Leave Luck to Being Rescued – Jon Holmes

Jon Holmes
Audio Engineer
Rare

Notable games Jon has been involved with:
All Points Bulletin (Realtime Worlds)
DiRT 3, DiRT: Showdown, F1 2012, GRID 2 (Codemasters)

rustybucket

Brad: A two part question first of all.

Can you tell me a bit about your educational background? And did you always plan on being a programmer, or more specifically an audio programmer in the games industry or were there other industries you considered?

Jon: My education was pretty standard for most Scottish kids – I began at nursery, where I learned how to make friends, play games with others and generally be a functioning member of society. In primary and secondary school I performed above average in the subjects I enjoyed (Art, Computing, Music) and sucked at the ones I didn’t enjoy (Maths!). I was quite a creative child, so I spent a lot of time drawing and making things. My family also had a big impact on my education, mostly with how I approached learning. My dad is quite analytical and I think that rubbed off onto me. After school I graduated from The University of Abertay Dundee with a 2:1 BScHons in Computer Games Technology.

Did I always plan on being a programmer? Not at all. Up until the age of 10 I wanted to be a comic book artist for DC comics (I love Batman). Then at the age of 14 or 15 I started learning the guitar. I got quite good at it, and thought I could make a living as a session guitarist. At ~17 it was pretty obvious I couldn’t compete with the guys who’d been playing a lot longer than me, so I chose a profession in game programming.

It’s funny that I took so long to decide to be a programmer, because I started programming at a very early age. Games were always a part of our family, and my older brother programmed a little in AMOS on the Amiga. We had games like “The shoot-em-up Construction Kit” that I played with before I could even ride a bike. I became a bit of a Deluxe Paint ninja and made loads of little visual programs in AMOS. I then progressed to stuff like Macromedia Director, Adobe Flash and Visual Basic until finally getting stuck into C++ at University. For most of my teenage years I much preferred the creative aspects games. I loved animating (something I picked up from my brother) and I loved writing music (something I picked up from my dad) and seeing it all come together as one product was a very good feeling. The programming was simply a means to an end.

However, in 3rd year of Uni I started programming shaders in DirectX. This was really hard, and I barely understood it to begin with. The coursework forced me to really dig deep into how it all worked, and I found that I really enjoyed it. I think this was the real turning point for me. Almost like a switch went off in my brain and I became someone else. Programming was enjoyable, I understood it, I liked investigating new things and I felt I was good at it.

You’ll notice, apart from some music references, that I haven’t mentioned much about audio yet. That’s because I wanted to do almost anything apart from audio programming; I didn’t want to be stuck in a niche position. Ironically, being niche has probably been the best thing that’s happened to me. My first attempt at audio programming was in uni. I did it in a few group projects because no one else would do it. Fortunately my audio programming got me noticed during the Dare To Be Digital competition in Dundee. Realtime Worlds hired me as an audio programmer off the back of DTBD and since then I’ve been very happy doing audio programming (I still suck at maths though).

Brad: That’s interesting that Maths isn’t one of your strong points, generally people think that to be a programmer you have to be really good at Maths.

How different is audio coding from other disciplines in the games industry? Do you feel as if you have to take a different approach to your work and does knowledge of music and audio in general help you?

Jon: Even though Maths isn’t my strong point it’s still important for a programmer. I’m now comfortable enough with basic calculus and trigonometry, but when you get into serious digital signal processing it can get pretty challenging. I just keep sticking at these things until I understand them.

Audio programming is easily comparable to other types of game programming. You’ve got high level coding, which is similar to gameplay programming. This would include stuff like hooking up triggers and logic for controlling the sound. Then there’s more architectural audio programming where you structure how the sub systems talk to each other, and making sure the code is as optimised as possible. Techniques here could be applied to almost any system that needs to run fast (graphics/AI/physics etc.). Finally you’ve got the signal processing aspect, which is where the maths comes in handy. The approaches would be similar to a rendering programmer writing shaders; relatively small bits of code but quite algorithmically complicated. Brian Schmidt gives a great comprehensive breakdown of these three types of audio programmers in his article here:

http://www.gameaudio101.com/Game-Audio-Programming.php

All of these areas of audio programming benefit from having knowledge of sound and music. Understanding the needs of your sound designers makes them more effective, and always results in better sounding games. I’ve found having a creative passion helps to push you technically; you won’t instantly dismiss something if it’s too hard, because you know it’ll sound amazing if you get it right!

Brad: I’m sure this also works the other way around right? I guess it’s always helpful for designers to have a basic understanding of what you do; the limitations of code and how difficult something will be for you to implement.

Before we get on to the unfortunate business of leaving you stranded on an island for the foreseeable future I have one more question. Are there any games that have been so technically impressive that you have found yourself analysing them and wondering how they were coded?

Jon: Totally – I find when you both have an understanding of each other’s work then quality and productivity improves.

One game I’m still really impressed with is Uncharted 2. The way the sound reacts to the environment, especially in the multi-player, is inspirational. I spent ages walking around trying to find flaws in their occlusion and reverb, but at the time it seemed perfect.

As soon as I hear something that sounds too good to be true I stop and try to break it. I try to think of ways the developers could have implemented it – completely dissecting the feature. Then I go through as many edge cases I can come up with, hoping the system falls over. More often than not it does, but Uncharted’s environmental processing is great.

I hear GRID2 sounds amazing too…

(You can leave that last bit out if you like!).

Brad: No, the GRID 2 comment is staying!

I know you can’t say what you are currently working on but I presume its Banjo-Threeie, it’s also an N64 exclusive for the hardcore fans that still own the console! To promote the game a real life Rusty Bucket ship will set sale with the Rare devs onboard. Unfortunately the hull plating will be breeched by a series of rocks along an island.

Luckily, being a boat full of games industry folk there were plenty of games on board. Your priority (other than surviving) is obviously to grab some games. You manage to grab a haul of your favorite games, jump into the ocean and find a bit of driftwood.

So you’ve grabbed 5 games (one of which happens to be a collector’s edition) and 1 game soundtrack. What were your choices?

Jon: Your ship wrecking stories keep getting better and better!

Brad: Yeah, I find keeping the scenarios quite realistic works well.

Jon: My games would be (in no particular order):

1)  Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II (PC)

The campaign is great and the sound is what I’d expect from a Warhammer 40k game.

2)  Halo 4 (Xbox 360)

Don’t care much for the single player, but the multi-player is great for unwinding after a long day of holding onto driftwood.

3)  Counter-Strike: Source (PC)

Probably the most addictive game I’ve ever played. I would lose whole weekends to this when I was at uni.

4)  Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 (Xbox 360)

I’m determined to get the high score on “Pacifism”.

5) Batman: Arkham Asylum Collector’s Edition (Xbox 360)

Both of the new Batman games are fantastic, but the Batarang from the Arkham Asylum collector’s edition would come in handy while I’m stranded.

Soundtrack – Command & Conquer

Game soundtrack is easy – I’d take the original Command & Conquer soundtrack. All I need to do to re-live the 90’s is listen to that. “We’re going to have to act if we want to live in a different world”.

Brad: You have chosen some time consuming games there and I like your thinking with the Arkham Asylum collector’s edition, so all round good choices!

As I’m sure you are aware your scenario only gets worse when on the island. While strolling along the beach you come across the Rusty Bucket shipwreck, naturally you investigate. To your horror you see the remains a bird, suddenly a bear chases you away. You both reach the base camp and the bear starts slashing away at anything in his path. As he nears your prized games collection you reach out to grab them but only one can be saved.

So Jon, which game do you save?

Jon: Assuming I survive the encounter with the bear then I’d pick Counterstrike – I’m still not bored of playing ‘office’ and ‘dust 2’ after all these years. Perhaps the bear could play with me?

Brad: I like your thinking. I’m sure you do survive and with the backing of Microsoft I think the funding for a rescue helicopter will be secured in a few years.

Thanks for taking part Jon!

