On June 10, For Honor launched Year 5, Season 2: Mirage, the latest in a series of continuous updates that have provided players with new Heroes, modes, updates and improvements since the game was released back in February 2017. To keep the game balanced as they regularly refreshed it with meaningful content, Ubisoft Montreal initially tried test servers (accessed via an entirely separate version of the game), but instead found success with Testing Grounds, an in-game testing environment. During a digital presentation at the 2021 Game Developers Conference, Associate UX Director Audrey Laurent-André and Project Lead Programmer Laurent Chouinard discussed why For Honor’s test servers didn’t work, and how they ended up creating Testing Grounds.
During For Honor’s development, the AAA industry was starting to shift towards live games – games that are regularly updated with new content, seasonal events, and more. The dev team wanted For Honor to have a long life, but had never operated a live game before. The first challenge they faced was managing balance as they added new Heroes to the game, which was already difficult to do with 12 playable characters at launch.
“Balance is about how fair your game feels, which is key when it comes to PvP games,” Laurent-André says. “The thing is, balance isn't something that you achieve once and for all, for all of your players. It's something that evolves with changes and your content. Also, your players are going to find new ways of playing your game, and finally, balance is not felt the same, depending on your player skills.”
With plans to expand the cast every season, the team needed a tool to gather enough data in order to monitor and maintain a healthy balance. They also wanted to be able to assess the state of their changes clearly.
“There were really two options in front of us,” Chouinard says. “The first is branches, which is something that we've been using for years and everyone is used to; and feature switches, which is what the cool kids were starting to use to bring stuff live, and we're hearing about more on the mobile game side.”
Upon looking into feature switches, the team decided the process would be too complex, and instead went with branches, which were familiar. “And if we choose branches, that means that the only way to push it out to players is through a test server,” says Chouinard. Test servers — separate instances of a game that must be downloaded and launched independently of the live game — were also the industry standard at that point, so the team prepared to have their own servers to test changes and features.
The Problem with Test Servers
Unfortunately, an average of just 1.6% of For Honor’s active players came to play on the test servers, and there weren’t enough players at any given time for matchmaking. Those that did play, more often than not, were also highly engaged and highly skilled players. In the end, the test servers could not generate enough data to be useful, and the process was longer than shipping live directly.
To understand why no one showed up to the test servers, several key attendance barriers were identified. Players weren’t invested enough to know when test servers were going to happen, and they had a limited time frame in which to download a specific build. Because progression wasn’t shared between the test server and the main game, players were giving their time for free without progressing their characters or gaining currency. Furthermore, test servers were PC-only.
The team wanted to create a huge test server to remove as many barriers as they could, and had the perfect opportunity to do so. “We were switching from a peer-to-peer online technology to a dedicated-server one, and we needed a huge technical test to validate everything was going according to plan,” says Laurent-André.
A new test was created using all platforms, and with amplified communication efforts to increase player awareness. Progression was still an issue, but the team created a system to manually reward players for playing a certain number of matches on the test server. As a result, 16.3% of the player base showed up to the dedicated servers, but players’ behavior still caused a problem.
“They played just enough to get the reward and they left. So that wouldn't have worked for balance, because we need a sustained activity,” Laurent-André says. “But still, it was interesting because it proved to us that making the test servers easier to access was working to drive players to come.”
On the development side, test servers had several development branches running at the same time, which were becoming difficult to keep track of. “At some point, we created a merge hell for ourselves where everything – thousands of data items from all of our branches – needed to be merged manually, and we went nuts,” Chouinard says.
Creating Testing Grounds
The team realized test servers weren’t the answer, and needed a new solution. “Where do we have less attendance barriers, and that costs us less to operate?” says Laurent-André. “At that point, the only remaining option is the main game, and that's how the Testing Grounds were created.”
The key with Testing Grounds was to make it a part of the players’ natural flow. In For Honor’s world map, players choose their activities; events happen regularly, allowing players to access limited-time game modes with special parameters. “So we designed the testing ground to behave like an event,” Laurent-André says. “It would contain specific balance changes, game mode changes, or event system changes that would stay contained within that activity. A player can choose to test for a limited time, and it would work within For Honor’s progression system. In a nutshell, it would be like any other game mode.”
The first Testing Ground launched in August 2019 with one of the community’s most anticipated characters, the Centurion. It was a huge success, with 22.6% of active players testing the changes. “Since then, we've done four more Testing Grounds on characters, game modes, and game systems, and we have one that just finished,” says Laurent-André. “We're working on one Testing Ground per season.”
Testing Ground Benefits
The success of the first Testing Ground wasn’t just a fluke. On average, all Testing Grounds are played by almost a quarter of active players, with steady attendance between 21% and 26%. With this consistent engagement, the team was able to iterate through several rounds of updates and balance tweaks. Testing Grounds also improved community sentiment on social media.
“It was still positive, even when players are disagreeing with the changes that we propose,” Laurent-André says. “The overall tone is way more constructive.”
“We realized that Testing Grounds attract a volume of players comparable to our seasonal game mode events, but with less marketing investment,” says Laurent-André. “And to us, that meant that players really want to be a part of what's next for For Honor, and they want to be heard.”
Now, when the team communicates what’s next in the coming months, Testing Grounds is viewed as a core part of For Honor; the tests are included in roadmaps alongside season launches, events, and Hero releases.
“Using the Testing Grounds to show our intended changes to the players means that we're also sharing our intentions for the future of the game, and we are giving them a way to tell us what they think,” Laurent-André says. “All of that contributes to a virtuous cycle that allows players and dev to collaborate on where the game is going. And this builds trust between us and our community.”
For Honor is available now on PS4, Xbox One, PC, Ubisoft+, as well as PS5 and Xbox Series X|S via backwards compatibility. For more on the game, check out our previous coverage.