[Game Designer Kevin Oke shares his story of going from QA to game design, and how he built his design portfolio in order to do so.]
QA tester to game designer isn't an uncommon career path, and usually a game design portfolio is a part of this transition. My route to game design was much the same, but what was different (and hopefully worth sharing) are the contents of the portfolio that got me to where I am today.
My rationale for sharing was to benefit students or anyone wanting to break into game design, to let them know that you don't have to feel forced to make yet another FPS mod or deathmatch map in UnrealEd if you want to build a portfolio geared towards getting you a job. If you want to make a monochrome platformer/roguelike, go for it! Just follow your creativity, show some initiative, creative problem solving skills and passion for games. Being proactive is huge to potential employers. Anyone can be taught a toolset. Creativity and work ethic? Not as much.
After doing QA during the summer break from university, I decided to quit school and work full-time in testing to claw my way up to one of the jobs I had coveted since I was a kid obsessing over the NES -- game designer.
Aside from doing my QA duties to the best of my abilities, I worked hard to differentiate myself and get noticed. Life in QA, and using it as a stepping stone into development has been covered before in-depth on the web, so I'll keep this (relatively) brief and focus on things that I did outside of my core job description that got me into design. Although I worked in QA at four different companies, my time at Next Level Games was what really got me my start in design. The work and relationships I established in NLG's QA department definitely helped me to return as a designer, several years after having to leave due to the studio due to lack of work.
Building Relationships in QA
It's very important you communicate your passion and goals to your QA lead. Make sure they know that you want to move up into the discipline of your choice so they can help you with that (side tasks, testing a specific area of the game, etc).
Also, try to get as much face time as possible with the developers. If you have the choice of emailing a developer or talking to them at their desk, always go for face time (some developers do prefer email so as not to be disturbed -- always respect their preference).
Get them to remember you, too. Doing your job well is one way. But try to connect with them on a personal level as well. Does the lead animator have a Totoro figure on his desk? Bring up how much you love Miyazaki movies, but don't take up too much of their time. Just plant the seed. Find conversation starters like that to create relationships and get remembered. Combine that with doing an awesome job and you are putting yourself in an excellent position for future opportunities. You'll be at the top of their mind at the end of the project when they only have space to re-contract one QA tester, or they have an opening for a junior designer.
Demonstrate your Desire and Abilities
Show initiative, and volunteer to take on additional tasks. At Next Level Games, where I tested Spider-Man: Friend or Foe, the following are some of the extra tasks I took on:
Shared my observations and ideas with the Game Director as much as I could (without driving him insane)
Sat in with the gameplay team during meetings to represent QA and bring up my own ideas
I would FTP the build every week to the company making the portable ports
Used my Japanese language abilities to ensure there weren't any potential legal or cultural issues in the game's Tokyo-based levels
Maintained the QA section of the project wiki
Created a project ramp-up guide for new testers as they were brought on
Set up the consoles in the company lounge for our monthly "beer and cake" parties so the rest of the studio could try out the game
Created and executed a test plan for testing the Xbox 360 version of the game using different hardware configurations
Volunteered to help out the Mario Strikers Charged team if they ever wanted a pair of "fresh eyes" for testing
Some of these were jobs my lead needed to fill, while some were ideas I pitched to him (double proactiveness bonus!). This effort served me well as my relationships with project and studio leads/management got stronger and my skill set grew, but something was missing...