The Creative Process #10 - Getting that Alpha
Doing whatever the opposite is of leading a wolf pack or dominating in day trading.
After the chocolate-infused tumult of Easter, a sweep of various colds, and shepherding my daughter through her first school holidays, I felt like I needed to check in again with my accountability buddy Mike on my game, Hand Me Down. I had put off our meeting a little due to the busy-ness, and a little because I wasn’t hitting my goals.
And, to be honest, while I wholeheartedly agreed with Mike’s proposed goals, I had mostly forgotten the details.
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In any case, I had managed a few good writing sessions on my game and it was worthwhile at least talking about that. Mike, a fellow creative, understood the different paces between progress and goals, and I hadn’t done too poorly.
But then we started talking timelines. I intend to enter Hand Me Down into IF Comp this year, in September-October. I figured I needed some beta-testing in June-August. Mike put it to me like this:
Okay, so we’ve got a timeline. But no-one but yourself has seen this game you’ve put so much time into. I’m keen to see it. Why not do an alpha test?
An alpha test is designed to be a first, very early look. It’s not even at the stage of “needs polish” like a beta-test, but can be at the stage of “needs fundamental infrastructure”. Pieces might be altogether wrong or missing, but at least something will be there so you can get a sense of the project and the vector it is on.
As the creator, I had two possible approaches:
Given my confidence in the project, I could go full auteur with it, avoiding any outside influence by hiding it until it was ready for publication.
The other alternative was to give people an early look and get feedback.
With Hand Me Down I was intent on doing something different. Surely if I do the opposite strategy that yielded a bad outcome, I must, by the sheer weight of mathematics, do okay. Right?
Preparing for the alpha
Independently I had been keen on taking some time off to focus on Hand Me Down. In recent years I’ve taken extended periods of time off to attempt to fire the afterburners on creative projects. I had to delay this one because of work.
Syncing the alpha test up with my leave was a no-brainer. That said, I had initially and timidly suggested I do the surge of work, and then release an alpha. Mike suggested it’d be better to ride my own wave of interest in the project by scheduling the alpha beforehand or during the leave, so when feedback came in, it would propel me forward even stronger.
I had a week to prepare.
I had to pause and look at the project not on what I was focussing on, but what was the project like at this very moment, especially to people without my grand vision of what it would become. I had to play through the game and admit to the rough parts. Especially the sections that I had delegated to Future Brett.
I figured out a decent scope, some expectations and then wrote myself a 37-item to-do list to clean things up. It was the virtual equivalent of having to rush around and tidy the house before parents arrived for an impromptu-casual-but-still-your-parents visit. In some rooms I had made objects and just dumped them onto the floor. I had NPCs with conversation paths that would just stop dead. I wasn’t even straight on terms describing the overall structure of the game.
After putting a notice on the Interactive Fiction forums, I got to work tidying things up.
Tangles with Twine
The basic premise of the game is that your father has written a game for you. You are given the game, and then you play it. There’s a little more narratively going on than this, so it felt natural to distinguish the outer story from the inner story. The outer story is more modern and savvy, whereas the inner one is more traditional and historical. So it made sense to me that the outer game would be in Twine, and the inner game in TADS 3.
I’ve had this idea for a while and was sure it was technically doable. Turns out having a short deadline and a few potential IF newbies as testers hones the mind. I prepared a webpage that stepped testers from the newly-rewritten Twine intro and into a browser-run TADS 3 player. I had solved the technical problem. It’s not as smooth and pretty as I’d like (oh there’ll definitely be some CSS-wrangling in the future) but it worked.
The intro was also written with the old story in mind. Originally a character called Will was Ruby’s stepbrother through very complicated and weird circumstances. It was simpler that he became her partner instead. I had to reshape the brotherly teasing into a kinder response.
The introduction when you are dumped into the parser game also needed rewriting to remove some old artifacts of me trying to write the game without the Twine intro.
I was also keenly aware that what was natural and obvious to me, will not be so for new players, experienced or otherwise. Even though it hurt, I made some of the gameplay and narrative really explicit. I even put in a little sandwich board to
whack the player over the head with clue players in.
Tying on the wings, midflight
The main parser game boils down to three puzzles: find an invitation to a party, find a costume to wear, and find something to share at the party. For each of those types of puzzles I have 5 different solutions. Each of those solutions requires a few components.
I certainly did not have 15 completed puzzles ready. I had some of the costumes roughly implemented — costume pieces were written and thrown into rooms with exactly zero mise en scene. None of the invitations were ready, but I put a freebie in an out-of-the-way place. And there was one shareable that had been implemented.
As a point of honour in my early alpha, I made sure that you could at least satisfy the three main puzzles, even if it wasn’t a polished or even clear experience. I wrote a walkthrough that works. There are some complicated checks and dialogue trees to get this to work in its basic form. Just for my own benefit, I’m gonna repeat: It works.
Really, at this point, my alpha is better polished than my final release of Mix Tape. Scratch off one reason that I might come back as a ghost.
World’s best but cheapest welcome mat
In addition to getting the game into a runnable state, I made sure I could clear the path as much as possible for my alpha testers. I made a website in Bootstrap with instructions on what to do, and even a nice picture to evoke mood. I made a feedback form. I gave testers options and thanked them profusely. I wrote project background for context, in case testers wanted it.
