game easier to play and learn also falls into this bucket.
But this is all just my opinion. I'm good friends with developers who disagree vehemently, and believe that a developer should get their game out in front of people as soon as possible. Being an indie would sure be a whole lot easier if marketing and PR were as straightforward as programming!
I'll be back with another update soon to talk about what we've been up to the past couple months and what's coming up next. 'Til then!