Babel Media's VP of sales and marketing Keith Russell tells MCV about the state of the QA sector and a potential move to Montreal.
What are your thoughts on the relationship between publishers and QA firms? What works well and what needs improving?
We tend to work on the project in the final phases after the developer has been working on it for months, or years even. So at that point it is normally a high stress situation as QA or first party compliance is seen as the final stage before going to market – and in some cases the developer seeing their family for the first time in months.
It is also generally accepted that at this point any time contingency the developer had planned has already been eaten up, so there is huge commercial pressure. We understand how hard this on the developers and we try to do what we can to make it go smoothly with great information flow and intelligent strategies beyond just throwing more people at it. On the whole this works well if all parties are receptive to this collaborative way of working.
How have publisher attitudes towards the sector changed in the past year?
Fewer titles means the games that are created have become bigger and more important to them, so there is a lot of focus on getting it right first time. Also we see more clients extending test cycles as they polish and finalise features. They all realise it's a very competitive space and only the very best games will sell.
Furthermore we are seeing more care taken going to first party and ensuring they pass first time.
Some of the QA and localisation firms we've spoken to have called for publishers to bring them into the production process earlier in order to improve the service you provide. Do you agree? What are you doing to encourage publishers to bring you in earlier?
That is always the intention, however we have actually advised some clients occasionally to wait until they are really ready, for example the game has to be testable. As a true partner rather than a black cab, we don't just keep the meter running when they get out, as we all know budgets are tight for everyone, therefore it's our duty to make sure we use it effectively and that it gets them to their destination.
It's quite funny that we sometimes get comments like: Really, you want us to stop and spend less?”.
This is crucial as it leads to trust, which is so important when they are taking our advice on the product quality.
Do you think more attention needs to be given to QA and localisation in general? Why, and how are you raising awareness of the sector?
There are so many aspects to making great games and QA and localisation is one of them. Whilst it is the whole of Babel's world, and it would be tempting to say everyone should be as passionate as we are about it, in reality, I feel everyone should work on what they are good at, let the developer's focus on making a great game and let the professional go-to-market” people like us localise and test it.
Which regions around the world have seen increased demand for localisation or special QA needs in the last year, and how have you catered for this?
South America is really hot now, we built up some major expertise in this. Also it's not really a region as such, but casual games are now going into every language under the sun.
Is user-testing important in an age of 3D and motion gaming? Do you cater for this?
Our Kinect test plan includes using a variety of body shapes, body artwork and accents. So yes, with the body and voice as a controller, it makes recruiting fun. We also videotape to ensure we can regress motion bugs.
Do you believe there is a need for standardisation in QA and localisation practises? Why?
Yes and no. The sector is moving so fast that standardisation is lagging behind, however at some point like in 3D it will catch up. We are not there yet though until then we focus on making it as painless as possible.
How has the rise of digital, casual and social games affected your business? Are you having to complete different projects, or have you had less demand for your services?
This sector has gone through the roof. Broadly it splits into three phases:
Number one – the ‘start-up'. These say: Quality, that's what the customer is for, we are free to play so what do they expect, right? As for localisation, hey we barely have English working, so all of this can wait until after we get some customers paying the bills.”
Secondly, there's the ‘first success'. These say: Right, we need the game in 60 languages, so let's build an office in every territory and hire translators for each language. Oh God, these users really complain about stuff not working, we'd better build a massive QA group as well. Oh, crap, all those staff cost a fortune and our tools all need to be used on-site? Help.”
Thirdly there's the ‘seasoned player', who take the following stance: We build the games and have the tools to allow many people to collaborate on getting them to market, we use the best services to get us value for money and saleability.”
Two and three are our main target group as one are too busy just going to market rather than fully exploiting their games' potential, as this kicked off some time ago. There are also many twos and threes.
How do you expect the sector to change in 2012?
More casual and mobile, fewer but bigger console games, more focus on reducing costs and driving profit. A greater push to deliver ‘just in time' to avoid paying resources for being on standby while important game tweaks happen. I also see a move to game hubs, like Montreal, who have a government which actively supports the video game business with real incentives. We ourselves are currently considering moving most of our operational staff out there to be closer to clients and give better value for money.