The Purpose of the Pre-Alpha Tests

Clockwork Labs
9 min readNov 1, 2021

(and what you can expect)

We have understandably gotten many questions about the Pre-Alpha tests since we announced the game in September. I’d like to answer some of them in this game design blog post!

I’m going to take this opportunity to explain a bit more about the purpose of our Pre-Alpha tests and what you can expect from the tests. It should also give you a better idea of what stage of development the game is in and a bit more about the game’s design.

We began initial development of BitCraft at the very end of 2018, almost three years ago. Initially it was just a two person effort with Alessandro and me developing everything. We spent the first year building out much of the foundational technology that would be required to run the game. At the end of 2019 we had the first working prototype. Although we had a clear vision for BitCraft being a community sandbox MMORPG, at the time it wasn’t clear exactly which of the mechanics and gameplay we envisioned would work best. During 2020 and 2021 we began testing our prototypes and our gameplay assumptions in stealth mode and we slowly began growing the team. After two years of iterations on the game, we felt it was at a point where we should share our vision with players and begin testing the gameplay on a larger scale. We’ve come a long way from our initial prototype, but there’s still a long way to go and the Pre-Alpha tests are the beginning of that journey.

Testing Phases

Over the years the meaning of the terms “Alpha” and “Beta” testing has shifted. As they’ve shifted to mean something closer to an “early release” of the game, developers have come up with new names like “Pre-Alpha” to signal that the project is not ready for release. To avoid as much confusion as possible, I’d like to explain what those terms mean to us and how you can interpret our use of them for BitCraft.

Pre-Alpha: During the Pre-Alpha phase of testing the game is still fully in development. The purpose of having any external people play it at all is purely for us to test specific aspects of the features, tech, and game design. During and after Pre-Alpha testing the game is expected to change considerably, both because it is incomplete and because through testing with external players we get to find out which things are broken or not as fun as we envisioned. Further, since the technology and core game content is still in development there could be significant bugs or performance issues. The game will also be missing many of the features that we eventually intend to add as our game and technology matures. During this period, our highest priority features are ones that are core to the game’s foundation and technology rather than features that are highly requested but straightforward to add in the future. Of course, that being said, we will endeavor to make the experience as seamless and fun as possible for our testers because we can’t learn anything unless people are having fun. Perhaps most importantly, some of the ideas that we have planned for the game may turn out not to work at all, and we may have to move in a different direction. We should expect that though, because that’s what testing is all about. In short, the Pre-Alpha is about development, rather than providing players a first look at the game.

Alpha: The Alpha phase of testing will be the first phase of testing which represents the true spirit of what we’re trying to achieve, and thus it will be viewable by the public. During this phase of testing the game will still be incomplete and will be fully under development, however we won’t begin this Alpha phase unless we feel that we can build on a proven foundation of core game mechanics. The purpose of this phase is still to aid in development, but instead of focusing on core systems, it will focus on adding new features, deeper gameplay, and game balancing. I don’t know yet what promises we can make in terms of performance, uptime, and bugs, but these things will be a larger part of our focus during this phase.

Beta: The Beta phase of testing will be the first phase of testing that will in some way be accessible to a much broader audience. The purpose of the Beta phase is essentially to do one or more dry runs of the final release of the game. At this point in development, we will be focusing primarily on game balance, content design, bug fixing and polish. The game state will be wiped before the final release, but there will be a stronger guarantee of long term persistence during the Beta.

Release: Once we feel that we have a complete game to offer to players, we will release the game live. Development doesn’t stop after we go live, but once it’s live we have a responsibility to maintain every player’s progress. The game will only go live once we are certain that we will not need to wipe the game world, we will not have economic collapse, there is enough long-term content, the content is balanced, and performance is good.

Purpose of the Pre-Alpha

As a general rule, we do not usually do testing unless there are questions that we need to answer in order to continue development. So let’s get into specifics. What are we trying to test during our Pre-Alpha phase?

The idea of BitCraft is a giant sandbox world where players build up a functioning civilization from the wilderness. To say that such a game is a complicated system is an enormous understatement. I won’t lie to you, it’s going to take a lot of iteration and testing to get it balanced. One of the trickiest things is that it’s not a steady-state system like essentially all MMORPGs. The game changes over time as players build the civilization. The key to getting this right, I believe, is to take it one step and one test at a time. That’s why our early testing will focus on testing certain aspects of our game in a vacuum.

Structure of the Pre-Alpha

The Pre-Alpha will be structured into several short discrete tests punctuated by periods of development. The first Pre-Alpha test will run for about one weekend before we take the server down. After the server comes down, we will make changes to the game based on feedback and our learnings and begin preparing the next test.

The first Pre-Alpha test will be limited to a very small number of people, comprising mostly friends and family from the development team, but also some randomly selected members of the community. This test is not really a gameplay test as much as it is a test of our technology and our process for running the Pre-Alpha tests.

The next test will comprise a slightly larger group of randomly selected members of the community and will focus on the survival aspect of the gameplay. In this test we want to establish that players are able to figure out the early gameplay and that the gameplay is fun enough for them to complete a shortened version of the content. It will essentially be an extended tutorial which will be closer to a curated demo then a full game. For example, we do not imagine players will be able to create towns, empires, or groups in this test.

The test after that will begin to layer in some longer-term content. With this test we’ll want to see if higher level content is sufficiently exciting and motivating to cause players to establish their own goals and work towards achieving them.

Beyond this we will begin testing the balancing of group play, social dynamics, and the economy of the game world. Those are some of the trickier things to get right. I imagine we’ll want to spend a fair amount of time making sure we get this right before moving on.

What Can I Expect For Gameplay?

Please keep in mind, almost nothing in the Pre-Alpha is final and everything is subject to change, possibly even down to the very base systems of the game. There’s also quite a bit of polishing needed. Performance is not amazing yet. There is no music or sound design. Some systems are placeholder and we expect to replace them. I don’t mean to downplay it too much though. We believe players who are passionate about the vision of BitCraft will have fun learning about the game and will enjoy their time exploring the world of BitCraft.

How Long Will the Pre-Alpha Phase Last?

All in all, we believe the Pre-Alpha testing phase will last at least 6 months. It’s hard to put an upper bound on the total duration of the Pre-Alpha however, since the real answer is that Pre-Alpha testing will continue until we’re satisfied that the core mechanics and core gameplay are definitely on the right track. If we find that there are major problems with the design, we will keep the game in Pre-Alpha until we fix those problems. If however we’re happy with the overall direction of the game, the Pre-Alpha period will be relatively shorter.

How Many People Will Have Access to the Pre-Alpha?

This is very difficult to say because it depends on how much and how quickly we are able to learn from our tests. Early tests will have very few people, but the number of people per test will grow over the course of testing.

Please keep in mind that we had a huge number of people sign up for our Pre-Alpha (>100k) and it is very unlikely that we need that many people to conduct our testing. Don’t lose heart, though, without considering two very important points:

  1. The fewer people we need for the Pre-Alpha, the sooner we will be able to move to Alpha testing where we have the core mechanics locked in.
  2. The current version of the game is the worst it will ever be. Our philosophy is to test early and often. That’s the only way to build a solid game. It also means that the early tests are going to be the least fun that BitCraft will ever be, so it really won’t be the end of the world if you miss out.

Your excitement for our game has given us so much motivation in just the one month since the announcement. I’m consistently taken aback by how excited you are for this game. We’ve always felt that this is a type of game that didn’t exist but that we desperately wanted to play, and now we know that you feel the same way. All that’s left is building and testing.

— Tyler (3Blave, Cofounder of Clockwork Labs)