So you want a job in the games industry? Musings from Codemasters Birmingham audio department.

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I’m occasionally asked how I got into the games industry and while my path is fairly straight forward I can ask almost anybody else at Codies and they’ll tell a different story of their own path into audio design. The core audio department here at Codies Birmingham consists of three audio designers, myself in a senior position as the project lead designer, James “Duke Uterus” Kneen in a senior position and Dave Gurney in a junior audio designer role. Here we share those three stories.

I never formally interviewed for a job in audio when I was originally taken on. I’d started out as a QA technician at Codies and got talking to the audio department and one of the audio programmers. As well as continuing with my general QA bug reporting I also went out of my way to add each and every audio related bug I could find for each project I worked on. The benefit here was that I was immediately identified by the audio department due to how few people in QA seemed to concentrate on entering audio bugs at the time. On top of that I’d make it my mission to go over and chat with the audio guys that I knew a couple of times a month – not so often that I’d become annoying but not too infrequent that they’d forget about me. The important thing to remember here was that I’d never normally get a great opportunity like this had I not worked in QA. I couldn’t exactly turn up unannounced at game companies for a chat with the audio guys. Even handing in CVs and show reels and bugging designers via email doesn’t have quite the same impact as being able to walk across the office and interact with people face to face.

Luckily, at this stage two great steps forward happened, firstly the audio guys mentioned that there might be some “dog’s body” work coming up. Generally this would be tasks such as chopping and organising assets or adding regions and markers to projects. The second step was that one of the audio teams really needed somebody to focus on audio bugs for a particular game – having seen my list of audio focused bugs on the database and knowing I had an interest in audio they approached QA management and asked if I’d be interested in some focused QA audio work. Even to this day this is quiet a rarity; it involved me temporarily moving over to the audio department and specifically working with the audio guys to identify as many audio bugs as I could, all while still under QA management and budget. You can read more about my QA job role here:

https://leavelucktogames.wordpress.com/2013/02/09/working-in-qa/

06062008287.jpgNew beginnings – My first desk in QA.

After several months of working with the audio team they decided to take me on permanently in a junior capacity. It’s worth adding that before working in QA I’d been studying music technology for 3 years at college and a further 3 years at University. I then gained around 1 ½ years of QA experience which in itself provides great background knowledge when moving into games development. Two of my previous articles go into more detail on my time in education:

https://leavelucktogames.wordpress.com/2013/09/07/studying-music-technology-at-college/

https://leavelucktogames.wordpress.com/2013/05/03/is-an-education-really-needed/

I’m actually the only member of Birmingham audio who started off in a QA role, Dave (our junior) completed a master’s degree in game audio before applying for the junior role we opened up. Both Dave and I enrolled on generalised audio / visual media degrees but Dave furthered his education with a game audio master’s degree where he got to grips with middleware such as FMOD and Wwise. At degree level neither of us went into game audio territory, the assignments I completed during my 3rd year were specifically massaged to steer towards game audio but there was no training with any middleware or any game audio practices.

Dave applied to us straight after his master’s so he had gained no previous professional experience. One of the audio designers at Codies contacted him through Linkedin after seeing his profile, at which point Dave sent in his CV and show reel for us to consider. James and I looked through all the CVs that were handed in before narrowing down the candidate list to around 6 or so or of our favourites. This decision was based on multiple factors such as the applicant’s previous experience, the quality of their show reel and how excited they seemed to be about working on racing games. For us it wasn’t essential that our junior be into racing or racing games but let’s say in a situation where two very similar applicants applied then somebody with a good interest in motorsport would have the edge. Not only would this mean the applicant is less likely to tire of the sort of audio design work we do but they’d also be more likely to be excited to attend recording sessions, watch reference footage and suggest and work on very specific features present in motorsport. This might include things like turbo systems, detonations, engine bundles, mechanical tools and so on.

img_0146David Gurney – We insist he wears this hat when working on critical tasks.

Once we had narrowed down our search we held a skype or phone call interview with each candidate. James and I went through each candidates show reel; before we gave them feedback we asked them to critique their own show reel to see if they understood where their short comings and strengths lay. We then provided our own feedback on the show reel before going over each applicants CV and asking them for further questions. Typical lines of enquiry here were questions such as “Why do you want to leave your current job?”, “What games do you play?”, “Do you play any Codemasters games?”, “How do you feel about re-locating?”. After narrowing our search down further we finally invited our candidates in for a face to face interview. By this stage we were finding it difficult to choose one applicant, there wasn’t a lot in it and in all honesty I’m sure any one of these guys would have fitted in just fine. The main goal here then was to talk to each candidate to see how well they would fit in and so we discussed their hobbies, games, audio and other generalised chat. Importantly though, Dave was also excited at the prospect of working on a motorsport game; he suggested ideas for systems and asked us how existing systems were implemented. He’d asked questions about recording sessions and what we’d be expecting from him. He showed a clear interest in what we were doing and how he’d like to help build upon our work if he were given the opportunity. James and I both felt it was important to take on somebody that we could get on with as a friend as well as a colleague; after all we have to work very closely with each other day in day out.

Unlike Dave and myself, James doesn’t have any formal education in audio design. James seemed destined for a job in the audio industry; he grew up with a passion for all things sci-fi and audio related. Sometimes I wonder if he’s part synth – both of the android and musical instrument varieties. The “Duke” as we affectionately call him here at Codies first became interested in audio when his parents bought him a portable cassette recorder when he was a child. He started off recording joke “radio” shows and silly sounds before moving on to recording episodes of Doctor Who. Listening back to these recordings sparked an interest in sound effects and synthesis. This passion stuck with James through his teenage years and the first wave of hip-hop only helped cement this passion. From here on out James decided that he’d like one day to become a sound designer. With no qualifications to speak of James decided to go down the experience route and seek out a tape operator position in a studio. Unfortunately James found this extremely difficult to secure and ultimately failed.

Capture.PNGExterminate! – Where it all began for James.

Although James remained passionate about audio and production he decided to seek alternative employment and instead tried to break into the games industry. James considered trying to start a career in QA (similar to my own route into games audio). By his early 30s he found himself working for Empire Interactive but rather than a QA role he found himself burning game builds to disc. This ultimately would form the basis of his path into game audio. After a few years James made the move over to EA in a similar role and during his time here he’d spotted the recording studio and over time became friends with the audio studio head. Not one to miss a great opportunity James sweet talked his way into using the studio for a few evenings a week. A junior audio designer role eventually came up and after cutting his teeth with the EA studio gear James decided to apply. Once again the Duke was on the cusp of making it into one of his dream jobs but it was not to be. Although interviewing well, James lost out to an applicant with current experience.

IMG_0148.jpgJames “Duke Uterus” Kneen – He’s really not that grumpy, he really is that old though.

An audio assistant role eventually came up which James did secure – finally he was in! By this point James was into his late 30s, so a relatively late starter. James currently holds a senior audio designer role here at Codies Birmingham and readily admits how difficult his path to this position has been. I’d asked him for advice to pass onto up and coming audio designers seeking a position within the industry to which he replied:

“Securing a position in game audio is difficult, but not impossible. It’s about your attitude, passion for audio and your tenacity. If you keep on keeping on, you will do it. I am of course biased but I reckon it’s the most interesting and fun job on the planet.”

Three designers all with different paths into the industry; so where does that leave you if you’re seeking the best way to secure a job? Well you’ve still got to carve your own path out but here’s some general advice to help you along the way.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. The important points to remember are to network and gain some experience and while these steps are by no means sure fire ways to success they’ll greatly help you out. About a year ago I had a situation where two budding audio designers contacted me about work experience; one was a recent college graduate who was mainly interested in composition while the second was on a temporary contract in QA. Both prospective designers had graduated from sound related courses at college and both had at least started out on the right track; they’d done what many in my opinion fail to do. They had both contacted me and politely introduced themselves and shown some level of enthusiasm. As always I asked both of them for a show reel and a CV and asked them what they wanted to get out of any work experience. The guy in QA replied to tell me he would have to update his CV – I heard back from him about 4 months later! I politely informed him that unfortunately he’d missed the boat on this occasion as I’d taken on somebody else who’d replied with the information I’d asked for. The college graduate who applied was given a shot, despite primarily being interested in composition.

F1_2016_May_012_WM-823x436.pngF1 2016 – Sound design by Brad, James and Dave.

A decent education does help and in all honesty these days I don’t know of many young audio designers without a degree or higher. That being said, you could land a 1st class honours followed up by a master’s in game audio and you’d still not be guaranteed a job. Considering most of the other candidates will also have a degree it probably won’t do a lot to help you stand out. Think of your education then as a good fundamental framework once you’ve landed the job. It’s pretty obvious when we’ve spoken to or taken on work experience designers which are from a University background and which are not. That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions to this rule.

Experience is great but none of us in Birmingham audio took the work experience path and although it’s a great way to get a foot in the door we quickly discovered our work experience graduate didn’t have enough knowledge to be considered anywhere near ready enough for a job in the industry. I have however dealt with one intern here at Codies as well as managed a handful of University students on weeklong work experience. What I will say here is that you should only take on whatever work experience you feel you can manage. Generally you’ll find yourself forking out for travel and accommodation as well as working a full time, unpaid job! On top of that jumping in head first to something you’re totally unfamiliar with may actually deter a future employer from taking you on. Before taking on any experience try and find out what software the company uses, ask what their day today workload consists of then prepare yourself. Work experience is valuable and not easy to come by so if you do land a temporary position utilise it and make the most of it. Jump on new or unique tasks; ask the designers what they are currently working on and how different systems work. Don’t be too pushy but make it clear that you are interested in learning all you can in the limited time you have at the company.

Apply for the right positions and tailor your CV and show reel to appeal to these positions. We had various applicants apply for the role which Dave ultimately ended up getting. Dave handed in a show reel which highlighted various types of sound design, but importantly it also included motorsport. Not only did this show he was interested specifically in the role he was applying for but it also highlighted his aptitude for tailoring assets to suit motorsport content. Contrast this with some of our other applicants who handed in show reels full of low budget mobile games and no examples of motorsport. Some applicants occasionally send in show reels which only highlight compositional skills rather than sound design ability. We were specifically looking for a full time sound designer and there was no mention of music in the job specification so highlighting these skills didn’t really give us any idea as to whether the applicant was suitable for the position. It’s important to note at this point that I’ve had quite a few composers contact me over the years asking for advise, work experience or just to pass on their show reel and CV. I’ve explained to each of them (including our previous work experience graduate) that generally speaking not many game devs will take on a full time in-house composer – it’s just not something that happens. My advice here would be to go freelance or work on some small indie projects. If you are clued up on sound design you could get into the industry and eventually you may even find that you’ll be suited to score some of the projects you’re working on but composition shouldn’t be your primary driving factor.

Some of the really great applications we received showed off actual middleware implementation and video of middleware projects in action. I personally find this an excellent and interesting way to highlight sound design ability as well as the ability to implement finished assets and take into consideration variety and dynamically altering soundscapes. Audio for games is quite a different skill from track laying for linear media such as film so highlighting this ability proves you’re able to fulfil some of the requirements for a job in game audio.

Finally, as James experienced, don’t be deterred by rejection. We’d actually turned down a previous applicant because we were only taking on one designer. It pained us to turn him away as he was just as good as the applicant we offered the job to but we had to make a decision. Several months later we called him again and offered him a job on another project. You’ll apply for jobs and most likely you’ll be rejected for quite a few of them. This could be through no fault of your own, maybe another applicant took the position for a lower salary, maybe you were just as good but a coin flip decided on another applicant for the one vacant position, maybe your skills were tailored for a different role. Refine your CV, ask the company for feedback on why they didn’t proceed with your application, continue working on your show reel and continue applying.

What makes a great sounding game?

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That well known phenomena we as sound designers experience, if the game sounds great nobody bats an eyelid. If the game has any audio issues at all they are quickly picked up on in reviews and on forums. And so the most obvious question to ask is what makes a great sounding game? I put this to Alyx Jones, a recent graduate of the University of Surry. “It might sound a bit pretentious…” she begins, “…but I think the best sounding games are those with something a bit different or memorable about the music”. Alyx believes games that allow for more experimentation are much easier to write music for and therefore lead to better sound design. She also stresses the importance of silence adding “I think it’s really important to know when not to put music or sound in places, Limbo is a really good example of this”.

After graduating with a very respectable 2:1 honours degree in Creative Music Technology Alyx had wasted no time in diving into this fast moving, often cut throat industry. The caveat being however that she was to do things her way and work on small scale indie developments, and so Silver Box Games was born. Not content with working on one project Alyx also began working on her own Oculus Rift project titled Wanderift. Why games development though? Surely for somebody primarily interested in composition she would have an easier time working in TV or film? “…film and TV is a very static experience” she states. Alyx elaborates by explaining how within a linear experience there is only one story to tell, and that’s done by the director. A game on the other hand is shaped by the player. I ask Alyx why a non-linear approach particularly appealing to her. She responds by informing me that:

“…it gives total immersion and I suppose an escape in so many aspects that watching a film doesn’t provide. To be able to create your own character and shape your own story and environment is so much more exciting than sitting and watching the latest episode of Eastenders.”

Growing up Alyx’s Gameboy never left her sight and playing games quickly became her favourite means of entertainment. With her love of music and technology the games industry seemed like the obvious choice. Alyx finds far more possibilities to experiment with audio in the world of games rather than film or TV, after all she states “technology is always changing and improving so the ability to constantly adapt and learn new things is a fantastic process to constantly be involved with.” But I digress, why was I asking Alyx about great sounding games in the first place?

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As it transpires she’s also a freelance editor over at The Sound Architect, an online audio resource for professionals and enthusiasts alike. Since early 2015 Alyx has been critiquing a range of smaller scale games including PSN releases such as Rain, Sound Shapes and the recently released Volume. With Limbo in mind I asked Alyx to give a little insight into what it is about the sound design in that game that is particularly appealing to her.

“Well, Limbo is quite a dark game and I think the music and sound design create that intense atmosphere so perfectly. The composer used a lot of analogue equipment to reflect the distant, bleak imagery of the game. It’s used sparingly in places, sometimes you can be walking and the only sound is your footsteps. I find the whole soundtrack quite experimental and creative, it’s mostly drones and he doesn’t use any real rhythms but I always remember how I felt playing that game.”

Sonically, another stand out game for Alyx is Proteus, an indie game in which the landscapes are procedurally generated giving different objects in the world their own unique sounds. Alyx remarks that “the audio is procedurally generated so if the sound were separated from the game it wouldn’t exist”. I thought this was an interesting choice as in some ways Proteus takes some of the sound design, or at least the presentation of the audio away from the sound designer and into the hands of the player. I posed this to Alyx who suggested “…if you have a soundtrack that’s just generic it’s not quite going to fit. How can you write music for a different environment every time? There are so many possibilities, it would be very time consuming!” So does this mean Proteus wouldn’t have worked as well with a standard approach to its sound design? Alyx doesn’t necessarily think the approach was better, but rather “more interesting” leading to “a different kind of experience”. This kind of process could lead to some interesting situations though; could the audio turn into a disaster if the procedurally generated landscape was a mess? “Well yes it could be considered “a mess” by the average listener”, Alyx remarks. I asked her to elaborate on this, she added:

“There are multiple approaches from a completely random selection of notes, chords, effects etc to a very structured system that might utilize music theory that would tailor more to a “western” listening audience. A totally random approach could use any pitch (not even adhering to western tuning), any velocity, any rhythm and note durations (the list goes on) so it is likely to not sound “pleasant”. It’s likely that a random approach wouldn’t be used commonly in games unless they were particularly experimental. Most composers have their own recognizable sound, the same as they aim to give particular games trademark sounds, so it’s perhaps a better approach to find a generative system that you can set certain rules that would give the game its own consistent sound (probably more likely in the case of Proteus).”

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Having an understanding of how sound travels and interacts with its environment is also very useful. Take for example a racing game. Real world phenomena such as occlusion, reverb and Doppler can all be made use of to improve the sound design and make for a more immersive experience whether in a realistic game or a fantasy setting. How can you achieve an authentic sounding racing experience if sound is not reflected off walls or other cars as it would be in real life? This may seem like a subtle technique but it breathes life and subtle cues into the game world. When another car passes by how can you achieve a sense of realism and more importantly speed without Doppler? Wouldn’t you also expect a car’s engine sound to be occluded when it disappears behind a mountain?

So we’ve established that some boundaries have to be put in place to ensure a pleasant audible experience is achieved. So what would an audio designer have to take into account when designing such a pallet of sounds and how do they ensure that these elements work well together? I proposed this to Alyx:

“To ensure elements work together you might group stems together by key or tempo and compose them in such a way that at regular intervals they might be changeable. It’s a similar approach to reactive music in games that would perhaps bring in a percussive beat as an enemy approaches to signify their presence in-game. Multiple layers are synched alongside each other and can either be switched seamlessly or use a stinger to cover up the “switch” when adding another layer or skipping to a new part of the composition. If you were being more experimental you might compose without rhythm or tempo, or maybe even without a key. You could create a soundscape in the same way by maybe grouping stems by timbre or frequency range, or a combination of both approaches. It really depends what you’re doing!”

Whatever the approach, one thing’s for certain, Alyx is sure that the music and sound design are both integral to the overall audible experience. She explains to me how important it is to have a good understanding of sound design within an interactive medium if the composer is to write an “informed piece of music to function as well as it needs to.” I thought this really backed up what Alyx had already touched upon when talking about Proteus. If Proteus were an indie film for example there would have been a linear soundscape, no matter how obscure the film was. Take this very same concept and apply it to an interactive medium that can be procedurally generated and you have a very different beast on your hands. Alyx goes on to explain this point by adding:

“… You may need to have a lot of layers that can be switched between but that can all play independently and in any combination; it’s very different from writing a 3-minute loop or a “score to picture”. There are no time limits, your music and sound environment need to have the ability to play infinitely and adjust to the player and game environment.”

So does Alyx consider herself a sound designer, a composer or both? After applying for several jobs in the games industry she realised that it wasn’t actually sound design she was primarily interested in. Instead she had subconsciously already decided she wanted to focus more on composition. After figuring this out she resigned herself to freelance work which is a wise move as very rarely these days will a company employ a full time composer. Generally audio staff are employed as sound designers; they might also create music as part of their job role but quite often a freelance composer will be hired. I really doubted that Alyx would have been able to take on a full time job even if she wanted to as her schedule is already pretty busy what with writing game audio reviews, working on indie games and taking on her recent role tutoring school children in the art of sound design, game design and programming during after school classes. On top of this Alyx also plans on returning to the University of Surry in 2016 to complete her masters in music composition.

We’d briefly touched up sound design going hand in hand with composition so I asked Alyx to name a few games she considered to have great soundtracks. The first to come to mind for her was thatgamecompany’s masterpiece, Journey which she describes as “…just so beautiful”. I then asked Alyx if she is influenced by her favourite works when creating her own compositions. Not exactly, rather she takes influence “more from the product as a whole” in that she does indeed use orchestral instruments but not to create classical or epic orchestral scores. In the case of Journey, rather than taking inspiration directly from the score Alyx is instead inspired by the feelings Journey’s music invokes. Another favourite is the Dragonborn theme from Skyrim, she elaborates on its impact by adding:

“I suppose on some level all the music I listen to shapes me as a composer. Perhaps in a way, I might listen to Skyrim and be really struck by the powerful vocals and the way the human voice can be used in a new language (the dragon language in Skyrim) to evoke that sense of power. I might use a similar kind of technique or think about how the voice can be used in different ways.”

Reviewing game audio and taking influences from her favourite scores all goes some way towards improving her own compositions. Alyx believes that the review process helps her understand and make decisions with her own projects and analyse why something may not be working. Alyx notes however that critiquing other peoples work is quite a difficult task.  She approaches a review by taking an analytical and logical approach, playing the game to completion and listening to the score during natural game play (where the developers intended it to be heard). Alyx doesn’t listen to the music in isolation as many scores created for games aren’t really designed to be linear pieces. “It’s the same when I’m writing music”, she adds. In much the same way as she reviews games Alyx doesn’t construct her music in a linear fashion as a continuous 3 minute piece for example as that’s not how the player will primarily experience it. Although over critical of her own work she does share some advice for other composers, “Take a break”! While she adds “asking friends for feedback is much better than trying to be too critical of your own work.”

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And so to answer my original question “what makes a great sounding game?” Different games can sound great for a variety of reasons from Limbo’s very minimalistic but atmospheric approach to Skyrim’s epic theme song and Proteus’ almost user generated soundscape. Music and sound design need to work in harmony by complimenting each other, not only in terms of frequency range but also in terms of placement. That said, the sound design must also be sympathetic to the visual style of a game, take Minecraft. By no means are the sounds in Minecraft the most unique, high fidelity assets yet they perfectly suit the blocky textures that Minecraft sports. A great sounding game can certainly be subjective but we have covered several factors that can ensure the sound design works from a technical and artistic point of view.  Analysing other great sounding games is a good place to start, as is experimenting with different techniques. Knowing what to use and where to use it, how sound interacts with the environment and how music should be woven in and out of that experience all help the audio to sit within the game world, blending into the experience. And so we come full circle by creating a sound design experience that the average player is oblivious towards but the audiophiles out there might appreciate.

Alyx and her work can be found on the following sites:
http://www.alyxjones.co.uk/
http://www.thesoundarchitect.co.uk/

Working in QA – Part 2

pikmin-3-wallpaper-1 As a follow up to the “Working in QA” article I wrote back at the start of 2013 I decided it would be interesting to follow a new recruit through their QA career. I thought it would be an interesting approach to interview them and then catch up with them several months later. This would highlight several key points:

  • How they feel starting off in the games industry and their initial thoughts on the job.
  • Where they aim to take their career
  • Their inevitable run in with contract extensions (after all QA contracts only last for 3 months)

So, meet James Crozier, who after a bit of investigating I came across as he had just started working in QA. Our interview begins in April 2014 and takes place via email over the course of several weeks. As the interview starts James has been in QA for a week and he tells me that this is the first time he’s ever done any QA work but he’s really enjoying it so far. I asked him how he got the job and he informs me:

I regularly checked the Codemasters vacancies on the website and saw the QA technician job. I only applied to Codies because they make some of my favourite games! It’s also realistically the only big games company anywhere near where I live. I think it took just under a month for Codemasters to get back to me, but I got a phone call telling me there was a mix up where I didn’t receive the email inviting me to the interview so it was probably a shorter amount of time. The interview was a week after that.

I can understand James wanting to commute, after all QA contracts are short with no guarantee that you’ll be offered work in the future. Moving away from home to work in a fairly low paying job with a short contract is certainly a risky venture. Even so James still spends just under 2 hours a day driving to the Codies main office in Southam. Knowing what the QA interview process is like I asked James if he did any research to prepare for the interview. He spent some time looking at good bug reports as well as researching Codemasters history which came in very useful as he was indeed asked a “What do you know about the company” question during his interview. For many, becoming a QA temp is the first stage of the ladder with many going on to stay in QA in higher ranking positions while others move into development and production roles. Understandably then, most QA temps are coming straight from University or temporary jobs. In James’ case he quit his job at a supermarket, which he said was a “no brainer” of a decision. We’ve learnt that James had no prior experience with a QA role or the games industry in general. So I asked him to tell me about his education, was there anything he did to tailor his studies towards this industry?

In terms of education, I’ve pretty much tried to gear most of my studies towards games with a view to get into the industry. So it started with GCSE’s where I took Art, Graphics and IT followed by IT in my A levels. That got me on to a course at the University of Gloucestershire doing Interactive Games Design where I pretty much got a taste of all aspects such as modelling, coding, project management etc.

James goes on to explain how his degree indirectly helped with his transition into QA. He was already familiar with certain terms and abbreviations he came across, while he could describe some problems technically in his bug reports. Knowledge like this can help developers when trying to recreate a bug or fix the issue. It can be quite difficult receiving a bug to work on and not having a clue what the other person is referring to because they don’t understand what they are bugging in the first place. So far QA is pretty much what James expected it to be like, he got to grips with the bug database pretty quickly and got on with testing. In just a short amount of time though he’s noticed the repetitive nature of QA:

One thing I have found is that it can get really repetitive just checking the same thing over and over, but I’m so obsessed with gaming and racing games in particular that it doesn’t really get boring.

I ask James if this means he’s eventually going to tire of QA and aim to progress into development. He tells me that he’s actively working on his portfolio, creating a couple of models or projects every couple of weeks. This, he says, helps keep the skills and workflow he has developed over the last few years fresh in his mind. Regardless of the tedium and the progression in development I can tell James is really happy to have been given a chance to work in the industry. He goes on to tell me:

I’d be over the moon just to be given a shot at being in QA on a permanent basis as I enjoy it so much. While progressing into development would be awesome, I’m just trying to enjoy the three months I’m at Codemasters in case I don’t get another opportunity! With that in mind, after the contract I think I’d just try and get another QA position as it’s pretty much my perfect job. I know that might sound like I’m not aiming high enough but QA was always my goal back when I first decided I wanted to work in the industry.

We move on to talking about how James thinks working in QA will benefit him in the long run, aside from being a foot in the door of the games industry. He says he now has a better idea of what’s worth fixing and how much time he should spend on bugs that crop up in his own projects. Even so, after several weeks in QA, James is quite keen to progress through the ranks here, hoping one day he might eventually become a QA lead. With James being fresh to the QA environment and the games industry as a whole, our interview pretty much concludes there. I thought it would be good to give him time to reflect on his position and experience a few of the inevitable contact expiration dates. Not knowing where this would go James could have moved on within a couple of months. 2128997-169_pikmin3_review_wiiU_073013_08 Onwards to December 2014, 8 months since our interview began. I discovered James no longer works at Codies. I begin by emailing him again and asking first off why he left the company. I soon discover James initially had one contract extension (3 months), around July 2014 and that expired around October 2014. After this contact expiration James was not offered any more work. I don’t know the reason for this but contact renewals in this industry are a difficult time. Regardless of whether or not you have performed well, if a game has finished its testing period then there is a lack of work to go around. Developers will have moved onto a new project which would be in the early phases of design or development, in which case there wouldn’t be anything to test. Games which receive DLC and patches will retain a handful of QA but they clearly won’t require anywhere near the same amount of man hours as a full game. James explains that he never assumed he’d be in QA at Codies forever as he already knew what the industry was like in terms of temporary contacts. He tells me that his plan was to stay at Codies until they no longer needed him, at which point he’d look for other work, preferably with a permanent contract. James would return to QA if he could find a role with a permanent contract, however he goes on to note:

It’s really difficult to plan ahead with things like accommodation when you don’t know how long you’ll be there. I guess it’s okay if you’re single and have no commitments as you can just rent a room on a rolling contract but when you have a family and pets and you’re dealing with the usual six month to a yearlong contracts it’s really difficult.

After briefly looking for other QA roles James went on to work for a web design company as a developer as well as dealing with their social media. He has a permanent contract at his new company and as they are fairly small scale he says there is a “family kind of atmosphere” where his skills feel more valued. I ask him how he reflects on his time at the company, for example, what are the best and worst aspects of life in QA? I guess the obvious answer from somebody who is already a big gamer is that you get paid to play games, indeed this was his first answer. I’d stress at this point though that a lot of QA involves playing the same game for sometimes months on end carrying out tedious tasks in order to break the game. James notes that this didn’t matter to him personally and also mentions the social aspect of the job. He comments on working with “mostly people who are just as big a gamer as you and so there’s always something to talk about”. If you compare this to your standard office job there is never really a guarantee that you’ll share common ground with your co-workers. James then talks about the worst aspects of the job, I ask him to put aside the issues with redundancies and short term contracts as we’ve already talked a lot about this. His main concerns were to do with trust, he really felt like an outsider who had minimal contact with the development team. Personally from looking back on my time in QA I never experienced the issues James feels he had. I was given free rein to walk around the entire campus and indeed had friends who were part of the development team. I was able to directly email developers and some of them would ask me over to the studio to help recreate bug’s I’d found. Games development is a very secretive industry so I can understand why James might feel this way and he does acknowledge the security risks but for him, he felt like an outsider. Another point of contention for James was with the bug reporting process. James experienced situations where his bugs would be sent back as “Cannot reproduce”. From somebody who has worked in both QA and development I certainly see where his issues arise from but I also understand why this happens. Developers are generally working on “Bleeding edge” builds; basically the most up-to-date version of the game while QA builds will be slightly older. This is a result of working on builds burnt to disc, or waiting until a new stable build is released and distributed to the QA team. In some instances QA might enter a bug that has already been fixed but not yet incorporated in the QA branch. Regardless of the reasons, James did feel that his University degree and his knowledge were somewhat overlooked which he believes results in a “better not bug it” attitude.

Industry Focus – Will Morton

Leave Luck to Games presents the first in a new series called “Industry Focus”. Here industry insiders give a brief overview of their career and offer advice to people looking to start a career in the games industry.

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My name is Will Morton, and I have been working in game audio since 1998.  As a child I grew up playing games in the 1980s, and in many cases I found I loved the music as much as I loved the games.  I got into writing music freelance, then moved into game audio full time as an in-house sound designer at Rockstar North.  I worked at Rockstar North for 12 years, responsible for the dialogue and sound design for the Grand Theft Auto series of games, and also for other games published by Rockstar such as Red Dead Redemption and LA Noire.  After working as Dialogue Supervisor on Grand Theft Auto V and releasing it at the end of 2013, I left the in-house life and recently started an audio production company called Solid Audioworks with another ex-Rockstar North colleague, Craig Conner (director and producer of the soundtracks for the GTA series since the first game in 1997)

If I was to offer advice to someone starting out who wanted to get into game audio, I would say that it is probably tougher to get your foot in the door now than it ever has been, even though there are probably more opportunities and games being published.  Having said that, here are a few paragraphs of advice that will help you stand out from the crowd.

