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/

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Leave Luck to Being Rescued – Christiaan Jones

Christiaan Jones
Content Designer
The Creative Assembly

Notable games Christiaan has been involved with:
Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, Operation Flashpoint: Red River and F1 Race Stars

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Christiaan LARPing as Vincent Le Blanc (deceased)

Brad: Hello Christiaan.

Thanks for taking part in “Leave luck to being rescued” which bears no resemblance to any music based top 5 interviews!

Now, I have previously worked with you through a development cycle so I already know a few things about you. I know you enjoy LARPing, so I’ve set up a very believable scenario to explain how you get stuck on an island with nothing but a few of your favorite games. I also know that your real name isn’t Christiaan, although I can’t remember the story behind this. So why don’t you start by telling me a bit about your LARPing hobby (do you have a good photo I can attach to the post).

Christiaan: Hi Brad!
Firstly, thanks again for trapping me on an island (I think…) and I’ll quickly try to clear up the name confusion; Third child of 4, grandparents wanted family names, I drew the short straw and got them but to save all the arguing everyone calls me Christiaan (family names being Alan-Michael and Harold)! Luckily my last name is Jones so that keeps me humble 😉

I’ve been LARPing on and off since I was about 18 in a few different systems around the UK (Live Action Roleplaying, for the uninitiated, is a mix of cosplay, theatre, a kind of martial art and basically pretending to live in a fantasy-based MMORPG), which are all different sizes and have a different feel or emphasis depending on where you go. I’ve been in many forests and fields, camps and “towns” and even a 2 mile long chalk cave system (it was very dark and cold, but GREAT for atmosphere)!

In the system I currently play in called The Lorien Trust (or L.T.) there’s a good mix of fighting and roleplaying and I try to attend all four of their main events, two of which are in May and two in August. Each main event lasts around three days over a long/bank holiday weekend and you can spend your time trading, crafting, fighting, casting spells, performing rituals (basically uber-majicks) researching about the world, chatting, eating and drinking (there is lots of this!) or pretty much anything else you can imagine doing!

There’s stalls for food or selling kit like weapons and armour and the roughly 2000+ players per event (not including vendors, referees and other hangers on) arrange themselves into one of the many nations, groups and guilds all with their own lands, customs and identities and act on the various storylines or plots, some of which have been going continuously for 10 years or more!

I could go into a LOT more detail, but 1) I’d be here forever and 2) this is less about LARP and more about gaming: Next question please! ;D

Brad: Wow, I didn’t realize how much was involved. I imagined about 40 people in a field shouting a bit and pretending to attack each other!

Alright, so let’s talk about games. I presume you were a gamer from a young age? What was your first console (or PC)? When did you decide to pursue a career in games development and what is your background?

Christiaan: It ‘IS’ one of (if not the) the biggest systems in the country, and most other systems tend to be around the 40+ mark it’s true 🙂

Yeah, I started pretty young with an Apple 2 we used to borrow from the local primary school I went to for a week during the summer holiday to play Oregon Trail and Kings Quest 1 on. The first games machine we actually owned was the good old NES (in the end my parents bought two for us to share!) and I spent many long hours with my brothers in front of it back in the early 90s.

Deciding to go into the games industry was a bit of an accident really. I’d finished secondary school (having done A levels in English Literature, Philosophy and Media Studies) and I honestly didn’t know what I wanted to do next! Looking through some university brochures I saw a course in Games Design from Lincoln University. Thinking about it at the time, I’d always been designing one thing or another when I was a kid playing with my brothers: turn-based rules for a LEGO strategy game (with real-time sections for shooting the cannons!), new quests for the Hero Quest board game or even digital stuff using RPG Maker 95 and various MOD tools for Quake and Quake 2. I’d never considered it as an actual job and Lincoln were offering one of the first courses on it in the country so I guess I was lucky to get in on the academic ground floor!

Brad: Ah yes, the NES, I spent countless hours playing Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda on mine and it still works!

