From my time

As a sort of indirect follow up to my last posting regarding unfinished games, I wanted to give a bit of professional perspective to things.

Now, one of the big complaints about a lot of games these days is the lack of QA. Now, for those of you not in the know, QA is Quality Assurance. Every game goes through different levels of QA testing. Be it compliance (making sure that the release meets the standards of the specific platform Sony, Microsoft, etc), localisation (compliant with language standards of the region it’s being released in) and functionality (making sure, you know, that the game works and all).

I used to do QA testing for a living. And before people start getting all “wow playing video games for a living? AWESOME!” It’s not as cushy as it sounds. Don’t get me wrong, the company I worked for is definitely my favourite that I’ve worked for to date, but there is a lot to be said for the actual job. I’m not going to get into this now. If you want to know more, I’m happy to answer questions in comments or you can e-mail (theegogames@gmail.com) or tweet me.

What I want to focus on is how some of the issues we’re seeing become predominant in gaming arise.

The biggest issue, at least in my opinion: not enough time. The last big project I worked on was a AAA title for the PS3. Now, this game was a sequel and what I can tell you is that the original time from from start to release was approximately two years. The development cycle for the game I worked on: Nine months…Now, there are some things to take for granted like the fact that an engine doesn’t need to be developed for the game the second time around. But, where as the first game had a little over a year for testing/development, this one didn’t have anywhere near that kind of time. This one had about six months. Now, as a tester, you’re expected to find tens of thousands of bugs over the course of the project. Which, given how many builds a game goes through, isn’t really a challenge. But it is a challenge for the devs to be able to fix everything. There comes a time in a project, especially when they are rushed, that choices have to be made to decide whether or not it’s worth the time to fix said issue. Now, there are going to be a lot of small things that your average player won’t run into, the issue is when those things you don’t have time for, end up in the forefront. Like it did in AC: Unity, ME: Andromeda, etc.

The other big issue I ran into was devs butting heads with testers. Like any time you’re dealing with other people, you’re going to have clashes over decisions. For me, I can remember a series of what I considered extremely obvious bugs (one being a game breaker if you play like me) just being flat out denied (ignored too, but consciously) by the devs. I had to watch one of them play out during an E3 demo. There seems to be some level of animosity between the two stations, with the devs often feeling superior due to their more “prestigious” placement in the scheme of things. Sometimes the end result of a bug going un-dealt with is simply a matter of opinion or (sometimes) pig-headedness. One such instance I faced, having a background in writing/editing, I pointed out and corrected a number of text issues (grammar, spelling, etc) where rather than just copy/pasting my corrections (as emphasised by my supervisor and the functionality manager of the company) they chose instead to leave the mistakes in place.

Well, that’s a small glimpse behind the curtain and a bit of my experience. It definitely doesn’t answer all of the questions, but I hope it sheds a little light on things.

– The Ego

Quintessence Quintinued

After writing yesterday’s post, I found an interesting article on IGN (of all places). The insights offered were from fans and players, rather than the staff (thankfully). You can find it here.

I think the second post hit it right on the head. It got past all of the jargon I was losing myself in. It’s the experience that matters most. Having all of the elements the other points made definitely makes the game, but it’s the experience that those elements combined offers that determines quality. The experience, in this case though, is delivered through balance. A word I’ve struggled with and hated for the majority of my life. Mostly, due to my inability to obtain it.

I can’t think of a single game that I wouldn’t consider great that didn’t have each of those elements in proportion to each other. Certainly, as I said, you can find individual elements of greatness or quality in just about any game. I struggle to think of any games I’ve played that didn’t succeed at least one of the major areas that people use to define quality (or perfection).

Editing note: I thought of one, Knack.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? Great graphics don’t make the game. Neither does great story/writing. The balancing act of the sum of the parts is where quality rears its head. The independent features only offer a novelty. A distraction. Which is fine. The audience is definitely looking for that distraction. However, the ability to walk away from that distraction and be able to relive it time and time again – to find that it is in fact timeless, is the denotation of true quality.

