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Improving Gameplay Testing In The Console Game Industry

Gameplay testing is so hard to pull off for console games that it is not done nearly enough and ends up being of limited use for most developers. With some support from console manufacturers we could have millions of tester and instant results.

Travis Johnston, Blogger

August 7, 2009

5 Min Read

Seems like the average console game company's gameplay testing process starts off with an email like this...

We’re having a playtest this Saturday afternoon, from 1:00 – 4:00. If any of you have gamer friends that would like to participate, have them fill out this NDA + survey and send it back to me.

People showing up are sat down in from of a dev box with the latest copy of the game and promised free pizza if they finish the game and fill out all the questionnaire.  Sometimes if the company is really on it, the testers play is recorded so it can be double checked and reviewed later by all the developers.  This testing is usually < 100 players and is typically only done only 3-4 times during the project at milestones like first playable, alpha, beta.   From this very small sampling of data feedback is given to the development team and at many publishers it is even used to help estimate pre-order numbers and determine a games slice of the marketing budget.

Its not that they do not get any useful data out of this at all, but nothing pulled out of this could be called qualitative and if someone tried to pass this off for testing in any other industry, they would likely be fired.

It is not the developers or publishers fault that there is little to no real focus testing, they do not really have a choice.  Console manufacturers only allow pre-release game disks to only run on special $10k development boxes that the public is not allowed to have.  So even though there are millions of xBox360's out there, your testing pool is still only as many development boxes your studio plus publisher can allocate to it.

Even if your publisher has a ton of money to put in hardware, it is such a issue to coordinate getting that many people on site it can still only be done once in awhile.  The results of the game not being tested that often is so many changes are getting tested all at once that it is hard to determine or isolate what change is effecting the feedback.  There is also problems that we can not verify what live testers say about their playing habits or any other information they give us.

What has this done is placed undue burden on the game designers as they have to be able to come up with new and exciting game designs and get it exactly right as they will get very little chances for any real significant unbiased feedback before they ship.  With the punishment for unpopular levels being a pink slip is it any wonder that designers tend to go with tried and true designs that they are sure will work.  They might be more willing to take risks and move games foward if they had a quick feedback loop to tell them if they are heading in the right direction.

We need the kind of testing online PC games can pull off:

  • Easy distribution of game .

  • Connection to running games so test info can be put in database.

  • Stats on user to ensure they fit our testing needs.

  • Online way to fill out survey and give feedback

We could have this kind of testing because the console manufacturers already have everything we need, we just do not have access to it.  They need to let the developers get access to the play stats on xbox Live so we can pick the right testers for our games.  Then they need to allow us to release xBox arcade type pre-releases of the games so users can play test them for us.

It could work like this:

  • You create you're xBox Live account and you select if you would be interested in getting access to games early for gameplay testing.  It warns them that their stats could then be searched by developers.

  • If you say yes you get put in a database and your playing stats of games is recorded so developers can decide if your good for the type of testing they need.

  • Developer can then send you messages that you have been approved for testing and requesting you download their game.

  • You Sign an online NDA and then start the game.

  • Once they quit the game it takes them to a survey page and they give feedback.

Suddenly with one database programmer and a community manager you could have access to and do coordinated testing with millions of users.

  • With the xbox Arcade type download system tests could get out to testers very quickly.

  • With access to that many testers and stats on them we could do things like control groups and very fine grain testing we have not been able to do before.

  • Given its all online your results are instant and developers can put in code to record all kinds of details you do not get from surveys or just video recorded sessions.  You could even save off a full replay of the session to get reviewed and analyzed later.

Potential issues:

  • Restrictions to ensure it is not abused for marketing purposes.

  • What to do during console transitions and your making a launch title as there are no consoles out yet.  Maybe that just becomes another hardship of being a launch title.

  • Developers will not longer be able to control screenshots and movies during the testing phase.  They can make them sign NDA's but given that is it not done at their building things will end up online.

The potential gains in game quality and developer cost savings are huge as currently we often do not get feedback until it is way to late or too expensive to do anything about it.  I do not know if it would be as easy to implement as I think, but it can not hurt if everyone mentions it to their account rep.  Hopefully someone at Microsoft or Sony will look into it.

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