||Welcome to another edition of How to Be Me, HCF's casual, vaguely instructional interviews with professionals in the video games industry. This week I spoke with Will Armstrong, Lead QA at Telltale Games, developers of Sam & Max, Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People, and the upcoming Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures.
Hi, Will! Could you tell us who you are and what you do?
Will Armstrong: Hello! Well, I'm Will Armstrong and I'm the Lead of Quality Assurance for Telltale Games.
When you were a little boy is that what you wanted to be when you grew up?
Will Armstrong: Not in the slightest! Honestly, I had no idea that some day I would work into video games. It's something I accidentally stumbled upon.
How exactly did you stumble into video game work?
Will Armstrong: When I was working at Turner, one of my old bosses got transferred over to Gametap. I was doing television interny stuff at the time and he offered me a full time position.
What was your interny job? What was the job you were offered?
Will Armstrong: Well at the time, I was in intern at Adult Swim. Which was pretty damn awesome. But my old boss offered me a sort of lead technical position. I would do a lot of back-end work getting all of the games together and organized and so forth. The thing is, I didn't actually take the job. I wanted to graduate first, so I ended up connecting them with my brother. He took that job, and I helped out part time while I finished up my degree. When I finally graduated, I moved into game testing, since just about everything else was filled by then.
Did you know before you took a job as a tester what the work would be like? A lot of people erroneously assume you get to sit around goofing off, having fun all day.
Will Armstrong: No, I actually had a pretty good idea what all it meant. One of the things I did part-time was to help them set up their test department. So I had a pretty solid grasp on what would be needed. That said, knowledge doesn't exactly make it any less grueling at times.
What *does* QA testing entail?
Will Armstrong: Everything! We tighten the graphics on level 2! Actually, one of the reasons I am with Telltale is that we really do get a hand in everything. Not only do we do the general testing (playing the game ad nauseum to find bugs, trying to break the UI, that sort of thing), but we also get to provide a large amount of qualitative feedback as well. I frequently sit down with designers to talk about which portions of the game don't flow well, or how this puzzle is a little too confusing.
Is testing different at other companies? Do you get to provide less feedback, etc.?
Will Armstrong: Well honestly, I can't personally speak for that many companies, since I've only ever really worked at Telltale and Gametap. But based on what other people tell me, you often get very little if any contact with the actual developers. You are given a build, you pound on it for a few days, write up your bugs, and then wait for your next build. With Telltale, I'm always wandering over to the designers or programmers or artists and hashing things out with them. There's an awful lot of give and take.
As Lead QA, you get to oversee a team of testers. How much of your job is management?
Will Armstrong: Well when I first started, it was a team of me. So management was more a case of figuring out which project I should be testing today. These days, I'm up to a team of 4 or 5 testers at a time, and we are juggling more projects than I care to count. As such, I spend a mind numbing amount of time figuring out schedules, writing up test plans, and assigning people to do things. The upside of this is that I get to tell other people to do things while I spend my time actually fixing bugs or delving into other parts of the company.
What makes a good tester? What are you looking for when you put together a testing team?
Will Armstrong: You know, hiring new testers is one of the hardest parts of my job. There isn't really any one thing you look for on a resume. Sure, testing experience or programming background is great and all, but it isn't really a guarantee of skill. Mostly, I depend on the interview. Because we are such a small company, I know that the testers will be interacting directly with everyone from the CEO on down. So most importantly, I'm looking for good communicators. They write better bugs, they work well with all ends of the company, and they are more fun to be around (an important fact when you occasionally spend 60-70 hours together in a week.) Aside from that, I mostly just look for intelligent, quick learning people. One thing we do differently than a lot of companies is that we work directly in the development tools. So after a few weeks working in the Tool, I expect someone to be able to find a bug, identify the core problem (be it scripting, choreography, engine, etc), and if possible fix the bug, all on their own.
Wow, that's quite impressive!
Will Armstrong: It also makes it a hell of a lot easier to move up inside the company when you already know how everything works. I am routinely impressed by the team. They do a really kickass job!
Could you walk us through a typical day for you and your testers?