These days a lot of people applying for game audio jobs come from university and college audio courses, and I have seen many applications and show reels from people who use the projects they worked on as part of their education as their demo.  Nine times out of ten, these show reels are almost always the same – the same sound-to-picture demos, the same sound design techniques… it makes it difficult as an employer to judge what has been creatively designed by the applicant, and what has been produced by simply ‘joining the dots’ on a brief for a piece of college work.  There are tons of talented sound engineers out there, so you really have to do something to separate yourself from the crowd.

If you are coming from a college or university background, definitely don’t rely on your course work to demonstrate your skills.  While you are studying, make sure you work on your own projects outside college – get involved with people making games, get involved with filmmakers.

Just get *something* done that is high quality and unique compared to what all the other graduates will be putting on their show reels.  If you have taken time to create something spectacular rather than relying on what you were told to do as part of a course it shows that you are motivated, dedicated, and above all else it shows you have a genuine passion for what you are doing.

It always puzzled me how many people turn up for an interview for a game job not knowing anything about games.  Game developers are usually gamers (or at least ex-gamers) so it helps to be excited about the same things that your potential employers are.  Having the talent to be a good game audio person is only half the battle.  Good luck!

www.solidaudioworks.com

@solidaudioworks

Studying Music Technology at College

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(Recording a band for a BTEC assignment – 2005)

Further to my previous article discussing education, I am going to briefly summarise both audio courses I studied during my College education. I studied during the period of 2002-2005 and so the courses, content and tutors will have changed. This article is designed to give people interested in studying a music tech course an idea of what to expect and take away from different qualifications.

Sound Engineering and Studio Administration – Level 2

I began my journey by joined the Sound Engineering course at Burton College; it took 1 year to complete and was essentially the equivalent of a GCSE. I did have the opportunity to jump straight onto the more advanced BTEC course (which I will discuss later) as I had already met the criteria (6 GCSEs at C or above and/or my AVCE in IT qualification), however as I was unfamiliar with the subject I decided to enrol on this introductory course first.

The course aimed to give students an understanding of sound engineering with a heavy emphasis on practical tasks. There was a lot of hands on time with students physically hooking up and using hardware including mixing desks, outboard gear and PA systems.

The course was very much self-motivated and allowed students to grab some gear and a free audio booth and get stuck in. For students such as myself who were not musicians, there was plenty to do on the technical and hardware side, from learning how to hook up gear, record musicians and learning basic processing techniques such as adding EQ and reverb.

The course didn’t really focus on assignments as such, rather there would be a list of topics delivered to the students throughout the year and with each new topic students would go away and use the new techniques they had learnt. For example, one of the very first lectures taught students the basic functions of a mixing desk. Following on from this, students would work in small groups with a 4 channel mixing desk and a microphone to complete a task. The students would be asked to connect a microphone to a mixing desk, which in turn would need connecting to an amp and speakers. A minidisc recorder would be connected and students would record and play back captured audio of their choice, be it speech or an acoustic guitar. The idea behind this task was to get hands on with a small, non-intimidating mixing desk and understand the flow of the signal path.

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(One of my first tasks during Sound Engineering – 2002)

I found this hands on approach a brilliant way to get across lectures (something I felt University was missing). The other clear benefit was that students got a good idea of how virtual mixing desks and recording software / sequencing software such as Cubase handle audio and the signal path. Auxiliaries for example can be pretty difficult to explain to somebody who has never used them. Physically connecting a hardware reverb unit into an aux send, turning the aux knob on the channel of the dry signal you want to apply reverb to, then sending your reverb unit’s output into a new channel or the aux return of the mixing desk is a far easier concept to show somebody with hardware and cables rather than telling them how the software is routing the signal.

Students were graded on a portfolio of work that was handed in at the end of the year (but checked by the tutor throughout the year on a regular basis). Essentially the portfolio had to cover each topic the student had studied over the course of the year. A typical entry in the portfolio might be to draw a basic channel strip, label each step in the path (Inputs, Gain, EQ, Aux, Fader, Routing switches, Pan etc…) and show how the signal path travels from the microphone to the speakers. The piece would then be accompanied by a few short paragraphs, perhaps explaining how this works to show you understand what you have done. A minidisc might also be attached in the folder containing the recording from this session. The course was marked as either a “Pass” or a “Fail”, students who passed were then encouraged to progress onto the BTEC course.

BTEC National Diploma in Music Technology

Edexcel define the BTEC as giving students “…a specialist work-related focus, enabling them to extend key sector knowledge and practical skills.  This can add immediate value in the workplace or aid progression to BTEC HND/HNC, BTEC Foundation Degree or a University degree programme.”

The BTEC Music Technology course at Burton is directed specifically to enable students to gain experience and to prepare them for the wider industry.  Rather than simply providing classroom academia the course allows for various practical elements.  Ideally the course will give a student the knowledge and experience to progress onto higher education or provide a better understanding of the wider industry but not necessarily sufficient skills to progress into a working environment.

The BTEC course was a lot more structured than the Level 2, with regular assignments, deadlines and more structured tasks to complete. Students on this course are primed to progress onto University so lectures are given on a more regular basis and are designed to introduce each new topic and build on the theory over several weeks. Assignments at this level have a specific list of criteria that have to be met in order to achieve one of several pass grades (fail, pass, merit or distinction).

A pass would typically mean the student has a basic grasp of the topic and has handed in at least of few paragraphs with relevant information on the subject. During my time as a student I saw pass assignments handed in that contained obvious copy and paste efforts from Wikipedia, but the point was that the student actually had at least searched for and found relevant information.

A distinction would generally be awarded for showing referenced research, diagrams, practical examples of how the student has applied this knowledge to their own work and appendices containing work and extra notes or findings. The written sections would generally be more extensive than “pass” assignments, showing the student has taken the information, digested it and relayed it in their own words.

A distinction would be far closer to the calibre of work expected from a degree student while a pass would be more typical of the type of work that would be acceptable on the previous Level 2 course.

What else can you expect from a college education? Well different Colleges will all vary in what they can offer. Some Colleges may have great tutors but poor facilities and equipment, others may have good links with the industry or organise a lot of guest lecturers and day trips.

During my time at Burton College I experienced the following:

Teaching Staff & Facilities

The tutors at Burton College were from a range of backgrounds and all had different skill sets. During my first year the music technology department was significantly smaller and as such there were only 2 tutors. One tutor taught music theory lessons and helped students who wanted to develop their abilities on a range of instruments. The other tutor, who was the head of the music tech department had his own studio, was an experienced sound engineer and delivered all music technology lectures.

By the time I began studying on the BTEC course the department had taken on more students, tutors and updated its facilities. One of the new tutors had just graduated from University and his knowledge and technical background were a welcome addition to the college. Whereas the head of the department was a seasoned sound engineer with plenty of hands on experience with hardware, this new tutor had a great understanding of newer technologies and software.

Having tutors from a range of backgrounds really helped deliver all aspects of the course. Throughout my studies other tutors would come and go, some came from University, others were session musicians, some were transferring from other colleges.

Facilities at the college were second to none and improved year-on-year. There were enough computers for everybody; all featured a sound card and current versions of standard plug-ins and sequencing software. There was also a wide range of hardware from ADAT recorders, digital and analogue mixing desks, microphones and PA systems. Since leaving the college they have also replaced all PCs with iMacs and all students now have access to Pro Tools and Logic Pro. A professional recording studio was constructed a few years after I had left. Contrast this to the University of Derby, where I studied for my degree. At the time we were using software that was several years out of date and the recording studios were off limits to anybody in their first year. Students with access to recording studios had the choice of using the old studios that were becoming extremely dated or the newly built ones. The latter were not sound proofed; indeed they were standard office rooms that had thin panes of glass to divide the control rooms from the live rooms and hollow ceilings.

Involvement With the Wider Industry

Burton in particular has given students many opportunities over the years to interact with the wider industry. This helps prepare students for a career in the industry and introduce them to aspects of the industry that they may not have considered before.

Guest Lecturers

Students were given an insight into the wider industry from guest lecturers and industry insiders. One of which was a workshop on Ableton Live delivered by an employee who worked for the company. Students were given an insight into how the software works, learning tips and tricks. Students were able to get some hands on experience before taking part in a Q&A session.

In recent years I myself have given several guest lectures at the college, giving students an insight into the games industry. Most students on the course set out to be sound engineers or musicians so this opens up a whole new career path to students who wouldn’t have even considered the games industry. During these lectures students are introduced to the world of game audio, shown examples of work and learn about some of the processes involved in creating audio for computer games.

BBC Radio

Students have had the opportunity to visit BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra where they were able to speak to professionals working in the industry. Many students may not consider a job in the broadcast industry. The visit informs students of how to work their way into the industry, living costs in London and other opportunities.

Music Live

Music Live is a now defunct yearly event held at Birmingham’s NEC, here students have the opportunity to buy, use and get hands on experience with new equipment while meeting industry professionals from many companies. Although anybody can buy tickets for Music Live, students at Burton College are presented with a free ticket and free transport to encourage them to take part in this event and get involved with the industry.

Deciding what to study

Most students probably won’t know exactly what they would like to do after graduating from college or university. I didn’t know I wanted to do audio for games until my 2nd year of university. The sound engineering and music tech courses were broad in scope rather than focusing on specifically becoming a sound engineer or musician. There can be positives and negatives to these types of courses, if you are absolutely sure you have found the right industry for you then a more specialised course might be the answer. If however, you have an interest in music technology but would like to keep your options open to game audio, location recording, broadcast or a host of other industries then these courses will give you a suitable foundation to work with but no real insight into one particular career path.

When I began working in the games industry I didn’t anticipate exactly what the job role of a games audio designer would involve. I had no experience with common game audio tools and software, had I been on a specialised course I could have been introduced to these much earlier and had a few years to learn the basics.

Is An Education Really Needed?

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During my time at University I reached a point where I contemplated the value of the education I was paying for. Would the cost really be worth the end result? Are the skills and theory I am being taught really going to be relevant in the real world? What you get out of education varies greatly depending on the individual, the course and the establishment. During this article remember that I can only speak from my experiences at College and University based on the subjects that I studied, none of which were directly related to the games industry.

My post-school education consists of 5 years at College and 3 years at University. I began by studying I.T. for 2 years because I thought it was the right thing to do, however I quickly bored of the way the course was delivered. The most important thing I took away from this course was the fundamentals of assignment writing and organisation. I then enrolled on a 1 year Sound Engineering course at Burton Technical College before progressing onto their 2 year BTEC in Music Technology. The next 3 years were spent at the University of Derby studying a BSc (Hon) in Multimedia Technology and Music Production.

During my 3 years at Burton it became clear that many people had enrolled on the course to sit around play instruments all day, while disregarding any written work. Being a technical course, rather than a music course this didn’t really do them any favours and many of the students scraped a pass and didn’t progress onto University. From this point on I presumed the time wasters would have been shaken loose; much to my surprise a few still ended up in the wonderful world of University. I quickly learned how to identify the people who were wasting their time. These people rarely attended, paid little attention and completed their work at the last minute; often handing it in weeks late by taking advantage of the “extenuating circumstances” card.

College and University

Generally the first step towards specialising in a career will be at College, many people then choose to continue their specialisation at University. College and University are both very different and personally I have more fond memories of my time at College. College was my first experience of really studying something I actually had an interest in and during my time at Burton I picked up all the basics I would need to progress onto University and eventually into the games industry.

From my experience College is very lenient with regards to deadlines and quality of work, the audio courses I studied were very much a case of asking for help when you needed it. This isn’t a bad thing, it simply meant the students that did want to sit around, copy and paste information from Wikipedia and scrap a pass could do so. The students that wanted to improve their work, find out more and learn new skills were also free to do so and help was always given to them. My College had excellent facilities and tutors and constantly updated software and hardware; there was a lot of hands of time with equipment, occasional guest lecturers and days out.

I imagine University can bring a shock to a lot of students who slacked off at College but somehow managed to achieve enough points to progress further. University is very much a self guided experience; at college there was a register call and tutors would ask why you haven’t been attending, in contrast it is entirely up to the individual as to whether they attend a lecture or a lab class at University. Notes are provided by some tutors but on the whole you are expected to take in a lecture, note down any relevant points then apply that information at a later time when constructing your assignments.

After 3 years at College, being very hands on with software and hardware I almost felt like I had taken a step back during my first 2 years at University. There was not much hands on time, indeed most of the first year was pure theory, diagrams and numbers. I’m not sure how some of the students with no previous hands on experience got through this as personally I need to see practical uses of theory and diagrams for them to sink in. Imagine learning to play the guitar by simply reading sheet music and leaning the techniques but without ever picking up the instrument. After studying an awful lot of theory, hands on experience became more of a focal point during the 3rd year and with that a lot of what students had been taught over the last year or so could now be put into practice.

Learning Skill You Won’t Realise You Need

I remember feeling very agitated during one module at University; we were leaning about memory management. When I cannot apply what I am being taught to something practical I find it hard to figure out why I should be taking it in. Perhaps this was down to bad structuring of the module but essentially the lesson here is to never disregard something you might latter need.

I found it pointless to learn that 1024kb = 1mb, I found it pointless to worry about compressing a music track as an mp3 when I could keep it as a wav. I challenged the tutor on this by informing him that at home I had a 1tb external hard drive, why should I be concerned that I could save a few mb? Again, part of my problem with learning this was that we were never given a clear reason for this during the module.

Now let’s fast-forward a few years. Towards the end of the first game I worked on as an audio designer I was asked to help with memory management. Here we found that not all of the music and sound effects could fit in the game uncompressed. Some assets would have to be optimised, meaning they would have to have their quality settings adjusted to allow them to be compressed as much as possible before an obvious degradation of sound quality was apparent. Some 48 kHz assets would be converted to 22 kHz for example, while some of the larger assets might be converted from wav to mp3. All of this was necessary to ensure all of our assets could remain in the game.

Another example, a few years later when I began working on the audio for vehicles and found each vehicles engine bundle (the engine and exhaust recordings) could not exceed a given size. When certain recordings are too long they have to be compressed or chopped up into smaller assets. I have encountered situations when some of my work has exceeded the slot size by 1kb! I have then had to go back through my work and make it ever so slightly smaller in order to meet the strict size limit.

So the lesson here is that when you are being taught something you should always try and think about how it could realistically affect you. Is it really a waste of time or are there other uses for this information, are there certain situations where, yes, keeping a file under a certain size is beneficial?

Networking

Networking with your peers and industry professionals can be just as important as gaining a qualification. In my situation I attended a lecture given by an audio programmer at Codemasters, he gave me some useful information and feedback while I was writing my dissertation. A few years later I began working at Codemasters and got in touch with him again, he showed me around the building and introduced me to the audio department. This stage of my career was extremely important as I got to know the guys I would eventually be working with, when small bits of audio work was available they already knew I’d be interested.

