Going Alpha

Wow. I didn’t realize it had been a month since I wrote on here. While this Alpha has been the best one, as far as hours, I guess it still has preoccupied me. Our scheduled Alpha date was March 7 and the team did a great job pulling all their tasks together in the last sprint. The goal was to hit Alpha on time or at the very least come in better than last year, which was 7 days late.

In order to hit this goal, the idea was to leave the last sprint (3 weeks) as a “contingency” sprint. While this sounded good on paper, it was hard to know when to use the “contingency”. It seems like we used it for anything and everything and in the end, it appeared that we were scheduled right up to the end of the last sprint. The reason it got this way, was there was always “one more thing” that needed to get in or that was half done and it would be a shame to release a feature that wasn’t 100% complete. In the end we have to ship a good game with awesome features. I don’t think the concept of a “contingency” sprint works very well because you end up using it like a sprint, scheduling right up to the Alpha date. Next year I think what I’m going to do is have a two week period before Alpha which is completely unscheduled. It will only be used for finishing something that didn’t get completed in the last sprint and fixing any issues with the game which might be hindering QA’s ability to test the whole game.

Despite having that last sprint completely scheduled, the team did a great job leaving that last week of the sprint available to verify all the features were in a good state. We ended up being 4 days late for Alpha, being declared on March 11th. There were a few crashes in one of the game modes which would hold up QA from testing. EA has a checklist of things that need to be complete before a game is declared Alpha. Stability of all game modes is one of those. Even though we had done a great job on the stability of our game, there were a few timing specific bugs that held it up. Friday the last fix went in QA declared us Alpha.

Road to Alpha

I came back to the NCAA team at an interesting point in our development cycle. It’s the tail end of Production and we are only 6 weeks away from declaring the product Alpha. For Electronic Arts, Alpha is Feature Complete: all new features that have been implemented and a certain level of stability exists with the game.

Throughout Production we are writing requirements that we call Tests for Completion (TFCs). It is the expectation that the developers who are creating the feature, whether they are artists, designer, or programmer, make sure that they feature they are working on fulfills these TFCs. At the end of our sprints, all the TFCs we commit to at the beginning of the sprint need to pass a review by our QA department. Invariably not all of them get complete and if any of them miss, we try and get them complete as soon as possible right after the end of the sprint. However, sometimes there’s a few that slip even more beyond that sprint and can start hitting up against Alpha. In order for our QA department to declare the game Alpha, all TFCs must be 100% complete.

In order to give us some buffer room, we designate two sprints as “contingency”. Those two sprints are not included in the scope of the project. The two sprints are: one right before the Holiday break (late December) and the other one right before Alpha. We choose late December because there are a lot of developers that like to take extra time off around the break. Overall, these two sprints give us some time in order to iterate on features and hit Alpha on time.

NCAA Football is divided into four sub-teams, we call Pods. Coming onto the team three weeks ago, I’m pretty much taking up the charge to Alpha. My first thought was, “Will each Pod make it to Alpha?” The team had what they called a Master Burndown, which combined the points and velocity of all the Pods. This is great, but all it only takes one feature to hold up Alpha. So, I used some of the techniques I talk about in my Hansoft Basics presentation, to calculate a per-Pod velocity based on data in Hansoft. That ended up giving me data that we were probably going to be booked around a week and a half into the final contingency sprint. Good, but not great.

From this point going to Alpha, we have to keep a very close eye on things that are changing on the backlog. Figure out what is being added and what is being removed. It’s delicate balancing act of wanting to get as many features into the product as possible, quality of the product, and the number of hours we are going to have to crunch during Alpha. I’m hoping we come out completely balanced.

Happy New Year

Hope everyone had a save New Years Eve celebration. 2010 is history and here comes 2011. We are busy working on Madden & NCAA at Tiburon. We are most of the way through Production and are about two months away from declaring Alpha on both products. We usually build up and build up and when we get back from holiday break, it’s a big sprint towards the finish line. I equate it to riding a roller-coaster. From August to December, you are clicking up the hill and then once you hit January you are sliding down all the way until ship.

January 2011 also marks my 13th anniversary in the game industry. Back in January 1998, I joined Atomic games. If you haven’t noticed, there’s a new tab / drop-down at the top of the page. This is a series of pages that talk about each game that I’ve made over the years. I’ve only completed Close Combat 3 through Section 8, but I will be putting new ones up Madden Ultimate Team and Madden NFL 11 soon. Each page contains and paragraph talking about what I worked on, the text blurb from the back of each box, screen shots, and if there was a PC demo available, there’s a link to it. For me, its always nice to go back and look over the old stuff and reminisce. If you have any question on what it was like to work on any the games I worked on, drop me a line.

Back to NCAA

It’s been a wild year and a half since I’ve returned to Electronic Arts. I started out in EA Tiburon’s Project Management Office. That lasted only a couple of months before I was moved to Madden Ultimate Team. I stuck with the same set of developers as we got the servers for Madden NFL 11 tested and ready for launch, ported Madden Ultimate Team over to Madden 11, and implemented the scouting feature in online games. Once we launched in August, I moved over to our Central Football Gameplay. This group is responsible for the Gameplay for Madden and NCAA Football. I always say they are responsible for “hike to tackle”, but in actuality there’s a little bit more around that.

Well, I’m on the move again. And the job I’m moving to is actually the job I had three years ago. I’m moving back to be the head Development Director on NCAA Football, what Tiburon calls the Program Manager (EA-Canada calls this position Franchise Development Director, which I like better).

As I mentioned in the NCAA team meeting when I was announced as coming back to the team, I’m a big fan of NCAA Football. I’ve been playing it since EA-Tiburon has been making versions of it. So, I’m very excited to be back on that team. Beyond my fandom, I’m also impressed with NCAA’s development practices and I think their long term vision for the franchise is the right direction to go. I will once again be teamed up with Seann Graddy, a Development Director who is now going to be in the “Project Lead” role, or Senior Producer. I’ve worked with Seann in the past on Madden NFL 06 and NFL Head Coach. I’ve always had great respect for Seann and I can’t wait to start my new role.

While putting together the presentation that I showed to the team, I put together a list of Football video games that I’ve played over the years. It was a little scary that I’ve been playing these games for almost 20 years now:

  • Front Page Sports Football 93 – 99
  • MS NFL Fever 2000
  • Madden NFL 2001
  • NCAA Football 2002 – 2011

Anyway, I’m excited to be back on the NCAA Football team and the team has evolved over the last three years to a great team that I’m also excited to be a part of.