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Part 3: BioWare QA - A Culture of Integrity, Problem Solving - and Fun!

This blog explains how BioWare's studio culture and core values have had a significant impact on the success of its QA team.

Tulay Tetiker McNally, Blogger

April 22, 2013

6 Min Read

As leaders we need to help others understand the value that a QA team can add to development by making our contributions more visible. This is especially important in cultures where testing or testers have been under-valued.

Testers that are an integral part of development collaborate with ALL development disciplines to deliver valuable features on time and on quality, while keeping the technical debt to a manageable level so the development team can maintain a regular and reliable cadence. 

So, how can you strive towards a quality organisation? It begins with strong leadership, a skilled team of analysts and a collaborative studio culture. 

Our studio core values have been fundamental to the success of BioWare. Core Values remind us that we always have a need to improve, not only with our games, but also in making the company better all the time. 

Our studio culture aligns our systems, our structure and our people. Where culture is strong, people do things because they believe it is the right thing to do, not because they are told to.

BioWare's core values keep our 3 key stakeholders (fans, employees and investors) in balance and are defined as follows: 

Quality in our workplace - focuses on our employees, making BioWare a great place to work and have our staff see their work and contribution as a career and not just a job

Quality in our products - emphasizes that we should always strive to make our next game better than the last

Entrepreneurship - This can mean developing games smarter, having more efficient processes in place and so on.  

And all of this is in the context of humility and integrity. This can mean taking feedback, improving and listening, always striving to get better, being forthright and honest in our interactions with external facing groups. 

An organisation cannot be improved only from the top. The top however can set the context and provide a vision, policy incentives, and mechanisms for interaction, coordination and monitoring.

Our studio’s vision is to create, deliver and develop the highest quality, most emotionally engaging games in the world. Engage the audience with something that feels real, create memorable characters and stories, and be genre-defining.

At BioWare, a department structure supports project units. It is not built around project teams. We have a strong project/matrix structure with the project managers and producers primarily being responsible for the project they are working on.

Their focus is on the overall scope of the title, the delivery of features on time, quality and budget.

Department directors of every discipline (art, design, programming or QA for example) are responsible for discipline excellence. I am, for example, responsible for strategic planning, organizing, directing and coaching the QA teams with a focus on my QA Leaders. 

I am accountable for the success but also for the failure of my discipline’s processes and strategies and my staff. In conjunction with the other studio departments and project leaders, my goal is to ensure the success of the projects and of the studio as a whole. Of course there can be conflicts between the two axes (Project/Department), this is why it is so important to hire people that can collaborate, compromise and communicate well. Building good relationships and networking skills are key.

Where a producer on a game focuses on the immediate project plan and the product they are working on, the Department Director focuses on long-term planning across multiple products, staffing the project with the right people who have the right skill-set, driving continuous improvement of development practices and skills of their teams. 

This structure is especially effective in fairly large teams that work on multiple products simultaneously, as it is the case at our studio. In the context of QA I feel it is important that we report into a department and not the project so we can be truly impartial and un-biased, supporting all development disciplines. 

Being part of the studio and its vision, culture and having common goals with every other developer to ship the best story-driven games in the world, creates the path for truly embedded studio QA. 

It is very important to me that everyone who works on one of our games believes in the success of the product and gives their best to deliver on our common vision and goal.

At BioWare our QA Culture is one of integrity, problem solving and fun. 

  1. Integrity, because first and foremost, we’re honest. People make software and people also make mistakes (including QA); if you are not making any mistakes, it means you're not taking any risks. By accepting those mistakes we can work to improve them (without blaming one another or other disciplines). Our QA is proud of what they do, because they are enabled and encouraged to always do the right thing for project, to the best of their ability.

  2. Problem solving, because in an ever-changing environment, QA continually encounters new problems. They also investigate old problems, by finding solutions to prevent them.

  3. Last but not least we don’t forget to have fun. This is about having a positive attitude about the work the team does. A necessary part of problem solving is identifying problems; it’s also about discovering opportunities. Our QA are excited to be part of a collaborative group who are always looking for continuous improvement. 

To realise this vision there must be a shared commitment, a collective endeavour with everyone understanding and aligning with the big picture. Every employee in our studio has equal opportunities to realise their full potential within the company. Every employee is treated fairly, respecting their contributions to the company and QA is no exception.

If you want to achieve similar success with embedded QA don’t just put a tester on a team and expect magic to happen. If you want to achieve success, you have to demonstrate value that QA can add to your development.

Maybe start on a smaller scale and see how they work with your development team and if they show value then use this success as a sales pitch to your studio for future growth.

Always show and demonstrate value if you want this (or any new model) to truly succeed. QA is not just about “assuring Quality.” - And I very much doubt that one discipline can do that or can be held accountable for the Quality of a product. 

Quality is owned by everyone who is creating the game and everybody should care about it.

There is so much stigma and ambiguity attached to those two letters “QA” that it almost feels like the discipline needs to reinvent itself, and maybe finding a new name or more fitting description is a good start for a new beginning.

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