By Edgar Diaz, Functionality QA Manager, Keywords Studios
Over the past few months many of us have had new and unexpected experiences as we adjusted to working from home.
Add these to the challenges presented by starting up a new studio in Mexico City and you can imagine how our day-to-day operations have had to adopt to a new normal.
Keeping our talented teams engaged and productive as well as remaining fully connected with our client partners and vendors remains absolutely paramount.
This article looks at how dedication, adaptability and a strong sense of team spirit has helped ensure continued growth and success throughout the pandemic.
Interactive content is in the blood
Growing up, our family had a video and TV production business and I began working in creative media aged about 14.
I then became involved with interactive content and landed in the games industry as a designer about 12 years ago. Most of my time in development was either as a game designer, a producer or, sometimes, a director.
During those years I worked with great people and companies, local and international, and witnessed the birth of the Mexican video games industry and its initial growth.
Mexico is a large market for games, and gamers here understand that the country is only beginning its journey to become globally recognised in the industry.
I joined Keywords Studios mid-2019. The idea of establishing a branch of a large third-party vendor organisation in Mexico to support clients around the world was hugely appealing. It also seemed to be the best natural way to help the industry grow stronger here in Mexico.
So, we all do our part to contribute because it should lead to a larger and stronger industry locally and secure opportunities for local talent for years to come.
Putting development experience to good use
My role as the Functionality QA (FQA) manager in Mexico has been to establish the service line in the region. This was a particularly challenging endeavor, given that Mexico City, where the studio is located, has no pre-existing companies dedicated to QA for video games.
Initially I gave talks at universities to explain what we do, recruiting leadership from other cities, establishing relationships and workflows to acquire and import dedicated hardware that normally wouldn’t ship here.
Even though I didn’t have as much experience as some of my counterparts in Keywords, having come from a production background I knew exactly the type of work I wanted us deliver to our clients and how to make it as useful to developers as possible.
Over those years I developed a good grasp on what production needs to see from QA, and what QA needs from production to run efficiently.
In production, you get to spend a lot of time with a single project; you see it go from an idea to a finished product.
In FQA, however, you get the chance to be a part of many amazing projects, working with large companies and small studios at the same time on a multitude of genres.
We aimed to recruit a balanced mix of people – people with backgrounds in QA and people with backgrounds in production – to lead the test teams. That way we ensure we have the client perspective in-house and close to heart.
It has given us great results.
Staff retention levels have been extremely encouraging in the Mexico studio since it was established. I attribute this to starting with the right recruitment and continuous engagement of the team.
Fostering the right team mentality
Testing at a world-class level to deliver results for clients and players is demanding and requires discipline, attention to detail and a ton of patience, on top of actual gaming skills.
With that in mind, we aim to ensure all aspirants see that it is more than just a job. All of our testers are passionate gaming enthusiasts and many come from universities with video games programs such as game design or game programming.
In return, we create the opportunities for them to apply those skills within their QA role, assigning them to projects that challenge them. We also embrace, share, and promote that gaming spirit.
Based on past experience, we outlined a clear idea of what we want in our team. We created a set of guidelines that apply to all and that are open-ended enough that they can apply to mostly anything.
We called them The Precepts.
Attributes including accountability, teamwork, integrity, intelligence and helpfulness are all built in to our core values and in our everyday activities, largely because the precepts are clear and easy to remember.
These principals and the culture that they have ingrained have stood to us during 2020.
Staying connected while apart
Prior to COVID-19, it was difficult to imagine transitioning work that is performed in secure lab settings to a ‘work from home’ mode. When countries started to go into lockdown all over the world, it first seemed that we would also have to suspend all activity in a quarantine scenario.
Fortunately, we were able to put our heads together as an organisation and come up with solutions to preserve security while ensuring continuity for our clients.
We managed to establish extremely secure and efficient versions of our regular processes that can be done from home.
Security is top priority for Keywords, and it goes both ways; to our clients’ information, but also to our staff. So WFH will continue for as long as it is necessary to ensure that all our personnel are safe during this crisis.
In previous roles, with other companies, I saw that information only ever went upwards; i.e. devs report to producers, producers to managers, managers to directors and so on.
Rarely did I see information coming the other way. In my experience, not keeping people updated on wider topics such as the company’s objectives and plans can often hamper attempts to further build trust.
A shared sense of purpose
Transparency should be encouraged when starting a team and I consider it a sign of respect to take the time and report back honestly and regularly. That way, everyone is on the same page and shares a vision of where we all want to go, together.
For this reason, in the Mexico studio we started the weekly ‘State of the Union’ floor meetings and they seemed to work nicely in keeping everybody engaged and aligned with our mission.
Then COVID hit and we shifted to WFH. We had to move to a less personal format and conduct the floor meetings remotely.
The new format attempts to replicate a Twitch stream or YouTube vlog so that it speaks to the audience in a natural way to which they are used.
Meetings now start with a waiting screen displaying the team’s flag; an emblem we designed over several weeks based on ideas and votes from the staff. Once the majority of the team is connected, I run the intro video and then I start talking to my camera.
There’s a ‘News’ section, most crucial work information is delivered there. Things going on across Keywords, COVID-19 updates, growth plans, etc.
The ‘Community Time’ section is used to discuss internal items, such as acknowledging outstanding performances, shouting out people having birthdays and welcoming any newcomers.
We also have reminders of the WFH rules, follow up on internal activities (such as the flag item) and more.
There’s also a Q&A section in a townhall format, where anyone with a question can rise their hand (Microsoft Teams feature) and I’ll give them the floor to share it.
Lastly, the Games of the Union section contains a couple of personal recommendations and gaming deals for all platforms.
At the end of the meeting, everyone unmutes their microphones and we do our ‘war bark’ like an army of medieval warriors.
The whole thing is about 30 minutes long. It’s a wholesome environment, with running jokes, catchphrases and general niceness.
How we are clubbing together
State of the Union has worked remarkably well for us. Especially since we’ve grown considerably during WFH, as this creates a need to expedite the integration of new members to our work culture.
Another outcome which has fostered a sense of community within the studio is our clubs.
The clubs started with the FQA leadership team in Mexico looking for group activities we could organise to counter negative feelings that isolation can generate during quarantine.
We didn’t want to risk losing contact and motivation.
We noticed that a lot of what testers did during their breaks was discussing their favourite games or gaming news. But sometimes movies and other media.
We created a simple mechanic to preserve that dynamic; Group calls at the end of the shift that work like book clubs.
The group decides on a piece of content that everyone will consume and discuss in-depth during their next session. Each club is focused on a type of media that is popular among the team, such as obscure or interesting games, board games, streaming, etc.
The intention is that there is something for everybody, a way to share the things they are passionate about.
At the beginning, only the leadership was hosting them but after a few weeks we started receiving requests from testers to organise more clubs; For Anime, music, TV and movies.
So, we made a few guidelines and moderating rules and now we have six clubs with weekly sessions and more on the way.
It translates into a tight community, friendship, and trust. We are extremely proud of the result.
Conclusion: Building for a sustainable future
Now that we’re up and running in the Mexico studio, I spend time ensuring PMs and Leads have everything they need to keep all projects on track.
It’s so varied; sometimes it’s providing them with additional hardware or extra testing resources and sometimes is helping them to build a testing plan for a client.
I try to stay involved in all aspects of the operation and help as much as I can.
However, the majority of my day now goes towards growing our team in a responsible, healthy, and sustainable way – all while keeping the coolest environment possible.