Formed in 2000 prior to the launch of the original Xbox, the XNA Game Quality team, or Xbox Certification team as they were then known, are now one of the teams that make up XNA, Microsoft's global software and services division dedicated to game development technologies.
They are very much a team that works behind the scenes, and not much is really known about them, unless of course you happen to have developed or published a game for Xbox, Xbox 360, Games for Windows or Games for Windows - LIVE. In this article, we will focus on the work the team does on the Xbox platforms, and leave their work on the Games for Windows platforms for discussion in future articles.
The job of the XNA Game Quality team is to help ensure that every game released on the Xbox and Games for Windows platforms meets Microsoft's technical quality standards, and depicts the platforms and their features in the best possible light, whilst minimizing platform security risks.
One thing they are not, and were never intended to be, is a Quality Assurance test organisation, and this is something they are keen to point out. Quality Assurance testing is the job of the game developer and publisher. XNA Game Quality does not assess game design, or how good gameplay is; only how well the game performs technically and how well it supports the platform's features.
No longer confined to just certifying Xbox or Xbox 360 games, today the team offer a much broader range of services to their publishing partners on a global scale. They now certify Games for Windows and Games for Windows - LIVE platform games, thanks to the revival that PC gaming has experienced in the last few years.
As well, a comprehensive training and education program is now offered to publishers, with the ultimate aim of helping them to improve the certification success rates of their games. Training sessions take a number of forms that include XNA Game Quality representatives visiting publishers at their own premises, inviting publishers to their nearest Microsoft campus, and online via the capabilities of Microsoft's LIVE Meeting.
Other services include representation by the team at Microsoft organised events such as XNA Gamefest (http://www.xnagamefest.com), where attendees are treated to a range of talks, presentations, and seminars covering a variety of topics from System Programming to Quality Assurance and Certification. XNA Game Quality also provides whitepapers on many aspects of the certification process, particularly those that pose significant challenges to their partners.
The team is currently made up of two areas of responsibility, Compliance and Functional, both quite different from the other, and both supported by the XNA Services' Mastering Lab. Each area performs a very different function, but equally as important as the other, and without any one of them, the quality of the certification and the services they offer to their partners would be severely compromised.
To begin with let's take a closer look at the Mastering Lab and their role in supporting XNA Game Quality. This team is the first to get their hands on the game code after a Publisher submits their game for certification. They are the "Gatekeepers" of the certification process, and no game submissions of any nature are allowed to enter Compliance or Functional testing until the Mastering Lab has processed and conducted their preliminary checks on each submission. Unlike Compliance and Functional, the majority of testing done by the Mastering Lab is automated through the use of tools.
The Mastering Lab has two core roles. Firstly they take the game code supplied by the publisher and check that it is ready to test. This ranges from checking that it boots, making sure that it has the correct images for Xbox LIVE, ensuring that the total number of Achievements and Gamerscore add up, checking that the Xbox LIVE information in the game executables matches for all versions; and ensuring that the submission doesn't contain erroneous files.
The Mastering Lab's secondary role is to process the game files, which comprises a number of different stages. First, they apply the Age Ratings to the game code, which are used by the Xbox 360 Dashboard Family Settings. The Family Settings controls can be set by parents or guardians to block access to content based on game ratings.
They then configure how the game code should interact with other versions of the same game, as well as configure how different games communicate with each other (example: some games are designed to share game save data), and whether or not a game should support the PAL-50 video standard.
The final stage of processing is when the Mastering Lab prepares the game disc images used to manufacture the final disc based product. At the same time, they also prepare the game files that both Compliance and Functional use to test the games. From here the games enter Compliance testing, which we will look at next.