Opinion: Let's talk about why QA sucks
["Quality assurance is an incredibly important pillar of game development, and the industry as a whole does not treat it accordingly," argues Game Developer magazine EIC Brandon Sheffield in this op-ed originally printed in the April 2012 issue.
Maybe you're an artist. Maybe you're a coder. Maybe you're a designer, or a producer. Maybe you're all of these. But chances are, if you fit into one of those categories, you have a career path of some kind set before you. You can become an effects lead--you can move laterally and become a tech artist. Learn some behaviors and become an AI-oriented designer.
Your QA team doesn't have a career path though. Quality assurance is one of the most important aspects of game development, and all we encourage our QA staff to do is move "up and out" of the QA slog, if we inspire them to move up at all. Many QA professionals talk about "getting out" and moving to the production or design path. Don't you want good QA folks to keep doing QA? Shouldn't they enjoy and want to start in their jobs? Isn't there something wrong with this picture?
Your QA staff is your front line of defense against bad reviews. Obsidian creative director Chris Avellone recently mentioned
that the company didn't get a bonus for Fallout: New Vegas
because the game missed its Metacritic target of 85 percent by one percentage point. They had to reduce staff as a result.
Game reviewers play a lot like testers sometimes. They push against boundaries, and find those things you're pretty sure nobody will ever bother to do. They complete quests in the wrong order. They jump over a wall and trigger a cutscene that wasn't meant to happen for hours. In short, they break your game, then call it buggy. What does that do to your Metacritic score?
Not all bugs can be prevented, but with creative testing and enough time (that's the kicker!) you can get most of the showstoppers. Everyone knows QA is important, but let's really think about that. Is your QA team inspired to think creatively, and go that extra mile? Are they treated like important members of the team?
Most QA is hired from a pool of fresh-faced kids who just want to get into the industry any way they can. They are passionate about games, but aren't sure how to break in, so they take the QA route. Maybe they've heard about game designers who started as testers. What they don't want to do is stay in QA forever. And why would they? The hours are long, and the pay is the lowest in the game industry
, at under $48,000 average across all years of experience, almost $30k under the next-lowest discipline. Many are hired on contract, at low wages, then get let go when a project is complete.
Does this sound like a job you'd want to stay in? Or a job where you'd be incentivized to think creatively? Is this job with a career path? If the biggest incentive you're given is to become a lead and then move to another department, how much can you really care about working in QA?
How many times have I heard "the dev team" and "QA" spoken of as though they're different things? In many companies there's a physical wall between "the developers" and QA, if not an entire building. QA is part of the dev team. Why is there this mental space between the two?
It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think the QA kids are scrubs, stop hiring scrubs. If you want people other than scrubs to apply, there needs to be a fundamentally different way of thinking about the entire department. If QA is thought of as a viable career path, and a truly important part of game development, it won't be considered lower-tier, and your games will get better, because creative people will be thinking about how to improve your games and processes.
At Valve, for instance, everyone has specialties, but everyone is a developer. Everyone plays the game all the time, and thus everyone is QA. That's not so bad, is it? How can we reach this level of integration in our own companies?
The first thing to do is to change the company culture and mind space surrounding QA. Invite QA leads to important meetings. Creative meetings! Make sure you, or your leads, speak of QA with the same respect you'd have for any other discipline. Make sure your entire team is speaking to everyone else on the team, and regularly.
Next, offer an appealing career path within QA. Certainly there will be generalists that check everything, and some general leads. At the same time, QA professionals that are interested in music should essentially be part of the sound team, working to develop an audio map to test against, with the power to implement changes. Those with a tech bent should be speaking regularly with the leads in that area to monitor frame rates, and suggest areas for reducing load. And so on and so forth.
Finally, don't lay them off when a project completes! If you want loyal employees, your company should be hiring for the long term. You should be recruiting QA professionals with a variety of skills that can be applied across the project, like you would in any other discipline. Unless your team is gigantic, you likely don't hire an artist who is only good at rigging. It's a specialty, sure, and you rely on them for that. But when it's time to do a bit of modeling, or mocap cleanup, they can be counted on. So too should it be for your QA staff.
If you really need to ramp up and down our QA, use external QA groups managed by your permanent internal QA team. If you think of any members of your team as an expendable resource, they will not do their best work for you.
This is only the start of the discussion. QA is an incredibly important pillar of game development, and the industry as a whole does not treat it accordingly. If you want to see your next bonus, maybe it's time to change all that.