Tutorial: QA

Tutorial: QA

By Andy Robson

August 12th 2009 at 8:30AM

A guide to harnessing tester ambition

The old wisdom for those looking to get into the industry is to get into QA as the first step on the ladder – but rather than resist it, says Testology's Andy Robson, QA companies should exploit their testers’ ambitions…


The video games industry now represents more than just the younger generations. As it grows and its years amount, the industry continues to establish relationships with new fans and maintain those developed in its younger years. This translates into adults more aware that games development is a viable career choice.

A heightened awareness of these work opportunities, combined with an acknowledgement within higher education, means that more individuals look to the industry for work or as an educational path.

Higher education is beginning to respond to the academic value and career promise of ‘gaming’, offering specialist degrees to help mould and shape the designers, artists and programmers of tomorrow. Although this is undeniably a positive step in developing an applied understanding of the industry, industry experience and comprehension can also be attained through quality assurance.
 
EXPERIENCE POINTS

‘Lack of experience’ is a term that is often synonymous with rejection and under qualification but, when conducting interviews, I do not necessarily value experience as an attribute more worthy of a job role than passion, for example. The success of this industry was born out of creativeness, inventiveness and an understanding of the targeted consumer. These skills cannot be generated by experience alone, but are usually a result of a passionate interest in gaming. At Testology, we like to encourage all candidates with varying experiences and backgrounds to apply for our testing positions. Testers are the consumer’s eyes within the studio. They themselves are avid gamers who live and breathe gaming. This translates into enthusiasm, a vital characteristic when considering a testers role of assuring quality.

 Even post graduation, with a degree in hand, it can be difficult to break into the graduate’s chosen area without any experience of the industry. QA can offer this type of experience for people with ambitions in other areas of game development, but can also offer inexperienced non-graduates an opportunity to work in one of the world’s leading industries. Interestingly enough, some of the best QA contractors I have worked with are those who are non-graduates, whose primary motivation is a desire to learn and channel their passion for gaming into a paid job role. Experience is a valuable asset and its influence on the interview process is unquestionable, but the frustrations lie within the casual deflection of potentially talented ‘inexperienced’ applicants. Without an opportunity, these hidden ‘gems’ would remain undiscovered.

 One thing to consider is the motivations for QA applicants. With an increasing number of unemployed, it is fair to question the motivations of these varied potential testers. Do they want to advance within the industry, interpreting QA as an obvious stepping stone? Is testing a role that will educate them on the development cycles and processes of game development? Or are they hugely passionate gamers whose lifestyles react to the latest releases, generating a desire to experience it first hand? No matter what the motivation, the underlying message is that QA is regarded as a way to progress a development career, or indeed progress a QA career. At Testology, we deal with a multitude of clients with a variety of developmental and methodological preferences. When we expose our contractors to these variations of projects and processes we educate them on adapting to projects, a valuable skill when considering different clients.


TAKE A BREAK
Testing is still, irrefutably, a way to break into the industry, with obvious progressions being design and production – although it's certainly not limited to those two professions alone. Testers, especially leads in management roles, need to be well organised, proactive and highly competent communicators. Managing databases, liaising with the development team, distributing workloads and reporting on the team’s progression are tasks that develop a skill set that resembles those of a producer. Our testers have direct contact with our client’s producers, which increases an awareness of a producer’s job role and its similarities with a lead tester’s.

The processes and methods applied to a lead tester’s role can be translated to a production role with ease. This transition from tester to producer is natural because of the high frequency of contact between the two positions and the mirroring skill sets.  Throughout my career I have interviewed, hired and trained many testers who have now established themselves as successful producers at influential developers – a testament to the value of a QA tester and the applicable attributes developed in this role.

At Testology, I have hired 108 applicants from 1,700 interviews, a small percentage in contrast to other testing departments, but an example of the opportunities offered in regards to interviews. It also highlights our attention to quality, something we value higher than quantity in our company.

When considering the procedures and practices of a QA tester, production is perhaps the most obvious role transition. However, when taking into account the focuses and role of a QA tester, it is more appropriate to make a comparison with design. Testers offer an objective perspective on a product, exhaustively playing and testing a title for eight hours a day. This vast understanding of the functionality and workings of a proposed design allows a tester to offer structured critique to improve and refine a design. The job expectations force a tester to criticise the work of programmers and designers which can often lead to them being considered as some sort of ‘evil within’. Without this objectivity and consciousness of consumer expectations, products may not achieve quality levels demanded by the public. Again, as with production, I have hired and trained many QA testers who are now successful designers. My philosophy has always been to remain honest. If an area of game functionality is broken or could be improved it is the tester’s job to communicate these views.

OPINION JAM

Much of my early success was a result of my unrestrained honesty and a commitment to releasing the highest level of games possible. This was partly the reason for my great working relationship with Peter Molyneux, who at Bullfrog Productions and Lionhead Studios trusted, valued and expected my direct opinions. We promote the same philosophy at Testology, where our experience within these creative areas has allowed us to build a successful consultancy team. We have worked with many clients who send us game prototypes, semi/fully completed levels and even design documents to objectively assess the quality of the work and offer our opinions and suggestions for improvements. Usually, the client is surprised at the amount and quality of the feedback we present in our report, but always values and considers our opinions when making alterations.

 When constructing levels for projects at Bullfrog, Peter Molyneux and I would work next to each other, me giving input on level design and suggesting improvements or alterations based on my experience as a gamer. On all projects, Peter would consult with me when considering the release of a game, with my objective opinion on its quality influencing his decision. Closely working with designers such as Peter allowed me put into practice the creative expertise that is produced from testing positions, the same experience we apply to our consultancy department at Testology.
 
We don’t consider our testers as insignificant ‘numbers’, but instead nurture their skills so they can become well-rounded, capable workers in multiple development roles. When setting up QA departments at Bullfrog Productions and Lionhead Studios both Peter Molyneux and I both agreed on this point and considered QA staff as potential talent. Our testers have interests in other fields of games development; art, animation, modeling, audio, scripting and programming to name a few, and exploit their understanding of these fields when undertaking their QA tasks. The executive producers, artists, level designers, designers, scripters and coders I originally trained as QA contractors are sufficient evidence to suggest that testing is still unrivalled in developing development talent.

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