Inside the Vault: Kevin Kauffman

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Kevin Kauffman. Laid back. Handsome. Stylish dresser. QA Lead. While Kevin’s title may be QA Lead, he is just as important — if not more — to the success of Fallout 3 than most producers on the team (including me). He works his tail off and we’re fortunate to have him.

What’s your job at Bethesda?
I am the QA lead on Fallout 3 and I manage the daily activities of a few dozen testers. In addition to scheduling and, you know, actually playing the game to look for bugs, I help manage the bug database that we use to communicate issues to the dev team — on a game this big, that can be a full-time job by itself. I am also fortunate enough to work closely with the development team to determine what needs to be tested on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. Early on in development, this will start as a long term test plan based off of the concepts the designers and programmers have agreed should make the final product. Later in development this will mean sitting in on implementation meetings or pistol whipping developers Jack Bauer-style to get them to talk — so that we know exactly how they want functionality “X” to work.

What other games have you worked on?

I took over lead QA duties on Oblivion shortly after it launched. This included most of the downloadable content, Knights of the Nine, and the Shivering Isles. I’m not sure people know how much work goes into QA’ing a game after it is already out the door. We spent a lot of time after Oblivion left the building, looking through forum posts, responding to email, and going through tech support records to get an idea as to the overall quality of the product we released. In fact, we still get several daily emails about issues with Oblivion (and Morrowind for that matter), and the support forums are still quite active, so that aspect of the job really never ends.

Prior to working at Bethsoft, I worked for a private testing house that had several contracts with various “not so awesome” development companies that shall remain nameless (let’s just say that I played my share of TV show tie-ins — “My Two Dads the Game”, anyone?). It was there that I honed the testers’ greatest trait — the ability to keep it interesting. I played some truly bad games there, and in true stereotypical QA form, I played them over and over and over again.

What was the best part about working in QA? The worst part?
I’d say saving lives is the best part about working in QA. “Saving lives?” you ask. Yes, saving lives. Say you find a bug, that when fixed, will save the average user even one minute of confusion, and you multiply that time saved by the number of people that will eventually play the game, then divide that by 24 — what you end up with is the number of days of human living you have literally saved by reporting a single issue. Multiply that by the number of issues reported, and I start looking a little like Mother Theresa. The worst part is probably the opposite, slowly killing people through the evil witchcraft of the moving picture box.

Actually, my least favorite part is knowing that on a game of this size and scope, the reality is that we will likely not find all the bugs. So the worst part is feeling like we will never ship a bug-free game. It doesn’t stop us from trying of course.

How did you get into the industry? Do you have any tips for breaking in?
A lot of how I got into the industry was simply being in the right place at the right time. The usual “A friend of a friend got me an interview”, etc… However if you don’t mind working in QA and you have a solid work ethic it really doesn’t take much to get your foot in the door. Keeping it there is another problem altogether. I’d be interested in seeing the stats on it, but I would imagine we are at an all-time high as far as people going to school specifically to get involved in game development. That tightens up the market a bit in terms of people trying to break into the industry any way they can. It also allows us to demand a little bit more when we go to hire for QA, and results in employees who are hungry to prove themselves.

Working with an internal development team only heightens that, as often they will look to promote from within. The internal producers are generally more willing to take home-grown testers that have worked hard and proven themselves, over outsiders with shiny resumes, even though they may not be as qualified, simply because they have seen them in action. Unfortunately, along those same lines, no matter how qualified you are, if you start in QA and you don’t have a strong work ethic or you don’t put forth the extra effort, it will never be the spring board you want it to be.

The best advice I can offer: If you are starting at a disadvantage, maybe you don’t have the experience, or you don’t have the education, take any job you can get in the industry and bust your ass at it. Be the first in and the last out and get involved in as many different aspects of the job as you can. Never be content to only do what is asked of you.

What would you say is your personal favorite game of all time?
Please give me a shout out if your favorite game of all time is also Blast Corps for the N64 (crickets). That game just had such a unique idea and was so tight for its time. The concept says it all: A trailer carrying a nuke has lost control and is rolling slowly toward suburbia (over and over again on different levels) and instead of trying to stop it, you have to obliterate everything that stands in its way. Also you can drive the A-team van. Sold!

So hard to choose just one though… Civilization 2 is pretty much the only thing I can remember about the 8th grade. I also still enjoy the classics… I highly recommend QIX to anyone that hasn’t played it in a while — try to “split the stix”. Growing up in State College, PA, we had one of the greatest arcades on the planet (R.I.P. Playland) so I plunged a lot of quarters into the Theater of Magic and Attack from Mars pinball games as well.

What games are you looking forward to?
Is it fair to say Fallout 3? See, testing a game that you think you would normally really enjoy is kind of like seeing a relative naked (Yes, I am from Central Pennsylvania, but this really isn’t coming from any deep seeded history for me). You would normally really enjoy hanging around with this person when they are all put together and presentable, but you have a hard time picturing them with clothes on because, well, there they are, all naked and related to you (see, this analogy is about you). It’s hard to look them in the eyes, and next time you see them it may take a while before you can start talking to them again. I really am looking forward to playing Fallout 3 when it is fully dressed.

