Quality assurance (QA) is another critical component of game development. The single best way to test your game is of course to play it and play it until it is solid and as much fun as you know how to make it. The problem with this method is that it will take a very long time for a single person to play through a game in its entirety (which may not even be possible), and a single person will make errors and have a bias.
The industry has yet to come up with a unified testing method that is known as the best practice employed widely. Instead each developer and publisher and indeed each game project tends to have its own QA process. Microsoft appears to be the organization that exerts the most effort in a rigorous QA process.
Most small developers do not have a full-time QA staff, as they would only see useful work roughly half of a project’s lifetime. Larger, multiteam development companies can often gainfully employ a full-time QA staff. For example, BioWare employs a full-time QA department of over ten people, which supplements the even larger QA teams at their publishers, reducing the errors sent to the publishers to speed up development and saving the developers themselves from having to test their own stuff, instead allowing them to focus on finishing new content/features. Smaller developers often cross-train the line producer and associate producer to be the first line of QA with a backup of team-wide testing days.
Publisher QA Parts
All high-profile commercial games receive a considerable amount of professional testing by the publisher’s internal QA department. This department follows the guidelines set by the publisher’s management and works as efficiently as possible to report defects in content and quality to the developer prior to commercial release. Most commercially released games have anticipated release dates that are difficult to postpone in the case of a late project or a particularly buggy one. These internal QA teams are trained to report the severity of the defect and generally create high-quality bug reports that have items prioritized for the development team’s attention.
The QA lead is the person who leads the efforts of the QA staff. The QA lead is always a former tester who showed promise of superior skill in organization and communication. The QA lead coordinates getting new builds or revs of the game in progress.
The QA lead also proofreads all reported defects from her team and discards duplicate and erroneous reports and often rejects reports back to the reporting tester, requesting clarification and/or testing. The QA lead is almost always an aspiring game designer or producer and often includes extensive commentary on the game’s content in order to gain visibility for possible promotion. This is because most publishers have an outdated, poor concept of the QA staff and treat them as lowskilled, low-paid workers, leaving those workers with little choice for a career in QA. Instead they are actively trying to strike out into development or some other role in the game industry. A notable exception to this is Microsoft, which seeks out folks with college degrees and pays well for its QA positions.
The main QA team is the team that will monitor the game’s progress from the time the game is initially submitted to QA through release and often into post-release. The main QA team will go through stages of varying productivity in direct relation to the development team’s ability to respond to the bug reports in a timely fashion. This team is generally referred to as the QA team even though there are many other potential testers of the game. The main QA team will often rotate in fresh team members as a natural process of other games finishing and employee turnover.
Games with significant multiplayer gameplay often have a QA team dedicated to testing this functionality. This is more common with PC games, as console games tend to have much more limited multiplayer gameplay. The multiplayer team is used to be sure all of the modem, LAN, Internet, and matching options are thoroughly tested. Bugs associated with multiplayer code are often more difficult to track down and report; this allows testing of the single-player campaigns and missions to continue on in parallel. In the same manner, individual members of both the multiplayer team and main team are specialists in a particular portion of the game such as a chapter or character class or playable race.
The problem with having dedicated main teams and multiplayer teams who look at the same game from three months to a year is that their ability to discern fundamental problems with gameplay and usability are compromised fairly quickly as they learn the game and lose the critical insight of a new player. It is still important to have efficient teams who know what the game is and what the last reported set of bugs were so they can quickly turn around a bug report to the development team. However, fresh teams are often introduced to a game the closer it comes to shipping, depending on QA resources available internally to the publisher.
The compatibility team is often a dedicated team of QA members who happily rebuild computers all day while testing the major functionality of your game. These guys have very little work to do on a console! The compatibility team usually has a standardized checklist of hardware and operating systems the publisher considers commercially important to support.
Also, all big games are localized into various markets, and native speakers of these languages will be employed to QA both the accuracy and the quality of the localization of the game.
Beta testing is testing performed by unpaid volunteer fans who want a first peek at an upcoming title and who are excited by the opportunity to improve a game before its release. At first many publishers were apprehensive that a beta version of the game would become widely pirated and steal sales from the release version of the game. Or in the case of weaker titles, many publishers consider it a shrewd strategy to avoid the beta testing stage. Perhaps the most successful beta testing programs are run by id; examples of these are Doom and Quake Test. These firstperson shooters had multiplayer gameplay and no single-player missions. Even with only three or so maps to play test, these “tests” by id produced more hours of fun and gameplay than most games ever achieve in their final release. I personally played several hundred hours of Quake Test before Quake was released—sniff— thank you, id!
Bottom line, if you want to make a great game, run a beta test and fix your game until beta testing proves you are ready for release. In recent years the advent of the massively multiplayer game has required extensive beta testing. These massively multiplayer games require hundreds if not thousands of concurrent players to analyze how the server will respond to the stresses of full release. These thousands of beta testers are also required to smooth out the authentication, account management, and game balance to avoid having paying subscribers complete the beta testing period. The sheer costs of these games and the limited rigor employed to date on beta testing programs still results in the pressure to release these games to the public and endure two to six months of painful post-release beta testing that strains the faith of your hardcore, early-adopting fans.
The beta testers are almost always the fans who showed up on your message board when you first opened up shop. They often have beta testing experience or have heard about beta programs and will sometimes be quite proactive in their effort to secure a seat in your beta testing program. The number one rule with beta testers is to communicate with them; failure to do so only creates an expectation in the beta tester’s heart that they are part of the development team, only to find out that their voices are unheard.
Beta Testing Program Manager
To facilitate this communication with the beta testers, one of the development team members often the associate or line producer takes on the role of beta testing program manager. This is a very stressful job. The time period that beta testing takes place is during the final months of a project when everything must come together. The beta testers are anxious to see their reported defects fixed in the very next version of the game and are quite vocal about new features they want and how they want the game to be balanced.
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