Hello! I’m Joy Liberatore, currently a senior QA Tester and FX Assistant at Naughty Dog. I started off as a QA Tester on Uncharted: The Lost Legacy and continued to work in QA on The Last of Us: Part II before being briefly moved over to the FX team near the end of the project. I’m now senior QA, but still work very closely with the FX department. Prior to that, I’ve had experience in production in feature animated films, and I’ve also worked in creative marketing with Disney Parks. I graduated from Brigham Young University in 2015 with a BFA in Animation and an overwhelming passion for animation and storytelling.
I imagine that a lot of you have heard many “industry break-through” stories many times in your academic and/or professional careers. I remember when I was a student that I had a perfectly planned out vision of how I was going to break into the animation industry, based on advice I’d gotten from professionals and the classes my university professors taught. Let me tell you… nothing went according to plan.
In order to accurately tell you about my experience working in the FX department at Naughty Dog, I’ve need to tell you about my experience in the QA department first.
I had just ended a nine month-long unemployment slump when I started working on Uncharted: The Lost Legacy at Naughty Dog. I had no experience working in video games, but I loved playing video games and I loved storytelling, so Naughty Dog was a good match. And the QA job itself is much more than simply playing a game and finding all the glitches and bugs. QA is basically like a huge machine with a ton of working parts. Testers must be Jacks-of-All-Trades. You have to be able to recognize when there’s a bug with lighting, animation, texture, audio… basically the entire pipeline. And not just recognize the problem, but also diagnose it. Bug reports require coherent writing skills, and following up with devs requires good communication skills. Not to mention that QA is very much a team position; everyone works together and everyone must be aware of each other’s deadlines and schedules, in addition to inter-department communication. And my gosh, I LOVED every second of being part of that crazy machine with a million moving parts. After a successful release of TLL, I jumped at the chance to continue working at Naughty Dog and start work on The Last of Us: Part II.
Something to note about the Naughty Dog QA department is that nearly every member of the team is assigned to focus their work on a particular level of the game and/or department. We call these testers our Points of Contact, or POC. If a POC is assigned to work on a particular level of the game, their job is to know all the ins and outs of that level. They play through that level several times a week. They must be in contact with any devs involved in that level and find out milestones and deadlines for the level and relay that information to the rest of the QA team. For example, some levels will be textured sooner than others, so it’s important for the POCs to tell the rest of QA so the textured levels can start getting tested for texture, and the un-textured levels don’t assigned bugs about “missing texture” when they won’t get textures for another month. On TLL, I was the POC for one of the opening levels of the game (Chapter 3: Homecoming). That meant I played through the level at least once a day. I knew all the bugs that were in that level. I knew the milestones and deadlines for that level. If anyone in QA had a question or concern about that level, I was the first person they talked to. I got to the point where I knew that level so well I could play it with my eyes closed! (No joke; I really could because I tried it and it worked.)
When it came time to work on TLOU2, I was not only made a level POC (“The Seraphites” was my level), but also the QA POC for FX and UI. I had a pretty full plate all throughout production! One advantage I had on TLOU2 that I really didn’t get on TLL was the chance to work on a game in its early development phases. I started on TLL in sort of the middle of production, so a lot of the game was fairly fleshed out by the time I came on board. TLOU2, however, was still very much a work in progress when I started doing QA work. The advantage that came with that, however, was I got to work with the level devs, FX and UI teams right at the beginning and establish relationships with them early on. I got to be there with those teams throughout nearly the whole production and got to know all of their milestones, goals, and deadlines. I even got to sit in on a couple of director reviews with some of the teams!
Most importantly, I took all that information from those teams, those relationships I was developing, and brought it back to the QA team. Since we had so many more POCs, levels, and deadlines for TLOU2 than TLL, QA had Google Docs and other similar shared-file systems where POCs and leads could update the whole team on what was going on in specific levels and departments. I had a goal to be consistent in my updates on my assigned level, FX, and UI. I wasn’t perfect, but I’m glad to say that I managed to update those docs at least every two weeks. It was imperative to keep open communication with the departments I was working with and the QA team so that all of us could work together to make this incredibly ambitious game a reality.
QA also had a big department wiki that had debugging tips and guidelines. It was divided up into different departments such as Environment, Animation, FX, etc. Each department POC had to keep those wikis up-to-date with any pertinent debug information and overall look consistency for the entire game. I found updating the FX wiki with any important debug info to be a little difficult because FX testing really doesn’t come into play until very late in a game project. I would regularly meet with various members of the FX team to ask them about how certain FX should look and what kind of bugs QA should be on the lookout for. But for probably the first year I worked on TLOU2, the response was usually along the lines of “Make sure the FX that are in the game work because we’re currently making the rest of them!”
However, that gave me a great opportunity to establish some testing goals early on. Since FX testing doesn’t usually happen until near the end of a project, it can receive less focus than other things that need to be tested. And testing and debugging FX are tricky because they’re incredibly reliant on other departments such as lighting, texture, and animation. So I started asking FX about when QA should start seeing certain FX come into the game and what aspects we should be bugging. I had days where I would sit down with someone from the FX team and they would show me what they were working on and which debug would be useful once the effect was in the game. I then took all that information and updated the QA wiki pages. And updating the wiki was a constant process. New FX would get added, and then I would add that new information and corresponding testing guidelines to the wiki. I wrote checklists for other QA members if they ever found themselves testing FX for any part of the game. When new QA staff came onto the team, I would teach them all about bugging FX and how they work with the help of both the wiki I wrote and in-game examples.
