Dave Isherwood was a key component of the QA arm at the legendary Virgin Interactive and Eidos, working on gems like Resident Evil, Sensible Golf and Broken Sword. We sent Adrian to quiz him on the glory days of game QA and the results speak for themselves. Enjoy!
How did you first get the opportunity to enter the video game industry and do you remember the first game you worked on?
Well I was feeling a bit down on my luck and a bit skint. I worked at a recording studio, and wasn’t getting enough work to get by (as was always the case). So on my way home back I happened to grab a copy of the London Evening Standard from the station. In there Virgin Interactive happened to be accepting applications for QA roles (although back then it was Testers), so I made an application jokingly never expecting a call back. About a month later, a letter arrived to attend a group interview with others that were applying, I powered up my Amiga and played every Virgin game I had to death, and ended up as one of the few who got the job.
Some of the first games were: Sensible Golf; Tilt (Hyper 3d Pinball); Screamer; Pinocchio; Scorched Planet & Agile Warrior and a few Sega handheld titles… But maybe as a whole project from the start, then Broken Sword and the C&C Mission packs and some Daggerfall.
What was it like working at Virgin Interactive and did you lose your job as soon as EA took over the company?
Virgin was the best ever, we were in Kensington Square, pub next door, and the greatest work atmosphere ever… everybody knew everyone, no name badges, it was a gang from top to bottom, from the owners to the post room everyone was together. There was (and still is) a saying: ‘What happens in Virgin stays in Virgin’, and boy is that true! The marketing do’s were the stuff of reviewer’s nightmares, our company outings brought buildings down, but I think the average age across the company was 26, so you can imagine the times that happened. Our QA department, whilst small on comparison maybe to other companies was damn good, there wasn’t a style of game one of us couldn’t dissect. We had group competitions, friendly grudges, challenges the lot, it could be described almost like the movie Grandma’s Boy, but without the weed.
Black Monday we called it, we all showed up to work and this oddly grey feeling had descended the company, people were muttering, chatting with each other, something was very wrong…
I was working in the producers’ area testing in front of them so they could understand if milestones (production goals) had been attained. I started up the first game I was working on SBK (Superbikes), the producer taps me on the shoulder, sorry, you are not to play that until further notice. What…!?! Okay load up another, Dune2000, the music starts, that same producer looks up from his monitor and beckons a different producer, who says, sorry, not that today… Okay, I think, Thrill Kill it is, I hate this awful thing, but at least nobody it’s going to ask me to turn this one off, they don’t, well not until later.
Nobody knew until a meeting was called with everyone grouped in the main producers area (yes Thrill Kill got turned off during that) but it was announced that the US office confirmed that they had sold the ‘Games People Play’ brand over to EA, thus essentially ripping the heart out of Virgin Interactive. That day was an entire building walking around in a zombie-like state, or faxing CV’s from the company machines. But Virgin didn’t quite die immediately but operations soon wound down, after Capcom cut loose, and EA took our catalogue away with immediate effect. Nobody was sacked we just all moved on quickly. And let’s be honest, the rest of the industry knew there were some extremely talented people working in that building so switching to another company wasn’t that difficult.
Can you recall a typical day as a game tester and what skills are essential for the role?
Well, times change and methods changed over time, but the basics still remain.
As a tester or lead tester you usually already know what game you are working on and have encountered it before, so ultimately you will be ‘playing’ through comparing notes with previous versions, looking for bugs and issues as well as confirming previous issues have been resolved. So immediately the essential skills are communication and being able to follow instruction – how on earth do you explain the glitch, error, or other concern you’ve just encountered to multiple people. The norm is to add your findings to a bug database, with as much description to said problem. Much easier said than done in practice. Also you have to remember it’s not only YOU or a programmer reading this, it’s everybody in the chain, with or without technical background, and sometimes they don’t even know the game so you have to be able to get everything over normally in text.
