Part 7: Alpha Hell

‘The key is knowing who to make happy first.’

As I write this, it’s alpha time. It is one of those times of the year when software development guys go without sleep and forget what their families look like. In fact, today is my 16th anniversary, something that just occurred to me. Maybe I should call my wife.

Back on track, and apologies in advance for what is going to be a rambling column. The whole team is terribly fatigued right now, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Of course you don’t give a flip about my anniversary or my state of mind or any of that horse hockey; you want to know about Oddworld Abe’s Exoddus… and what the heck is an alpha, anyway?

Alpha is the first important deadline of any piece of software (well, there are usually milestones that precede alpha, but we don’t use a milestone system at Oddworld). Alpha means that everything is in the game— all the features, all the art, all the movies, all the sound, all the design— but it is acknowledged as being buggy. It’s an important benchmark for the team, and it gives the publisher a preliminary deadline when it can reasonably expect the game to be approaching its final shape. More exhausting still is the beta deadline when the developer declares the product done and bug‐free. After that (in theory) there’s some wrangling over what may or may not be open bugs (developers and publishers often disagree on what is a bug fix and what is a new feature), as well as translation for foreign language versions, writing of manuals, package design, and marketing stuff, etc. But when beta tolls, so far as the production team is concerned, the puppy has been put to bed.

In an ideal world, that is. I’ve left wrap parties early to get back to work on games that supposedly had shipped already. I’ve added entire levels to games the night before beta (a bad thing… a very bad thing). It gives me the willies just thinking about it.

Fortunately, none of that kind of stuff is going on with this alpha. We’ve got a dozen outstanding issues, but nothing that can’t be solved with brute force (that is to say, late nights and lost weekends). Everything fits in the game, more or less, and what is already there is astonishing.

So the last I’ll say about alpha is, we made it, and the game is awesome, and the team is great. We’re crossing ‘Ts’ and dotting ‘Is,’ but this is the smoothest alpha I’ve ever experienced.

This would not be the case at a less professional outfit than Oddworld, but strangely enough, there aren’t as many shoestring garage shops as there used to be. The barnstorming days of seat‐of‐the‐pants game production have largely passed. Why? I’ll tell you in my next column, if the ten billion loose details of alpha don’t put me down for the big ’dirt nap.‘

— Paul O’Connor, Oddworld Inhabitants, 14 July 1998

NEXT: Barriers to Entry