Will Armstrong: Well, it really depends a lot of what kind of projects we are doing. But basically, we start up in the morning with whatever build is closest to a milestone. If this is something pretty final, we will go through and regress the major issues that might prevent us from shipping. I usually assign two to three people to this project. Then we usually have a project that is midway through development, so I have two other testers doing informed testing on that project. Usually this just means playing through the game and testing the things that are likely to break. Looking for all of the usual suspects, that sort of thing. And then we usually have some project that is either really early in development, or requires some special tweaking. I'll usually take on this one myself, doing early passes on the game to discuss flow and design with the developers. The goal there is to try and get the script as solid as possible in time for first recording and the playtest. And then scattered throughout we have design meetings and production meetings and delicious lunchings and so forth. It gets pretty busy!
You mentioned playtests! How important are playtests in the process? What are you hoping to learn from them?
Will Armstrong: Playtests are a HUGE part of the design process. Right around the time we hit beta, we try to have a playtest where we bring in members of the community to play through an episode. During these, the testers and the designers walk around the floor peering anxiously over the shoulders of our volunteers. We find a few bugs this way, but mostly we are looking for places where people are confused or stuck. After everyone finishes up the playthrough, they sit down in a room with the designers to discuss all of the problems and tricky areas and any sort of suggestions they might have. The whole process takes the better part of the day, but everyone seems to really enjoy them!
Have you guys ever changed puzzles based on feedback from a playtest?
Will Armstrong: I think a better question would be "has a puzzle ever gone unchanged after a playtest?!" Just about every aspect of the game gets tweaked to some extent. Part of the reason we try to hold them so early in development is so that we can make all of the necessary changes and still ship the game on time. Some puzzles survive more unscathed than others, but almost every puzzle in the game can be improved in one way or another. We are really big on feedback, both from playtests, and from the community after a game has been released.
With all the feedback you're taking and interaction you guys have with you fan base, have members of your online community ever transitioned into jobs at your company?
Will Armstrong: Why yes! In fact, one of our testers was an active poster on our forum. And two of our testers (as well as a programmer or two) had attended playtests before. It always helps to hire someone that really loves what we do. Odds are they will put in the extra effort to really make the game a project of love.
If someone is looking into getting a job in QA specifically with you, what would you recommend as the best course of action?
Will Armstrong: Well we are almost always looking for one position or another (though we are rapidly running out of space!) You can just head over to http://www.telltalegames.com/company/jobs/ to see what's currently open. But even if your desired position isn't listed, you can just send a resume to firstname.lastname@example.org. Aside from that, play our games! It's always sad to get into an interview with someone only to have them say "So... you guys do like, games and stuff? Like RPGs?" Even if you can't afford to buy them, we have a free episode online, and we are constantly giving stuff away through some deal or another. And demos galore!
What would you recommend to someone who wants to get a job in QA in general. What sort of education does he or she need? What sorts of skills should he or she be honing?
Will Armstrong: A background in computers is always nice. I'd also highly recommend any sort of communication type skills. Some of my best testers have been Journalism or English Lit majors. For serious! Oh, also, be warned that testing is really meticulous in nature. If you don't have the patience to do a lot of repetitive, thorough work, maybe this isn't the job for you.
Were you a fuzzy major? I seem to remember something about Japanese?
Will Armstrong: Actually, I was a really weird major unique to Georgia Tech. I got a BS in Science, Technology, and Culture. It was basically a broad, media studies type major, with a focus on technology stuffs. I spent a lot of time in film classes, Photoshop, Final Cut, and even some Maya thrown in for good measure! I took some Japanese in my spare time, but honestly it hasn't been all that useful yet. Maybe when we start doing those RPGs! (Kidding)
Oh, weird. I had no idea you were so techy.
Will Armstrong: Yeah, I actually spent my first year and a half as a computer science major. After programming a compiler for a final project, I said "Screw this! I need something more creative. And less back-end C programming!" So I swapped majors.
Well, since you know Japanese, could you sum up the qualities necessary for being a QA tester.... in HAIKU?
Will Armstrong: Oh god. Ok, lemme give this a shot:
You must have focus
Free your mind of worldy points
Score is not your goal
That is awesome and wicked zen.
Will Armstrong: Zen and The Art of Video Game Testing
You need to write that book now. Anywho, thank you so much for your time, Mr. Will Armstrong. Any parting words?
Will Armstrong: Testing games is fun and a great way into the industry! Smaller companies are better! In-house testing FTW! ...And I'll get right on that book.
[Note! Full disclosure: Marie Kare briefly worked as a contractor with Telltale Games and has attended several TTG playtests. This interview was 100% her idea and she was in no way compensated for it outside of having a friendship with Will and other awesome TTG peeps.]