Looks like you were always going to end up in some sort of design / games related career then.

Now Christiaan, a shocking turn of events occurs when The Lorien Trust decide to do something a bit different and organize a special LARPing event to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. You decided to go LARPing as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and in your excitement you climbed down a sewer to hide; suddenly a great rush of water knocks you unconscious and sweeps you away. You awake to find yourself at the foot of a ladder and suddenly another rush of water picks up, carrying with it a load of games. You only get chance to grab 5 of them, one of which can be a collector’s edition (explain why you chose this) along with one complete game soundtrack (this can be from something other than the 5 games you select). With your new haul in hand you climb the ladder and reach the surface, only to find yourself on a desert island and stumble across consoles, TVs and a power supply. What 5 games did you grab and why?

Christiaan: Certainly one of my strangest adventures I think (also, I’d have probably been dressed as Donatello, but that’s neither here nor there really).

So, on to my choices. I’d like to start with the Game soundtrack if I may and that would be the original World of Warcraft (WoW) soundtrack. I’ve chosen not to include WoW in my main list for two reasons: firstly, because I won’t have internet connection and the servers have to close some day and secondly because it somewhat bias’ the list and there’s SO many other games I’d like to include!

So my choices (in no particular order) are:

1)  Diablo 3 Collector’s Edition (PC)

OK bit of a cheat this one as by taking the collector’s edition of Diablo 3 I get Diablo and Diablo 2 plus all the expansions already saved on the USB stick but my choice is still valid (plus I’m a sucker for an art book, especially those done by Blizzard)! Actually one of the first great games I played on the PC, the Diablo series is probably the best hack-and-slash RPG out there, despite some… odd choices for the third instalment. The story is great without being overly complicated and the replay value is frankly, HUGE. Randomly generated dungeons and item drops, unique creatures (in the later instalments) and simple but addictive gameplay make this a series I constantly come back to (even today I have both Diablo and Diablo 2 installed on my PC). The way the characters interact with the world too by breaking open barrels and opening chests and sarcophagi made you feel like you could have an impact on the actual environment and made the huge AOE attacks all the more satisfying! Special mentions goes to the dark tone, the gore, the story and best of all: sounds design. Those town and cathedral tracks from Diablo or the haunting desert theme in Diablo 2 make me feel I’m right back there, seeing them for the first time not to mention the death sound effect when you kill goatmen is still one of the most visceral and satisfying sounds ever! 😀

Brad: What a great choice, selecting a collector’s edition with the previous 2 games included and giving you a massive amount of content!

2)  The Elder Scrolls V, Skyrim (Xbox 360)

I think the best quote to describe Skyrim is paraphrasing Douglas Adams: “Skyrim, is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to Skyrim”. The fact is though, that there’s just so much to do in it and that’s only with one playthrough. The main quest is suitably long and epic and feels like a real challenge, spanning not even a quarter of the map. You can play for 60-100 hours without even exploring all of the over world, let alone many of the dungeons, tombs, houses, coves, caves, shrines, underground cities etc. The combat is really satisfying rewarding skill and timing, the stealth is a tactical challenge and the magic makes you feel really powerful but is balanced by being tough to use against a variety of creatures (who, thankfully, don’t level up with you so you can be killed by a skeever). If nothing else, I’ll be playing this game for a long time, island or no island! Also Dragons.

Brad: Again, another great choice. I have probably spent about 100 hours in that world and that on just one playthrough so I’m sure you’ll be able to sink plenty of hours into this.

