QA has come a long way in recent years, but with issues around representation, automation and underappreciation, have things come far enough?
For many in the games industry, a job in quality assurance represents the first rung on the development ladder. It was one this humble correspondent was about to step on when his head was turned by an offer to join the staff of a leading games magazine instead. In the 25 years since that fateful decision, he’s often wondered if he made the right choice. Now, having heard from seven dedicated and passionate QA professionals, he realises he probably did and that the games he might have had a hand in were all the better for someone else’s being there instead.
We’ve checked in with seven top QA professionals to see where things stand. Next up is Erik Hittenhausen, chief service officer at Testronic.
Leaving aside matters of personal taste, critical acclaim and popularity, and wearing only your QA hat, which game – other than your own – has impressed you the most over the last 12 months?
From a QA perspective, probably God of War Ragnarök. It was, of course, an eagerly-anticipated title, and impressive in terms of its scope and complexity, but it was incredibly polished on release – which was really good to see.
What’s been the biggest challenge that QA teams have had to face in recent years?
The obvious – and biggest – challenge was the Covid pandemic and the switch to working from home. We were quick to recognise just how serious the situation was going to be, so we started to make preparations immediately and, thanks to the hard work of our ops and IT teams, we managed to make the transition fairly swiftly. I never expected we’d see a time when we’d be working from home in the QA sector, particularly given the emphasis there is on confidentiality and security.
It was a necessity, of course, but we pivoted to remote working relatively quickly and seamlessly, with very little impact, if any, on the work we were managing on behalf of our developer and publisher clients. Outside of the pandemic, we are seeing an unusually long tail end to the last console generation, the the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One formats. This may be due to the lack of stock of the newer consoles due to the global chip shortages, but it has meant that adoption of the new platforms hasn’t been as quick as we’ve seen in the past.
There is usually a period of overlap with games being created for both the old and new console formats, but that period has been quite protracted in this generation. From a QA perspective, that has created an added challenge in areas such as compliance testing as, ultimately, we’re working on four platforms for a game instead of two.
QA teams have always been frontline combatants when it comes to crunch. How far along are we from the c-word falling out of use?
To be honest, I think we’re in an exceptional position within the industry, because, as an outsource vendor, we work to pre-defined budgets, plus hourly and overtime rates. We can ask teams to work longer shifts and at weekends if absolutely required, but they are compensated and not obliged to work those longer hours.
However, these scenarios tend to be the exception rather than the rule, and we have the flexibility and resource to manage it. However, we are of course aware that crunch is a problem in some areas of the business, and we are sympathetic to those affected.
What is your favourite commercially-available tool that you discovered or made use of this year?
Nothing really springs to mind in terms of anything we’ve discovered in the past year or so. But I find it interesting to watch the development in Cloud-based solutions, particularly those where you can test a broad set of mobile devices via the Cloud without having to have them all in one location or having to handle them physically. That technology has picked up a lot of momentum –for games it’s not quite there yet, but I imagine this will evolve very quickly.
How embedded are AI/automated tools in today’s QA environment and how have they made things better, or perhaps worse?
AI and automated tools are becoming increasingly embedded, but more in development than in QA. However, QA is reaping the benefits of this new technology because the tools mean that we are not working from ‘scratch’ on testing. A decade ago, it wasn’t unusual for a team of testers to start work on a project only to discover that the build wasn’t even working. That just doesn’t happen any more as there are enough tech-based verification steps and checks to ensure that a game is viable. This means that the time of our testers isn’t wasted, but it also means that we have more time to do the things that are better done by humans, such as finding creative ways of breaking the game, etc.
Certainly, there are things that can be done by AI and automated technology in terms of steamlining the process in QA and elsewhere, but I think that this means we have the opportunity to test games to a better level, and to be more creative in how we do it. If we’re not working on basic bugs, we can be more rigorous in our testing to help our development and publisher partners release games that live up to their expectations, and which are enjoyed by their gaming community.
What other challenges do you see on the horizon for QA and how can teams and individuals best be prepared to meet them?
There isn’t anything particularly challenging for us currently, to be honest. We are constantly looking for new testers to work with us in our studios around the world, but I think attracting talent is a challenge that’s facing everyone in all areas of games.
Are you optimistic about the future of QA? Why?
I am always optimistic! Developers and publishers are more aware than ever that they can’t release games that do not live up to the expectations of their community. The power of social media means that word spreads very quickly if a new release is viewed as sub-par – and the gaming community can be very unforgiving! Competition for the time and money of gamers is possibly fiercer than it’s ever been – particularly when the cost-of-living is rising around the world – so publishers and developers are more mindful than ever that their new releases need to be optimal.
Ultimately, I think that, where QA has been undervalued in the past, it is now viewed as an incredibly important part of the whole process. And that can only be a good thing for everyone.