With X3: Reunion, Egosoft is overhauling its open-ended space exploration, trading, and combat game with a brand-new 3D graphics engine, as well as a single-player plot. X3 should be the most user-friendly X game yet, because it's being designed to work on both the PC and the Xbox. That's good news for gamers, as the previous X games were huge, open-ended affairs that suffered from dauntingly steep learning curves. Of course, it doesn't hurt that X3 also features a jaw-dropping graphics engine that makes the final frontier look prettier than ever. With X3 in the final stages of development, Egosoft's Greg Kingston and Mark "Toastie" Wilson explain in this edition of our designer diaries the workings of the ongoing beta test. X3 is scheduled to ship next month.
Beta-Testing X3Greg Kingston and Mark "Toastie" Wilson
Greg Kingston: Beta testing marks an important transitional phase for any game. It is the time that the developers let their baby into the semipublic domain and allow the volunteer testers loose. Controlling the testing on such an anticipated game as X3 requires strict guidelines and excellent management. Initially, a lot of testers may be just tempted to play the game, and there is always a huge "wow" factor when they see it for the first time.
To get around this and to ensure that quality testing is done, we have a simple structure in place. The lead programmer and developers sit at the top, working on areas they know are still outstanding and feeding back changes they know will take place. Below this are testing teams split up into key areas. These are principally under the headings of graphics, sound and text, plot, economy, map, missions, combat, and interface. Each of these areas is headed up by a volunteer developer who has deputies and a testing team at his disposal.
Mark "Toastie" Wilson: I head up the plot testing team and also have input into some others as well. Our role is to direct the testers to trial specific scenarios and objects and then record the outcomes, as well as test ourselves. Any reported bugs have to be confirmed and then reported in a way that makes the developers and programmers' job easier to correct them. They can then feedback to us whether it is still a work in progress or when a correction will be made--or what we sometimes think is an error is actually finished work!
GK: Good communication is vital at this stage, where the publisher deadline for the gold master suddenly becomes more real and seems to get a lot closer every day. X3 has to be such a complex game to make it so open-ended for the player. There are seemingly an infinite number of possibilities or scenarios that the player can create, and they all need to be tested. This includes basic tasks, such as ensuring a certain ship can dock at a certain station. Now multiply the number of ships by the number of stations, and the task is increased. Now add in the fact that there are several different races owning the ships and stations, and the task multiplies again. Some ships may be able to trade the goods in those factories, while others may not. The possibilities increase again!
MW: Yes, and this is just the economy running on its own. Combat has all of the same factors involved, but then added on again are the huge number of weapon choices and combinations that both the player and non-player character can use. Damage and laser depletion values are different for them all, and shielding for ships that are hit is also varied. The combination of possibilities soon becomes mind-boggling. (And we haven't even talked about all the missile possibilities yet, either!)
GK: Far from being forgotten, of course, are the plot and sideline missions that the player can take. The plot mission testing is crucial, as the player can choose whenever he or she would like to do part of it, while the universe may have changed dramatically to what the game would "expect." When the player takes the next part on, he or she may, in the meantime, become enemies of several races, or races may be in conflict with one another.
MW: Voice recordings can be fun as well. There are well over three hours of voice recordings and sound effects in the game, and these must all be tested to ensure that the correct ones play when they are supposed to, along with the displayed texts onscreen. Some amusing errors are often identified early on when the incorrect speech is mapped to a certain action!
GK: In terms of progress, beta testing on X3 is racing along now. To update people where we are, at the time of this writing we are testing our third beta version, and the fourth will be available in a couple of days. We have already reached the "feature lock" point (no significant new content added), and the next progression will be toward release-candidate versions. Even with this lock in place, though, new content that is just in its final fine-tuning is being inserted. For example, the new in-game menus were recently added, which is why beta testers haven't seen them yet.
Of course, we don't want to show off any of the "bad effects" that are often displayed during testing, but instead, feast your eyes on some of the "finished goods," and enjoy the graphics as they will appear in the game.