How to be a helpful Beta tester- or, ‘QA is more work than it seems’

•August 8, 2013 • Leave a Comment

My dear game-playing friends,

More and more games are starting to include more public betas into their development process. Everything from the big titles to smaller projects are looking to their potential audience to help them shape and polish up their latest creation. And yes, while you might not get any credit for doing so, it’s a little bit exciting to be able to play a game months before release and to see it grow and develop and change based on what you and your fellow beta testers have said.

HOWEVER. There is more to being a ‘good’ beta tester than simply playing the game. 

What developers (and their QA department) would really really love you to do is to find bugs. And then tell them about it. But not just “It crashes sometimes” or “The audio doesn’t work”. As annoying as it seems, they’d like a liiiittle bit more detail….

Here are a few tips if you’d like to be a ‘helpful’ beta tester:

* Reproducibility is key. Yes, it’s tedious and annoying to do the same thing over and over again. But if you can say “this happens eight times out of ten” or “I tried this five times and it happened every time”, then they’ll be able to tell how serious of an issue it is.

* What exactly were you doing? It’s okay to say “this weapon doesn’t fire sometimes”, but if it only seems to happen when you’re jumping and firing at the same time, then that’s a piece of information the developers would like to know. The more detailed and specific you can be, the more they’ll value the time you put into telling them about it. 

* Don’t worry about being technical! Yes, you’ll be reporting back to people with all the technical know-how and terminology- but they don’t expect you to be able to do the same. If you’ve got the knowledge, excellent! Use it, but make sure you use it appropriately and correctly. There is a difference between a multiplayer game desynchronising between players, and a multiplayer game that is taking time to re-sync, for example. One is more of an issue than the other, and a desync can cause a whole host of other problems. 

* You won’t like everything about the game. That is pretty much a given. And a lot of developers are okay about beta testers providing suggestions for little alterations and improvements (with emphasis on the ‘little’. They’re not going to re-cast the main character’s voice just because it gets on your nerves). If you think that having a button on the main menu to check your achievements would be helpful, maybe you could suggest it. It doesn’t mean they’re going to do it! But if you phrase it politely and constructively, they’re probably more likely to read it than a demand to “change this or get rid of it, it’s rubbish”. 

* If there is a forum or database for you to log issues in, check if there is a template message/bug report that they’d like testers to follow. Something as simple as having a uniform way of laying out a bug report can make a LOT of difference as to how quickly it gets dealt with and how seriously it is taken. 

* And don’t forget- the development/production team allowed you to be on the beta. They can remove you from it too. Play nicely with your fellow testers, especially if you choose to add comments to someone else’s forum post/database entry. It’s all well and good for you to add a note saying “This happened to me, but I was doing something slightly different”, but please don’t throw your own opinions on their bug into the mix. If it’s not a bug but a design feature, the QA/production team will deal with it. 

 

‘Good’ beta testers can be a real godsend, and can find things that a whole team of QA testers could miss. The more information you can give, the more you will be valued and the more likely they are to pounce on any other bugs reported by you to get them sorted. 

So! Enjoy the next Beta you happen to find yourself on. And if you choose to be a tester who reports back on issues, I hope these tips might help you- they’ll certainly help the members of staff who have to read through all the beta tester bugs….

Becoming Defiant – Joining the MMO Experiment

•April 9, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Okay, the very title of this post contradicts something that I have mentioned on this blog before. I have never found an MMO that I enjoyed played for more than a couple of hours. They seem to be just not ‘my type’ of game.

But in the case of Defiance, I am willing to make a very big exception.

I wrote about this game back when I was a staff writer for RoboAwesomeDefiance has been in planning (and presumably development) since 2008- teasingly referred to as ‘One Earth’ at one point a few years ago, it has now landed and is up and running as we speak. It has always struck me as a bold experiment into how one form of media can impact another, with a huge list of potential risks and rewards. It will certainly be a unique experience.

The game in a nutshell- you play as an Ark Hunter, a survival-hunter whose primary goal is to scavenge treasures and technology from destroyed planetary arks. Oh, and stay alive. Staying alive is also good. You’ll be fighting aliens for the treasure too, so an array of weaponry and your EGO will help you survive and turn a tidy profit (hopefully). EGO doesn’t refer to your sense of self-importance in this case- it stands for Environmental Guardian Online, an alien AI implant that allows Ark Hunters to use abilities such as cloaking and overcharge. So a nice run-and-gun type, either to play lone wolf or with a clan.

