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The Importance of Developing a Professional Testing Department – Thinking of Quality Assurance as an Investment Instead of a Sunk Cost

QA in the games industry has always been a second thought, but the quality of our games is too precious for it to continue to be downplayed. In this post, we discuss the merits of maintaining a core team and of developing your group to fit your needs.

Quality Assurance. What words are often associated with this department in our industry? Contract. Hourly. Foot in the door. Kids. Hindrance. Expendable. Many parts of the company are often victim to the upsizing/downsizing with the rollover of each project, but QA is always one of the first to get cut, an easy money-saving option to cut the burn rate. You can always hire a new batch of eager kids to fill their place.

It’s been a truth in our industry for years that the testing departments tend to get the short end of the straw when it comes to budget, office space, equipment, and treatment within the games industry. There isn’t even an option for publishing under Quality Assurance here, it’s usually something that gets shoehorned in under Production. Yet there are a few adjectives that are missing from the above, ones that are a bit more positive than the ones listed.

Gamers. Teachable. Hungry. Ambitious. Passionate. Indispensable.

Outside of games, Quality Assurance is highly valued, a notable career for many professionals throughout the tech industry. There are entire certifications and seminars dedicated to the subject, with expert teachers willing to impart their knowledge onto other professionals. A quality testing team can bring to light a critical failure that can sink a project, whether from a debilitating bug that could destroy a database of user data or a security flaw that exposes customers to identity theft. Testers are the gatekeepers who protect a software company from releasing a product that could damage its public image.

This brings up the question of why, in an industry where first impressions and user reviews are so critically important, is QA such an afterthought? A triple-A game has millions invested in it, yet the final signoff is done not by seasoned professionals, but by some kids right out of college, likely on a contract for a little over minimum wage with no benefits.

Passion is a word I mentioned as a positive trait of QA teams, but in a way, it is a negative, because it is used against them. Passion for games drives them to seek out a position in the games industry. Their education or experience may not be enough to land them a job as a designer or programmer or artist, so they gravitate toward the one position that is listed as entry level, that they can use to get in the door, prove themselves, and move onto bigger and better things. So they’re willing to work, to kill themselves during crunch to hopefully prove themselves valuable enough to get noticed by another department, or perhaps just to get a contract extension to continue pursuing their passion.

But what if we, as an industry, began to change the course, began to make QA more of a destination instead of a stop, a career instead of a foot in the door? What if instead of abusing that passion, we harness it, and use it to grow a team of professionals? What if we start to think of QA as an investment instead of a sunk cost?

Culture of Quality

So why, in an industry where first impressions and user reviews are so critically important, is QA such an afterthought?

There is a direct causation that lies in the games as a product business model that has been the root of our industry for so long. Simply put, it makes sense to cut costs where you can to gain the highest ROI from the project. Why hire qualified test professionals when you have dozens of folks in their late teens/early twenties knocking down the door for the opportunity to test games? It’s simple economics; when you have a high supply with a low demand, you can pay a lower price for their services.

What benefit is gained from professional testers when you can hire kids straight out of college and coach them up?

Let’s first look at it from an opportunity cost standpoint. A new project has gone through pre-production and entered into development. The build is stable enough to begin testing, so you need to hire yourself some testers. Maybe one or two from a previous project is still available, assuming you liked them enough to hire them back, or maybe all your good ones were swiped up by other companies. Your QA management staff or production staff has to go through the interview process to bring in new testers, and if you’re crunched for time, you may end up with subpar testers in the interest of filling the headcount. Those testers have to be trained, familiarized with the tools and process, and molded into a tester befitting of your company’s quality standards. And when the project’s over? That time investment potentially goes right out the window when you let the testers go, and the cycle repeats for the next project.

This works for a lot of companies in our industry, and has for years. Basic testing is easy and teachable. But at the end of the day, you lose something. You have testers who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of what can cause a bug, so you get subpar bugs that identify a symptom instead of a root cause, wasting valuable developer time in investigation and partial fixes. You have a tester who is unfamiliar with more intricate testing methodologies, even concepts as simple as halo testing. You have a tester who can’t read a log or do the more difficult compliance checks. You introduce a risk to the quality of your final product.

Identifying such a risk is all well and good, but presenting a solution is much more difficult. Budgets are what they are, as are gaps in projects. That doesn’t, however, prevent QA from being valuable when the project is not moving into a testable state. Having a few QA Specialists and maintaining a core QA team outside of your Manager/Lead can benefit future projects in many ways.

Besides removing the overhead of interviewing and training a whole new team, you have a built-in expertise in testing. You have employees who can speak to potential pitfalls in the design stage instead of at implementation. You have testers who know the systems and tools your company uses, who can provide input on potential improvements and identify issues that can be fixed to make life easier for your developers, and who can effectively test those changes when they are implemented. Most importantly, you have people who you already know fit within your company culture, people who can champion your company and product because they believe in the work they stamp their seal of approval on.