Outside of this building, Spore has me thinking I may have to go out and purchase a new gaming PC.

What makes you get out of bed in the morning?
I’m driven to get to here each day because I feel like what we are doing is quality work. I work with a lot of people that really want to make the best game they can. It was hard to wake up in the morning when I worked for people that were obviously trying to cash in and cut a lot of corners. Despite the fact that QA in general isn’t the most esteemed aspect of the industry, it is a priority here, and we are largely responsible for the overall quality of the finished product — I take that very seriously.

Worst job you’ve ever had?
This is actually a question we generally ask during QA interviews, because only people who have never had a truly bad job would find QA work tedious. I sorted recycling products at a garbage dump for a few winter months many years ago. I am a big proponent of green living and I believe that everyone should recycle, but it should be known that this is one of the most miserable places on the planet. It smells horrible, it’s cold, and there is broken glass and dust from paper and cardboard all through the air. I think back on it whenever I feel like I am getting complacent. Of course, I actually remember that time fondly compared to the time I spent telemarketing.

Any other hobbies and interests? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Time permitting, I’m into photography, basketball, biking and running. Ever since I went high def, I probably watch a little too much television. Strangely, I don’t spend nearly as much time as I would like to, playing games, but I am working on that. I’m also looking to get my first tattoo (and I have been for over a year; me = wuss) so if you have any good ideas, post them for me. I promise to have one by launch time. So far the best idea I have heard is a double bandolier, but that covers so many painful locations.

Reader Comments

  1. [Be the first in and the last out and get involved in as many different aspects of the job as you can. Never be content to only do what is asked of you.]

    The keys to success and a fast climb to the top by making one self the most needed in the right way :D

    Best wishes on your career and thanks for all the quality full of pride heart and soul you put into all your work Mr.Kevin Kauffman.

  2. The one thing I never understand is how little respect people have for QA guys (and girls).

    When it comes to modding, a good beta-tester is highly prized, and modders will PM each other with “try and get so-and-so, she’s really good” and the like. Someone with a very keen eye for detail, who knows exactly what works and what doesn’t, and who isn’t afraid to give you very clear, detailed, tactful and direct feedback is like gold-dust.

    It amazes me that something so integral as finding any residual problems in a game before (or after!) it ships should be seen merely as a foot in the door, and not a vital part of the game-making process.

    *raises a cheer for the QA people*

    Re the tattoo thing, I’d recommend that you take at least another year to think about what you want done – and that’s after you pick the design. You’ll be pretty much stuck with it for life, unless you want huge removal bills and unsightly scarring. Something that’s very important to you, that can mean many things, and that won’t fade or distort with time is best. Oh, and don’t pick at it when it’s healing!

  3. I took over lead QA duties on Oblivion shortly after it launched. This included most of the downloadable content, Knights of the Nine, and the Shivering Isles.

    Ok, now I’m jealous.

    What a great interview and I agree QA people are very important.

  4. I first played Blast Corps when I was about 10 at a friend’s house. It had a fun looking cover, he wanted to show off some of his moves.

    Last year I actually bought an N64 with the sole intent of playing Mario 64 and Blast Corps. I love Blast Corps. It has a hugely satisfying game mechanic and a joyous rhythm to the destruction, and as you say, is based around wonderful pillars of youth: Tonka Trucks and Thunderbirds-style Emergencies. I’d love for someone to remake it with current-gen tech.

    The soundtrack is also ACE.

    Ok, that’s enough nostalgia.

  5. Hello! I can’t sleep up here in sweden in the wait for fallout 3.. The tattoo, do as i did, tattoo the skull from Baldur’s gate on your shoulder, looks realy good.

    Best regards, Ante

  6. Hey I can’t sleep here in Charlotte, NC waiting for fallout! I am a LONGTIME fan of the serious. I have bought several copies of Fallout and fallout2 because I have worn the cd’s out. I even have a copy of each that I haven’t opened yet just in case I can’t ever get them again. I wanted to say THANK YOU for picking up the series. I was so scared when Interplay went belly up. I didnt think I would ever see another fallout! It is also great to hear that Bethsoft is putting so much into this to make sure that they produce a game that matches the series! Please keep up the great work and know that there will be at least 1 rabid fan in line when the game hits the shelf!! Much love and keep the 3rd person view in!

    Melly

  7. Oh yeah and the tat…Just make sure you get what you want, and it really doesn’t hurt that bad…and be ready to get audicted to it because I have four and will ultimately have 10 when complete. And I have thought of getting that same skull from bauldar’s gate. It is nice. Also some good ideas in the diablo manuel. (I want mention the game developer 8-) ).

  8. Hello – I just wanted to inquire what is being done about the game stopping crashes / freezes in Fallout 3 for the PS3(note:especially Jefferson Memorial)?

    I realize the undertaking is massive across three platforms, but I would also like to complete a game that I paid full retail price for, CE = $80.

    Thanks and all the best,
    Blair