For us, the idea of an alpha version is a little more skewed than it is in traditional software development. For many developers, the alpha is the first run at the code. It’s a chance to build out all the parts you need to make your software work and then begin the process of debugging and refinement. Once your alpha is reasonably stable, you move it to beta and invite users to test the software. You collect additional information about bugs and errors and again start the process of improvement and refining until you’ve made it as functional and stable as you can for release. When writing code that isn’t being used in a virtual novel, that is also how we operate. But in creating the Dr. Amana series, we knew that this wasn’t going to be very efficient.
For us, using the Ren’py virtual novel engine meant we already had relatively stable software that functioned like it was intended. The parts of our project that needed to be laid out and go through a process of gradual refinement was the story itself. We had a cast of characters, and a general idea of where the story would end, but what we lacked was a clear path from point A to point B. So while other VN developers might adhere to a more conventional concept of alpha, ours deviates in the sense that our ‘alpha’ is actually a ‘first draft’.
I doubt there is a famous author out there that didn’t write their story two or even three times to really make it everything that it could be. As an amateur novelist myself, I know first-hand how impossible it is to write the perfect story in the first pass. Stories evolve as you write them. You have new ideas, good ideas suddenly seem bad, or a new location or character jumps into your head that is simply too good to ignore. The story is a living thing that takes on a life of its own during creation, and since what we were making was a story and not a game we felt this approach made much more sense.
So the ‘alpha’ version of our software, is in fact the first draft of a story. As you play the alpha, you are going to notice things like rough scene transitions, weak dialogue, shifts in style and modeling. This is because we are experimenting as we go, and letting the story take us where it wants to. We know where the end is, we are just trying to discover the best way there. And along the way, we are improving.
With every new scene we write, we are getting more proficient with the tools of this process. We become more adept at 3D modeling, become better acquainted with the behavior of virtual light and learn to exploit additional features of Ren’py and Python. Combined we have less than four months of 3D modelling experience, but we’re learning and learning fast. But inevitably what happens is that as we get better, so does our product. But then you have inconsistencies of quality the first few chapters begin to look rough and unpolished when compared to the later chapters. So, what do we do? We push on.
We continue writing our first draft scene by scene. And with every addition, we continue to improve. Once we reach our destination, we start the whole process over in beta. Except this time, we’ll have a clear idea of where the story is going and how it is going to get there. And because we know how every character is going to progress along the way, we can focus on improving the little things like tightening up the dialogue, making it more natural, consistent and integrated with the rest of the story. We can add additional menu choices that will have real impact because we don’t have predict all the places the story can go, we’ll already know. And most of all, we can produce every render from start to finish in the highest possible quality creating a uniform look for the entire story.
So yes, we are deviating from the traditional method of software development in that our alpha is in fact a the first draft of a story, but it’s to ensure that the final product has a clear, consistent, beautiful story that makes sense, feels complete and is unified within itself. These are the very reasons we like to say, we aren’t making games, we’re making adult fiction.