In some situations, networking with your peers may also prove invaluable. After all, in a few years time some of them may work in the industry, they may be able to give you a heads up for a new job role or give you a good recommendation. Several people I met at college and University are now sound or lighting engineers, some work as road crew all over the world, others build websites while others are now tutors.

Education Cannot Fully Prepare You

Enrolling on a course isn’t a free ride in which you can approach an employer and instantly expect a job. In my opinion I don’t think education can prepare you for a job in the industry, real world experience is vital. Some courses do offer sandwich years and work placement schemes (as did mine) but I still felt very underprepared when I finally arrived in the audio department. Let me elaborate. Working to deadlines while at College can be very flexible; you are already undertaking the course in your own time so effectively you can set aside as much or as little time as you like to complete an assignment for a certain deadline. If your work isn’t up to scratch you get a bad mark or are asked to work on it a little longer until you pass. In the games industry, the reality is you have a deadline in which the game must be on shelves; thousands or even millions of pounds have been spent to promote a game and its release date. If your work isn’t at the level required you have to fix it, a game cannot ship if it doesn’t work. If a game ships late or with bad graphics, game play or sound, reviewers will pick up on it and bad reviews can mean your game might not sell as well. The best-case scenario is you lose your bonus (many bonuses are in part based on achieving a good metacritic score) and have a credit on a game that has been poorly received. The worst case is the company makes redundancies or goes bust. This is an all too common scenario in this industry.

Modules are designed to be passed and a tutor will be looking to see that a student has met certain criteria. You will also be assessed on the quality of your work, artistic flair and creativity but tutors do not always have a full understanding of the area of the industry you are pursuing. A good example of this was during my final year at University; I had decided to tailor as much of my assignments as possible to be relevant to the games industry. For one particular assignment I decided to recreate the audio for several game trailers, mostly using original recorded assets and some library sounds. I received a good grade for this particular piece of work as I had made use of a lot of equipment at my disposal, showed different mic techniques, sourced library assets and completed the trailers, presenting them on a final CD complete with all my details. Essentially this was ready to hand out as a demo reel to potential employers and I was pretty pleased with the end result, backed by favourable feedback from my tutors. When I went for my first open day at a games developer, the audio lead reviewed my demo reel and picked out plenty of flaws. At the time this was a big blow, after all I thought it was pretty good and it had been well received at University. On reflection I really appreciated the feedback and took a lot from it, essentially though my tutor didn’t play computer games and wasn’t too familiar with game trailers. They would have been marking my work based on my written assignment, techniques I had used and how resourceful I had been rather than if the demo reel rivalled a professionally released game trailer.

Although there are ways around it, you generally cannot get used to working practices in the games industry without actually spending some time working in it. For instance, I can create my assets, hook them up to the games framework, along with parameters and effects then test them in a working game. This working practice cannot be achieved unless you have the build of a game in front of you, all the game related work I did at University was set to video and as a result it was linear. In a real life situation you have to think about how your assets might change based on different situations. Let’s think about a racing game, my vehicle engine needs to dynamically change based on whatever RPM the player car is currently at. It might act differently based on how much traction is on a surface or if the engine becomes damaged. The engine will have to sound different based on the camera view that the player is using, what gear the car is in or how much it has been upgraded.

Summary

The overriding factor is that a degree is almost essential if you want to work in some sort of development role in the games industry. It is a competitive industry and if you are the only person applying for a job without a degree you are immediately put at a disadvantage. QA itself is a great stepping-stone into the industry and many employees start out their career in this department. During my time in QA almost everybody I met who wanted to or eventually went on to become a developer had a degree of some sort. Education is expensive and the cost to study has risen dramatically since I was at University, nevertheless you can’t avoid the fact that graduate jobs pay better.

College and University can throw up many opportunities from networking to future freelance opportunities. Starting out at College may even make you realise that a certain industry is not for you, as I discovered when studying IT for 2 years.

The important thing to remember is to take in as much as possible and always consider how these modules, techniques and new knowledge can come in useful later on in your career. There are certainly times when I wish I had delved a littler deeper into certain modules or paid more attention during a lecture.

Industry Tools

If you are interested in working in the games industry as an audio designer you might want to consider familiarising yourself with some audio middleware. You can download full versions of middleware for free as long as you are not using it in a professional capacity. Some of the common tools you might encounter are:

The Benefits of Education

  • Learn organisation and time management
  • Graduate jobs are generally better paid than non-graduate jobs
  • Generally you will need a degree to work in the industry
  • You will learn vital skills such as
    • Memory management
    • Recording techniques and the theory behind them
    • Professional work experience
    • C++
    • A chance to network
      • With other students
      • With professionals in the industry

Working in QA

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At about the age of 17 I met a girl who told me her boyfriend was a games tester; to me this seemed like the holy grail of jobs. I imagined sitting around all day with a bunch of mates and playing a couple of games, after all that is what we generally did for fun after school. However, as I made my way through College and University the idea of being a games tester slipped to the back of my mind along with all the other “that will never happen” job scenarios many teenagers have like becoming a rock star. Fast forward almost 10 years and I had just graduated from University with a degree in Multimedia Technology and Music Production; I planned to pursue a career in Audio but didn’t know where to start. Still a big gamer I decided to look at audio jobs within the games industry and so I attended a few open days and generally began seeking out more information about my chosen career path. During one open day the QA manager of the company I was visiting explained a little bit about the job and recommended QA as a foot in the door to a development role.

My first job in the games industry was indeed as a games tester or QA (Quality Assurance). I held this position for about 1 ½ years before moving into the development side of the industry as an Audio Designer. To many gamers, QA is a mythical job role where geeks gather to play games all day and hone their skills. On the flip side, many people not into gaming turn their nose up when you explain to them that you test computer games for a living.

With this article I aim to explain what QA do on a daily basis, debunk some common myths and give an insight into what it is really like to be a games tester. So, where do you start?

The interview

Generally you need to scour various games publishers and developers websites; here they advertise new job roles.  Remember QA jobs are generally temporary and companies normally only advertise a few months prior to a game hitting the shelves.  Generally no prior experience or qualifications are required, but they certainly help. When I first applied for a job in QA I sent CVs to several companies and was successful in getting an interview. I can’t say what the process is like at all games companies but for this job I was required to complete a short application form and after a couple of weeks I had an interview lined up.

The interview was presented in two parts; first of all I had to complete a short exam of sorts. The idea here was to weed out anybody who isn’t really that interested in games, after all you don’t make an ideal candidate for the job if you don’t even like games. The exam mainly consisted of pictures of old tech, games and consoles and asked the examinee to correctly identify each one, nothing too drastic! The second part was the actual interview which covered the basic questions asked at most interviews such as “why do you want this job”, “why did you leave your last job” etc… The interview then moved onto games where I was asked to list my favourite genres and games and talk a little bit about my choices. QA questions were also asked, such as “what do you think is involved in testing a game” and “how would you approach testing X part of a game…”

The risk you have to take

A few weeks later I received a phone call and was informed that my interview had been successful. Now a predicament many new starters have to resolve is where they will live, do you commute or move house?  As QA jobs are generally offered on a temporary basis your contract may not be renewed in 6 months time, whereas your tenancy might last 12 months. I absolutely didn’t hesitate over this decision and immediately found a place to rent 15 minutes away from where I would be working.  When starting out on a career path you have to take risks and think positive; the company are working on other games, if I prove I can work hard they might renew my contract.  During my time in QA I did indeed experience the dreaded QA layoff period, luckily I survived (in part because I was transitioning into a different department).

