Inside Irrational Edition Featuring a Look at the Wide World of QA

One night not too long ago, the entire company was enjoying a variety of fine fried foods and a bit too much alcohol when the lovely and talented Joe Faulstick mentioned that I should do an interview with the QA team at Irrational. It was perfect, a job most people have heard of but just don't know that much about. I mean, I knew they tested the games but seriously, there is so much more depth to every job, and since this is a game industry job it is actually interesting. So here's an inside look at Quality Assurance at Irrational Games as told by Swat 4 QA Lead, Joe Faulstick and Swat 4 QA Tester, Keith Smith (also lovely and talented):

What is the overarching role of QA in game development?

Joe: The overarching role of QA is to assure the best quality for the game when it reaches the end of it's development phase. A common myth is that we play video games all day which, unfortunately, is far from true. Common QA tasks involve testing the game's features in order to ensure that they work as intended, general bug reporting, playtesting the game to help balance the difficulty or increase funfactor. QA is typically provided by the publisher, though with Swat 4 we are fortunate to also have an on-site testing team at Irrational to go along with the wonderful team at Vivendi Universal Games.

Keith: To troubleshoot during development, and to help the developers/design team with any ideas involving improved gameplay mechanics, level enhancement, and the overall fun factor.

What do you on a daily basis, describe a typical day?

Joe: One of my primary tasks is to work with my counter-part at Vivendi Universal Games so that reported bugs can quickly reach the programmers, artists, and designers with all of the information needed to fix them. VUG uses a database to track of the status all bugs found and reported for Swat 4. Bug reports are constantly jumping from one person to another as they are found, assigned to an owner, fixed, and ultimately confirmed and closed. Someone's got to keep track of these bugs so they don't get lost!

I also work with the internal test team at Irrational in order to create a test plan for that day so that we can focus our efforts in the right area. If we implement any new features we need to test them to make sure that the feature functions properly. Any bugs we find must be reported into our own internal database with enough information for it to be tracked down and fixed. Fixed bugs have to be double-checked in order to confirm the fix as well as to ensure that no new bugs appear as a result of the change. There's always plenty to do!

Keith: I generally look for any outstanding bugs, check the status of bug fixes in progress, and beat on the latest builds of the game, looking for anything that may have fallen through the cracks. We also spend many hours in multiplayer, quadruple checking online functionality (And beating the crap out of each other in-game...).

Are certain types of projects more or less desirable from a QA standpoint?

Joe: In my opinion, in order to be an effective QA tester a person must have a certain level of interest in the title they are testing. If someone doesn't like the style of game that they are testing then they really can't give good feedback on funfactor or game balance. With this said, children's titles are on my less than desirable list. From a technical standpoint, the more complex the game, the tougher it is to test. That doesn't always make a title more or less desirable though, sometimes testers like a challenge!

How does one get into QA?

Joe: Before trying for a job in Quality Assurance, you should make sure that testing is something that interests you. Saying that 'testers play fun video games all day" is not the best way to sum up the job description. QA work involves a lot of repetitive tasks, problem solving skills, and database reporting.

With that said, the best way to start is to get involved with beta tests through the Internet. Massively Multiplayer RPG's almost always have a closed beta test cycle at some point during their development and these beta tests are a great way to get exposed to working on an unfinished title, bug-hunting, and bug-reporting. Having this experience goes a long way toward separating you from regular gamers on a job application.

Keith: Everyone I know asks me that!! First, I'd say you have to truly love playing many different kinds of videogames, and be good at them as well. It helps to be a well versed, and a well-rounded player as well. Besides, it never hurts to know the potential competition inside and out. Secondly, you have to live somewhere where there are gaming companies. And lastly- Good luck!!! QA jobs are fairly rare and hard to come by, as there are always a hundred people ahead of you that want the same job. But it's good work if you can get it.

What kind of work background is desirable and/or helpful for the job? What skills are useful for the position?

Joe: Beta testing experience goes a long way because of the similarities of the tasks involved. Strong problem solving and writing skills are definitely needed in order to find glitches in the game and document their steps to reproduce. One of the most important traits is to have a love for games. People who know games, play games, and love games make much better testers.

Keith: Specifically related to QA? I'd say you need a healthy knowledge of various types of games, and what makes them "tick". Basic computer skills never hurt. But I think the most important qualities would be adaptability, and the ability to keep an open mind, as well as having an eye for subtle details and a nose for things that just "feel" wrong in a game. Lots of gamers come across occasional bugs in a game, but few can diagnose the cause and reproduce it. And fewer still can figure out how to intentionally "break" a game. When you can do that, you have what it takes to be QA...

What is the most satisfying aspect of the job? The most fun?

Joe: As a former publisher QA tester I often felt that my feedback and suggestions did not matter to whatever developer we were working with at the time. At Irrational, the most satisfying aspect of my job has to be seeing some of my own ideas implemented into the game. Everyone at Irrational Games can provide their two cents to the design team. In a sense we're all junior designers!

Keith: Well, the most satisfying part is seeing something you've worked on for a long time finally be released to the public, and know you helped make it what it is. People have no idea how much work goes into making a game. The overall man hours, quadruple checking EVERYTHING with a fine tooth comb while working with the programmers and designers to bring the consumer a fun, enjoyable, well made product.

The most fun part for me is getting everyone in the office in on big multiplayer good guy/ bad guy games. Splitting up into teams and going at it full tilt. Then you get to just run around freely in a finished virtual world you saw created from the ground up. That's a blast, literally!!

What do you find most frustrating?

Joe: Tracking down those ever-elusive bugs that just won't go away and have no rational cause or explanation. These can get very annoying for everyone involved!

Keith: Every now and then you come across a bug that refuses to die. They're almost always game stoppers that seem to come out of nowhere. And just when you think it's fixed, BAM!! It pops up somewhere else. But when they finally do die it's a beautiful thing.

What has been your favorite game to work on and why?

Joe: Swat 4, of course. I am a big fan of tactical shooters so I could instantly connect with the style of gameplay before I even really played game. From a work perspective, Swat 4 has so many things to test and even now the game still surprises me. I keep finding myself logging time on the Multiplayer Demo during my off-hours at home. It's very rare to have the opportunity to test a game that's so fun to play.

Keith: I'd have to say SWAT 4. First off, it's just a really fun game to play that adds some cool dynamics to the whole squad based shooter genre, and it doesn't get old. It also looks beautiful. But when you add in all the outside things we did to research the game, like real SWAT training, trips to firing ranges, and epic paintball battles, it's an experience I'll never forget. In general, working for Irrational is just plain fun. It can be hard, and make you want to pull your hair out sometimes, but in the end it's a great job, with great people. How could anyone hate playing/making videogames for a living?!

--- Meredith Levine