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Thoughts on Game Testing

Star Wars: The Old Republic Editorials - By Michael Bitton on July 14, 2010

Thoughts on Game Testing

A few weeks ago rumors that Bioware’s Game Testing program for Star Wars: The Old Republic had started began to surface, with screen caps of invite e-mails appearing in the wild and many users freely admitting they had received them. Bioware was curiously silent on the rumors, neither confirming nor denying that testing had begun, with SW:TOR Community Manager Sean “AshenTemper” Dahlberg instead choosing to remind users on the game’s official forums to be mindful of the Game Testing Non-Disclosure Agreement, revealing that players are allowed to admit they were in the program and nothing more .

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Last Friday, Bioware announced that the Game Testing program was officially underway, confirming what eager fans had already suspected if not outright knew already. We originally reported that Bioware had begun taking “beta testing” sign ups back in September of last year, along with many other sites, only to be corrected a few days later as Bioware had not opened up sign ups for beta testing but instead were accepting sign ups for “Game Testing.”

What the heck is Game Testing? Bioware has been a bit cryptic on this since the announcement last year, leaving many fans to speculate as to whether or not this was merely a matter of semantics or if there was an actual difference in the program. With many gamers and even members of the press feeling that beta tests have simply become a marketing tool, perhaps the difference in nomenclature was an effort to signify that Bioware was taking their testing of the game more seriously, or perhaps the program was something different altogether. We got a bit more clarification on the program with last Friday’s update, as Bioware elaborated a bit more on what exactly Game Testing would entail:

“Game Testing is an on-going process being rolled out in several phases. These phases began with smaller, more focused tests with community members from North America, and later will expand to other territories.”

Okay. So, Game Testing basically sounds like focus group testing, possibly similar to what the folks at En Masse are doing with TERA. Focus testing, as its name would imply, involves focused tests on specific aspects or portions of the game, differing significantly from a straight up beta test where players often have a more free experience, which in later stages can almost feel like playing the live game.

Fans who camped their inboxes in hopes of finding an invite last year in the days, weeks, and months after sign-ups began are now checking their inboxes with increased fervor as we now know for a fact that people that aren’t in the press or working at Bioware are getting hands-on time with the game. They’re excited, and rightfully so. But I am not, not too much anyway.

Why?

Despite being a self-professed Star Wars geek, and fighting my natural urge to want to get my hands on just about any “beta test” as most gamers often do, I don’t really want to test this one as much. It’s the fact I am a Star Wars geek that makes me averse to full-blown testing this game, for the same reasons I probably wouldn’t have wanted to be there on set when they shot the Star Wars films: spoilers!

Not just story spoilers mind you, but as someone who has been part of a great many beta programs and focus tests, there is something about seeing the “wires” hanging out of a game when it’s still in development that deflates excitement for the game’s launch, killing the mystery if you will. Game development is an iterative process, and often times in tests (especially focus tests) they try all manner of things with the game. What if I like the way something plays or works, but other testers don’t, and they change it? I’ll be stuck on that forever, wondering what could have been. I went through just that process in The Matrix Online, where I spent more time in the beta and focus tests than I did in the actual live game. Most of my best experiences were actually in the six plus months I’d tested the game, and while the developers did a pretty good job of hiding a lot of the major storyline aspects of the game, I’d played the game in many different forms and found it lacking in many ways, more than I would had my first experience with the game been on launch day. I had a point of reference, just like vets of Star Wars Galaxies do for the pre-NGE or pre-CU era. Most live games don’t change as drastically as that one did post-launch, but those sorts of changes can be pretty commonplace in the earlier stages of testing for an upcoming game.

So, would I like to get some more hands-on time with Star Wars: The Old Republic? You bet! But do I want to be part of the earliest of testing groups, possibly returning for many more tests to come and eventually less restricted beta testing? Nope. I think it’d ruin a game that I am otherwise looking forward to. Another example of my issue with being part of a prolonged testing experience was my time in the Age of Conan beta, which for months on end only allowed us to explore the confines of Tortage. By the time Conan launched I was ready to barrel out of Tortage and see the world that awaited me, while my friends were all “Oooh! Aaah!” and wanting me to slow down. What Star Wars geek wants to feel that way about this game?

However, for those of you out there who appreciate the project for more than its lore or don’t care for spoilers and want to actually get into testing (or already are in testing) simply to help Bioware put out the best game they can, I’d like to take this opportunity to offer a few points on how you can do that and do it well.

Bug Reports

Let’s start with bug reports. Angie Webb just penned a column discussing her time in QA on Warhammer Online which is chock full of insight on how QA testers put games through the paces, but she also mentions the testing that goes on while on the other side of the fence, more specifically, the fact that a significant majority of bug reports submitted by players were not actually legitimate reports, but players simply using the report tool to communicate their dislike of a particular aspect or system of the game. So, the very first tip I can give you is – don’t do this! If you want to help QA nail down important issues, keep bug reports to just that – bugs!

When you submit a report, people like Angie go into the game and try to “repro” or reproduce the bug submitted, so it’s important to keep that in mind when filling out a report. Writing a report that simply says “Nem’ro the Hutt won’t talk to me” isn’t as helpful as providing as much information as possible. You want to explain things as if someone were asking you how they could reproduce the bug, and the best way to do this is to try and reproduce it yourself and simply document the steps. The challenge is to also be concise while doing this, as QA go through many reports, you’ll help them more by getting to the point and explaining things in a clear but brief and informative manner. The quicker they can reproduce and document the bugs testers submit, the more bugs can potentially be squashed, which leads to a more polished and less buggy game (I’d wanted to say bug-free, but who am I kidding?).

Feedback

What about feedback? Feedback is also important. Maybe something is “working as intended” but you don’t like it, or something is missing that you think the developers should add. Most game tests will often have forums where you can make your case about your ideas on a particular feature (with the added benefit of allowing other testers to weigh in on it as well), or the Report interface will have a separate feedback section. Like bug reports, you want to explain your thoughts in a concise manner, but it’s also important to be constructive about your feedback. Ideological rants, belligerent language, etc won’t serve your cause all too well. Instead of assuming that the people reading your feedback are already set in stone about something (essentially defeating yourself before you even begin!) simply assume things are malleable and if you make a good case you just might see your feedback incorporated into the game. Why? Because it’s true! I personally got a few things changed during my time in The Matrix Online beta, so I can speak from experience that it is indeed possible. Granted, things need to be kept in perspective. If Star Wars: The Old Republic doesn’t have a full blown space feature two weeks from launch, asking them to add one before launch isn’t exactly realistic.

Information wants to be free, yo!

Finally, as Community Manager here at MMORPG.com, I can’t pen an article on Game Testing without discussing testing leaks. Just like you, we all want to know and see things about the game (and other games). In fact, for many of us, that’s precisely why we got into this line of work. Unfortunately, information and related media gleaned from most game tests are protected by Non-Disclosure Agreements, which means we probably shouldn’t be hosting or linking to said material here at MMORPG.com. The act of doing so is explicitly against our Rules of Conduct, and while we understand your frustration and desire to inform your fellow gamers of the cool things you saw at X Y or Z site, we respectfully ask that you please refrain from posting NDA protected material on our forums.

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager.