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.

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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