VideoBrains June – Can Developers Ever Be Objective Consumers?

First post in a long while, but here is the transcript of a talk I gave today (June 20th) at VideoBrains in Loading Bar, London. I was due to give this talk back in January, but due to a number of reasons (namely crippling social anxiety), this got pushed back to June. Whilst this talk had been prepared for the previous slot of January, it got rewritten and has evolved over time and is mostly two talks – one based on the industry in general and one based on my own experiences – gelled together.

Hi, I’m Hannah and I normally do talks based about facts, figures and data all about accessibility, so please bear with me during my first ever talk about my opinion on something.

I do feel that I need to add a bit of a disclaimer of when I use the term ‘developers’ I mean anyone and everyone involved in the creation of games; designers, QA, artists, programmers… the list could go on.

So let’s get to it…

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Assassin’s Creed Unity’s release was a joke. For those of you who have spoken to me for more than five minutes will know that I’m the biggest defender of Assassin’s Creed, but, Unity was an embarrassment. However, our reactions to it, as developers were no less embarrassing. Sure, Ubisoft could have handled the whole ‘no playable female characters’ scandal more appropriately, but in turn, we could have been far more forgiving in light of the bugs and issues upon release.

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I am not defending the issues and bugs at all. As a QA engineer, I don’t think my job description would allow me to do that! Day One patches are an evil upon the industry. I don’t know exactly how they became to be the norm, but they are. And we’re the biggest critics. Non-developer consumers of video games may just grumble once or twice about them, but just about every time there’s a major AAA  release with a day one patch, we all (and yes, even I’ve done this once or twice) taken to Twitter, Reddit and everywhere else to bemoan the slight inconvenience getting between us and the game.

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A common occurrence in this situation or when games release with bugs (no matter the severity), is the phrase “did this game even go through QA?!” I’ll let you in on a secret – of course it went through QA. If it didn’t, the game wouldn’t even run. The game wouldn’t even exist in a playable form. Maybe I’m preaching to the choir here, but the attitudes towards QA are disgusting, and from time to time, developers have made me feel ashamed to “only” be in QA.

I like to play games for the narrative, for the gameplay. For context, here’s a short explanation of how and why I got into games;

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I do not remember the first time I played Spyro The Dragon. I do remember the years it has stayed with me. I couldn’t have been more than eight years old. My dad probably bought the game for me, he was always the one to buy games for me.

For years, the lovely, charming young purple dragon stayed close in my heart. He still does to this day. Being from Wales, I have never been surprised by my feeling of kinship towards the dragon. What has surprised me in recent years is how much this game shaped my future without me realising.

Eight-year old me wanted to be a forensic scientist. Over the passing sixteen years, the career path of choice has flirted with translator, linguist, psychologist. I have ended up in games, specialising in QA and usability.

Spyro The Dragon provides a bright, vibrant universe in which to run, glide, headbutt and breathe fire. Much like many 3D platfomers from the nineties, Spyro The Dragon contains many hub worlds, each filled the brim with different levels, bursting at the seams with a huge range of themes and environments. My favourite of which resides in the first hub world, The Artisan World. The level in question is Stone Hill, the home to farming dragons, bouncing lambs and rams roaming free throughout the level.

In a way, this level symbolises where I come from; one side of my family hails from the bounding hills and valleys of South Wales, the other from all over the country, mostly small coastal towns. Stone Hill contains both of these landscapes; gems hidden among trees, dotted across the hills; treasure chests tucked away on a small beach at the very edge of the level.

Stone Hill contains something more precious than memories of my homeland, Stone Hill is the place I first encountered the concept of digital finity. To those of you perhaps not familiar with the mechanics of Spyro The Dragon, Stone Hill introduces the gliding mechanic, forcing the player to use it in order to complete the level.  The aforementioned hills create a circular track above the level, making the player use the newly learned gliding move to get there. This track is home to a blue-wearing egg thief, but that pesky creature is not what this is about. This creature is merely a vessel to move this forward, the initial reason I explored those hills.

Stone Hill provided the first limitation on my digital imagination. Many hours were spent walking into, headbutting, flaming the invisible force-field that acts as the world boundary around the upper track of Stone Hill. Even to this day, I load up Spyro The Dragon at least once a year to try and break it. I need to break it. Standing with my nose pressed up against the glass, I can see the outside world. I need to break through. The glass must shatter.

Perhaps this need to break through the boundaries is what has inadvertently led me to a career in QA. The trope of “you must spend your days running into walls over and over again to see if you can break through” is one that always comes up when I reveal I am a QA tester. Whilst that could not be further from the truth of my day-to-day work, there indeed have been games I have worked on in which I had to exactly that.

This egg thief and little purple dragon are the sole reasons I got into games, and the sole reason I gave up on games for ten years. After studying psychology at university, I realised I wanted to go back to games, to create them. So I had to play them.
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I can’t think of a time where I’ve thought “I’m going to drop money on a game and judge people’s programming skills”. But I do find myself noticing the slightest of issues, issues so small and insignificant that I wouldn’t even spend more than a minute logging the issue into Jira. But five plus years of being in the industry and being involved with the creation of games has clearly wormed its way into my head.

We’re clearly not objective about our consumption of video games, and a large percentage of job adverts for games jobs even specify “a passion for games” as a requirement for the job. Of the four games companies I have previously worked at, I have not met a single employee who wouldn’t call themselves a ‘gamer’, including non-development staff. I have often wondered if this means a HR department will pass over on a say, a programmer who doesn’t enjoy games, but loves the technology and hire a self-identified ‘gamer’ instead.

I’d be interested to find out if the film industry is as vicious as we can be. I wonder if writers spend their time questioning another writer’s use of grammar, or lexicon. Take these Stephen King quotes (both taken from ‘On Writing’) for example;

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

This can easily translate directly into games development. In order to be a great game developer, you have to play games, immerse yourself in games and develop games. As King says, there’s no shortcuts. Sure, if you’re a lighting artist, you’re going to want to play games to see how other games handle lighting, to see if you can do better. If you’re a narrative designer, you’re going to study games of various genres and be better than them. If you’re a QA tester, you’re going to subconsciously spot bugs. We can’t make better, greater games if we don’t know what the competition is doing.

This second quote, which I think is slightly contradictory;

“I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, most fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read.”

Again, this can be translated directly to games. We all got into this industry out of passion for games. No-one in their right mind is under the impression we’re in it for the money, that’s for sure. In order to continue to make great games, we have to still enjoy playing games. No matter the reasons we play games, we can’t constantly have our ‘developer’ brains switched on when playing. That’s too much like hard work. The hard work should be spent making the games. The last thing any of us want is for our hobby to become like a chore.

* this will be updated with image credits once I’m back to a stable internet connection

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