I am NOT a Q.A. Department!

stormclouds

A sincere warning to many in the industry; bug test your own freaking games!

I consider myself a patient sort.

It’s an essential part of gaming, patience. Tough boss battles requiring you hold your nerve (and your temper) in order to eek out that last little few percent of its life bar. Long combos which require precision command inputs, as well as timing, in order to see your labours come to fruition. Tricky platforming sections that are deceptively complex and take hours in order to get right (hello Mario!). Online games where sometimes the company you keep makes you dream of chainsaw violence. Ahem. And even on the downsides – loading times, framerate lag, server meltdowns – patience is a virtue by which gamers must exist. It’s the core tenant of gaming for the most part.

However, patience is not without its limitations, and of late, one of the things which I have been washing my hands of are games which have been somewhat deliberately rushed into the market; games which required more time, more polish and more work.

Of course, we can list the amount of games which have had initial hiccups and be here for a week, but that’s kind of the first thing that annoys me; Blizzard have an Always-Online DRM meltdown on the release of Diablo 3, and then a year later EA comes in and repeats the exact same problem with SimCity. EA and BioWare show how to do an MMO launch badly with The Old Republic, and now Zenimax Online have shown how to do an even worse job of it with The Elder Scrolls Online. We see games like Battlefield 4 launch with myriad bugs and server woes, and projects like Ride to Hell: Retribution pushed onto the market with nary a care in the world for how good it is.

All of these things and many more could, of course, be stopped from hitting the market in such a poor state. You know, by going through a Quality Assurance department.

Once upon a time, QA departments were quite large (and for some, still are – Nintendo still has quite a sizeable QA team!), but for a decade or so now, the idea of paying a whole department to spot all the mistakes has been almost burned to the ground; part of this is the advent of “Internet Connectivity”, and the rise of speedier broadband/fibre optic speeds meaning games can be patched long after their release; no more releases like Overblood 2. The other part is why pay a department to spot the mistakes, when you can release it to the general population and have you and I pay to effectively find the bugs, errors and glitches? They make money and we become unpaid staff doing something that up until some years ago people earned a modest wage to do.

I find that somewhat frustrating; and I for one am getting tired of it – not least that this hobby is expensive, and I want to be assured in a sense that I’m buying something that isn’t going to have a thousand bugs and break down on me three times an hour. For my £50, or your $80/whatever you pay, I want a product that feels like it’s WORTH that £50 investment.

Dear Strong Bad, how do you type with boxing gloves on...

Otherwise I want to do this to my monitor.

Of course, we haven’t helped ourselves over the years, sadly. People love to get “early access”, and so charging people for access to beta servers has become huge business. Get them to pre-order the game, or pay for a years subscription or a premium edition costing nearly £200, and they get access to a beta. The idea is to let players find the errors, but rarely are they reported and with so many people who feel self-entitled after paying such large sums of money for access, it’s a social nightmare for staff who frankly end up spending more time dealing with the beta testers, than actually fixing and repairing the product (then couple this with men in suits on high demanding products hit a release date with no exceptions…).

I’ve beta-tested for years; Saga of Ryzom, three World of Warcraft expansions, Rift: Planes of Telara, Final Fantasy XIV (and A Realm Reborn) and lots more besides – I actually used to enjoy bug-testing. It’s quite fun to find ways of breaking the game, at least I’d like to think so. But it’s not always so simple; sometimes there is no in-game support; and the mail support is barely functional, meaning that sending feedback is a pain (and when your crash reporter crashes, you got a WORLD of problems…). But then, sometimes again, it’s the players. You go to closed beta forums and report bugs and are subjected to blind fanboy abuse, with accusations that you hate the game, hate them, and other nasty references to your mom, sister or significant other. This was how I found it during the beta of The Matrix Online; which remains for me the most horrendous beta of any game I’ve ever played. So horrible, was it, that I never even played it when it went live. It launched with tons of bugs, and it didn’t surprise me. The staff wanted to have an ego massage, the fans were happy to provide it and smack-talk anyone trying to provide meaningful feedback, and the games launch was compromised as a result. It was just the worst MMO I’ve ever played (and I have played Darkfall, thanks for asking, and yes, The Matrix Online was WORSE!).

Considering all of this, it’s not really a surprise a new MMO like The Elder Scrolls Online has had such an appalling release. They’re following the same ill-advised route that has been going for years; get people to pre-order the game at full price for access to a beta test, then let the community roil it out between themselves and see what happens. That the game was released is as big a shock to me as anyone; the game, in latter stages, is almost unplayable. The feedback system is appalling, the staff unable to communicate at a base level, no in-game GM support and the worst “official” e-mails, littered with spelling mistakes! The sad reality though is that this is the typical result for a game without the proper baking in the QA oven; players pay their money, feel cheated and then the subscriber drop-off after the first month is practically vertical.

And it must be said; I am NOT a Q.A. department. These days, in my dwindling years, I would much rather settle down and play an older, functional game than beta-test something new and shiny. But then, YOU are not a Q.A. department either; you shouldn’t be expected to pay money for the privilege of spending your spare time constantly reporting bugs every ten minutes. We are not a Q.A. department; we are neither obligated to be, nor are many trained or disciplined enough to perform such an important task in a games early life. The term “beta test” has become something of a misnomer; they are treated more and more as public preview events, the kind of event that hooks people in, hoping they’ll stick around and buy your product and then subscribe for a year or two (and depending on the length of the beta test, it can be that people get bored of the game before you even release it!).

Not all beta tests are bad (and not all of them cost money either). But the point remains that you can’t substitute the experience, expertise and polished reporting of a solid, professional Q.A. team by just having tons of normal people pile in and do it instead. The end result for years has seen otherwise promising titles buried faster than a dead zombie; games which could have or should have been so much better, so much more interesting – instead consigned to the digital scrapheap. It’s hilarious to think we’re in a situation where the Capitalist dream of having people to pay the company to do work is realised; and yet, also ends up contributing largely to the products own downfall.

Most of us would be happy simply paying for a working product; if that means a few months extra as it is hauled through a thorough Q.A. scrubbing, then that’s fine with me. What’s a few months versus the disappointment of a game which doesn’t work properly on release? We’re nothing more than a corner, cut. And when you cut corners, you always find things start looking a little shaky. The industry thinks it’s saving money doing this, but in the end, fixing it live costs so much more. Moreso for an MMO which relies somewhat on subscription fees to make money too. And the reputational damage can be significant; ask the likes of BioWare how it feels to go from industry darlings to industry jokes…

I don’t mind early access; but I am not a Q.A. department.

You’ll have to pay me to do that for you nowadays…

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