At the recent Independent Game Conference in Austin, BioWare's Brian Dubose talked about quality assurance, why it's important -- and what it really means. "It's not monkeys at a keyboard," warned Dubose.
Discussing the QA experience specific to BioWare, Dubose revealed an interesting peek into the process there, especially in light of the recent acquisition by Electronic Arts and BioWare's current work on a yet-undetailed new MMO.
'We're Not Looking To Integrate EA's Practices'
"QA is the voice of the customer within the organization," Dubose stated. It's also important, he said, because it's a service to developers and programmers. "It's important to remember that," he stressed.
Dubose recalled having seen antagonistic relationships before, when programmers see the QA staff as "in the way," while from the QA standpoint, they're just trying to get the game done.
"It’s not QA saying ‘you guys suck,’" Dubose reminded. "It's QA pointing out the problems and saying, 'here’s where the game is.'" It's essential, Dubose said, because ultimately, quality affects the bottom line.
He continued, "Before I started this session, BioWare was an independent company. We still have an independent mindset.” According to Dubose, BioWare has retained autonomy of their process. “We’re not looking to integrate EA’s practices into our work flow,” he said.
Playtesting With Friends And Family
And BioWare views quality as a core competency. “It comes straight from the top, Greg [Zeschuk] and Ray [Muzyka].” Dubose highlighted the need for executives who realize the need to be arbitrators for quality issues. "Not only does it come from Greg and Ray, they translate that down through the executive ranks. It affects every group within the team. Engineers are a given, but really, all the groups are included.”
Dubose discussed game features, explaining, “The way that BioWare approaches things like that is through playtests.” Use designers and testers at first, he advised. “Then, maybe we go larger and bring in your market guys. We’re always making changes based on that feedback. As we get absorbed into EA, we’ll got out to that level and playtest with EA World.”
"Obviously as you get closer to launch you test with friends and families,” continued Dubose. "Also, professional paid testers can be brought in, or the publisher might have testing resources. Friends and family are "very useful in determining if this game is fun,” he said. But broader testing is important to test whether “your assumptions about fun are the same as your customers.”
Getting Support From The Top
According to Dubose, EA has a very large testing group -- “brute force, I call it.” Having worked there before, Dubose said they usually test a game at the end, six months before shipping. But he somewhat prefers having small teams integrated into development.
"I'd rather have 5 highly skilled QA guys instead of 50 'monkey testers,' quote-unquote,” he pointed out. Because while the QA team can't fix the bugs, they can -- and often need -- to work very closely with the programmers to deliver bits and pieces of critical quality.
He added that the best time to integrate a QA team is "as soon as you have your first build," to take a critical look and ensure all of the intended functionality stands.
But the big benefit, according to Dubose, is executive support. "They’re going to be the ones making the calls on whether the game is ready to ship or not,” he pointed out. “When it comes down to arbitration, they’re going to look at it more objectively.”
Besides the “agile” buzz-word, Dubose believes that QA should be started from day one. When he arrived at BioWare, he’s “been slammed” since day one working QA for the new MMO.