In traditional structures, your team of QA testers have a lead they report to, who have a supervisor they report to, who have a manager they report to, who then report to a department head, and then a producer, and then the CEO. Granted, Gazillion is a much smaller company than larger studios like EA and Sony, but this structure does what we’ve talked about before: further shuns QA testers away from growing within the company, and being able to move up.
At Gazillion, your testers report to the QA Manager, who then reports to the department heads to divulge information, and then the company’s COO Jeff Lind, if necessary. This model makes the testers and their roles more out in the open, and accessible (both up and down the ladder). Could this model work with larger studios? It is quite possible, but unfortunately, nobody wants to try.
Will Busch worked in product development at companies like Sega and Konami. This is where Will started testing Xbox Live games like Contra 2 and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. He worked summers while attending college, and when he graduated in 2010, he applied for a position at Cryptic, where a friend from Konami helped him get his foot in the door. After two years at Cryptic, Will moved on to RedRobot Labs, where he worked on location-based mobile games (and was also the only QA employee). When RedRobot Labs announced they were downsizing, Will started looking at listings and saw Gazillion had an opening for a contract tester.
“My experience at Gazillion is the longest tenured experience I’ve had with QA.” Will moved up rather quickly in the almost four years he’s been here, a month before Marvel Heroes initially released in 2013. He quickly went from a contract tester to full-time, where he used to report to former QA Lead Kevin Ringelstetter. Roughly two years ago, Kevin moved up and on from QA, becoming responsible for designing character powers, leaving the lead position empty. Customer service and Quality Assurance were once under the same director, but since that director left the company, Gazillion made the most logical choice they could: Get rid of that position and make Will the QA Manager.
So what exactly does a QA Manager do? At Gazillion, a lot! Since the team is included on just about everything, their role includes a daily routine (which can change depending on what’s going on in the development cycle). Will lives farther away than most people in the office, so he comes in earlier to avoid traffic. He makes sure the daily builds are up for the testers, and talks to any departments he needs to in order to ensure everything is ready for its round of daily testing.
“Usually I get in at the same time as people running smoke [tests]. People are used to getting in early and doing these, and at 10:00am we have a triage meeting – it’s a thirty to sixty minute meeting which includes all of the operational departments and the studio director. It’s mostly for us to go over what the goals for the day and week are, and what our priorities are. Gives us a chance to catch up on progress from the previous day.”
From there, Will sends out an e-mail to his team delegating tasks. “I tend to try and rotate people around various tests – we may be doing character testing, or new environments and game modes – I try not to keep the same people on the same work day-to-day because it helps keep fresh eyes on different pieces of content every day.”
Will’s management style goes against the norm in the gaming industry – most QA people will tell you they’re stuck doing a repetitive task being forced down their throats on a daily basis for a multi-week grind. By giving everyone the opportunity to do something different, he creates a learning environment where team members have to learn other skills and work together to make progress.
“Second half of my day can vary a lot – I’m the QA Manager, but I still test directly for a reasonable amount of time. My afternoons are spent making building documents (test plants, releases passes, etc). I try to take care of this so others don’t have to.” Assuming responsibility for a tedious task he can easily pass to someone else says a lot about Will’s character, and how much he cares about the project and the team.
Because Gazillion’s team works on one project, they are able to avoid crazy overtime. “That’s the advantage of working on one project – I’ve been working on the same game for four years – we have the freedom to change release dates, or we can readjust timeframes of what content development is going out when. We’ll put in overtime when we’re on a tight deadline, but it lets us manage our resources a lot more efficiently.” Will laughed talking about the days of getting through eighty-hour work weeks of just ad hoc testing. “If we burn people out, they burn out and it’ll [the game and the culture] suffer down the road. It’s better to look at the bigger picture than the immediate goal or deadline.”
I had to ask: does working on one game get boring? I’m not sure I would be able to myself, but Will’s genuine optimistic look at things made me think differently.
“I came here with a relatively low understanding of Marvel. I didn’t really read the comics, play Marvel vs Capcom, or the X-Men Legends – my perspective on MCU is the movies.” When Will first started at Gazillion, there were only a few MCU movies out. The development of new content and new characters helps him learn more about the Marvel Universe, and because of his unfamiliarity with it, things are always interesting for him. He stresses the fact that characters in Marvel Heroes don’t feel like “clone characters,” and all play differently. “I get to see what the comics have been translated into, in our game. It’s exciting to see the new content and look back and see how much has changed in the last four years.”
The culture at Gazillion is what really makes Will, and quite frankly, everyone else proud to be a part of the company. “I think culture in a lot of places is a buzz word – oh we work hard play hard, or we’re, you know, ‘we’ve always got our backs up against the wall!’ – it’s almost fake. Calling it culture is ironic, it feels forced. Here at Gazillion, our culture is coming together organically. Nobody takes themselves too seriously, or is trying to be the best superhero or villain in the business – we just want to make a great game. Nobody really has an ego or walks around with a chip on their shoulder. Sure, we have some fun competitive behavior between teams, but it’s all in fun. Everyone wants to work together and make something awesome – that is the culture.”
Having previous experience with other gaming companies, Will can really tell the difference between the two structures and how they impact the development process. The process of keeping to your corner and minding your own business and figuring it out for yourself is just not a thing here.
“If I have a question about how something works, I walk to the dev and just ask. It’s very, very rare a dev doesn’t respond right away or isn’t being helpful. They are always willing to help QA, and always want to help QA.”
— david dohrmann (@dohrmann66) January 21, 2017
It’s not just the way the company treats the QA team, either. The presence and image CEO Dave Dohrmann projects is a big part of it.
“The management team here is amazing – I don’t say that because I’m a manager, I say that because I’ve been here and I started at the bottom. I’ve seen this company evolve. This is the only company where the CEO has stopped by QA to chat voluntarily. All the directors know everyone in QA by name, it’s a friendly environment. It’s not a guy in Los Angeles running a show in an office somewhere – it’s a guy I can walk to and go to with my concerns and not be shoveled out the door.”
Many producers and executives in this industry started off with QA – I asked Will if he had any advice for people looking to get into the industry, and he provided some feedback I never would have thought of. For starters, participate in as many open and closed betas as you can, and put them on your resume (even if you’ve never had a job before).
“It [betas] identify that yes, you have no professional experience, but you have experience playing games that aren’t finished.” Speaking on a tester he’s hired and currently has on his team: “One of the things that made Natalie’s resume stand out is she had three or four different closed betas she participated in. A lot of people don’t do them, and don’t think to put them on their resumes. It’s worthwhile.”
Will also encourages prospective testers to list anything they’ve worked on themselves, even if they never finished the project. Another tester, Chris, had included sketches and work (he comes from an art background), which made him stick out over others. He also encourages folks to go to any sort of trade show, and spruce up your LinkedIn profile and talk to recruiters. “Even if you don’t have experience, it doesn’t hurt to try everything.”