Very often though you’d have more than one game. Further to that as the QA tend to know more about how a given game works it was also the done thing to pass the manual, or even lack of one, to the QA teams to check and write, sometimes writing the hints/tips systems for players.
Have you ever been involved in any heated conversations with a programmer whose game you were QA-ing?
Not with a programmer no , but I do certainly remember some choice words with producers over bugs or problems that you happen to feel really passionate about. I remember shouting out-loud in a busy office about a bug which would always crash a game by clicking a given menu option – upon start!!! The answer of ‘well who will notice…’ sent me over the edge, but hey, he was right. Not a single call came into our customer service team – It did teach me quite quickly that even some bugs no matter how theoretically easy it appears will never get fixed, so get over it.
You have worked on so many classic games such as Resident Evil, Z, Broken Sword, Warzone 2100 and so many more. Which game impressed you the most when you first tested it and was it a huge success?
Well Broken Sword 1&2 for me was awesome, when I joined the project our QA manager had realised I was the strategy and adventure guy, so pretty much any game that required more than a trigger thumb was sent my way. I encountered this game that had a similar mechanism to the Monkey Island games but still had hand drawn, uncoloured backgrounds, stick/bubble ‘placeholder’ characters, a basic script still being written, and bugs left/right/centre. You couldn’t click the mouse on certain screens as they hadn’t been compiled yet. I’d been looking forward to a damn good adventure game and I was going to be part of it.
With Broken Sword 2, I hoped it was going to be better received than it was, as too the case with Warzone2100. The trouble with that was everyone was waiting for Tiberian Sun, unfortunately as I’d already had a lot of experience testing that prior to the EA Buyout – I was one of the very few who knew that Warzone was actually the better game with a much more polished AI, and I still stand by that today. Even reviews at the time couldn’t not mention a delayed C&C release in the text, I felt it was just bad writing and as such it sidelined an otherwise excellent game.
What was your exact role on Resident Evil?
Well ultimately even during its time, everyone connected to the game knew it was great, but, sensitive. The lockdowns on this game were incredible, and to be fair QA only really got to see this after its Japan release then of course it was all hands to get it translated and checked. Then the problem with ratings systems caused issues that people deemed they needed to censor so a few delays happened, but that passed through without too much QA interaction.
It was actually Director’s Cut where I had more involvement, maybe got the devs to up the difficulty a touch (due to extra DualShock & ASCII controllers) and RE2 that we got to really get our teeth into. My ultimate job was playthough for errors and get it through a Sony Submission and censorship boards, involving books of tests and checks to be performed as well as recording the entire game (with all unlocks) onto a VHS so Sony QA had something to refer against if they got stuck, having to be super efficient as I only had one 90min VHS tape left to do the lot but I squeezed every unlock and ending onto that tape. But again, that was a sensitive beast. I remember showing it off at a trade show, only to have someone say that Capcom had not approved it, so having to return and show off Toonstruck & Tone Rebellion to media instead. Capcom as a company did much in-house so as a publisher, we actually saw a pretty complete game. I did get to see evolving series scripts, but that is something else. Virgin managed to get away with just distribution and cursory checks for the main part when working with Capcom, Lucasfilm, and such.
Did you know from day one Resident Evil was a truly special game and could you ever imagination how successful the series is still today?
Simply, yes. Only Sony seemed to be allowed to do groundbreaking stuff on their console. Name a groundbreaking game on PlayStation that pushed graphical boundaries, well at the time ONLY Sony had the know-how and tools to push things forward. The moment they did, everyone followed suit, that is except Capcom. They always seemed to get things done as well, if not better a number of times, but compared with everything else out there, ResEvil looked better, played better, and made people really nervous. We knew we couldn’t ignore it and it was always going to be a winner. I later saw a timeline for the larger concept story while at Eidos, they had just grabbed the distribution from Virgin so I remember seeing all the scenarios about future games years before they were announced. Can remember mumbling for years when are they going to do the train…
Warzone 2100 was an amazing RTS game. What are your personal views on it and why do you think it wasn’t a commercial success?
