Thanks for joining me for another Game Dev Insight. I had the pleasure of sitting down with QA Manager at DICE, Jaqub Ajmal. We talked about everything from his history in the games industry, his work at DICE, quality assurance in game development in general and much more.
QA is often mistaken as simple game testing; the act of playing a game or level over and over again and reporting bugs. It’s much more than that. I believe this gives some awesome insight into just how much time and effort goes into game creation. Please feel free to check him out on Twitter at @JaqubAjmal.
Hey Jaqub. Thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to chat with me. It’s a pleasure.
Jaqub Ajmal: Hey Nate! Great to get to do this with you! Thanks for having me.
Awesome, thank you. So what’s your “story” with games? How’d you first get started working in this business?
Jaqub Ajmal: I started as a design intern for a mid-sized Swedish studio called Simbin which had around 40 staff at the time. Their specialty was racing simulators. I was studying at one of the very few game development schools in Sweden at the time and part of the education was to spend a month at a developer to get an idea of how it is to be working at a games developer.
Once I was done with my design work they asked me if I could help out testing one of the titles they were working on and once my internship period was over they decided to hire me as a QA tester. I didn’t have any knowledge of QA prior to working as a tester, but I bought a bunch of QA books to get me started and looked at what other developers do to test their games, and then added my own methods that best fitted the style of game we were working on. That I had studied 3D art and programming before really helped as I was able to communicate fairly easy with the developers when it came to pinpointing various bugs.
Was there something specific that attracted you to video games?
Jaqub Ajmal: In general or as in working with video games?
As in working with games versus any other industry.
Jaqub Ajmal: I think the idea of working with video games had always been there, but there are really two major events that made me take the first real steps. The first was when I played Metal Gear Solid on Playstation for the very first time. It made me realize that video games could be so much more than scoring points. The way the game was crafted with, for it’s time, fantastic graphics, beautiful music and an emotional story line made me want to make my own games. Hideo Kojima’s name in the opening credits was etched on my mind and was really an inspiration for me to take the step to learn more about video game development.
I started to do programming and 3D modelling at home which gave me a basic idea of how things are put together. I never had someone that could teach me more and information on the internet on game development was fairly scarce back then so my progress was incredibly slow.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I was working as a salesman in a business to business company that was almost next door to Massive [Developers of The Division] where I started to wonder how I had ended up here instead of next door. I started looking at courses for programming and stumbled on a game development school in Falun, Sweden called “The Playground Squad“. They even had a class that was more focused on game design so I applied and got accepted.
And that’s how it all began. You worked at IO Interactive for a little while. How was it there? I’m a big fan of the Hitman series myself.
Jaqub Ajmal: Yes. I was lucky to land a job at IO Interactive after that GRIN went under which I was previously working for. I really enjoyed my time at IO Interactive. They were super friendly people, had a fantastic looking office right next to the water in central Copenhagen and their own restaurant that served breakfast and lunch daily. They would even make dinner for you in the evenings if you were working late. [laughs]
What’s happening with the studio right now is really sad. They’re a really talented bunch of people that deserve a lot more success but I am certain that they will be able to pull through. They have been through hardships before and have always managed to find a way forward. I’d be surprised if no one picks them up, I could totally see them working with a developer like Rockstar as they share a similar DNA when it comes to crafting games and worlds.
Holy crap, their own restaurant? Not a good thing for me, I’d be there all the time! Like you said I really hope they pull through too, they deserve as much success as possible. You finally moved to where you are today, DICE. What was your first position there? What did you do exactly?
Jaqub Ajmal: I started as a QA Manager for Easy Studios which was a studio the grew out of DICE developing Free-to-Play titles like Battlefield Play4Free and Battlefield Heroes. Since the studio has such close ties to DICE, I also helped out a bit on Battlefield 3 and later on I moved over full time as a QA Manager for the Battlefield 3 expansion packs and have worked on every Battlefield title since then. My job is quite varied. It’s part hiring and budgeting as well as deciding on the test strategy and ensuring that the QA aspects of the development process fits the development team and title. It’s also a lot of tuning in to the community to understand what our fans want us to focus on.
Were you familiar with the Battlefield series before joining?
Jaqub Ajmal: Yes, but to be honest I was never a big Battlefield player until Battlefield Bad Company 2 which completely blew me away. I remember getting into the alpha with my friends and we were just laughing at how ridiculously good the game looked and sounded. It was really mind blowing seeing the destruction going off on the buildings with so much detail and being able to level entire maps. It’s rare to see a game that is just so much better than everything else on the market. I had so much fun playing that game with my friends. We spent hundreds of hours on it.
Been hooked ever since! [laughs]
Bad Company 2 is definitely a fan favorite [fingers crossed we jump back to that some day!]. So, Battlefield’s one of the most popular and successful shooter series in the industry. What do you feel…differentiates it from other shooters on the market?
Jaqub Ajmal: I think it’s a very difficult question to answer. For me personally, I think that it’s a very cinematic game. Every game [match] is like an unscripted action movie and the combination of the infantry and vehicles creates so many funny and epic moments that you just keep playing to see what happens next. It also rewards tactics and teamwork. If you have a squad of friends and you are all on the same page and use various tactics you can really turn the tide while being on a losing team, for example. Also the amount of destruction and realistic sounds is something that I think sets it apart from other titles. What do you like about Battlefield, Nate?
I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s definitely one of the most gorgeous series out there. Combined with that sound design, I think it all brings an element of intense realism. And like you said, the insane chaos and destruction makes it so that every battle feels different. So I wanted to talk about QA specifically. That’s quality assurance. A lot of people mistakenly think of a QA “tester” when they hear that word. What does it mean really?