The Job

What is it actually like to work in QA?  Well the “dream job” status I once applied to games testers as a 17 year old had long since vanished before I’d even applied for the role; I was now applying as a necessity to get into the games industry. I’d hope anybody who is old enough to seriously consider becoming a tester understands that this is a real job, involving serious work, carful observation and long hours.

The day I started in QA I joined the 14 or so other new starters; we were taken to our seats in an open plan room containing around 40 other testers (one of two main QA rooms).  My first task was to open up an old build of a previously released game and identify several bugs (which had purposely been left in that build), after a day or so on this task the real work started.

The common myth seems to be that working in QA involves sitting around all day playing games and while this is in part true the bulk of the job involves a lot of paper work and organisation. Tasks are split up into looking for new issues, confirming issues and testing old issues, this is very repetitive work and this is where the realisation kicks in that this is indeed a job, not a hobby. In a typical day you could be given a list of new settings to play with, you may have to use a 19” CRT TV and play with the saturation low and the language set to German. All eventualities need to be covered and so just because the majority of gamers might now play on 42” LED HD TV’s there will be a small percentage of players who only have access to a CRT TV. Audio is also tested, be it on headphones, TV speakers, stereo speakers or a surround sound system. Audio options need to be adjusted such as playing with the speech fader set to 0% if applicable, any speech heard will then have to be entered into a database as a bug.

As well as your settings you may then be given a very specific task to complete. Here are a few examples and outcomes that could happen to give you an idea of why they need to be tested:

Task
Walk against every wall in the level

Example of a bug
The player may find walls with no collision properties. This could cause the player to fall out of the world or access areas of the game early, causing further bugs and progression issues.

Task
Complete the game without upgrading any weapons

Example of a bug
If the game is structured into levels with upgrades only taking place at specific times the player may reach a level in which they cannot kill a certain boss and cannot return to the upgrade area.  This will then halt progression indefinitely.

Task
Drive around each track the wrong way

Example of a bug
Game logic may not be able to deal with a player completing laps backwards.  Warning speech or visual notifications to inform the player that they are going the wrong way may not trigger.

Bugs are listed into a database where several important pieces of information is added, this is where the tester needs to be organised and clear about an issue.  Relevant information or sections to complete might include:

–        Type of issue (AI, Audio, graphics, logic etc…)

–        Priority (Is this a priority 1 and causing the game to crash, or a minor issue such as a characters arm clipping through a tiny piece of wall?)

–        Build number (builds are generated often, if somebody else is playing in an older build they may think the issue isn’t present)

–        Where the bug occurs (game mode, level or mission)

–        Other specifics (using the power sword, driving the Ford, when playing online etc…)

–        What platform (Xbox 360, PS3, PC etc… the bug may not occur on all platforms so they all have to be tested)

–        How often the bug occurs (e.g. 1/10 times, otherwise somebody may re-test this issue 3 or 4 times and decide it is now fixed)

–        Method of reproduction (so the developer or QA can test the issue again)

Once a bug has been completed it is then assigned to the relevant department to be resolved. After the issue has been fixed it is then returned to QA as a fixed issue, the testing doesn’t stop here however. All fixed bugs are once again tested (using the method of reproduction) to confirm if the issue is fixed. If there are still problems the bug will fail, a new comment will be added by the tester who failed the bug and it will once again return to the developers.  In some situations a bug may be returned without being fixed, this may be a “no fix” or “cannot reproduce”. A no fix can arise if a tester has incorrectly flagged something which may actually be a feature or a tech related issue which simply cannot be fixed (an example of this can be seen in large open world games such as Skyrim or Read Dead Redemption where textures may pop in and take a while to load but cannot be made to load in any quicker). “Cannot reproduce” issues can generally arise if the tester has not given enough information to reproduce the bug (e.g. the bug may only occur when using a very specific weapon which the tester didn’t mention). Alternatively QA can generally be several builds behind the development team and bugs may have already been fixed in a newer version of the game which the tester has yet to receive, nullifying the bug.

As well as seeking out new bugs other tasks may include reproducing existing bugs on all platforms. Let’s say a tester finds an issue on PS3 and enters a bug, this bug could be exclusive to this platform or may happen on all platforms. To verify this, a second tester may go through all bugs which have been found on PS3 but have not yet been checked on Xbox 360. The tester will follow the method of reproduction for each bug and confirm if it also happens on the 360.

Towards the end of a development cycle other tasks will be carried out such as completing the game from start to finish and perhaps meeting certain criteria along the way. Take inFAMOUS as an example; a player has the option to choose good and evil options throughout the game, resulting in two different experiences. This task is perhaps one of the more tedious jobs a tester has to complete; arriving at work in the morning and doing a full play through until your shift finishes may seem fine on the surface. Now remember, the tester may have been on the same game for the last 5 months, 3 of which might have included a lot of overtime. They probably know the game inside out and may not even enjoy playing it.

Taking on the role of a QA tester is full of pros and cons and when people ask me about my time spent in QA I always tell them the same thing. The job can be very tedious at times but I’d much rather be in an industry I love, getting paid to test games than standing in Sainsbury’s stacking shelves of meat for 8 hours at a time (as I did while at University). The job is also relatively low paying, I won’t mention how much I earned but a recent MCV survey lists the current average wage for QA[1]. This is coupled with the risk you take of entering into a temporary contract in an industry which is plagued with studio closures and redundancies.

Development cycles also experience “crunch” periods, typically this can last for several months and everybody from development to QA are required to work overtime to get the game finished for the street date. Often you hear stories about QA and Devs sleeping under their desks just to get a game finished. I can’t say it’s ever been that bad for me but there have been times when I’ve left the office in the early hours of the morning.

Moving onwards and upwards

QA is one of the best ways to get into the games industry and to begin understanding development cycles. Working with development builds, test kits and seeing a game progress from an almost unplayable state to a polished master all contributes to your understanding of the development process. Identifying and logging bugs also provides a great background for development as you start to learn the basics as to why bug are occurring and how they are being resolved (developers may add comments or small details about the fix to the bug report). This process is especially useful when identifying bugs related to the department you are interested in; in my case I wanted to progress onto the audio development team. I would look for any audio related bugs, which would help me understand what should and shouldn’t be included in a game. My bugs would then be fixed and sent back for me to check, generally there would also be a comment added such as “re-exported the asset at the correct sample rate” or “asset was 500kb too big, causing a crash”.

Another great benefit of being part of a QA team is the ability to interact with developers on a daily basis, not just within a working environment but socially as well. On your commute to work, around the office and in the canteen you can get to know the people you work with. Some QA are lucky enough to receive feedback on their portfolio or apply for vacancies advertised internally (many developers start off in QA). As well as the development team you are also surrounded by like-minded graduates, rarely did I talk to people in QA who did not have some sort of degree in programming, games design, art and other disciplines. This can provide a good opportunity to work alongside friends on your portfolio, learn new skills or make links with possible future developers.

The pros and cons

Pros of working in QA

–        Essentially you play games for a living

–        Work in an industry you love

–        A chance to network with developers and graduates

–        Build up background knowledge of the development cycle

–        A foot in the door to a development job

–        The ability to apply for internally advertised jobs

–        A good opportunity for feedback on your portfolio

–        Your name in a list of credits

–        A copy of the games you work on and discounts on other games

Cons of working in QA

–        Low paying

–        Normally temporary contracts

–        During overtime there are long hours and weekend work

–        Working on one game for months at a time can become tedious

–        Difficult to get a promotion

[1] http://www.mcvuk.com/news/read/uk-games-industry-salary-survey-what-are-you-worth/0110018