Mark Darrah explains what Alpha means in game development: “You open the floodgates for testing”

Former Bioware executive producer Mark Darrah attempted to explain what Alpha means in game development, using Dragon Age: Dreadwolf for example. He listed the distinguishing features of this production stage, also indicating how much time typically elapses between Alpha and launch.

On October 26, BioWare announced that Dragon Age: Dreadwolf has entered the Alpha stage. Mark Darrah, who spent more than 20 years at BioWare before leaving the studio in 2020shared his thoughts in a new video for his Youtube channel (first spotted on Reddit).

What does Alpha really mean in game development?

When BioWare declares Alpha, it means the game has completed a checklist of what needs to be done at this stage of development. Electronic Arts has its own definition of Alpha, so the studio also tries to conform to the requirements of the parent company.

For me, Alpha is more a question of feeling about the project. This is when the game transitions from the start of the expedition preparation to the actual start of the expedition process. I called it when the project is “open for testing”. You open the floodgates for testing. Everything is open for a bug to be filed against it.

Marc Darra

former executive producer at BioWare

Darrah noted that different systems are usually tested in isolation during the early stages of development. During the Alpha, the developers start testing real combat and real missions.

At this stage, many elements of the game are still far from complete. You may not have combat balance or the final version of the lighting system, but “at this point the game should be there”. This means that all the basics should exist, at least in some way.

Alpha also means that the number of design-related bugs quickly begins to exceed the number of programming-related bugs. “You go from testing software to testing media,” Darrah explained.

Alpha is the shape of the game, and now you have to finish filling it. This is where a lot of your polish, combat balance, and a lot of optimization is going to happen. Your TCRs and TRCs to allow you to access consoles will begin to be tested. This is when the testing begins in earnest.

Marc Darra

former executive producer at BioWare

How far could the launch be from Alpha?

Darra declared Alpha for Dragon Age: Inquisition in May 2014. So it was about six months between that milestone and the game’s launch. He said BioWare probably wouldn’t compress that with Dreadwolf.

There are two main reasons for this:

This means that Dreadwolf is not happening this calendar year or fiscal year (for EA it ends March 31, 2023).

Darrah thinks there are two potential release windows for Dragon Age: Dreadwolf, the second quarter of fiscal 2024 (July-September 2023) or the third quarter of fiscal 2024 (October-December 2023).

He also noted that EA is a sports-dominated publisher, so BioWare probably doesn’t want to compete with the big sports titles that all arrive in the second fiscal quarter. So the third quarter of fiscal 2024, which is about a year from the Alpha statement, looks like the optimal release window.

Other things that make Alpha important to developers

When you make a game under a big publisher like EA, reaching a certain milestone always unlocks new benefits and opportunities, including marketing budgets and compatibility testing. “There are instances where you might push yourself to take a big step in order to get the machine rolling,” Darrah said.

He noted that doesn’t mean that’s what happened with Dreadwolf. However, there are instances where this has happened. “Admittedly, in the case of Inquisition, we didn’t meet all the criteria of the EA requirements, and I pushed it through, I signed this document in order to get some of these machines working,” Darra recalls.

I suspect we’re going to get something pretty big from Dragon Age in December at The Game Awards. The project has really improved its communication lately, but they’ve done it in a very fan-centric way. But The Game Awards would be where they would relaunch, re-announce, and seek that greater mainstream attention.

Marc Darra

former executive producer at BioWare