3)  Terraria (PC)

An Indie title to add variety, but not placed here without good reason! I got into Terraria fairly early on in its life (when it first arrived on Steam actually) and I loved its 8-bit style and huge depth. Like minecraft only much simpler, Terraria was like when you go exploring as a kid out into the unknown. Most of the time you’d come back with nothing but sometimes you’d stumble across a place you’d never been or a cool dell or something you’d walked past many times before but never noticed. That feeling of adventure and exploration and finding “new” places always excited me and Terraria feeds directly into those memories. Taming the land to my whim was another favourite pastime of mine (sadly only in-game!) and building towers and fortresses to strike out into the Corruption, Jungle or the Dungeon made me feel like i made real progress in a changing the environment, something you don’t often see in games. The amount of tweaks and updates the developers made after release added even more depth (sometimes literally!) to the experience and I still go back to old worlds and characters I’ve created just to “rediscover” what I built in other playthroughs, even months apart. Almost the definition of epic replayability.

4)  Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (PC)

 Yes I know, another Blizzard title, but this really is the game that made me fall in love with these guys in the first place. Epic storytelling and fantastic FMVs set the scene for an epic game where, even though you’re playing an RTS, you always feel like the story is centered around you, and the character you’re playing. The way the game shifts gear through the Orc, Human, Scourge and Night Elf storylines and gets you to experience their sides of the story as well as try out the unit combinations and racial quirks is almost flawlessly executed. The little in-game scenes between characters really give the title life and the gameplay balancing (which to Blizzards credit is STILL ongoing today) mean the game feels easy to pick-up and difficult to master, like all great games should! While I didn’t play online multiplayer as much as I could have done, LAN sessions with my friends at uni and hours playing against the computer opponents on the sprawling maps are still some of the best times I had with an RTS. Also, Arthas is awesome.

5) Starflight (Mega Drive) 

A quite obscure title to finish on perhaps and my only “retro” game on this list. There were many different games I could have picked for this last choice: JRPGs and fighting games, old RTSs and point-and-click adventures but Starflight was just a really cool experience and pipped many of them to the post. Not because it has amazing graphics or massive amounts of replay value but because it was a well-crafted, pulpy, sci-fi adventure and it managed to get SO much detail onto such a tiny console. After assembling your crew the universe was pretty much your oyster and you could fight or negotiate with aliens, explore new star systems and planets, and then send your rover to the surface to search ruins, capture animals, mine minerals- basically all the things Mass Effect did, but about 16 years earlier! There’s no character interaction or back stories for your crew but it was all about the universe out there; a macro rather than micro story. Sorely deserves a good remake!

Soundtrack – World of Warcraft (WoW)

Not only is it well-composed, superbly executed and has a wonderful variety of tracks, but it’ll always remind me of the great times I’ve had on that game, ever since I first started playing on the European Beta way back in 2004.

Well, there are my choices! I hope you enjoyed them and they made sense. Cheers!

Brad: Months later a helicopter comes in to rescue you, in typical Resident Evil style a mysterious figure in the distance shoots the chopper down with a rocket launcher. As the burning debris falls you are only able to grab one of them.

Which game did you save?

Christiaan: haha yeah, that is a good ending (curse you Tyrant/Mr. X!) Ooo you bastard; an even tougher call to make now though! I’m torn between Terraria and Diablo 3 but…

I think Diablo 3 has the edge! Oddly, it was the first one to jump into my mind when I read the rest were going to be destroyed. Thinking about it, it’s not only because it contains an art book and Diablo 1 and 2, but I think longevity and nostalgia-wise it’s just a much fonder experience to me than the others. Also the Tristram theme will soothe my soul on the loss of the other titles 😦

About the choices

Diablo 3 Collector’s Edition

Developer – Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher – Blizzard Entertainment
Platform – PC
Release – 15th May 2012

The Elder Scrolls V, Skyrim

Developer – Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher – Bethesda Softworks
Platform – Xbox 360
Release – 11th November 2011

Terraria

Developer – Re-Logic
Platform – PC (Steam)
Release – 16th May 2011

Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos

Developer – Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher – Blizzard Entertainment
Platform – PC
Release (EU) – 5th July 2002

Starflight

Developer – Binary Systems, Electronic Arts
Publisher – Electronic Arts
Platform – Genesis (Mega Drive)
Release – 15th May 1991

Working in QA – Part 1

 

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