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Breaking In - Jonathon Dobbs

At Bungie, there is place where only the brave can enter. We call that place The Gauntlet. In the cavernous hall beyond its doors, our people are mining the code of Destiny for bugs. When they find those bugs, they help us kill those bugs. To make sure that the only good bug is a dead bug, we hire people like this guy.

Who are you?

Dobbs:  Hi! My name is Jonathon Dobbs, but most people just call me Dobbs. I’m Australian. No, a dingo did not steal my baby.

G’Day! What do you do down under the development floor at Bungie?

Dobbs:  Technically I’m a Strikes Overseer, though my duties encompass all activities at Bungie. As a member of the afternoon shift, I assist my fellow test teams in running tests on various activities across all consoles. I support the artists by managing playtests, which are basically opportunities for them to get together regularly and check out their content. As an overseer, I answer questions pertaining to Strikes and provide support where needed.

That sounds highly technical. Translate it to the endgame for us. When we have controller in our hands, why might we thank you?

Dobbs:  If a player can get from point A to point B without crashing, and the beautiful game environment is unsullied by ugly graphical issues, then we’ve done our job right. Think of it like reading a cracking good book and turning the page to find a really big curry stain on the next page. You can make out the words, but you’re pulled out of the immersion. Experience ruined!

Some of us love curry, but your point is valid. When you’re not keeping our game code clear of delicious cuisine, how do you satisfy your other appetites?

Dobbs:  Living life! My interests are pretty varied and numerous, so I’m never bored in my downtime. I’m either practicing 3D environment modeling, hiking, playing epic video games (like Mass Effect and BioShock), watching movies or reading science, astronomy, and history (my favorite subjects being Roman, Renaissance and early 20th Century American).

I’m also a hobbyist photographer, favoring the Canon XD range of digital SLRs. I’m hoping to buy a really absurdly priced macro lens so I can take an extremely close-up photo of my lead’s big toe, so I can frame it and put it on his desk.

I get to pursue all these pursuits with my wife, who’s as big a sci-fi and gaming nerd as I am. Having a gamer wife is a sweet deal.

With all those interests in your pocket, how did you choose just one thing to blaze as a career path?

Dobbs:  When I was younger, I wanted to be a badass paleontologist with an awesome hat, just like the guy in that one movie starring Billy Crystal. I started to pursue this right out of high school when I volunteered for a year or so at the Western Australian Museum. While I was there, I started to get more and more interested in art and acting. I dove into those interests for a few years, and I still practice them whenever I can. Along with my interest in video games, that’s essentially how I wound up where I am today.

So you see games as a blend of art and science? If that’s the case, what sort of education can one get to develop a grasp on the two elements?

Dobbs:  I was raised by wolves and learned not to eat my own feet. Also, after the museum stint, I did a year at a 3D art and multimedia college back in Perth and learned the basics of 3D modeling. While I’m not a professional artist and my skills are limited, they did teach me a great deal about digital art and game design, which obviously come in extremely useful here at Bungie.

You would need to know more than just the basics to enter The Gauntlet. Where did you learn the rest?

Dobbs:  After the art schooling, I worked in the online department of a newspaper company. There, I brushed up on my Photoshop skills and learned what it was like for the first time to work in a hectic, professional environment with daily deadlines and constant pressure. Mostly, I just put photos of large sharks leaping bodily out of the water into articles about people falling over. It did teach me a little about being an adult and “responsibilities” though.

In 2009, I moved to the US and worked as a games tester at Nintendo for 3 years. It was my first job in the games industry, and I credit them for teaching me the basics of this field and a little about the politics involved. More importantly, I met a host of great people who taught me a lot and enabled me to grow. It was a very easy gig to get into, but I had to really push myself to stand out and seek new challenges, rather than just be another face in a crowd.

That’s the trick. So how did you illuminate yourself in the crowd that forms up around the Careers page on Bungie.net?

Dobbs:  I was on a mandatory 2-month break from my last gig when I saw a posting for testers. I was looking for newer and greater challenges, and Bungie is the best of the best, so I took a chance and applied. I’m a terrible resume writer, and my career up until now was a little colorful but not very focused, so I spent a great deal of time making sure it was relevant and interesting. I also provided a cover letter which outlined my interest, commitment, and love for Bungie and what they have to offer. I feel that being personal - while succinct - provides employers with a sense of personal investment and honesty.

I ultimately have a huge amount of passion for what I do, and I try to make that as clear as possible in everything I do. The interview was tough, but my resolve was adamantium.

What was the toughest part about that interview, adamant one?

Dobbs:  Being very specific for a prolonged amount of time.

Could you be more specific?

Dobbs:  I can test well, and I’m great with environmental issues, but I had never interviewed for a job that was anywhere near as technical as this one. I had a lengthy initial phone call where I had to come up with answers for a specific test case, and without anything in front of me it was a challenge to keep coming up with fresh answers. I learned from the experience though, and when I made it to the physical interview I was a little more prepared and organized. I earned to break down test cases and present them in a more logical order. It was still grueling, though, and my interviewers pushed me until my brain lay beaten on the table, a baseball bat-shaped imprint all over it.

We get nowhere unless the team wins, Jonathan. Now that you are a member of that team, what is (in your hammered mind) the biggest win?

Dobbs:  Knowing that the work I do here is important, and that my role here is as integral to the development of the game as any other. Sure, I’m not building houses or producing lines of code that will keep the player character from stabbing themselves in the face with their own weapon, but knowing that my efforts to make sure it all works actually means something to Bungie leaves me feeling satisfied day in and day out. It’s a super rare thing, to be one of many in a large company filled with people far more talented than myself, but to still feel appreciated.