Jon: You’re most welcome 🙂

About the choices

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II

Developer – Relic Entertainment
Publisher – THQ
Platform – PC
Release – 20th February 2009

Halo 4

Developer – 343 Industries
Publisher – Microsoft Studios
Platform – Xbox 360
Release – 6th November 2012

Counter-Strike: Source

Developer – Valve Corporation
Publisher – Valve Corporation
Platform – PC
Release – 1st November 2004

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2

Developer – Bizarre Creations
Publisher – Activision
Platform – Xbox 360 – XBLA
Release (EU) – 30th July 2008

Batman: Arkham Asylum Collector’s Edition

Developer – Rocksteady Studios
Publisher – Eidos Interactive, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Platform – Xbox 360
Release – 28th August 2009

Advertisements

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

734384_10151331897647759_498113807_n

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

The used games debate

coventryxl_01

Used games have plagued publishers and developers for many years but with a move towards digital content and talk of patents to stop used games sales from both Sony[1] and Microsoft[2] could the age of second hand games be coming to a close? It is very doubtful that only one developer will pursue this type of tech, otherwise they risk a large portion of their fan base switching sides. Nevertheless digital sales are on the increase and with no way to sell your digital content license after you have finished with it you no longer have the option to make money from old games (and nor do retailers).

You can’t blame console manufacturers for wanting to cut back or even stop the sale of used games; after all they normally sell consoles at a loss. Even the PS3 sold at a loss when it was first released and that was priced at £425[3]. The reason behind this is to get a good install base built up and then generate revenue from software sales. If gamers decide to buy only used games this means the console manufacturer will have no way to recoup their costs; IGN’s Colin Moriarity talks more about this issue during an episode of game scoop! Which I suggest you check out [4].

Used games have been a staple of many games retailers for years; it is no secret that shops can make a greater profit from buying and selling used games than they can from new releases. After all when a new game is released is has to cover manufacturing costs as well as pay the publisher and developer; all of these factors eat away at a retailers profits. When buying and selling a second hand game the retailer is free to pocket all the profits (minus overheads of course) as the developer and publisher has no way to take a cut (although there are now online activate codes, which I talk about later). Selling second hand games isn’t illegal so a shop or gamer is well within their rights to make a profit from doing this.

This article raises several arguments for and against used games and from the offset I’d like to make it clear that I don’t present a right or wrong answer, I am merely presenting both sides of the story.

Why should the games industry be any different? 

Many of those in favour of used games can argue that the games industry operates no different from other industries with regards to second hand sales. Vauxhall for example won’t get a cut of my money if I sell my Corsa next year, nor should they. Why should the games industry be the exception to this rule? If you purchased the game as a boxed product then decide you no longer want it why shouldn’t you be able to sell it? Now on the other hand it could be argued that Vauxhall have a very good chance of continuing to make a profit long after my car has sold, not only do they offer services and MOTs on used cars but Vauxhall parts will need to be bought to maintain the car (of course 3rd party parts can be purchased instead).

Another way in which car manufacturers capitalise on used sales is by having their own used car show rooms and finance options. This would be akin to a developer or publisher such as EA setting up a dedicated store, specialising in the sale of used EA games. You could then argue that if used games pose such a large problem then developers should open up shops to sell their own used games at competitive prices.

DLC, online multiplayer and patches

Developers can still benefit from sales of used software, let me explain why. This generation has witnessed a sharp rise in the sale of DLC (downloadable content) and generally this is viewed as a way to extend the life of a game by adding new maps, levels, stories etc…

The original owner may have also bought a DLC pack which cannot be transferred to the new owner. If the new owner then decides to also buy DLC the developer makes a further sale even though only one game has been sold. Strategically timed DLC can even prevent or at least prolong a player selling on their copy of the game. The Call of Duty franchise for example, offers DLC over several months, therefore if you want to experience the new content you have to keep hold of the game.