I feel like I may have gone overboard, but I needed to get as much juice from this alpha as I could. And I was so grateful for anyone looking at my little project, that I felt I owed them the very best I could offer, given the constraints.
Inside my head it was the expected rollercoaster of emotions. Confidence that I was whipping through long-standing problems at the rate of knots and that the project looked great from certain standpoints. Timid pride at sections that I felt were good and hoped they might like too. And of course, doubt. Fear that it was all variegated faff by someone who should have been a better writer decades ago. Just real crazy nonsense. The ideas that pop into your head when your creative work hasn’t seen any sunlight.
But I recognized the same feelings that started this very Substack experiment. Quiet, half-alien, half-old-friend feelings of “This is hard and scary, and I’m not 100% confident in my abilities, but that means it is absolutely the right thing to do.”
At the time of writing I’ve gotten feedback from two people at different ends of the player spectrum. Mike hasn’t really played IF. Brian has probably played every IF piece. They both had warm, encouraging things to say about it. And they provided excellent play-through transcripts, which are worth their weight in gold.
I have a few more to hear from, but I definitely have enough feedback (and confidence) to surge on the game for two weeks. While it might have been easy if they said it was garbage, and then I could spend two weeks playing video games, it is better for my soul that this has turned out okay. I just gotta keep writing!
Speaking of video games…
It’s not all programming and writing. In my sick and low-energy days I’ve played some games this month. I restarted a game of Graveyard Keeper, a game where you’re… well, you can guess.
It has fantastic pixel art, wackadoo writing and an interesting but frustrating XP mechanic. Last time I played it years ago, I got caught in some progress rut. This time I figured out research in the church and powered through.
In recent years I’ve been more precious of my game time, and allergic to empty grind. Graveyard Keeper is right on the line between grind and actual progression. They respect your time by opening up shortcuts and improvements, but occasionally you can miss a small trick (for example, paper production is easy but vital for research) and kneecap yourself. Or you need 50 silver for an advancement when you’re only making a few at a time.
Shadows of Doubt
A little marvel of a game arrived this month called Shadows of Doubt. You are a noir private investigator who tries to solve crimes in a little pre-cyberpunk city. What’s amazing is that the entire game is procedurally generated. All the residents are generated and wander the world in real-time between work and home. Crime scenes have all sorts of clues and you need to do proper detecting.
And of course, when you accumulate evidence it goes on a pin board with red string connecting facts together.
It’s incredible in that you aren’t given everything on a silver platter. You might have a name but no other details. By looking them up in the phone book, skulking around their apartment complex and following them to work you might build up a dossier on them and whether they were involved in a crime.
But the city lives on. I’ve read about people following a serial killer and finally getting a break in the case. They head to an apartment… only to find that they were hours too late and the serial killer has struck again, and the cops have a shiny yellow tape barricade around the very evidence you want to get.
My own story had me turn up to a heavily-guarded murder scene, convince a kindly neighbour to let me poke around their house for $50 (turning on all their lights as they tried to turn them out and go to sleep); sneak into the murder scene via an airduct and some questionable collision detection; get a name of another resident in a puzzle on a scrap of paper; convinced them to look over their house for $50; fall ass-backwards into some irrefutable evidence and then booked the second resident for the murder after drinking some old milk I found in the fridge at the murder scene. I used the bounty to buy a hovel near the docks, and went back to the second apartment to clean up some extra evidence for bonus money, got into a fistfight with the accused’s lover and had to hot-tail it outta there after taking a photo of a sword.
You know, normal detective stuff.
My daughter routinely steals my iPad and plays fairly mindless games on it (I try to skew them towards the creative, so it isn’t completely empty calories). She wanted to play a game on my computer with me. Steam is useless for young kids and family games, but I remembered that I had Scribblenauts Unlimited from many years ago. My daughter is learning to read and spell, so this seemed ideal.
It’s definitely been great bonding time, and an opportunity for her to learn the QWERTY keyboard layout and practice spelling. Her puzzle-solving juice runs out quickly, and she doesn’t quite grok that she can type LITERALLY ANYTHING and it’ll be in the game. I also forgot that the game is savvy, so has all sorts of little references to pop culture, many of which my daughter doesn’t have. I had to explain both Christian Easter and the Cthulhu Mythos in the same month. *opens Scribblenauts journal and types HUGE MEDAL for myself*
Mike is not just my accountability buddy and my tabletop boardgame colleague, but he also makes games outside of work. His latest — inspired by the hot air balloon launches in Canberra — is called Aloft. You competitively launch balloons to attempt to make a beautiful tableau in the sky.
Mike is very productive and puts out new games regularly. Most are great. Some I feel it needs something or it’s not quite for me. Aloft is the real deal. It’s a fantastic game and has incredible potential. It has just the right combination of beautiful simplicity and interesting complexity.
I helped do some playtesting and brainstorming this month. I hope to do some simulation work for him to scope out the strategy space. But he’s put a lot of work into it, and it looks superb. I hope to point you all to your Local Friendly Games Store in the future to buy it.
The Surge of May
So on Monday I’ll start my leave. I hope to do some great work on Hand Me Down, and perhaps have a little time for chores and other explorations. It’s a cold, wet autumn here, so it’s good weather for knuckling down with a cup of coffee as copilot.