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

Where all roads lead

Sometimes when I’m writing, or thinking about writing, these postings, I think: People are going to start thinking that I’m a Ubisoft fanboy. Well, there were times were I would have said absolutely. That was some time ago. But the quality of the series that put them on the map (Assassin’s Creed) has been seriously slipping down the quality mountain.

But the part of the series no hater can hate on is the Ezio saga.

So, the previously undisclosed area which I have taken off to this year is Italy. Now, I’ve never been here, hell, never been off of the North American content. So coming here has been amazing. We started the trip off in Rome. The sights were mind blowing. Any words I can think of, and this is poignant considering who I am, couldn’t justify the majesty of the history left behind.

Now, I’m sure you’re making the conclusion I’m trying to draw. When I got there, I knew a ton of the history of the area in part because of the Assassin’s Creed series. Now, I’m sure that makes me sound like a bad tourist, etc – but I don’t care.

When I got to my hotel near the Porta Maggorie and I could see the remnants of the outer wall that protected the city, I remembered stalking guards and targets along the wall as Ezio. Running along the Roman aqueducts as I escaped pursuers and kept a watchful eye from above as soldiers harassed innocent citizens. I was able to vividly recall scaling the outside of the Colosseum. Slowly, and not so surely at times, scaling it up to the top and staring down at the base. A sight I (more or less) shared not two days ago.

I was right there…

Now, part of this is my “I’m loving my vacation” rant, and part not. The part that isn’t is wholly grateful and in love with the way that these games are built. The level of detail was (is in some cases) astounding. In that way, Ubisoft has truly created an unparalleled title. Even for the more mediocre offerings – Assassin’s Creed 3 or Unity – there is still a panache to the series that nothing else is able to capture. That panache or je ne said quou is found in the details of history. It’s one thing to take a picture of the Pantheon, digitize it and spiff it up (you know, because it’s supposed to look new then). It’s another thing entirely to take the actual page of history, places, events and give them meaning. Not to mention the ever interesting historical notes on the places involved. With the occasional sprinkling of contextual editorials.

While some may turn their head and scoff at what I’ve set down here today, I hope some take note. Was I already a history buff, specifically on Italy, the Roman Empire and mythology going into the games? Assolutamente! But having it all there, at my finger tips, to consume and not say “I wonder how accurate this wiki is?” is saying something for any source – let alone something meant (at its core) as a diversion. It seems likely to me that the Assassin’s Creed series has probably paved a lot of roads for people who had the bug, the gnawing interest in history, but perhaps lacked the will or drive to pursue it.

I won’t go crazy and say when I stood at the base of the Colosseum that I looked up expectantly, but it would have been pretty cool right? Maybe another time. Maybe another time.

And while nothing, not even the best Ubisoft game, can compare to bearing witness to the real thing, I will certainly give them full marks for the effort. I look forward to moving through the streets of Florence and over the canals of Venice, all with the thought of an amazing character, an amazing game, a great concept and a plethora of great memories to help me through.

– The Ego

Time, time, time

When I see games brought to market by companies like Assassin’s Creed, I can’t help but think – why move to an annual release date? Okay, obviously I get that there is more money in it. That part goes without saying (well, it should have I guess). I even understood it in the making of the Ezio trilogy. Same character, similar art assets and the the country is the same. But moving from the Italy games, into the Americas and completely going in a new direction – that to me is something that needs a break in between.

What bothers me is that games are getting released faster and faster. Something that was a biannual release, or longer, becomes a yearly release, and the quality just isn’t where it should be by the time the game is gold, or released. Last year being the worst of it – two team, two Assassin’s Creed games (Unity for current gen, Rogue for last gen) at the same time…So, there are only two ways to look at it: Either A) Ubisoft is milking the fan base, and they are aware of it, or B) They really think splitting up teams to work on simultaneous releases, is something the fans actually want. I find the latter awfully hard to swallow.

Now, I’ve played Unity. It’s a decent game. I haven’t touched Rogue, but I hear that it’s excellent. Pretty hard to justify picking up a game exclusive to last gen, especially considering all of the remasters. And this isn’t a rant to say that I don’t like the company, or the games. I have bought every title they’ve released in the series, except for the DLC stand-alone games like Freedom Cry, etc. And, as I also said earlier, the majority of titles I’m really looking forward to this year are Ubisoft games.