Well, personally I loved it. It was a game that I was able to be with the programmers and give true feedback about strategy mechanics not just bugs.
There were about 3-4 of us testing in the developer’s dungeon, and I personally think it was a great game. Okay hands up, you can possibly blame me for the difficulty on some levels, but I think there was an unfair rush due to the next Command & Conquer release as well as a glut of similar styled RTS games. Warzone kicked it up and did ‘real’ 3D. Unfortunately, people didn’t have the graphics cards the game needed and obviously didn’t know that Tiberian Sun was not going to be that good nor Dune2000 before it (I’d tested them both at Virgin only months before).
Go out and play Warzone and take a closer look at all that AI going on, the ability to automate your own units and include strategies for when you’re not looking, it is really great (better on a PC as the PS struggles). Now tell me that Tiberian Sun got anywhere close with its broken AI. Hmmmm.
The Warzone guys went on to make the ‘Conflict’ Series of games including The Great Escape for SCI, before going their separate ways.
Z: Steel Soldiers was another great RTS game. How do you reflect back on this game and why do you think it wasn’t as popular as other Bitmap Brothers titles?
I don’t know, shouldn’t say this but there was a strange feeling over this in QA. I don’t think the ‘higher-ups’ were totally behind this and it showed. As I’ve said many times already I enjoyed and did a lot of strategy games and this was just an arcade game hidden in a strategy interface. People will hate me for saying it but it wasn’t one of my favourite games, just seemed all a bit simple. None of the strategies from previous titles, I just didn’t quite get it. However, when we started doing multiplayer that suddenly showed me why it was actually a better game than I had given it credit for, people screaming over the room, flying desk toys, controllers – that coupled with rather expletive-laden samples, and us repeating them loudly. Yeah a great multiplayer game especially for novices.
You also worked at Eidos, how do you reflect back on this stage of your career and how did it differ from Virgin?
Eidos was different, at Virgin we had about 15-20 specialised testers (max) in the whole department – but we were damn good (haha!) At Eidos there were about 50 crammed into two fairly small rooms. A lot more structured, specific testing methods (ultimately the same – but people did only certain aspects of the testing), with more attention to minor details. Instead of 2-3 people having a week on a game to test and compile reports and feedback you had a version every other day, and possibly 10 people testing, but some games even required the whole department all playing the same game multiplayer.
When I started there I was put onto games like Code Veronica, Thief, Omicron, Champ Man, Gangsters, but soon got moved onto Warzone when that appeared. Things sharply turned more strategy man-management and test-planning, I became a lead tester on a more full time basis. Interestingly I worked 2 years or so at Eidos, but moved on after Braveheart got released. I went to SCI (of Carmageddon & SWIV fame) – who then in turn bought Eidos thus putting me back in my old place in a higher position where I eventually supervised in QA on projects like Age of Conan, Battlestations, and the Conflict series of games among others.
Could you share any key advice to anyone looking to enter the video game industry and game testing?
Be Afraid, be Very Afraid… Yes it’s a dream job, but will you lose your soul over it.
Okay I do sound harsh, but it’s certainly not for everybody. Yes you will have some of the best experiences in your working life, however the industry needs its pound of flesh. Everything is milestone, crunch, milestone, assess, targets, delayed payment. Money & sales rule on everything. A delay can easily mean a programmer’s mortgage isn’t paid. It’s high pressure, high thrill but ultimately little pay, you’re not going to be driving fast cars anytime soon – if you do want that then work for a bank’s IT. But certainly the thrill of seeing someone picking your game of the shelves which has occupied every working moment of your recent life does give a little bump.