I was lucky enough to nab a copy of this from my workplace (I happened to be at my desk with my e-mail program open when our MD sent a message out saying she had 3 codes going spare. I haven’t typed so fast in a long time!), and am now waiting the 15 agonising hours for it to patch. And I’ll have to do the same again when I get home. But there’s still so much you can do while you wait! There are over 150 Arkfall Codes scattered around resources all over the Internet- if you find them and input them into the My EGO section of the Defiance website, you can unlock extra in-game bonuses such as additional inventory slots, skill upgrades and weapons. I dutifully found and entered the 120 codes required to hit the max level with this, so I will have a nice stock of perks when I finally log in.

Expect to hear more of my Defiance adventures in the future- although I am treating this as much as an experiment into the synergy between a game and a TV show as I am enjoying it for the gaming experience.

“Yup! That tasted purple!” – A tale of denial and addiction

•March 17, 2013 • Leave a Comment

While I enjoy playing games, there has never been a game that I would consider myself ‘addicted’ to. There are games that I put many many hours into over a fairly short period of time (80 hours into Fallout 3 over the space of a month one summer, for example), but none that I felt compelled to play day after day. I was also one of those people who accepted that ‘addiction’ to video games was a possibility, but it would ‘never happen to me’. Hah. 

As noted in a previous blog post, I’m not an MMORPG person. Most of the games I play are single-player ones that I can go through at my own pace as and when my schedule allows me time to play. That changed in November of last year when my contract at work ended and I suddenly found myself with a lot of free time. I ploughed through a couple of my 360 games til the end of 2012, then decided to find something new for 2013.

For a number of months (if not a good year or so), I had been prompted to try League of Legends by a number of my friends. I declined- mostly because I thought it wouldn’t be ‘my type of game’. I had never had much interest in games like DotA or StarCraft, because they required too much time to learn, get good at, and to get through a game.

But now I had all this free time, I downloaded LoL just to give it a go. Free-to-play? What did I have to lose, apart from a few gigabytes of space on my hard drive?

That was the first week of January. I now play at least 3-4 times a week for several hours at a time. I also watch a lot of eSports streams of professional and ‘average Joe’ players playing the game in an attempt to learn new tips and tricks. Anyone who’s seen my Twitter feed over the past couple of months is probably fed up of reading near-indecipherable posts about games I’ve watched or played.

So what is it about this ONE game that has drawn me in so deeply?

 

Well, when I moved house I had two and a half weeks with no internet connection. While that meant I wasn’t able to play the game, it gave me plenty of chance to think on it. 

Let’s start with playable characters. There are one hundred and ten of them, with a new one being released every three to four weeks. And yes, you have to ‘buy’ them with in-game currency earned through playing (IP or ‘Influence Points’) or by paying for RP (Riot Points); but that big a pool of characters means there is something to match every play style. I have always preferred playing ranged characters to melee characters in every game I’ve played, and LoL is no exception. There are plenty of ranged characters for me to choose from, so if I don’t fancy one there are others I can choose.

The fact that the game is pure online multiplayer means that it is high-maintenance and requires regular patching and updating. Which for me is another draw; the things I find I don’t like going up against in a match can always be countered, and when something is OP (overpowered) it often gets altered in the next patch (or some other item/champion is altered that can be a good counter to it). You don’t get bogged down with a sense of ‘oh god I hate *insert champion here*, I’m fed up of everyone playing him, I’m giving up’. 

LoL is a MOBA, a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. This is a double-edged sword. Online multiplayer has allowed me to play with friends hundreds of miles away, as well as countless other people from EU West- a big plus. But this is the Internet we’re talking about. Like all online games, LoL suffers from trolls and ragers. While I’ve not experienced as toxic a community playing this as I have in other games, there are still times when that one guy on your team insists on bad-mouthing you in All-chat. But for every one of those guys, I’ve come across at least five great players that are friendly, work well to boost the team, and even offer polite tips and suggestions. 

Tactics can play a huge part of the game too; I grew up playing RTS games like Command & Conquer and have a fondness for the tactical elements in everything. But even outside the matches, tactics play a key role in how you play. You work with different Masteries (skill trees, in essence) for various situations and choose which one you want to use when you join a match. Runes are expensive, but boost base stats and things like mana regeneration and the amount of gold you gain per second. Clever choices in Runes and Masteries can make all the difference between winning and losing. 