The need to ramp up cannot be avoided, as keeping an entire team of testers is not always economical, and during slow times, cutting the team may be necessary. But there’s a lot to be said about maintaining a core QA team, a team who can grow with the company and serve as a resource to your developers.

Developing Testers to be a Resource

QA in the games industry has always been treated as a foot in the door position. Anyone who has spent time in the industry has seen it firsthand. Personally, I’ve seen former testers go into everything from production to design to programming to art, and everywhere in between.

It’s our job as managers to ensure that each tester has the ability to grow within the company, even those who aren’t destined to become professional testers. And there are very few who come into QA Testing with those aspirations. Most often, the answer you’ll receive in an interview is some kind of design position, which nine times out of ten means, “I’m not sure, but I want to be in games.”

There’s nothing wrong with that response. Sometimes people aren’t sure what they want to do. They may have an idea of what they think they’d enjoy, or they may just be uncertain. It’s a big commitment, and we expect people whose minds are still developing to make it. That’s where we come in.

We utilize what we call an Individual Development Plan (IDP). The purpose is not for us to tell our testers what they want to do, but to challenge them to figure it out for themselves. It starts with the employee asking themselves several questions:

  • Where do I think I want to be in 6 months to a year? Three to five years?
  • What am I good at?
  • What do I enjoy doing?
  • How can this be applied to help the company?
  • What can my manager do to make this happen?

Once this has been done, the tester meets with their manager to go over it. The manager’s job is to help form the responses to these questions into attainable goals and actionable steps to reach these goals. Sometimes it’s easy, the tester has a clear path set out, and the pieces fall into place. Sometimes it’s harder; three to five years is a long time to look ahead, especially for someone in their early twenties, and sometimes what the tester is good at doesn’t really fit with the company direction.

What’s important is that we provide everything we can to help the development. Whether that is fighting for budget for classes or conferences, procuring software, or building a library of educational books, it is in the best interest of the company to build these resources and raise the value that they add to the company.

It’s also important to ensure you don’t fire and forget with these. Having regular one-on-one meetings (we do every other week) is important for checking in on the IDP, for making updates based on completed goals or change in direction, and just doing a simple check in on the tester to make sure they’re still happy in their job. It’s absolutely vital for both development and the health of the department that you are talking to your employees regularly.

Developing QA: Professional Testers vs. Advancement into Development

Even with efforts to make QA a destination instead of a stepping stone, there will always be those who wish to move on, regardless of the department. Sometimes, it’s just not a good fit, or sometimes the employee has a greater aptitude toward a different discipline.

One of the goals of the IDP is not just to build skills, but to identify how an employee can best serve the company, and sometimes, the answer is not QA. As managers, we have to be flexible enough and have enough knowledge of the industry as a whole to develop our employees in the way that is best for both the employee and the company.

The professional tester route is much easier for us to accommodate. We were placed in our positions because we are considered subject matter experts, and as subject matter experts, we have knowledge to impart on our employees. We have knowledge of what it takes to succeed in QA because we’ve been through it ourselves. We know about the certifications and the classes that are worthwhile, and have the ability to build a fantastic team that can delve into the deeper areas of testing.

That’s not to say that you should only focus on those who see a career path in QA. There are plenty of benefits to developing testers toward other disciplines.

Learning different aspects of development can turn your employees into better testers. An artist who understands how animation and character models work together has a better grasp of how to identify character art issues. A level designer who understands how maps are put together can see how to exploit triggers and scripting. A programmer can read logs to determine the root of an issue, or can even write scripts to run automated tests. A writer can develop instructional documentation in a clear and concise format that is available to the rest of your team.

All of the sudden, you’re not developing the future artist or designer or programmer or writer. You’re developing specialists who are making your team better, which is in turn making your team better. And yes, some will leave for bigger and better things. Hiring managers within your own company will see talent for what it is and jump at the chance to bring on a qualified hire that they know fits within the company culture, who doesn’t have to be trained on the intricacies of how your company does things differently from other companies within the industry or your company’s tool set, someone who can hit the ground running. And when that happens, QA has an ambassador within another department, someone who understands the process and the hardship that QA goes through.

It is time we as an industry take a step back and look at QA. Stop thinking of them as young kids who sit around playing games all day and see them for what they really are. QA in the games industry is a discipline built on passion, passion and a hunger to take a step into a vibrant industry. It’s a discipline of energy, of people willing to learn and to apply their knowledge to making the games they work on as good as they can possibly be. Our industry needs to do a better job of harnessing that energy and turning it into a positive output instead of just sapping it and tossing it away. Games are too important and have too much invested in them to let such an important piece of the puzzle continue to be cast aside. It may hurt the bottom line initially, but investments always do. You get out what you put in, and quality is always worth the cost.

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