The problem falls somewhere between games not being finished when they’re released and making the fans feel like, well, like this:

Look at companies like Rockstar or Bethesda. They have huge titles under their belts. GTA V, Fallout 4, etc. Those games come out when they’re supposed to come out. They’re released finished, not half-baked. Do they come out of the box perfect? No, not always. Skyrim was basically unplayable for quite some time on PS3, but my point stands.

The reason why games like Grand Theft Auto V were such huge successes, aside from being an incredible IP, is that Rockstar wants the people who buy their games to get something worthy of their time and money. Fallout 4 is another example of how to do it right. The game is announced, is due to be released within six months of it’s announcement, but has been under construction for long enough that they can show off a (basically) finished product by the E word. When the come with promises for features – they’re actually in the game.

Assassin’s Creed 3 – felt like it got Molyneux’d (Aside: Pretty awesome that it’s actually on Urban Dictonary). Climb anything they said. Use the woods to your advantage they said. Well, neither of those things ended up being [fun]ctional really. And, I feel like it’s the sort of concept that could have been worked out over time. Rather than forcing a deadline.

Speaking from my experience in the game industry: pushing up a dev cycle on a game because you have x/y/z already complete (in this case a parkour system) doesn’t mean that you don’t need that extra time to make sure it works like you said it would. You’ll never see a GTA rushed to market. If anything, companies like that err on the side of too slow. But, that’s why they set world records and sell a million copies on release day.

Even though sometimes it makes me edgy, and I have a hard time waiting for something (like GTA V heists, Fallout 4, etc), I’d prefer to see the release pushed back a month or two, if it means a polished game.

– The Ego

It’s new, but broken?

I think this one topic, even above the DLC problems that gets people up in arms, drives them even crazier.

Day. One. Patches.

They will forever live in infamy, and yet oh so prevalent in the current gaming market. This is the worst. So, you’re an AAA development studio. You’re releasing major IPs annually. But, instead of say, figuring out if the game is actually 100% functional, you just release and cross your fingers?

The Assassin’s Creed series is a great example. Ubisoft has turned the brand into one of the top-rated IPs currently on the market. I’ve been a staunch supporter and admirer of the AC titles from the get-go. So, when Unity came out, and after going online to see what everyone was complaining about…

I left it on my shelf for about two months without opening it. Frankly, if I came across that dude, he’d be haunting my dreams until today and then some. So, I have to ask:

Is this really what’s considered acceptable for a major release. Hell, if I were the CEO or lead-designer at any game studio, I’d be ashamed to produce something this bad. And, I don’t embarrass easily.

I know putting out a quality game is extremely difficult, and sometimes when you’re doing pushing for a deadline, stuff can get overlooked or put on the back-burner. The issue, really, is:

Why release something that isn’t finished? If I were still in school, and I turned in a paper or presented a seminar, but told the professor that it isn’t a big deal that the first two pages are the only parts that I got done, because I plan on finishing the last five pages later that day and I will get it all in – I’ll be honest, even the profs that liked me, I can guarantee that they would just laugh at me and drop a super low grade on my work.

And this is a major publisher/developer. If anything, what should be happening is for these companies to just say:

“Sorry, games are delayed in order to fix X amount of crippling bugs before we actually launch this title”. Now, I get that it’s going to be an inconvenience to the excited (read over eager) fans who expect to walk out of a store that day with the items. In my opinion, they will more than likely be happy to wait if it means getting something that is playable out of the box.

I know sometimes there are a few bugs here and there that testers weren’t sharp enough to catch (sometimes it happens) or that the studio just can’t warrant the extra labour to finish. But the sizes of the patches that are coming out are unreal. 10’s of gigabytes. Which shouldn’t be a big deal, but considering that the  installs for games are anywhere from 25-50 GB, HDD space is already at a premium.

And, I haven’t even touched on the inconvenience that it causes the players when they get home, coveted game in hand and ready to break the cellophane seal a get down to business, only to find out that the patch to actually be able to go forth into the virtual world is delayed by a patch that is going to take at least an hour to download (which, at least, runs concurrently with the install of the game disc), I digress.

So, am I happy? Yes and no. Happy that the studios are making an effort to fix the issues they find or are reported to them. But no, at the same time, because there is nothing worse than seeing the only hour you’re going to have to actually try out that new game get spoiled by waiting on a massive download.

Just push it back. Batman: Arkham Knight did it – and they still ended up with a major issues on PC. Push that much harder for a proper release, and just delay if need be. It’s definitely more forgivable.

– The Ego