Then there are the countless items to buy in each match. Some are considered ‘core’, most are hugely situational. You are always on your toes thinking “What do I need when I go back to buy next? More health, or can I pick up something to boost attack damage?”. The game is reactive on all levels, and this adrenaline-fuelled gameplay is definitely a factor in why I keep coming back for more.

 

So- while I apologise for the huge amount of LoL-related Tweets I’ve posted recently, there doesn’t seem to be much chance of me stopping playing any time soon. And while it still surprises me to say so, I am well and truly hooked.

All Around The World, The Game Plays You – welcome back!

•March 13, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Ouch, it’s been far too long since I posted here. Since my last update I’ve been employed, unemployed, employed again and moved 120-ish miles north. It’s been a busy almost-year, with things like volunteering at the London 2012 Games being a big distraction from my own gaming endeavors.

But now, I’m back! Now we resume our erratically-scheduled programming.

*

Soviet Russian-themed memes aside, the title of this post is fairly accurate. There are games where this is obvious, and games where it takes you a long time to notice. But I believe it’s fair to say that games ‘play’ with the players more than people realise. (There is a whole audio aspect to this that I’m going to save for a different post, I think)

I’m going to juggle my psychology and game theory hats now, folks.

The goal of a game is to encourage the player get from A to B (or C/D/E, if you take an RPG route). In my view, this is done through a combination of narrative, level design and player intuition.

Stories have a logical progression that players can follow; a narrative can lead them to explore new environments or try new abilities/weapons without much conscious thought on their part. It’s just ‘what you do to progress’. An easy example is Portal; it is essentially a modular game at its most obvious. You start at Test Chamber 1 and go from there in sequence, picking up new add-ons for the Portal Gun that you require to keep progressing. Then ta-da!- you’re done, congratulations, and have an achievement or two.

The game as a whole and all the levels have been designed with linear progression to get players from A to B, so the players are doing precisely what the developers want. But in more open-world games like Batman: Arkham City, the players are given the freedom to run around the environment and do what *they* want in the order *they* like. Liberating for players, a nightmare for designers and testers. So to reign it in a bit, games like this tend to dangle shiny things in the player’s path to sneakily direct them onto a series of events that progresses the game without feeling like it’s forcing them to do things the developer’s way. Arkham City has a narrative that spans an entire city and, like many narratives, has a linear progression. The player finishes one campaign objective then is immediately shown (or hinted at) where the next one can be found. But the lure of the open city means hours can be spent just beating up goons and gliding around the buildings looking for Riddler trophies; fun, certainly, but doesn’t really move things on.
So instead, there are clever devices in play that gently steer the player into doing certain things. There are some trophies that can’t be obtained unless you have a certain gadget- and you can only get that gadget at a certain point in the main storyline. You can be gliding around the dockside and see the bat signal in the sky, tempting you to go and answer the call- which, of course, is pulling you back into the main campaign line. The goons you’re hanging above mention something going on in Joker’s Fun House- if you listen to them and go find the Fun House, you’re back on the main progression path again.

This is even true in platform games. Access points to ‘special stages’ and ‘bonus areas’ are often found by accident, but are often also sneakily hinted at. A collectable placed in an oddly featureless area? Maybe there’s a hidden door. An enemy patrolling an empty corridor section? It could be guarding the entrance to a secret level. The more you play of games like this, the more you see something that looks a little conspicuous and think “Huh, I wonder if they’ve hidden something for me?”

There are many ‘Let’s Plays’ online, a concept that is rapidly growing in popularity, along with the prevalence of online streaming sites. I’ve watched a few of my friends’ versions of these, and have picked up on a few occasions where the player has been conditioned into knowing what’s coming.

The Final Fantasy series, for example. There’s a save point before a door. What is your reaction?
“Boss fight” or “Mini-boss fight” is a common one.

You find a weapon pod with a sniper rifle or a Fuel Rod Cannon in one of the later Halo games. Thoughts?
“Technical fight” going down at the next checkpoint.

You suddenly gain an item that causes electrical damage while in a sewer. What would you think to that?
“Electrocuting enemies time!”

Developers can be deviously clever people, it seems!

Unconventional Science – the Weird world of Viva Piñata

•May 21, 2012 • Leave a Comment

As a break away from shooting things and slashing things and sliding down a mountain on a Chinese hat (damn that Avalanche level of Mini Ninjas), I dug out my copy of Viva Piñata and set about trying to complete it.

I play the game on a demo Xbox back in 2006 when I worked at PC World (I know, I know), and was easily amused by the bright colours and sweet-themed names. Yes, I am a sucker for the cute things, and was sad the first time a Syrupent smashed up my Mousemallow.