But that’s Bungie for you.

We appreciate you because you kick ass all day. Take us through one of those days, and describe the asses that you kick.

Dobbs:  I show up at 10AM and grab some coffee before pole-vaulting into my seat. Around this time, the morning crew is either well under way into running tests on the build(s) of the day, or something’s blown up and they’re working hard to figure out what’s happened. Either way, I’ll check my email quickly, and grab another coffee before helping out my fellow Guardians. Usually, I’ll either run solo or join a Fireteam and help them to finish out their test. Some days I might be tasked to do something specific, like an art pass or helping out with some other facet of development.

After the test is run, generally there are passes that need to be done, be they for a production pipeline goal or simply feature-based testing. I’ll get as much ad-hoc in as I can, because there are always bugs to be squeezed out and deliciously consumed. I’ll also facilitate playtests, which involves propping the labs with the required builds and ensuring their experience is smooth and they can focus purely on what it is they need to look at. Sometimes things go inevitably wrong, though, and it’s our job to ensure we have a work-around to get the developers back on their feet and their guns back in their hands.

When I finish depends on the workload, but I love every minute of it. When I go home, I’m sad because I’m not at Bungie anymore.

This is a typical day, and they become less and less common as the game comes further along. Sometimes, you can be put on a particular part of the project that can consume you for months, and it might be well outside your general test duties. Randomization and variables can and will occur, and we must be ready!

Sounds like you don’t have a chance to get bored. Does Bungie do anything special help you stay nimble as unexpected challenges come your way?

Dobbs:  Bungie’s sheer generosity and the way it treats its employers with respect and love. I’ve never been with a company where the highest employees treat you like anyone else they rub shoulders with - and Bungie rubs shoulders with some pretty glossy dudes. We attend company meetings, we’re privy to all of Destiny’s most shining moments, and we bleed on the battlefield together. It feels like a working family, more than a corporation. Working at Bungie is its own biggest perk.

Other than rubbing shoulders with glossy dudes (sorry, couldn’t let that one go), what is the biggest challenge about overseeing the proving grounds in The Gauntlet?

Dobbs:  Bungie demands the best from you at all times, and from the get-go you’re handed a mountain of responsibility. Sometimes that responsibility comes in the form of having to juggle several high-priority tasks at any given moment with short deadlines. Sudden overnight changes can wreak havoc on our BVTs or regular testing, and you need to be able to decipher the differences between bug types, be they tool-related, networking or some other myriad of variables. A day where you have to run three tests across consoles and nothing works, and separate bugs are being thrown at you to regress and report while simultaneously prepping a lab for a playtest? Those are the best!

And then there are days where the coffee machine breaks. Those are the dark days. I try not to talk about them.

That’s why we have redundant systems, man! We even have baristas if the coffee robots mount a full revolt. But we were talking about you and your job. What has been your finest caffeinated moment here?

Dobbs:  Accomplishments both large and small occur quite often, so it’s hard to pick a particular favorite.

Oh no you don’t. You must choose!

Dobbs:  For me, I’d say it was being on a small team dedicated to some Alpha work. There’s nothing inherently special about that, but we put an awful lot of work, sweat and tears into making sure everything was perfect. The fact that it went perfectly, and getting some good solid thanks for our efforts, was reward enough.

You spoke a little but about how you never know what challenges might come your way. What do you to keep yourself ready for anything?

Dobbs:  Like I mentioned before, I’m a hobbyist 3D modeler and an avid gamer. Both of these are extremely useful and often go hand in hand. By practicing my modeling and keeping up with general game design theory and what’s new with the latest tech, I can learn the technical aspects of what goes into the creation of a game like Destiny. Even if the games or the tech involved isn’t directly related, staying up on top of those techniques can open me up to an avenue of thinking or testing I might not have previously thought about.

Reading your words, I’m inspired to join the fight in The Gauntlet, and I already have a gig here. To those that have to infiltrate our ranks, what wisdom you impart?

Dobbs:  Throw away any misconceptions you might have about games testing. What I quickly discovered about my job is that it goes way beyond simple environment testing or physics testing. There’s a slew of engineering and networking and other production-related issues that I get to investigate. It helps to read and study and ask questions about as many different avenues of game design as possible.

On a broader level, find out what you love to do the most and study, research, and practice it until your fingers bleed. Then, continue to do it some more, until all that’s left is your soul, laid bare against your canvass. This can’t be repeated enough. Don’t pursue any career - especially one in the games industry - with a half-hearted notion of what you want to do. I found my way by doing things on my own terms, but I can’t recommend enough that people invest all their effort into pursuing what they want as early as possible.

That’s a heavy mandate. Of course, once all the work is done. We’re left in the footsteps of our Guardian, staring out across the majesty of what we’re building. What goes through your head during those moments?

Dobbs:  My Hunter sees the rising sun, the shimmering golden hues touching the walls of humanity’s past and glinting across the still vibrant plant life, as evergreen as the human spirit itself. And she thinks, “Boy, this would probably look awesome if I weren’t colorblind.”

Fortunately for us, you don’t need to be able to see the entire spectrum to tell a colorful story about life at Bungie. If that’s a story that you’d like to write for yourself, Jonathon’s challenge is clear: Pick something very specific you want to do, and become a master of it. Each story here is unique and equally colorful, and you can read them all in the Breaking In archive.
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