Publishers are almost like factories nowadays, here is a new version so find me 250 bugs before you go home, same the next day or more, never less… Personally I never worked like that and I’d like to think most games I had a hand in were clean of major bugs and were tested with thought and process, not tick sheets. Certainly from a QA point of view I went in really enjoying playing computer games, after a few years you can become very cynical over them, not playing for the fun but to see what experience other games are showing or how quickly I could complete it. I almost became a robot while playing. It’s only after leaving I have started to enjoy my gaming again but I still remain a sceptic when looking at many mediocre games today that are only enjoyed and thrilled over because the players are making the experience not the game.
Of all the games you have worked on, which are you most proud of and why?
Broken Sword (and 2) – it was my first full development project, and remarkably bug free if I don’t say so myself, but the team at Revolution were so good at only wanting the best from the games.
C&C Missions & Red Alert – there was a time where two of us in QA were unplayable, nobody could win against either of us, even to the point we were banned from any tournaments.
Galleon – imagine a British humoured Monkey Island game set in a Tomb Raider styled world, great game. Unfortunately overlooked by reviewers at the time as they didn’t have enough time to really get deep into it. A hidden gem of a game IMHO.
Toonstruck – shame it was never fully finished, a great adventure, witty & zany, just ended up costing too much to be finished properly.
Italian Job – one of my favourite films in a game, complete with big car chase at the end, SCI’s last game on PS1.
Hitman Blood Money (Original version) – such a great game, and NOT linear. There are so many different way of playing you never needed to play the same way twice, so many games pretend to make these allowances but I honestly think this is one of the few that actually does. How many people have let the performers kill themselves on stage, or do you just run in plant a bomb at the entrance and shoot from the back row and have the level licked in 8 seconds flat – oh the fun of it all.
Street Fighter (Zero & Plus Alpha Series) – when that first appeared on those HMV stands, I was a god – I knew all the moves, nobody could beat me. I remember Julian Rignall who worked for Virgin at the time (yes that guy from Zzap64) passing my desk and noticing it. He got rather upset when I beat him in front of the office, although I wasn’t as crazy as Ron & Steve (two others in QA) who would beat opponents by playing behind the screen and reacting to the sounds and facial expressions alone.
Did you ever test any games that were never released and if you could release any of these games today, which would you choose and why?
There was Thrill Kill but that has seen the light of day, but people need to see that as the WuTang game that was released sometime later. Thrill Kill was obviously going to push boundaries of taste, but there was going to more in that game than the basics that everyone saw in that *cough* leaked release with Carl’s handwriting on it. But 2 games do stand out to me today…
Toonstruck the conclusion – as I mentioned, the game ran out of money and was basically cut in half. Yes there was another pretty equal-sized game that nobody ever saw, if I could see anything show up on a Kickstarter that would be it. If only more people would have bought it, the rest of the game may have happened.
The other being Highlander, I worked on this while at Eidos. It was only a few levels and concepts, but was meant to reflect a film in production too. I got excited because I loved Highlander (less so the awful TV show), but this took a new direction, origins based on ancient battles in China and groups of immortals with powers the Highlander universe had not seen before. Included China and Great Wall locations, as well as an erupting Mount Vesuvius (aka Pompeii), and some kind of burning voyage level (I think), a gameplay mechanic similar to one of the Ninja quick-fight, chained-attack combo games Eidos had released prior.
Thanks Dave for this fascinating insight. One last question before you leave us, if you could share a few drinks with a video game character, who would you choose and why?
Well I have, as it happens and it was Darth Vader (or David Prowse to everyone else) but that is a whole different story…
But to answer the question it would probably be ‘Willy’ of Manic Miner and Jet Set fame. Let’s be honest, if you can be a miner by day, and retire off to a huge mansion when you get home you must be doing something right. To think the premise of Jet Set Willy is that he had somewhat of a bender the night before – seeing how much clearing up he has to do, he definitely ranks up there with the party people. He also doesn’t speak so that’s a bonus too. Well having said that I choose Bender too from Futurama, yes it’s a game (go find that Easter Egg if you can), so it would be a pretty serious night out.