The concept is easy enough; make the garden you’re given enticing to various species of piñata animals, fulfill their requirements and they might just stick around. A range of flowers, water plants, fruit trees and bushes are all you need in the early game, as well as a plentiful supply of Whirlms (first piñata you encounter). Just like in real life there’s a food chain that means smaller piñata end up on the list of requirements for bigger piñata.

To start with, it’s all pretty above board. Evil (‘Sour’) piñatas start to turn up after you’ve been given a few levels to get used to things, but you’re sort of guided through how to deal with them and turn them into their ‘sweet’ counterparts. If you list to guide Leafos, you might even learn how to evolve a couple of your basic species into more exotic ones.

And that is where the game diverts from normality to wacky fantasy. Direct a Taffly to fly through a burning torch in your garden, and it’ll set itself on fire. It happens to most piñata at some point. But if you douse the poor Taffly with your watering can, it magically turns into a Reddhott (I have no idea what creature this is meant to be- one of the few I haven’t worked out yet).

My mom and I had a laugh a few months ago when a work colleague of hers revealed that she thought ducks grew up to become geese. The colleague was happy to be to corrected with the news that ducks grow up to be…well, ducks. We all had a giggle about it, and no more was said.
So imagine my surprise when I found out that feeding a gooseberry to the duck piñata Quackberry made it evolve into the GOOSE piñata Juicygoose. Obviously Rare came up with similar lines of thinking as my mom’s colleague when they designed some of the more ‘out there’ aspects of the game.

To get full completion of the game requires at least 50 hours of gameplay. I’m still only halfway towards that, though I’ve managed to collect about three quarters of the available species. One of the more elusive species is the Pigxie, shown below:

A Pigxie. Yep. Courtesy of GamesRadar

Yes, that is indeed a flying pig. And how do you come to own one of these? Simple- crossbreed a swan and a pig.

Hitting a snake egg mid-hatch gives you a two-headed snake, breeding two of these two-headed varieties and hitting their egg with a spade gives you a four-headed offspring. You can turn white butterflies into Flutterscotches of seven different colours. And if you hire a helper to mine in your garden, you can even get a dragon piñata.

Not exactly what you learn in science class- but a strangely amusing and slightly addictive twist on a game of collecting.

In-game leadership: Of Guild leaders, squad commanders, and Niccoló Machiavelli

•April 27, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Yes, a far more intense title than my normal posts. As my last post notes, I’ve got a bit more free time on my hands now so I’m re-reading many of the game theory/gaming books I bought to help with my Masters thesis.

The first one I picked up is a book I would never normally have looked twice at- World of Warcraft and Philosophy, edited by Luke Cuddy and John Nordlinger. My friend and I came across a copy in the university library while we were looking for books, and he picked it up out of vague interest. Not being a fan of MMOs (and having attempted to play WoW several times and failed), I thought no more about it until he pointed out a couple of articles in it that were very relevant to my own research areas. So I dutifully gave it a go- and bought my own copy about a week later.

Anyway, Machiavelli. From what I know of the man, he may well have been as blunt and forthright as the Assassin’s Creed series portrays him. But I do know that he never actually said that “the ends justify the means”. Like many foreign texts, mistranslation and lack of periodical context mean that his original meaning is hidden behind this rather profound phrase.

The actual quote, borrowed from “World of Warcraft and Philosophy” and originally from Machiavelli’s work The Prince, is as follows:

Everyone sees what you seem to be, few touch upon what you are, and those few do not dare to contradict the many who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, where there is no impartial arbiter, one must consider the final result.

Let’s put this in simpler terms. As Moses Wolfenstein (an awesome name, I must say) notes in his article, many raiding guilds in WoW are not the democratic entities they seem to be. When it comes to raid time, the raid leader says move and you move; not out of a need for power over the rest of the party, but to coordinate the various roles and skills to the best places in order to take down the target and not get wiped. For the greater good, you might say- or, a choice of actions made through considering the final result.

Sidestepping away from WoW, the same tends to happen in multiplayer games where the players need to work as a team towards a common goal. I’ve experienced it myself while playing Left 4 Dead– I don’t play the game particularly often, and whenever I do play I am happy to let someone more experienced/who plays it often take the lead as they’re probably going to know the map and the rough location of the Special Infected waiting to leap out and kill us. The group of us that used to play tended to make use of voice chat as the best way to relay orders and warnings. There were often points when we knew that we were about to get ambushed, but the chosen (or sometimes self-appointed) leader often had a tactic to ensure we killed rather than ended up being killed. This “prince” with the superior knowledge had considered the final result and instructed his troops to what he believed was the more effective course of action.