Perhaps one of the biggest parts of FX I worked on while in QA was the blood and gore system. Knowing that the system was complicated and incredibly detailed, the FX team and I worked together early on to establish the general rules that blood and gore follow in TLOU2 and spent time putting together a testing guideline for QA. Since the blood and gore system was complicated, the testing guideline I wound up writing for QA was fairly long and included debug tips that the FX team had given me and various examples. I got to know that system inside out, frontwards-backwards. I’m pretty sure I held the title for highest bug report count in QA for a few weeks because of the number of blood-related bugs I wrote up!
Then, in December 2019, the FX lead told me that I’d be moving over to the FX department to work as an FX Assistant.
To be perfectly honest… I was shocked! In all the time I spent in school and other industry jobs, I didn’t think I was cut out for the more “technical” positions. I always considered myself more right-brained and really didn’t speak code or just “computer” in general. More than that, I was just shocked that the FX team would take on someone who had no FX experience (pretty sure the last FX I had made was in 2013 when I was a student, and I hadn’t touched any kind of 3-D software since). But the FX team were so incredibly patient with me and willing to help me get settled.
I started off with small assignments, mainly placing pre-made FX from the team into the game. Thankfully, I was already familiar with Maya and a lot of the software that Naughty Dog uses. QA actually started to do some basic dev work while on TLOU2, so there were a lot of basics I was comfortable with. Placing the FX was a fairly simple task; light sources needed their lens flare FX, candles needed flames, etc. Once I got comfortable with that, my lead started giving me some more ambitious assignments. It was still placing FX rather than making them, because most of the FX for the game had been created at this point. But I got some more nebulous assignments, such as “Place streams of water dripping off of buildings in this beat,” or “Place mist on the ground.” I wasn’t being told exactly where to place these FX. Instead, I was trusted to place them in an aesthetic way that adhered to the game’s art style, and keep things within game memory. For a lot of those FX, I got some coaching from the team about the more technical aspects, such as how to generate them, which way the X-axis needs to be going, etc. But as far as where they went? That was all up to me! I would consult the art style guide to get started, but I would generally just place the FX to my heart’s content. Thankfully, with my nearly 2-years of experience doing QA for the game, I knew every place the player could go. So I started placing FX with that in mind. When it came to placing mist on the ground of Scar Island, I would place it along the main path the player had to take and to help give visual indicators of places they couldn’t traverse. When it came to placing drips and streams of water throughout the Flooded City portion of the game, I knew the main areas of interest for the player, so I focused on making those spots visually interesting without distracting the player from the main quest. On top of that, I really got to use the right side of my brain and thought about breaking up big, dark shapes, the composition of an area, and overall colors and lighting.
When it came time to start making my own FX, it was still small things. I mainly helped create lens flare FX for various light sources in the game. Once again, I got a lot of technical help from the FX team with creating an effect from scratch. Luckily, we already had so many lens flare FX already made, so I would often use an existing lens flare FX as my base and work it out from there. Why make things overly complicated by starting from complete scratch when I have the framework already made? From there, I could adjust color, size, brightness, and just about anything else I wanted. Once again, I consulted the art style guide and our art director, especially if the lens flare I was creating and placing was going to be in a particularly important moment of the game. By the end of the project, I had received a ton of lens flare assignments that were initially for placing a lens flare FX, but I wound up creating a new one that would better fit the moment I was working on. In the end, I worked on the lens flares for several key moments in the game, such as Ellie’s home and the climatic boss fight at the theater in Seattle. I had a few moments of trepidation because… this was The Last of Us: PartII! So many people had been anticipating this game for years! And I knew these gameplay moments were going to be remembered by so many players through streaming, Photo Mode, and simply playing in their living rooms. Oddly enough, this knowledge bolstered me rather than bring me down as I strived to make absolutely certain that any effect I touched supported the rest of the game and the hard work of everyone at Naughty Dog.
Now the game is out and has swept up a ton of awards. I couldn’t be happier to have worked on such a landmark gaming experience.
With TLOU2 behind me now, I’ve actually been moved back over to the QA team for the time being. But I have no complaints; I love my QA team and I love doing QA work. I also found out I enjoy FX work, even though I was officially part of the team for about four months! After TLOU2 launched, my QA managers and FX lead told me on separate occasions that this project was the best bugging experience for FX in large part because of the work I put into building relationships with both teams, constantly communicating, and writing an incredibly detailed wiki. My next goal at Naughty Dog is to keep this flow of communication going between FX and QA so that future projects can have an equally smooth bugging experience. And just because I’m back in QA doesn’t mean my FX work stops there! It’s a long ways off, but making FX is in my future.
If there’s any nugget of wisdom I wish to impart to you with this crazy breaking-into-the-industry story, it is to continue working hard. Not just on your portfolio and reel, but on building relationships and communicating with those you work with. The reason why I even got moved into the FX department was not because I had a killer demo reel (again, the last FX work I did was 8 years ago, but killer demo reels certainly do help!), but because I learned how to work with various teams and be consistent. I learned about new systems and procedures and implemented them into my work. Be consistent. Be teachable. Be kind. And go write some wiki pages.