What does “alpha release” mean?

Posted in EpicTable Development on December 26, 2009 at 8:43 pm

I’ve been putting off posting an update on the EpicTable alpha, hoping that I could post a date–and afraid that I’ll blurt one out 😉 —but I wanted to give you an update before the new year. I don’t have a release date for you, but I do have a few notes on the nature of the alpha and how to evaluate whether it’s for you.

First off, I know a lot of different companies have different ideas about alpha, beta, and general-availability releases, so let me give you my take on what an “alpha release” means for EpicTable.

What is the EpicTable Alpha?

What are the distinguishing characteristics of an alpha release?
  • It’s not “feature complete”—that is, some features are missing. This doesn’t mean that those features won’t be there for the final release—they’re just not there yet. The typical reason for a feature being “cordoned off” like this is that there’s something about it that I know will change, or there’s some bug in it, and I know I’m not going to get valuable feedback on it because of that.
  • It’s a “wet paint” release, meaning it went from my development machine, through my build server, and almost directly on to you. I’ve done some sanity-checking of it, but it’s basically what I’m running in my development environment.
  • There’s no documentation. If something’s not clear from the UI—and hey, it might not be, since you’re seeing it for the first time, and I’ve probably been looking at it for months—you’ll need to ask me about it via the forum or the email or skype. This is really useful, because it can guide my documentation effort and maybe result in some changes to make something more intuitive.

Why will there be an EpicTable Alpha?

What do alpha test participants get out of the alpha?
  • An opportunity to shape EpicTable 1.0 while it’s still “kinda mushy”.
  • An early look at EpicTable and a gauge of how far along it is.
What do I (i.e., John Lammers, the EpicTable developer) get out of the alpha?
  • Valuable feedback from you folks.
  • Pure, terror-driven adrenaline at the thought that one or more of you will mistake the alpha for the final product and get the wrong impression.

How do you know if the alpha is for you?

Are you your group’s “technology scout”?
If you are your gaming group’s “technology scout”, the EpicTable alpha is a good opportunity to see how EpicTable fits or doesn’t fit for your group. Keep in mind that some things may be missing or just plain broken, so please, please, contact me with questions and suggestions. Now’s a good time to talk about what you need and to influence the final phase of EpicTable 1.0’s development.
Are you a virtual tabletop enthusiast?
I think EpicTable has a lot to love. If you can bear with me through some missing or lightly-tested features, the EpicTable alpha’s an interesting preview. If you’d rather see it in something closer to final form, you might be better off waiting for the beta.
Are you a game designer?
If you’re a game designer and you want to talk about the capabilities of EpicTable, see some first-hand, and talk to me about features needed to run your game in a VT, the alpha’s a good place for you. Keep in mind that some things you need might be planned and just not in the alpha, but now’s a good time to start talking to me.
Do you just want to run your weekly game?
You shouldn’t rely on the alpha as the virtual tabletop for your gaming group unless your group is interested in virtual tabletops and willing to let the technology be a distraction from the game. As much as I’d love for the alpha to be really solid, and as much as it’s going to pain me to get reports of problems and confusion, that’s just the nature of an alpha. If you’re just trying to get some gaming in, wait for the beta. As soon as it seems like the alpha is stable enough and feature-complete enough, I’ll make it a beta. That’s my signal to you that while EpicTable is still unfinished, it’s stable enough for you to use for gaming with minimal disruption.

Updates and the Road Ahead

How often will the EpicTable alpha release be updated?
Pretty often. Weekly-ish, or quicker, depending on what’s going in. I’ll make sure the update mechanism is in place before the alpha is out, so I can get automatic updates to you easily. As I finish chunks of functionality, address issues, or make changes in response to feedback, I’ll release an update.
Will you have to update?
Yes and no. The fact that you’re participating in the alpha will, I hope, make you want to take the updates as soon as they’re available. The auto-update mechanism won’t force you to take an update. However, the alpha license is time-boxed. By the time the beta is out, you won’t be able to use the alpha. This is just so I don’t still have alpha users to support during the beta or after EpicTable is released.
Will updates be backwards-compatible?
For the alpha, “usually”. I won’t make backwards-incompatible changes on a whim, but I won’t let concern for backwards-compatibility slow me down. My main goal for the alpha is preview-and-feedback, not ongoing game support. Of course, the beta period will be less likely to introduce backwards-incompatible changes, and by the 1.0 release, the time for backwards-incompatible changes will have passed.
Beta? What’s the beta?
Like the alpha, it’s pre-release software. Unlike the alpha, it’s feature complete. Features may still change due to feedback, but there won’t be large chunks of the product simply missing. It will also be more stable—that is, I’ll put updates through more rigorous testing before I release them.
And then the real release?
Yeah, once the beta has been out long enough to have generated enough feedback to convince me that EpicTable is a stable, viable virtual tabletop. I’ll release it “for real”. …And then, I’ll start talking to you about some things already queued up for EpicTable 2.0.
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