It's pretty well known that working in QA (Quality Assurance) is the best way of getting your foot in the door of the video-game industry, but most people don't know what it's actually like to work inside a QA department. QA has various reputations: good and bad. I'm going to share what it was like to work in the QA department of the MMO Warhammer Online. There were perks, a lot of them. But I think you should know the reality of what a job like this entails.
Working in QA is about crazy hours, repetition, reports, as well as testing. Don't get me wrong; there were tons of perks working there. Nonetheless, there was a job to do and it took a lot of time, people, and coffee to get it done.
In an MMO there are clearly a ton of things to test. Some people gravitate toward certain things, such as art, quest logic, storyline consistency, gear, or RVR. Some of QA was divided into separate teams to work on each of the different factions: Empire vs. Chaos, Dwarf vs. Greenskin, and Elf vs. Dark Elf.
I worked on the team that focused on the Empire/Chaos areas of the game. Our job was to test content as the development team implemented it. Testing included: checking icons; making sure monsters were the right type and level; checking that quests worked correctly; verifying that the right items dropped from NPCs and monsters; making sure things were in the right place; placement of objects; and even basic grammar checks on the text. We tested approximately one chapter a day -- each faction had 22 chapters. We were absolutely not the only people who tested each chapter, but you could consider us the first line of defense, the first run through.
Quality means doing it right when no one is looking. — Henry Ford
Following a studio shuffle, I landed on the Cities/RvR team. Testing was more complicated on this team. If you've played WAR, you know that the cities can be captured. So, not only were we testing content, quests and city functions, but RvR added a whole other list of testing criteria. We needed very large groups to test with; which meant that we had to solicit help from all over the office, and that didn't always prove easy with all the departments working so much overtime already.
After a time, I ended up on the Live team. This team monitors payer feedback through forums and in-game player bug reports. I assisted in shuffling through a database of these alleged bugs. Players will report just about anything they don’t like and claim it is a bug so my job was to go into the game and test said, “bug”. We got hundreds of these “bugs” each day. To my estimation: about five percent of the bugs that got reported were actually bugs. Most were just complaints about a design.
A quick lesson I learned in QA: if it’s working “as designed” it’s not a bug.
In general, testing is repetition. When you test a quest, you check it more than once. When you do an art walkthrough, you walk through a zone as though you are mowing grass, all the way in one direction, then back; looking for holes, blank spots, etc. A new hairstyle is tried on with each helmet over and over to make sure no hair stuck out the sides. The repetition is what makes testing become less "cool" and more like work.
Working at EA Mythic certainly had its perks: free video games, crazy cool break rooms, movie days, parties, swag, free soda and snacks, etc. EA has so many titles that you could always find something to spend your company points on; my family especially liked that perk.
Downtime at work was pretty awesome as well. Each break room had an Xbox and a big-screen TV. Rockband was the most popular title, and there was always some developer living out his midlife-crisis pain on the mic. Those break rooms also came in handy on long nights while waiting for a new build.
Quality is not an act, it is a habit. — Aristotle
Sometimes we would get to leave work early and go see a movie. EA would sometimes rent out a whole movie theater for us to watch a private screening of a new release. It was usually on a Friday, and it was always a great start to the weekend.
Parties and swag were the icing on the cake for me. Every few months was marked with something special, like unique T-shirts or sunglasses, while the end of milestones were celebrated with something like a bowling party or some other shindig. Paul Barnett was the reason I got the one-and-only gaming T-shirt that fits me, because he ordered some specially in girl sizes, which was a pretty major thing as I've not gotten one that fit since then. At times, Mythic outdid itself when trying to make its employees happy.
The reality about working for a big company like EA is as follows: The hours are bad and they can and do get worse. There was a point where I was working 11+ hours a day, 6 days a week. If you want to work for on a big upcoming game, kiss your free time and weekends goodbye.
Contrary to popular belief, promotions don't happen all that often in QA. While working on a game, few people move up the corporate ladder, and, if they're not moving, neither are you. Promotions seem to happen after big things, like a game release. MMOs can take anywhere from three to five years to "finish", so you do the math. Also, remember that it takes a lot more people to make a game than to maintain it, and what do you think happens to that excess?
While there are lots of different areas to be worked on in an MMO, you’re not likely to get the choice of where you work inside QA. You will be assigned somewhere based on need. It’s not that they don’t care about your dreams and wants, they just care more about what needs to be done.
Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. Testing is all about repeating the same process over and over. Once you have finished testing a quest you'll invariably have to test it again later. The powers that be will look it over, decide it's not good enough, have the devs change a bunch of things, then send it back for you to test … again. And that process happens over and over.
Testing is tedious as well. If you know MMOs, you know that zones are enormous. Art walkthroughs consist of moving step-by-step through an area looking at each rock, house, tree, leaf, etc. Step by step you’re making sure that each square inch is secure, that there are no holes for a player to fall through and no busted textures or missing art.
Working inside the gaming industry on an MMO was wonderful because I was part of something big. However, it’s not all fun and games. While there were parts of my job that I loved, there were bits that I didn’t like so much too. I honestly hate testing weapons. Going through a batch of almost-identical choppas, checking that each one is doing the right amount of damage, is not my idea of fun. But, it was part of the job, and you don’t always get to choose what you’re testing.
If you want to get into the industry because you have some grand new game idea, forget it. Getting into QA does not make you a designer. You have to work for that and earn it. It’s not impossible, but it’s not easy either. Getting in is the hardest part. There are way more QA positions than designer slots, so getting your foot in is key. Then it’s up to you, your charm, and your talent.
My advice to anyone trying to get into the business is this: get to know someone who is already in. Making contacts is the key. If you are a good person who is willing to work hard, you’ll do fine, just don’t be too shy. Get out there and go to conventions, go to local IDGA meetings, do what you can to meet game-industry employees.
Gaming is fun, but so is going to Disney World. And I’d never want a job at the Magic Kingdom, because I never want to associate Disney World with work. I want it to always be my escape. So I’d do a quick think about that if you’re contemplating the idea of working in games. It’s a lot of fun, but don’t get confused, it’s definitely work.
Documenting exactly what it’s like working in a QA department is well beyond the scope of the 1400 words I’ve written in this first article. I suppose if there is enough interest I could revisit aspects of this topic for future articles in much greater detaile. However, you might just not care.
Let's just say I was testing the bounds of reality. I was curious to see what would happen. — Jim Morrison