Enhancing Testing Skills By Playing Games

I started playing a game type that I rarely play: a Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game. Specifically, Star Wars: The Old Republic. As I was playing it, I realized that it was actually an interesting game for a tester. I found myself utilizing a lot of the skills that I would as a tester when looking at a business application. (This actually led to me doing some contract testing on the game itself!)

There’s lots of reasons I say that. So here I’ll explore that a bit.

First, the story or understanding why you are bothering to do anything at all. While there is a story to Star Wars: The Old Republic (hereafter: SWTOR), you really have to fill in a lot of details yourself and sort of make up your own story in some ways. Second, you have to really figure out how the game works in terms of its core mechanics, such as attack and defense. As it is, this is very much a black box experience. I also had to figure out how to apply what I was learning by testing out my hypotheses about how things like rotations and talent trees worked. Put another way, I had to construct models of how I thought the software was working and then confirm (or reject) those models.

A lot of that, as you can probably see, required thinking that I do perform in my career as a professional tester. There were a lot of exploratory aspects to this game playing experience and those explorations would ultimately turn into scripted aspects as I learned effective ways to enter combat, level up my character, and find the right gear that would keep me in the game.

As I was doing all this, I realized I was learning a lot on my own. I found that the information on how a new person (or n00b, if you prefer) was hard to come by. Learning to be effective at an MMO really required a great deal of immersion in the MMO community. Beyond that, information on how to effectively learn MMOs — even just the lingo — was was largely non-existent in any sort of focused way. It’s out there, no doubt. But you have to visit numerous forums, various web sites, and check out various things that have the gall to call themselves “guides.” I then realized that this would be a chance to utilize another aspect of my career: explaining things to others.

So, yes, SWTOR started to be a reflection of my career. I found that really interesting.

Starting SWTOR as a Learning Experience

In the game there are various classes that you can play when you create your character (or “roll your toon,” to use the lingo). They all have their respective strengths and weaknesses. They all have their own unique storyline. What is similar is that in all cases you will be leveling your character up to level 50. Getting to that is a massive challenge. And that challenge comes in from understanding the numerous abilities your character class will have and how to use those abilities at just the right time, usually by understanding the effects of those abilities and how those effects can possibly be circumvented by your enemies.

So the character I decided to play was that of a Sith Inquisitor. It’s a pretty cool class to play. You get to be more evil than you may even want to be. You get to shoot lightning from your fingers. And who doesn’t want to do that, right? You get to shock people at various points, often for quite malicious reasons. If you play a Pureblood race, you get to routinely beat your companions. As a Sith Inquisitor you essentially get to gather and utilize power at the expense of everyone around you. You will have many opportunities to inflict pain on others as your quest for this power unfolds.

Sound fun?

Check out the Sith Inquisitor Class Video

And the Sith Inquisitor Progression Video

As I mentioned, while there is a storyline that you will follow, the motivation for your character is largely what you bring to the table. The obvious motivation is “get to level 50.” But if you like a little more substance to your games, you will have to provide some of the motivation yourself. As in the QA and Testing arena, you will have to create a persona. While you do create a specific character of a certain type of class, your background is pretty sketchy at best. In order to figure out a “play (test) strategy” for the game, having a persona in mind can help.

Why? Because you do have to choose light side or dark side paths through the game. You do have to choose conversation options. Those paths and those options will most likely be based on the type of person you are choosing to play.

You also have to figure out the variable elements that you have to consider. For example, you will soon learn there are primary stats and secondary stats. What difference does that make? Well, that’s what you have to figure out. There are mechanics that you have to learn, the most notable being combat mechanics. The initial mechanics are quite simple. Basically beat the crap out of everything that gets in your way. But the algorithms that underlie those mechanics are actually what allow you to become an effective player, particularly when things start beating the crap out of you. Turning that aspect of the black box into a white box does matter to go from being competent to being proficient to being skillful.

Along with this, certain abilities that you can use as part of your character class are very similar, if not identical, in effect to other abilities. Yet figuring that out matters and breaking those abilities up into equivalence classes can have a major impact on your ability to effectively engage in combat and defense.

At various points you will gain companions in the game and those companions can be resources that help you out. But figuring out how to utilize your resources in such a way that you don’t burn them out (i.e., get them killed) is a large part of being an effective player. Those are computer controlled non-player characters. Given that this is a multiplayer online game, there are many other real-world human players out there that you can choose to group with. Thus there is a social dynamic as you have to work with others to figure out how to overcome problems. Or you can just choose to go it alone.

It may sound like I’m sucking all the fun out of the game here. In reality, what I’ve learned is that playing an MMO is actually a very long haul. In fact, there’s even a term for it in the gaming community: “the MMO grind.” As I realized I was getting incredibly bored with the game, I started looking at it in a fresh light. I started looking at how I would test the game as a whole or how I would have to approach certain aspects of it as a tester.

I really do think a game like SWTOR is a good experiment for testers who have to figure out how something works when there are incomplete requirements (i.e., lack of information), shifting requirements (i.e., constant patches to the game), difficult areas (i.e., places in the application where how to use it is not quite clear), a clear set of mechanics that are just as clearly hidden behind the scenes (but that must be ferreted out to adequately play/test the game).


This article was written by Jeff Nyman

Anything I put here is an approximation of the truth. You're getting a particular view of myself ... and it's the view I'm choosing to present to you. If you've never met me before in person, please realize I'm not the same in person as I am in writing. That's because I can only put part of myself down into words. If you have met me before in person then I'd ask you to consider that the view you've formed that way and the view you come to by reading what I say here may, in fact, both be true. I'd advise that you not automatically discard either viewpoint when they conflict or accept either as truth when they agree.

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