Bugs, glitches and crashes in retail and downloadable games have made headlines more and more in recent months, in large part thanks to huge titles like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, and a number of others that have been plagued with bugs. This has left many wondering where the Quality Assurance teams, better known as game testers, have been. Are they asleep at the wheel? In fact, many gamers bet they could make better testers than those employeed by the bug-ridden AAA titles. Pondering this, we sat down with third-party Quality Assurance company, The Ant Firm, and ask them if the regular gamer could really make the grade and prevent the next Modern Warfare 2 fiasco.
The Ant Firm is a fairly new London, Ontario based Quality Assurance company, lead by Haley Patterson, Tonya Constant, Melanie Lagrou, and Denise Matis (fun fact: Bioshock for PS3, and half of Bioshock 2 were made in London, Ontario). Before forming The Ant Firm, the four worked for Beanbag Studios, a Nintendo DS and PC developer, where they worked in the Quality Assurance and Writing departments, before the studio closed. Being gamers themselves, they understand the feelings of gamers angry with game bugs, glitches, and crashes, but they don't think the average gamer, or even hardcore gamer, would make a good games tester.
"Well, we should clarify," Constant explained, "we're sure that there are gamers out there, really hardcore dedicated gamers who could make very good testers, but, being a hardcore true gamer doesn't automatically mean you will make a good tester." "It only covers half of the equation," added Patterson.
"If that. Sometimes it's beneficial to have people that aren't huge gamers. They will find things that hardcore gamers won't find." Saying that, Constant explained that because a hardcore gamer really knows how to manipulate a game's controls, they're far more likely to be successful in the actual game's objectives, but not in the objects of Quality Assurance. "He's not going to collide with anything because he has his character under control. You hand it to grandma, or someone who's only used to play Sudoku online or something, if there are collision issues, she's going to discover them by accident because she doesn't know how the control works," she continued, "so we really need a mixture of people with gaming skills. From hardcore gamers to someone who's not quite conversant in playing games."
Game testers have to look at games differently. As Patterson put it, "The game now needs to become testing, no longer the game. You have to be willing to figure out every 'lose' scenario possible." It's a fairly obvious statement to say that so many people just want to get through a game and win, except when coming from The Ant Firm team, they mean that of some game testers too. "The crash error could be occurring on a lose scenario. Easily missed by a hardcore gamer. So a creative thinker, come up with your own game plan instead of what the instructions tell you to do," says Patterson.
Not thinking like a beginner is only one failing point for many wanna-be game testers, the next as Constant explained, is hardcore gamer pride, "It seems to me, if you're calling yourself a 'hardcore' gamer, you take a lot of pride in that title. So there's a lot of competitiveness, and that can be a big issue. Their pride doesn't let them lose, they're always trying to get to the next level, and beat the other testers there, as opposed to what is really being asked of them, which is to actually find bugs." Of course she's right, it's asking a lot to get hardcore gamers to check their pride at the door.
Teh nrxt magor issu wud be grammr n speling. Did you catch that? "I don't know, having been in the Writing Department, I would get the written bugs reports. I need to know what these guys are saying, and I am sorry, most of them do not pay enough attention to their written communication skills," Constant told us, "They don't think it's important, and if you have a literate person on the other end of the bug report, it's a big deal, and you're going to waste my time." That adds up to a lot of headaches, and not just over wasted time, but because very poorly written reports get sent back to the testers who wrote them.
Furthermore, that same tester may take hours, or days to respond if they're not in the same studio as the ones fixing the bugs. "And I'm talking about our competitors right now, our experiences with them," she added. "If you multiply that by dozens and dozens of bugs, you're wasting our time, and the developer may not make their deadlines."
Just simple grammatical and spelling mistakes? It sounds quite ridiculous that issues like that could be a factor behind bugs sneaking into retail games. "It was English, but I can't tell you how many times I would have to stop Hayley and say, 'I had to reread it and reread it, do you know what it says?'" Constant looked like she was reliving the experience while explaining it, and it doesn't look or sound like fun.
The Ant Firm has seen great and terrible game testers come and go in the industry over the years, and low and behold that not looking for bugs properly, being hung up on gamer pride, and poor communication skills are the leading reasons some game testers do a poor job, and even more gamers don't get jobs as testers in the first place. Just about as many hardcore gamers play well together as those that don't, which The Ant Firm agreed is the lead difference between what makes a good Quality Assurance person, and a bad one, "A QA team needs to operate as just that, a QA team."
That still may leave the question in your mind, how does a game like Modern Warfare 2 have so many bugs, even if QA teams aren't as efficient as they could be? It's just that, deadlines; or as Constant put it, "Not that we mean to dis any publishers, it's just that most developers and QA departments really want the best product to go out, which isn't to say the publishers don't. Publishers seem to be more concerned about deadlines, and it can be really frustrating when QA or the Writing Department or the programmers themselves know that there are still issues they want to make perfect, and it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter to the publishers, it's, 'let's get it out the door.' That's what seems to be driving [bugs in retail games]."
Our thanks to The Ant Firm for sitting down with us, but wait, there's more to come. The discussion continued with horror stories from game testing, and what it means to have a career in game testing. Look for our next article with The Ant Firm team next week.
To learn more about The Ant Firm, check out their website at www.AntFirm.com