Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Double Edged Sword we call QA...

I’ve officially been in QA for nearly 4 years now. I’ve learned a LOT over that time and progressed due to that acquired and retained knowledge and experience. You would think that would mean that I am better at QA and testing now than I was when I started, right? Most days I would say, “absolutely yes”. But recently I started to think about that question a little more... and in some ways I have to say “no, I am worse now than I was then”.

Now, before you start calling for my head at the next opportunity to release staff from the company, hear me out.

At the core of this issue, I AM without a shadow of a doubt MUCH better now at QA and testing than I was back in the day. And not to toot my own horn, but I actually consider myself to be better than most out there in the world of QA based on my wide knowledge of competitor products, the industry as a whole, and unending curiosity and creative thinking that fuels my ability to chaos test games like few others I have encountered.

So, here’s how I am worse...

Over the past few years I have learned a ton, about QA as a department, process, skill, and its place within the greater development team and company. I have read countless books, articles, and presentations by various veterans in the industry. I have played hundreds, if not thousands, of games from the companies I have worked for but also our competitors (as noted above with the analysis). I have worked with some of the most talented and inspiring designers in the industry, absorbed info and ideas from them via countless discussions, emails, and meetings on a variety of topics...

Wait, what? Aren’t those all the same things that make me much better at my job? Of course they are. But they are also making me worse for one reason...

I no longer qualify as the average consumer...

Because of all of those things I mentioned above I no longer accurately and honestly represent the average consumer’s thinking when I QA a project... at least not by default. I can still “trick my mind” to pull this off, but it’s something I have to force myself to do rather than just have it happen like it did when I was the average consumer.

Whenever I QA a title I spend part of my time posing as the average consumer of the product... the guy or gal walking into Walmart/EB/GameStop/Best Buy/Future Shop who is going to buy this game and take it home and hopefully have a blast playing it for hours on end. The other part of my time, when not knee deep in tracking docs and running from one meeting to the next, is spent putting all of my knowledge to use... meaning thinking of all the ways that the designer has designed system X or level Y and dissecting it so that I can ensure it not only works when I put it through the meat grinders that are my hands on a controller, but also that it’s fun. How do I quantify fun? Well, that’s a topic that will take several articles to cover, so for now I will just break it down into some high level categories. Things we look for on the QA Design side of testing generally fall under the subjective side of feedback, and how we come to those suggestions comes from a wide range of sources and ideas. Using other titles and their success as a gauge, using theories on what creates enjoyment for a person (not only in games, but anything really) and ensuring that our products contain those important ingredients, and several other means like focus testing and gathering large samples of feedback from a variety of user types over time. That is by no means a complete list, so please don’t go screaming that I missed something, trust me... I have an excel doc that is a gigantic list of the things we use as reference, resources, and assets when trying to determine the “fun” of a particular project.

So what does this all mean?

Well, the more that I think about it, the more it seems that in order to become better at QAing a title, the worse someone becomes at representing the everyday consumer. It’s a “necessary evil” if that makes sense... you have to allow yourself to slip further and further away from being an everyday consumer in order to catch all of the issues that could potentially ruin their experience had you not been there to do it.

What’s the worst part about all of this? Well depending on who you ask you’ll probably hear a lot of different answers... but here’s one I tell all new hires who join my teams.

Getting better at QAing projects means you’re most likely staying in that thought process longer than the 9-5 (or whatever core hours you put in are) of the daily grind.

Being in QA is a lot like what Morpheus tells Neo... Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. There’s no turning back...

Now, Morpheus was speaking to Neo about the Matrix as a false world being pulled over the eyes of the world’s inhabitants, whereas I am referring to seeing bugs within games, but it’s so truthful it hurts a little just thinking about it.

It’s incredibly hard, bordering on impossible actually, to unsee bugs in games. And as you get better and better in QA, more experience under your belt, and seen more projects come and go, you start to notice more and more, right down to the little subtleties that would escape most people, even the nitpicker fan boys and forum trolls out there 

As you start to play other games that should be a great distraction from the real world and work, and just a nice way to settle down and dive into the experience and fun of the game in hand... you see it... the bugs are there, and you can’t help but see them. You can see the level textures popping in, you can see the character’s animation twitch as one cycle ends and doesn’t blend smoothly into the next, you can see that when you speak to a character they still reference another character or item that you killed or destroyed earlier in the game, you see that if you try to force your way into a space that you shouldn’t fit that you can indeed get into it and cause all kinds of chaos (especially in online multiplayer games). They are all there. And I apologize to the non-QA folks who may be reading this, cause these things will likely start sticking out a like a sore thumb in the next game you play because at the very least you are aware of the issue possibly being there and your brain will be subconsciously looking for these things now. As a matter of fact, just to prove my point (that the power of suggestion is real, that is), there are sooooooooooo many Lexus IS250’s out on the roads these days!! They must be clearing those things out!! (I guarantee I will get a response in the coming days from someone saying “ man, I just saw like 10 of those on the road today!”)

So, with all of this said, do I dislike my job or feel I am not fit to do it anymore? Absolutely not. I am getting better by the day, and I find new things I love about my job each day, and when you consider the challenges that arise on a day to day basis in my job... you have to imagine that I get exponentially better day by day.

I don’t want to say I was born to do this job, but I was born to excel at it... there is another position within the games industry that is still calling my name and that I am endlessly pursuing... but we’ll wait for another day to discuss that 

Over n oot,




James Herd said...

I completely agree with you here Billy. I was in QA for 7 years before I became a designer. As each year went by, I started testing more and more to what the company wanted, and less about the home user. Now that I am in design, I get to think and design a game for what I would like to play, and what the end user would like to play. But I have to say, you work at a pretty great place. I mean you get to take devkits home and do feeback from your couch! That's awesome. You should really think about testing the design waters. I was really lucky that I was able to switch over from a qa role to design really quick at my company. Now, you better make sure Mass Effect 2 is totally awesome, and make sure it's designed so that you can access DLC after you have completed the game :)

billy b said...

Thanks James! I have to return the agreement with your points as well.

Working at BioWare has been fantastic, and hopefully any co-workers reading this aren't taking it as me saying I have to test in a way that I don't want to... In fact I have taken upon myself to learn more of the theories and practices of our designers so that I can understand their intentions when they design something and then test it from that perspective, ensuring that their ideas are conveyed in a way that the end user will understand the intention as well, and then testing from a common or average gamer perspective and see that it still is clear and understood. I've loved working with our designers for that very reason... and while I can't say which project I am on at this very moment, I am sure that when it's revealed people will be blown away by what they see!
I have to say congrats to you James, I didn't know you made the leap... nice work dude!! that's awesome! I too am trying to make such a transition, so I have been trying to learn scripting, primarily in Unreal Editor Kismet to start doing some work from home and at the office. My hopes are that in about a years time I will be in a good spot to make a similar leap.
While we're at the guessing who's working on what game... any chance you want to drop some hints that you may be working on a title, a sequel perhaps, that involves people who have not fully completed the process of "shop til you drop"? ;-)

C.Gaspur said...

Really interesting post Billy, I agree with your points and try to take the same mind set myself when playing or designing a feature. What I find most difficult is keeping the mind set as a consumer or end user day in and day out, as a developer you notice things that drive you crazy that the average user would never take notice to, and its a matter of striking that fine balance and knowing when to draw the line. Good Stuff!!