Along with DLC this generation has also seen a big push for online multiplayer content and this brings us to another debate. DLC and online multiplayer both require an internet connection and are both offered to a customer via a server. When DLC is obtained by a customer the developer is directly benefiting from the customer accessing the server (which will cost money to run and maintain) whereas multiplayer is generally a free service. Developers have recently started to capitalise on this by only allowing access to multiplayer content if an online pass is activated. The pass will come free with all new games but can only be activated on one account. If the game is bought used the new owner must buy another online code in order to access the multiplayer content. In this situation you cannot blame the developer; after all you are not only playing a game in which they have received no money from you directly but you are now also using their server bandwidth and interacting with their online community. It could however be argued that the previous owner will no longer be accessing the multiplayer content and so their impact on the server and bandwidth has simply been passed on to the new owner.

Developers can also lose out when they offer patches and various updates for a game. Patches cost the developer money to create, submit and store on a server for gamers to download. Services like this are totally free so a player with a second hand copy of the game will effectively be costing the developer money when they update their used game.

Building a fan base 

2307565-super_metroid

Although buying used games isn’t illegal this debate reflects a similar situation the music industry found itself in with the rise of Napster back in the early 2000s. Big well established bands such as Metallica complained that they were losing money from all the sales they were missing out on [5]. On the other end of the scale many artists (generally less well known bands) didn’t actually mind their music being stolen because word spread and their fan base grew. Arguably the same could be applied to second hand games, with one large difference (and note I am not saying that buying used games is as bad as outright stealing music). Musicians make the majority of their income from touring and not from sales of music; developers on the other hand make most of their income from the sale of games.

Building a fan base through the sale of used games can have long term positive effects on game sales; many franchises I got into as a kid have stuck with me to this day. When I was younger I remember waiting all year for my birthday or Christmas just so I could get a few new games. I also remember saving money for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and this was a big event to buy a game brand new, on release! Generally this meant that if I wanted a game any other time of the year I would have to save a bit of pocket money and make a trip to the local games shop to sift through used games. Super Metroid was one game I remember buying second hand, years later I am still a fan and have bought brand new copies of every Metroid game ever since. This is one such example and I now find many established franchises I grew up with still interest me today and I buy new versions of these games. 

Retro games

Generally I will only buy a used game if it is no longer for sale brand new (retro games from old consoles) or if I have some sort of voucher e.g. CEX credit. This probably stems back to being a child and having to buy used games, generally in pretty poor condition. When I was finally old enough to earn my own money I opted for brand new games that I could open and be the first person to play (especially being a bit of a games collector and wanting to keep my collection in great condition). I no longer had to put up with kids who had smeared their jam and chocolate covered fingers over the cartridges.

As people get more invested in games they generally want to experience a back catalogue of a franchise they love or see how genres have evolved over the years. Others want mint condition copies of 20 year old games or to relive games they played as they were growing up. Previously I’ve never really considered retro games as part of the “used games” debate, owing to the fact that they are out of print and could not be bought new. This all changed with the release of consoles like the Wii and PS3, where back catalogues are now offered for many old franchises, effectively giving a developer a way to once again make money from old games.

Conclusion 

I can’t offer any real conclusion of sorts because I never expected to make a decision as to whether used games are a good thing or a bad thing. I think larger franchises which sell several million copies of a game won’t notice much of a mark on their profits from the sale of used games. If anything, my previous point about bringing in new fans to the franchise applies. With smaller developers and niche games that only sell several hundred thousand copies used games have a much larger impact on the developer. After all development costs are rising, teams are getting bigger and risky or poor selling games have a very large effect on the future of many developers. Maybe I’m biased because I work in the industry and see companies closing quite often. Maybe you think developers should be greedy and want to block all used games sales just so they make a bit of extra cash. Either way it’s an interesting time for the games industry.

[1] http://kotaku.com/5972787/sony-patent-could-stop-you-from-playing-used-games-possibly-on-the-next-playstation

[2] http://www.edge-online.com/news/the-next-xbox-always-online-no-second-hand-games-50gb-blu-ray-discs-and-new-kinect/

[3] http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2007/feb/01/games.guardianweeklytechnologysection2

[4] http://www.ign.com/videos/2013/02/06/game-scoop-the-pros-cons-of-an-always-connected-console

[5] http://web.archive.org/web/20071129061341/http://judiciary.senate.gov/testimony.cfm?id=195&wit_id=252

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