Alpha is an interesting concept in MMOs. It is simple enough in principle. Do as much damage as possible, and do it all at once. Sounds pretty simple, and it usually is, however there’s usually trade offs. Weapons capable of high alpha often do terrible damage per second (DPS) For example in EvE the 1400mm cannons so beloved of every nullsec fleet do absolutely anemic damage. The more DPS centric blasters do good damage, but also fire incredibly fast resulting in far higher damage per second.
What makes alpha the king of many fights is the “window of opportunity” for using it. That is, making the most of the time you get. Whether it’s killing a target before reps can land in EvE, or hitting a fast-moving ‘mech as it scampers between buildings in MWO, in PvP you rarely get to just lay on the triggers and apply a steady stream of hits. You have to hit hard when you can, and be ready for the next strike. What works against alpha is that the weapons that tend to be best for it tend to be BIG. They mean flying a slower ship, one that usually can’t keep up, or running in a larger, slower ‘mech, that is more vulnerable to the fast ankle-biters.
Delivering damage well also requires a certain level of skill, whether it’s ensuring a whole fleet fires its salvos at once (shut up it is a skill I’ve seen fleets that couldn’t alpha a T1 battlecruiser when they had tons of damage on the field) or popping out from cover in MWO to hammer a persistent enemy, people have to know what they are doing, these are usually pretty basic, simple skills. You would be amazed at the number of people who never bother to develop these basic, simple skills.
Things that trump alpha tend to be tough, fast moving enemies that can move through the fire zone, mitigate the damage in some way, and tear apart the alpha boats taking advantage of the fact that they can’t be fast, AND tough, AND deliver a ton of damage. They have to fail on one of these points and a good brawler can get in close, and take advantage of his higher DPS to score the kill, or kite the enemy from beyond range of effective alpha and peck away at him.
Coordinated alpha strikes, involving multiple platforms can be devastating. We’ve all seen the ships in EvE simply evaporate under 1400s, often before half the fleet can fire, or seen a ‘mech torn limb from limb by heavy alpha strikes from the dreaded dual AC-20 builds. In EvE you can’t rep wrecks and in MWO you can’t fight back if you are dead. That’s why a lot of groups build for alpha right now, it plays into their strengths. That’s one of the reasons EvE fleets tend towards alpha-centric weapons (lag is also a big factor.)
So if you aren’t building for alpha, you better have a plan to deal with it. Fly dangerous. Score kills.