Friday, 30 May 2008

How To BETA Test A Game

If you don't know what beta testing is, it is a process through which all new websites, games and computer programs go through before they are released to the general public - to remove all the bugs.

As much as I knew that my 3 months away from home last summer would change me, I had no idea the extent to which the change would happen or really even what parts of my life or personality would be affected. Knowing that I would be meeting a lot of new people I figured that I would become slightly more outgoing and I figured that the solo travels would mature me since I would be planning and undertaking the whole trip across North America on my own – excluding the few weeks spent with family in Calgary and Vancouver.

The three months were intended to be a break from the tough year of programming; working long hours inside at a screen. Working outside with kids was pretty much the opposite to my studies and I wanted the change. Even so, when I left the UK last June, I fully intended to live with some of my friends when I returned in September, continue the course until 2010 and eventually work my way up through a company until a few of my own ideas could become video games.

Towards the end of my first year, I had tried to be extremely proactive and submit some of my “third year placement” application enquiries before the second year had even begun; hoping to increase my chances of a placement at a respectable company. One of the companies was Sports Interactive; creators of the sport simulation games that I have played for around 6 years.

I started liking football in 1998 after watching England compete in France ’98 and chose Arsenal after Holland’s Dennis Bergkamp scored a brilliant late goal to knock out the team (Argentina) who had knocked out England! Although I had played football video games since I can remember (Italia ’90, FIFA etc), it was only after I became interested in football that I took up playing football management games – with knowledge of the players and tactics.

Instead of winning games 14-0 and quickly creating a dream team, the management games took real knowledge of the sport as well as being a challenge. Furthermore, SI was celebrated for the accuracy of their database – the game predicting future superstars, top-flight managers using the database and SI scouts being signed by teams.

Being off work for an extended period of time, and even exhausting my interest in movies, books, the internet and every other activity I tried, it was a nice surprise when I received the email from Sega to say that I had been selected to join their latest game world with 100 new beta testers. After a download and read through the pdf manual, I was ready to go.

The game is a start-from-scratch management game using real life players. For example, I had to create my team (Speedy FC), buy 20 or so players, scout out some future possibilities and then play some games against other human users to improve my rankings. Unlike most online management games, this game uses real players (eg. Beckham, Ronaldo) with actual stats - SI being famous for the accuracy of their stats!

Except for starting from scratch, the game is very similar to playing a multiplayer version of the offline game - where real teams are used and up to 5 players can play in rotation. In the online version, the only time AI (artificial intelligence) is used is when a real person cannot be online for a match so the game has to be played by their computer-controlled Assistant manager.

A major part of beta testing is playing the game long enough to find the obscure bugs so that the company can fix them before the game is released. As a games designer, it is often the first step into a company – even for anyone with programming skill. It can be very tedious and boring if the game is pretty bad or if it has a lot of bugs.

Fortunately, since there are 10 game worlds currently running - each with 1000 players! - most of the bugs are being found without my help so as long as I am checking to see if a bug is known, I can basically play a 95% complete version of the game for free (the full version set to cost "the price of a few beers per month").

Even after leaving the games industry - and being a lot less interested in gaming! - I still enjoy knowing that my feedback could change the game, as well as (of course) that I am playing a game before most of the people that will play it - and for free!

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