Marissa Martinez-Hoadley is the Lead Quality Assurance Manager at ILMxLAB. She answered a few questions via email for this interview.
What is your first memory of Star Wars?
I saw Star Wars for the first time in 1978. I was three years old. I can still remember seeing scenes like the Star Destroyer flyover, R2 getting zapped by a Jawa (which scared the life out of me), and Luke gazing at the twin suns, sunset, with the Force Theme swelling and swirling through the scene. I also remember the car ride home, and my mom being amazed because I could belt out the entire Star Wars theme song after only just hearing it. She realized she had a little musician on her hands at that point.
Who are some of your favorite Star Wars characters and why are they your favorites?
For the longest time Luke was my favorite character. I just loved his development as a character from whiny teenager who was eager to help, to fledgling Jedi Knight, who still had a lot to learn, but had become really powerful, saving his friends, the galaxy, and his father in the end.
But then when I saw Rey catch Anakin’s lightsaber in The Force Awakens, I instantly fell in love with her! The representation of a woman who’s a scavenger, technician, mechanic, pilot, who’s self-sufficient and self-reliant, was so awesome on its own. At the same time she’s a believably sympathetic character. Seeing her also develop her Force abilities was exciting as well, but when she caught that saber, the astonished look on her face, the Force Theme bellowing… It was such a great moment. I just really love that scene. As the trilogy continued to unfold, I had so much fun speculating who Rey’s parents were, and what her story was. Now that the trilogy is done, I still find myself wanting more stories centered around her.
You’re the Lead Quality Assurance Manager at ILMxLAB. For people unfamiliar, can you tell us a bit about what ILMxLAB creates in general and the QA department does?
ILMxLAB creates immersive entertainment, mostly in the form of virtual reality and mixed reality experiences. We make interactive stories, using VR/MR and video games technologies, that allows you to step inside of them, in a way that’s beyond what traditional movies and video games can.
The Quality Assurance group tests these experiences, to ensure that they hold up to our high standards for fun and functionality before we release them.
What was your journey getting to your current position and can you explain what a typical day might look like for you?
A long time ago…
I graduated from a trade school with an A.S. in Computer Science. During school I had rediscovered a love of video games, particularly when it came to overhauling PCs to run video games faster and prettier. I really fell in love with Diamond Multimedia’s video cards at this time, and wanted to work for them. Two weeks after graduating, I got hired as WHQL (Windows Hardware Quality Lab) Tester for Diamond’s video card division.
I was really learning a lot about video card technology, as well as PC troubleshooting in general, and one day I had the thought: “I wish I could apply my new skills working for ILM or LucasArts…” A few months later, a position opened up for a Compatibility Technician at LucasArts.
The head of the H.R. department was a family friend, who may have helped get my resume to rise to the level of consideration for the position. But, honestly, I had never been so prepared, or excited for a job interview, as I was for this one. I remember I left feeling like I really knocked it out of the park. And I must have been right because they offered me the job!
I started February 28th, 2000, and instantly felt like I was at home… Like I had found where I belonged.
I worked in the Compatibility Lab, testing our games against all manner of PC hardware and configurations (even a couple Mac ports), for the next six years. Then a new opportunity arose.
There was a big initiative within Lucasfilm to share technologies across all of the sister companies. Up until that point, every company discreetly developed their own tech. LucasArts had started building a new game engine for The Force Unleashed, and decided to use ILM’s 3D content creation platform as the Level Editor. As part of the effort, LucasArts also wanted to start up a QA group around the Level Editor.
I had been dabbling quite a bit with content creation tools and Level Editors at the time, and found them fascinating. So, I applied for the job, and got one of two positions. After a few months, I established myself as the Lead of Tools QA, and eventually was allowed to expand the group. That was a really amazing experience!
A couple years later, our group had done such a good job that ILM R&D became interested in developing a QA group around their tools. My group was converted from LucasArts to ILM R&D, and we started covering QA efforts with all sorts of technologies for LucasArts, ILM, and LucasAnimation. It was mind blowing!
In 2013, my group was let go in a layoff that happened at that time. I got hired by Linden Lab, to work as a QA Engineer on Second Life. It was really nice to take a step back from leadership, and dive back into testing in a full-time capacity. But before long I found myself in leadership again as a Lead QA Engineer, overseeing a Material System overhaul, followed by an experimental VR upgrade to Second Life.
Ultimately, I was promoted to QA Manager where I orchestrated the entire QA effort for their next generation, social VR project called Sansar. Sansar was meant to be a huge online platform, populated with experiences, avatars, and props, that were generated by the users to form a Social VR community. A year after the project went to Beta I was given an offer I couldn’t refuse…One of the Lead Engineers I had worked with on Sansar had gone to ILMxLAB and was supervising the engineering department. He wanted to establish a QA department for ILMxLAB, and asked me for advice on what qualifications to look for. I gave him advice and then submitted my resume to be considered for the position. A month or so later I was back where I felt most at home, working on my favorite franchise, and in a position that used a total amalgamation of my experiences throughout my career! I’m really so in love with my current situation, I can’t put it into words… that don’t ramble on for multiple… paragraphs…
What are some of the Star Wars titles you have worked on over the years?
Well… there’s a lot! But, some of my favorites have been Jedi Knight II and Jedi Academy, Republic Commando, Knights of the Old Republic, and The Force Unleashed 1 and 2. I also worked on Star Wars Galaxies, which was our big MMO with SOE. MMOs aren’t really my type of game, but working on it amounted to a great experience for understanding how to test massive, social, online gaming experiences. Working on Galaxies really set me up nicely for understanding the work I did with Linden Lab, which in turn helps me with the work I do now with xLAB.
Each project has its own challenges, and with each challenge you learn more about the technology and the process. It’s gotten to the point where I wear many hats to assist the production of our projects. I guide the test teams and communicate strategically and technically how the testing should go. But, I also tend to assist Production, by facilitating conversations and making sure that information regarding features and bugs gets communicated, and resolved.
I tend to do a lot of Dev Testing, building the game and engine, and using the tools to diagnose issues from the internals of the apps. As part of this, I’ve learned the setup, troubleshooting, and maintenance of our development environment. So, I help support Engineers, Designers, Artists, and anyone else, to help them resolve any issues, and get them up and running.
Lately, I’ve also been helping to fix minor level design issues, tune gameplay features, and fix any bugs with subtitles and/or localization.
Beyond that, I help maintain internal documentation, some internal scripts, and oh yeah…. play test our projects as well!
Is there a project (Star Wars or otherwise) that has been your favorite to work on at your time at ILMxLAB? Which one is your favorite to play?
I’ve really enjoyed working on each project I’ve been on. Each one becomes my favorite honestly. I’m currently loving Star Wars: Tales From the Galaxy’s Edge.
For people new to VR what would you recommend for their first ILMxLAB experience?
I would recommend they start with the Vader Immortal series. It’s really more like a cinematic Disney ride than a game, but still gives you plenty of traversal around the world, and hand interaction, to get you acclimated with VR.
For people who are interested in pursuing a career in VR and virtual experiences – do you have any career advice?
Get yourself a VR system or two, and really familiarize yourself with the setup and configuration of the devices involved. It’s good to know the different ways that the varying platforms deal with the challenges of moving around, and interacting in VR.
What Star Wars projects are you looking forward to the most in the upcoming years?
All of them! But, if I’m being completely honest, the Obi-Wan Kenobi show is at the top of the list.