Wrote a big... thing.... over on reddit regarding some of the implications to the "pay-for-an-alpha" business model from the Indie Stone fallout. But since reddit is currently downvoting absolutely any discussion on the topic that isn't driven by pitchforks, torches, and a holier-than-thou attitude I thought I'd post it here, if only because it is SO MUCH TEXT that I demand someone read it:
I think there's a lot of angles here - some lessons from the failures on behalf of Indie Stone, and some takeaways about community expectations and the difference between indie developers and AAA game studios.
The first, biggest takeaway is this: Do not monetize until you have something to offer. When Minecraft launched with its pay-for-the-alpha model, it was already a pretty popular 3D lego sim that let players build all sorts of neat things in the environment and explore a procedurally generated world. Subsequent updates were promised, but Notch made it pretty clear that you were buying the game as-is. While you were eligible for all upgrades up through release and could see the promise of where the project was heading, you were effectively acting as an early access beta tester and/or angel investor to support the game's further development. Note that there's nothing wrong with this as long as it's clearly conveyed as such.
Indie Stone/Project Zomboid struggled with this. They wanted funding first to ensure they could complete what was admittedly designed to be a fairly complicated game. They didn't have an alpha to give out - at least, not one that really had much gameplay to it the way Minecraft did. This is why PayPal and GoogleCheckout and others shut them down. And eventually they figured out a workaround that sort of halfway worked - sell one of their older, smaller games and have the promise of a free version of Project Zomboid when it was finished. When they finally did end up rushing out an Alpha to placate fans, it was light on content and was probably more of a distraction from continued development to placate paid customers. Be sure that if you approach this model you wait until you actually have something, and also that it's a game that supports iterative releases. Minecraft was fun before there were Ender Men and The Nether and procedurally generated houses. Is your game already fun and worth $8 for a preorder? Can you easily release iterative updates that don't kill your bandwidth? If not, introducing other people's money into the equation might just complicate things.
I mean, Braid could never have supported this model. Braid is so compact, so cohesive, and so complete in its experience that I can't imagine playing an alpha where only three of the five worlds were completed, the ending didn't exist yet, and temp art was used for half of the enemies. You need a game that is open and dynamic. Terraria is another good example, with new weapons, monsters, and craftable items being added regularly. Project Zomboid may well have fit that definition, but they jumped the gun on monetizing - they didn't even have anything to update for months. So ultimately, I think, this is a business model that works for specific types of games in specific at very specific stages of development, and while it can be really powerful in terms of spreading word of mouth and bringing in additional income to the studio it is absolutely not a panacea to the funding woes of an indie development studio.
That said, I think that the community needs to adjust its own expectations as well. I don't know if it's because there's such a lack of understanding about the development process or what, but gamers don't seem to recognize that there's a difference between four guys in a loft in England and the multinational organization that is EA. If I donate to a local band or invest in a Kickstarter to help a documentary I'm interested in, I feel like I've done well - I've helped to enable someone to create something of value. But that sense of acting as a patron of the arts doesn't really exist with gamers. The view isn't "I spent $8 in support of independent game developers and got a cheap alpha out of the deal!", it's "When the fuck is Notch going to release that content pack he promised for this game I paid $15 for a year ago?" Gamers are so inured by "games as a product" that they fundamentally reject the idea of "Games as a creative endeavor." Creativity breeds risk; it implies failure. Instead of joining these creative people in taking that risk, we condemn them for wasting our money.
I mean, seriously, I've never seen so many people so goddamned furious over a matter of $8. Instead of being depressed that we came together as a community to support a developer that unfortunately failed in their goals, the response was instead "Fuck these guys, I want my money's worth!"
The reason developers need to do things like sell an alpha that doesn't exist is that they don't have the funding to easily carry the game through to completion. There's the impression that because Notch managed to strike gold every pay-for-the-alpha system out there is a get-rich quick scheme designed to do nothing but generate revenue. This can't be further from the truth - a lot of time this is done literally just to keep the project afloat.
I mean, think of this scenario: What if the reason that they stopped development wasn't because of the robbery, but because they just plum ran out of money? It's entirely possible that investments of $8/pop over the internet isn't enough to support four people in England full-time. Would things have been any different? Of course not - there would still be the screams of "SCAM!" and the accusations of con-artistry and exploitation. The problem isn't that these people idiotically didn't have SVN, the problem is that the ultimate "product" would never materialize. And gamers, hostile to the idea of not getting the game they envisioned the alpha would turn into, stormed the castle with pitchforks and torches at the ready.
So I think it's going to take time for the community to reconcile the idea that an indie project can fail, and to recognize that early investment in a project with potential is just that - it's not a guarantee you're going to be getting the most badass zombie sim in the world two years from now, it's a financial lifeline to a project you support.