Good evening, friends! Game Design Sasu, here! We're gearing up for a new alpha update, at the moment. It's looking quite nice, but there are still manyinteresting bugs to weed out. In addition to that, there seem to be multiple kinds of flu hanging around the TJR ecosystem. We're falling one by one!
In the meantime, I thought I could write something helpful for fellow indie devs. I already talked about this before on our IndieDB forums, but it was deemed useful enough to dedicate a blog post to it.
Today I'm going to talk about our experiences with giving out test versions of Interplanetary.
There really is no substitute for a proper user testing. Everyone will eventually grow blind to the problems with their game, so fresh people are needed to give some perspective. We had had a couple of small testing sessions with our friends and relatives, but we needed more and variable data. Reaching out to gamers of the Internet was the answer.
Before sending out your alpha to the masses, consider why you want to do that. Do you need testers, publicity or just people to play your game with you? Our main priority was to get useful feedback, so we took that into account when building the testable version.
We had to make sure to give the testers the features we wanted them to test. The targeting system especially was something we wanted to get a lot of feedback on. This also meant that some of the more irrelevant features would need to be polished not to drag too much attention to them, or simply left out altogether. We didn't want people to just comment: "the planet graphics suck" and leave. When giving feedback, it's easy to grab into the most obvious thing and ignore the others.
To gather the feedback, we created a survey with SurveyMonkey and put a link to it in-game. Looking back on it, we should've also given the link to each tester when contacting them for the first time - surprisingly many missed the in-game survey link and later asked how to provide feedback.
When creating a survey, it's important to think of the right questions to ask; most people won't bother writing out their life stories. You need to make the survey very easy and to the point. Try to add some very specific questions to steer the testers to concentrate on things you need comments on. The current version of our survey works well enough. People have a chance to comment on many different things, but they aren't forced to fill out every space to submit.
This system worked well until we reached over 100 answers. The free version won't show more than that, so we needed to pay a fee to access the rest.
How to actually go about distributing the alpha version to the testers depends on many things. Interplanetary's first alpha version was a very incomplete game, filled with all kinds of issues. To say that we were hesitant putting it out there would be putting it mildly. Ease of access is the key of getting people to test a game which doesn't have an established reputation, but we still decided against simply sharing download links or using the Unity Web Player (doesn't really work out in Interplanetary's case anyway.)
This is when the idea of alpha keys came along. We would announce the alpha testing and ask hopeful testers to contact us to receive a code they can use at our website for a download link. This way there was less room for misconceptions, as we could explain to each individual tester the situation with the game. No one would just stumble across it, thinking it was the final product. We could also draw out the more serious testers; even if the process of obtaining the code is rather painless it's still a step that gets us into contact with the people most interested in the game.
The whole "system" worked manually: a person would contact us, ask for a code and we would give it to them along with instructions. An automatic system of some kind might have saved a lot of time, but I personally prefer direct contact, so it's easier to answer to questions and such. There was a period when I really wished we had a robot for this, though: the day we were noticed by RockPaperShotgun was absolutely insane! I had to spend days answering all the code requests we were getting.
Once Interplanetary landed to Steam Greenlight, we changed the system a little bit. Partially for the convenience for the users and partially for my sanity, we decided to build a special Greenlight Alpha with a direct link to it on the page. This version was less experimental than the earlier ones and the aim was to make it also work as a sort of a very early demo; a tight package with the main features polished well enough. Being in Greenlight, people would also more easily understand that it's an incomplete version. A playable version, along with screenshots, videos and description, worked well to give people a full idea on what the game was to be and also show that Interplanetary is not a mere concept. Never underestimate the power of screenshots and videos, though: no one would have bothered to download the alpha, even if it's completely free, if we hadn't given them a peek to get them interested first.
As of today, the PC version has been downloaded from the Greenlight page 3,513 times and the Mac version 225 times. We received 34,251 "Yes"-votes during the campaign, so not nearly everyone found their way to the download link, which is probably partially because we couldn't place the link in the main description by the way Greenlight works. We had to make a separate news announcement on the page, but they are not particularly eye catching. We should've pointed this out in the main description.
For the Greenlight Alpha, we opted to use Mediafire to host the game files. Considering the popularity of Interplanetary's Greenlight campaign, this was a good decision: having to pay about 20 cents a download on our server, would've cost us a lot. The only drawback here was that the URL pointed to Mediafire, which isn't quite as "cool" as hosting the files on your very own space. We paid for the service, however, so the link was direct and there was minimum hassle for the players.
We were and are still giving out alpha codes to people, since the Greenlight Alpha was the only version distributed by a direct link. The latter updates would require a code. This seemed to work quite well and caused relatively little confusion.
I can really recommend using an alpha code system for everyone. We've received tons of good comments and followers because of it. Semi-regularly updating the alpha version also gives you nice mile stones for development. It can sometimes be quite a chore to handle the code requests, but typically the flow is steady enough to manage. We still get a couple of inquiries every day, but whenever there's media coverage or something else, the amount skyrockets.
Starting to run out of codes real soon, actually, so give us a holler and we'll get you yours! There's at least one more alpha update on the horizon, so expect that!