See, Machiavelli’s not that hard! However, we live more under a democracy than we do a monarchy (in terms of who has the most impact on the structure of daily life), and there are plenty of counterpoints to his views. Enough to fulfill a whole series of posts, but I don’t think I’ll subject you to more academic stuff just yet.

If you get a chance, take a look at World of Warcraft and Philosophy. It is definitely not as heavy-going as it sounds, and there are lots of really interesting articles that will make you look behind the obvious at see why MMOs work so well with our fundamental human nature.

Everything Comes to an End – Restart/Try Again?

•April 13, 2012 • 1 Comment

A lot has happened since my last post- GAME group went into administration, closed 277 stores (including my favourite, the flagship Gamestation on New Street in Birmingham) then was saved by OpCapita. My boyfriend and I went to California for a week of awesome, then came back to find out (and not through the proper channels, who conveniently ‘forgot’ to tell us) that the project we were working on at work had been canned and we were effectively out of a job. That’s a story I’m not going to go into- partly because I’m still amazed at their ineptitude, and partly because it’s not interesting reading.

Instead, I’m going to side-step into the world of card games. I started playing Magic the Gathering around the start of my last year of uni, then gave up around February/March last year when they brought in mechanics like paying a mana cost with life points and the horrible horrible combination of Infect/Proliferate. Those mechanics were enough to put me off playing (mostly because they seemed to eliminate a lot of deck balancing/skill that I’d gotten used to) so I sold almost all of my cards and started learning to play the Yu-Gi-Oh card game.

Yes, it’s a children’s card game. But it requires a surprising amount of tactical ability, which I enjoy the challenge of. A year on, I’m still pretty rubbish, but I don’t mind losing because of the enjoyment of the challenge. Plus, that was the main reason we went to California- the 100th Yu-Gi-Oh Champion Series tournament was held in Long Beach, and my boyfriend is a long-time player of the game and pretty damn good at it.

While attending (and yes, I did actually take part myself. And lost every single game.) the YCS tournament, another player I got chatting to told me about ‘Cardfight! Vanguard’. The striking card art piqued my interest, and he quickly taught me the basic rules and how the game works. I got back to the UK just in time for my two local card shops to start stocking the English trial decks and boosters, and I picked them up earlier this week.

Now this is where I need to give the game its due. It’s a pretty interesting concept, and the cards really are pretty. But some of the mechanics feel a little…off. For example, player A declares an attack of 18000 with their Vanguard and player B chooses to help their 10000 power Vanguard with a 10000 power defender. Once you’ve declared your defenders, you can’t change it.
HOWEVER.
Player A attacked with their Vanguard, which means they get to draw a card from their deck and look for a Trigger- all triggers allow the player to add 5000 power to one of their units (including the attacking Vanguard) as well as another named effect.

So let’s re-do the maths. 18000 attack, 20000 defense. But now Player A can add another 5000 attack power, making it 23k versus 20k. Oh dear, Player B just wasted their defender AND now has to take the damage. And if Player A’s Vanguard is Grade 3 and is fortunate enough to pull 2 Triggers, Player B ends up taking even more damage.

“Fair enough,” I hear you say. “Maybe it’s just part of the game balancing.” Maybe. But it also seems to skew the balance between skill and random chance. It’s less tactical and more ‘cross-your-fingers-and-hope’. That’s not so fun, in my opinion.

I have to admit, there are two factors that might be skewing my view of this. One, UK players currently only have 2 fully constructed decks to play with (Royal Paladin and Kagero) unless you’re willing to pay out a LOT for boosters in the hope of constructing a 50 card deck of another clan, and they are the one that seem to suffer the worst from this luck/skill imbalance on Vanguard attacks.. And two- the only person I have to play against is my boyfriend, who (as noted above) has many more years of card gaming/card game theory experience than I do. I lost 5-1 yesterday and 4-1 today.

BUT! I will not be beaten! I now have no job and am failing at the new game that I’ve invested in (I own every Vanguard card in the house)- but perseverance and positive thinking are likely to make both situations get better.

*~*
As a side note, I have a mini-success to share. There is a game called Top Darts for the PSVita, and its demo version was installed on many of the in-store demo Vitas in the UK (and the US, I found out).

The dulcet tones of the tutorial voice over were provided by yours truly 🙂