While the arms-race of each successive console generation offers and tantalizes consumers with higher quality entertainment experiences, defining quality itself has started to get more and more tricky. Is it simply a case of (for sound at least) higher sample rates? More fidelity in the surround field? Playing back more voices simultaneously? Higher resolution DSP effects? Consistency? Less glitches and bugs? More convincing (and convincingly captured) performances from actors?

It does begin to blur around the edges as you realize that this is perhaps one of the broadest and most subjective categories to talk about. Yet, it is fundamental to how we navigate, describe (and judge) increasingly expensive (and often complex) entertainment experiences within our industry. Quality is also something that, you soon realize, doesn’t only apply exclusively to big budget games, but also something that applies to much smaller titles, and even down to simple interfaces. Perhaps it helps to think not about the end result, the objective final output of the game, but about the overall experience, and to that end, perhaps the ‘quality’ of processes that go into creating the experiences themselves requires more examination and investment (beyond the unsatisfactory notions of ‘quality’ simply being a shaded area occupying the intersection of features, budget and time).

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately (too much, hence the overflow into the written word) and, my own ad-hoc definition of “QUALITY”, in a game production context, might shed some light (or maybe raise more questions) on how to evaluate (and produce) the ‘intangible’ notion of ‘quality’ (note: this is not really about ‘polish’ which I consider to be an endeavor almost exclusively achieved and performed in post-production) – and it is actually informed and tracked across several quite different areas.

1) Quality of Interaction (Communication and Collaboration) Ensuring collaboration is happening at the high level (between leadership/studio culture/project management) and at the low level (between coders and implementers) and is both happening vertically (intra-discipline) and horizontally (inter-discipline)

2) Quality of Implementation (use of, and access to, material, ease and speed of implementation (tools & pipelines), expertise, iteration time (refinement and enrichment)

3) Quality of Input (Source Assets) and Output (Signal/Data Path): Correctly isolated (or environment specific) recordings (or synthesis) at the highest sample rates and bit depths + I/O signal path (easily re-configurable mixer hierarchies and parametization of sound), controllable, carefully measurable, predictable and trackable output levels. Having this I/O in place allows both upwards and downwards SCALABILITY to different (or newly emerging) platforms.

In combination – I reckon these three areas invariably allow the delivery of refined ‘high-quality’ features and experiences. I’d also like to imply that these areas are not limited to console development (although it is the source of current questions about what ‘next-gen’ actually is/means), but can apply to any technical system whereby the delivery devices are cyclical and incremental.

Perhaps quality is more simply about how well we are able to convey an idea and an experience to a user, and making that distance between the user and the experience as small as possible, such that, in the end, the technology all but disappears completely.