Jaqub Ajmal: Quality Assurance [QA] is pretty much a catch all phrase when it comes to anything related to the quality assurance craft. The job itself varies quite a bit from company to company. For example if a developer is working on a smaller title, it might be enough to have a few testers that can play through the game and report bugs. But if you are working on a more complex game with hundreds or even thousands of features, there is a benefit of having quality analysts that don’t only test the game but actually work with the entire team to prevent bugs before they happen by coming up with best development practices and in some cases even helping out with asset creation and code reviews.
You also have quality engineering which are programmers that create tools and automation scripts that can help testers become more effective by finding bugs faster and easier. These types of roles are usually found on-site as embedded QA. Most larger developers also work with test centers which enable a developer to get a large amount of bugs quickly as they are usually able to house a large number of testers that can hammer away on your game. A lot of people think that a tester job is playing video games for a living but in most cases you’re actually working on something that isn’t fun at all [laughs]. The story might be missing, gameplay features not implemented and textures and models might be placeholder art. It’s pretty much like making a movie where it’s just a bunch of random scenes that don’t make a lot of sense on their own until it’s all edited together!
So it’s not just about tightening up the graphics on level 3? [laughs] So as a “manager”, you oversee a team that handles a lot of that?
Jaqub Ajmal: It’s a lot about making sure that we have an even quality across the game and making sure that we have the right people in terms of skills at the right places. The analysts manage themselves as they’re specialists within their area and know best how to tackle their tasks. My focus is more to look at it from a player perspective, making sure the analysts have what they need to be able to do their jobs as well as long term planning and general strategy. A general day for me is playing the game for 1 hour, 2 hours of meetings, 2 hours of Excel and the rest is spent writing and answering e-mails. It takes a lot of communication working on a game across multiple locations across the globe.
That makes sense. Every role’s usually more of a combination of roles. Can you give a quick example of something you’d fix? What I mean is, say the team adds a new gun to the game. Do they come to after it’s created and ask you to test it out in an environment for a few hours? What are some common bugs you might see?
Jaqub Ajmal: Well, if it’s early days it’ll usually be a weapon that might not have the correct sound and textures yet and it’s more about testing the gameplay aspects of it. I think the most common issue with guns are clipping issues. I’d say the most common issue overall in games is clipping issues.
Clipping is when a 3D model is unintentionally intersecting with another object. You have probably played a third person shooter and noticed that if you rotate your character close to a wall while holding a larger weapon, chances are that a small part of it will move right through the wall. This is a clipping issue.
Hah, seen it all too much, yup! I’m sure it’s a pain to get just right. And I bet that’s an even bigger issue with a series like Battlefield where you’re in this giant playground instead of a linear space. Being a multiplayer focused sandbox shooter, I’m sure there’s a difference between “QA’ing” that and say, a single player linear game right?
Jaqub Ajmal: There sure is! To test a multiplayer game properly you are going to need to have the max amount of players needed to fully stress the systems. This alone is quite a challenge. If you are working on a single player game you are usually working with AI and triggers which is also quite challenging as you will need to play the game in the countless various ways that a real player would be able to. That’s to ensure that the game works in all those scenarios. Imagine a game like The Witcher III that seems to have thousands of choices in a sandbox world. Testing a game like that with a branching story line must have been a real challenge.
Thinking about all that work honestly gives me a headache. Do you and your team continue to test all the way up to launch day? How do public betas factor in? Are they really that helpful?
Jaqub Ajmal: Yes, you test the game from the first playable up until the end of a game’s life cycle which is usually the last patch. It’s really important to always keep testing the games because even the smallest changes can have unexpected and unintended effects. It’s always really difficult to foresee everything while doing changes so it’s best to keep testing everything over and over again. The last thing any developer wants is to decrease the quality of a game with a patch.
Betas are very important when making a multiplayer game because real world internet is a lot different from a simulation in an office. The massive amount of hardware variance that is out there in the real world is something you can never fully test in an office environment, so it’s great to do a beta to ensure that your game is compatible against a large variety of hardware and different hardware combinations. And of course to see what people like and don’t like about a game.
So I bet there’s a little love/hate relationship between other teams and QA? [laughs] Finding bugs sometimes sends things back to the drawing board so it’s more work again but they still need QA to ensure the quality is there.
Jaqub Ajmal: When I started out a little more than 10 years ago, embedded QA was still something that wasn’t that common in Sweden and there were at times a few people that would be annoyed when someone told them that they had implemented something incorrectly. Making games is a craft of passion, so it’s pretty easy to take things personally even though you shouldn’t, and always being the bringer of bad news made you an easy target. Over the years though, embedded QA has become the norm and processes have evolved ensuring that QA is a natural part of the game development process. I am happy to say that nowadays teams get annoyed if they don’t have an analyst dedicated to their team!
It’s great to see that sort of evolution happen. You’ve really shined a light on just how entrenched QA is in game development Jaqub. Thank you so much. I just have one last question: What’s your favorite all time game and why?
Jaqub Ajmal: My favorite game of all time is actually a recent one: The Witcher III.
I have always liked the series but the third one was something else entirely. I don’t think that I have ever been so engaged with a story line and its characters like I have with that game. You could find the smallest quests that would suddenly turn into full blown branching story lines with characters that actually had an impact on the story. What other games would proudly consider unmissable main quests where things that were deeply hidden in The Witcher III’s world. That you could just take a small detour and end up spending hours upon hours in emotionally engaging content was something that really impressed me. The writing was also some of the best that I have seen in a video game and this is coming from someone that usually prefers sci-fi over fantasy. Needless to say I cannot wait to see what CD Project Red will do with Cyberpunk.
I think I’ve been pretty outspoken about my love for The Witcher III (and excitement for Cyberpunk), so you and me both my man. Thanks so much again Jaqub.
Jaqub Ajmal: My pleasure Nate!