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Life as a Game Tester: Episode 2

posted on September 7th, 2006 by blue dog

Hello everyone, and welcome back to the crazy, but always interesting world of video game development. It’s been a crazy couple of weeks for me, as we’ve delivered a few of our builds to Nintendo to be approved for manufacturing.

If you are developing anything for Nintendo, be it console or handheld, you need to submit your game to them when you believe it is completely finished (more on this later). They will then go through the game and see if they can find any problems with it. They have their own standards of what should and shouldn’t be in a game, and they even check stuff like how you reference the buttons on the controller.

If the A button onscreen didn’t look just like the A button on my controller, I’d be COMPLETELY lost.

We were told we had a problem because the A and B buttons were referenced in a mini-game incorrectly. We only had the letters show up, but Nintendo needed the letters to look like the actual buttons. It makes sense, in a Nintendo/Machiavellian sort of way, and you have to do it or it won’t get approved. It was a quick art fix and we sent the new build back to them on the same day.

The thing that sucks is that if you get caught with bugs, you need to go back into the waiting queue for approval after you fix them. You usually have to wait a few days for each trial, so getting sent back nets you a few bad looks from your superiors. “It wasn’t me, I swear! It was the one-armed man!”

Also, if you are developing international builds of your game, you need to worry about localization problems. We came into a few problems where the German language content needed to be altered to fit into the correct context. These builds actually need to be approved by Nintendo of Europe, whereas the American builds get approved by Nintendo of America. I’ve heard from many developers that NOA is harsher in their reviews, but I’ve seen nothing too bad from them.

Then, once those are approved, you go to the next step in the ladder: NCL (the Japanese branch of Nintendo). This is actually the easiest part. They just look if your code somehow destroys the system, like overheating and other crap like that. We have never had any problems with that. Well, up to this point anyway. Tomorrow’s another day, for sure.

Many companies will put a whole month aside just for approval because they know their game is going to be denied several times. Some companies estimate 5-10 times before getting approved. We did a great job by getting only two denials.

Fear the NCL.

Now I want to touch upon what I highlighted earlier. Most companies should develop games that are completely bug-free when they ship to Nintendo (or Sony, Microsoft), but that rarely happens, especially if your company is on a strict deadline.

Here’s a bit of info that might not be apparent: there are companies that sell themselves to big publishers to get deals for development. Some companies live on other people’s IP, like cartoons and movies. They don’t have any IP of their own, so the only way to make money is to make games for other companies. Think of it as screenplay writing for movies, like Halo. Microsoft looked for a writer to pen the screenplay instead of using the original writers from Bungie.

Now, these little developers have very little say in how the game is developed. They do have designers that come up with the games, but it needs to be approved by the publisher. They own the IP (for the moment, anyway), so everything has to go through them. The deadline is set, the amount of money and time is set.

It might sound like a fucked up system, only because it is. I don’t think anyone can faithfully predict what a game will go through when developing it. Maybe the company went through a staff change midway. Maybe it just needs more time, but one thing’s for certain: a lot of bad games are only bad because publishers don’t give enough attention, money, or time to that particular product.

We have a product coming out later in the year that could have been a huge game. It would easily “make” this company, and would have sold a lot of copies. But, of course, the publisher thought it wouldn’t sell too well and only put out a modest amount of money and time to back it up. To me, it makes no sense. I believe the more money you put into a product, the more you will see in return. If I had my way right now, the game would be sold as a discount game, but I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen.

I refuse to believe the developers really wanted to make this.

The thing that really got me upset was when I started giving suggestions on how to make it a better game. It was mostly about adding more modes and such, but because they would need more time to add them, they said it might be suggested for the sequel.

I nearly shit myself. So we make gamers buy a sub-par game so we can somehow make the sequel better? That’s what it seemed like to me; they had great ideas, but the publisher constrained them enough that the first game was almost like a practice session on this particular type of game.

I’m not putting any of my coworkers down in any way, we’ve got a great bunch of people, but when they tell me these things, I get very upset. I am trying to be the buffer for the game-buying public, and it’s very hard to do this faithfully when we are under these conditions. But it’s not their mistakes. I put this problem squarely on the publisher side. Something tells me the company is just made out of corporate pieces of garbage that would like nothing more than to make money, no matter how bad their product is. That is why there is so much crap released on the market these days. They want to maximize their profits anyway they can. So if that means putting very little money and heart into a game, then so be it.

If someone found a way to bypass the middle man in this situation, the video game industry would be amazingly different, and ultimately better.

1 Comments

  1. c said on September 8, 2006:

    Well, here’s hoping that the answer to our prayers may eventually come in the form of online digital distribution over services such as Xbox Live and WiiConnect24. I would love to see publishers with policies similar to those referenced in this article forced to change their ways in order to compete with a publishing method that allows for more complete developer control.

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