I think the nature of quality, also, lies in the ability of the end user to recognise it. In my time of gaming, and more recently in selling the media, I have found that even if all of these elements manage to find themselves within the same game, that it doesn’t inherently equate quality. I’ve had many arguments with customers and co-workers that specific games are definitely games I would label as quality – and they disagree with me. Now, choice and individual criteria most certainly factor in to this decision. However, I think, much like in literature, there are certain titles that are universally good. You’d find yourself hard-pressed to find an admirer of quality books that doesn’t have an appreciation for Shakespeare. I think there are games that fit that bill as well.

Bioshock Infinite is one that quickly comes to mind. Because not only does it have each and every one of the elements that combined and balanced out represent quality. But it manages to do something very few titles can. It turns back into itself, tying it all in, and reiterating its own brilliance. Through its infinite (huh, see what I did there?) possibilities – story-wise, I mean – it demonstrates all of the levels of quality: graphics, story and play, and continues the experience in the mind of the player. Knowing that a game like that can demonstrate limitless potential, because it hinges on the player’s experience instead of forcing the user to take note. The quality to take note of, in this case, is that the piece of art – game or whatever you want to call it – is able to express introspection and self-reflexiveness.

Now, to finish up, I’m not making any claims that a game needs to have that or it has failed. All I’m saying is, convoluted as it may seem (even to me, to an extent) is that there are even levels of quality, within the defining act of trying to place that title onto something. In this case, games.

I hope that to some extent, you the readers (and hopefully the person who asked the question that stirred in my brain for some time) are able to take something away from this. I’m not sure if I did any justice to answering the initial question, but it made me think.

– The Ego

Quality qualifier

I was having an interesting conversation with a customer, if he’s reading – I promised this post – and I live up to my word. He had asked me about upcoming technologies, and of course, I was fully interested in engaging on the topic, for obvious reasons. We started to discuss the VR tech that is due to “change” gaming. I’ve already expounded my feelings about that.

He had said to me, it would be interesting to define what makes something quality. So, this is my (hopefully not) vain attempt to answer that question.

For me, quality, in the narrow view of the world of gaming, really boils down to the sum of the pieces. As a writer, and a lover of the written word, part of me wants to say that it’s really the writing that makes or breaks a title. But I really do think it’s a bit of everything.

Now, certainly, it is easier for bad writing/story, for example, to be the crux of what makes a game bad. And less so, for bad graphics to be the straw, as it were. I guess in some sense, the concepts that make games amazing, are inversely correlated to what makes games bad.

Now, that may sound like gibberish, but please, bear with me.

If I’m playing a game, Final Fantasy Tactics for example, the quality of the story is what drives my love and obsession with said title. The graphics (while charming) and gameplay (good for what it is) are summarily less important. Now, if the inverse were true, that being: the story being bad and the graphics/gameplay being top notch, I think it would have proved to be a failure. It certainly wouldn’t be a title that has stuck with me for this long and caused me to buy it on five separate occasions.

My point being: A high-quality game needs to possess exceedingly good story/writing, stunning graphics, interesting and/or innovative gameplay mechanics and it must find a balance between those elements such that one isn’t entirely overwhelming.

What’s interesting, if one were to delve a little deeper (and, naturally, I intend as such) and being to rate the importance of any of those elements, I’d say that it quickly becomes a murky quagmire. As I said, certainly, bad writing, no matter how good the gameplay, can be detrimental. But, while that one element can skew the results, it’s more the interplay between the concepts. It is less so the one or the many that make something high quality. What it boils down to is how well those ideals play off of each other.

Mad Max, which I wrote about yesterday, is proving to be just such an example. The world the game is set in is visually stunning, and has a depth to it that speaks volumes about the care and thought that went into its creation. The dialogue and the story so far are gripping and interesting. The stylised violence and combat system is engaging and challenging. With all of these elements in proportion to each other, greatness is assured.

I feel as though I’m having trouble expressing my point. So I will say it plainly. If one of these elements finds itself an outlier, that meaning – it is disproportionate to the respective whole, the overall quality suffers. If the story is too good, and the other aspects can’t be held to the same standard, the overall quality suffers. A title like The Last of Us, comes to mind. It had such depth and feeling. The story was gripping and something that could not be averted. But aspects of the gameplay were so harrowing that even though the story was so incredible, it suffers as a whole. If the other aspects were on the high level that the story had set, it would be one of those “works of art” games that fans are so often heralding. Instead, it languished for me. Which is unfortunate at best.

More on this tomorrow.

– The Ego