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Employee Spotlight: Xhavar Strothers

Iva LindstromBy Iva Lindstrom -

An artist with a scientist’s mind, Xhavar Strothers, PC Lead Quality Engineer for Halo Infinite, has a talent for anticipating the myriad of parallel universes open to players every time their Spartans gear up for gameplay, all so he can make sure the game works as expected, even if the player doesn’t play as expected. Xhavar’s unique mindset not only slices and dices potential futures, but oozes creativity to such a degree that, in his personal time, he is not only a musician, but an artist and a filmmaker, as well.

Please tell us your name, pronouns, and title.

Xhavar Strothers: I am Xhavar Allen Strothers and I am a he/him. My title is PC Lead Quality Engineer for Halo Infinite.

Your name is beautiful. Please tell us how to pronounce it correctly. Is there a story behind it?

Xhavar Strothers: The initial sound is the same as Jacques – ZHA-var. My father named me Xhavar. I was going to be named Michael. My mom was really intent on that and my dad said no way, we're going to name him Xhavar! It's of Albanian origin, ultimately African Arabic. It’s frequently found everywhere from Arabia and Persia through Eastern Europe. It means “precious gem,” which my mom called me a lot growing up -- her precious gem. The XH character is a common character in Xhosa in South Africa, so that probably appealed to my mom and dad, as half of my family is from South Africa.

Tell us what your role involves.

Xhavar Strothers: I help qualify the Halo Infinite PC platform to make sure that it's ready to go out into the world. I help with the planning for the verifications and validations required to proof the PC experience feature for feature against the design expectation. This entails writing test cases, performing test procedures, and analyzing the data to produce the end results.

PC gaming has been growing in popularity for some time. Why do you think this is the case?

Xhavar Strothers: I think there are a few reasons for that. In the gaming business, generationally, we have had the previous console era last several years; meanwhile, you have a lot of games that were originally released on consoles that went through remastering and rereleases, and when they do that, they tend to also come out on PC.
Given the time that we've been out in the previous console era, we’re technically in the next generation of PC hardware. There was quite some time that had lapsed, and I think that the technology and the hardware in consoles did not keep up. The PC platform offers users the means to modularly move forward and experience that technology, and I think that's probably why we see we've seen an increase in games that get that support. That also creates a community response. Communities want those features in their games and that's why they want that bleeding edge technology that the latest GPU can offer. So that's probably why we're seeing this revitalized interest in the PC platform.

In QA, you have to anticipate what the user might do in various situations, even if that is not necessarily what you would do in that situation. How do you make that mental shift to anticipate all those varied user journeys?

Xhavar Strothers: There are gamers and then there are people who really are testers at heart. Let's say we're playing a game and you get a key in the game. There’s a bridge over a lava pit and a locked door on the other side; most gamers are just going hop over the lava and go through the door, but a tester is not going to do that. A tester is going to say, “What happens if I drop the key in the lava?” There's something about that tester spirit that I really do think is unique to the gaming industry.
I marvel at QA’s mental symmetry when we get together for conferences to have meetings of the minds on how to improve quality. You see, this profession requires a unique cut of person -- that engineer who decides to go into video game software testing. It requires an unorthodox, intuitive, out-of-the-box thinker to really play a good role in qualifying specifically games (versus other products) because games provide the user with so much choice.

Why did you decide to go into QA for games, specifically, and not software?

Xhavar Strothers: Games pulled me back in! I tried both. I did Windows Operating System work in between involvement on games. This is all an incredible series of happenstance because Halo is in part why I chose a career in game development. I started my career with Microsoft doing Pre-Certification. From there I pivoted to work on the Windows Operating System. That’s when I learned that I really loved software testing on the PC platform and I also learned a ton. From there, I ended up having my name shared with partners who worked for what we called Microsoft Inbox at the time, which are today’s Start Menu games like Solitaire, Mahjong, and Jigsaw, which are included with the Windows OS (via original equipment manufacturer’s hardware). That actually turned out to be a pretty sweet transition from games, to PC, then back to games where I was able to carve a weird niche and marry the two skillsets.

Would you say QA is more logical or creative and why?

Xhavar Strothers: I think that it takes an intuitive and creative mind to think outside the box, but you need to have technical skills and know-how in order to follow up on your investigations. You can't just have a hunch. You have to be able to have a hunch and then correlate and quantify that causation. So it's an intuitive response and then you look to find as much correlative data that you can to support your proposal for why x-y-z is broken and what we can do to fix it. It takes imagination to role play and project causation. What could be causing this and in how many ways do we need to verify it? Where would those thresholds lie? Where would we find a vector of something like that happening? You must be able to imagine what could be happening, so that certainly takes intuition, and you must also be able to go off into the horizon a little bit and do some precognitive forecasting. Finally, it takes a technical mind to follow up and procedurally step through a hypothesis and turn it into theory, so it is a scientific process and method at the end of the day. But all science I would say, starts with a good imagination.

Can you share how making a game cross-platform impacts the QA process?

Xhavar Strothers: We made a commitment to giving players the optimum gameplay experience on whatever platform they chose for Halo Infinite. We tuned the game to make sure they had an ideal experience on any hardware they want to use. I feel confident that we've really taken a scalpel to the process and, with great care, ensured this is the case. If they have an ultra-high scale computer, they’ll get an ultra-high scale experience; if they have an Xbox One, they’re going to get the optimum experience given the hardware specs that device offers. We gave our performance testing a lot of care in refining and optimizing Halo Infinite per each platform. That process wasn’t exotic or fanciful in the least bit. It was rigid and rigorous. It was science! It isn’t the kind of thing that makes a highlight reel because it’s just solid procedure, but it is so important and ultimately impactful to the end-product. I’m really proud to see Halo Infinite performing across all hardware spectrums – PC to console, and I’m very happy to see the entire ecosystem supported and meeting users wherever they want to play.

What’s your Halo origin story?

Xhavar Strothers: I kinda foreshadowed that a bit … I was working at Nintendo when I first saw an Xbox demo of Halo: Combat Evolved displayed at the mall. A grunt took a Plasma shot at the Master Chief from across the map, and I had never seen a console title track an object so smoothly in a three-dimensional space on scale. I was stupefied. I knew right then I wanted to be a part of that, and I immediately put in a resume to Microsoft to come work at Xbox, but I couldn’t get an interview. Even though I got turned down a lot, I was persistent; I knew working on games was what I wanted to do and eventually I landed a job in Certification.

I worked in Games Certification for a year or two before being recruited to do Pre-Certification for Xbox 360 launch titles. From there, I worked on the Fable II Core Team and received direct game development experience. To this day I’m very thankful for that opportunity. Then I landed a role as a Software Test Engineer on Halo ODST. I was a kid in a candy shop given the level of documentation I was exposed to! After that, I knew this was definitely what I wanted to do for my profession. It’s like a dream come true, from being a kid and a fan to where I am today. I always reflect on how little Xhavar would think big Xhavar is so cool because this is exactly what I wanted to do as a kid. It’s a fairy tale for me.

Thinking about careers, if someone wanted to pursue a career like yours, what skills, including soft skills, are essential for that person?

Xhavar Strothers: Play a lot of games. I would definitely emphasize communication, and computer / data sciences, as well as machine learning and artificial intelligence. The sky is the limit and your imagination is really the ceiling given today's sciences. I also think we’re on the cusp of some incredible things in the next few years in the world of technology: quantum tech is on the horizon, quantum processing, quantum games. So I would say look at all of these things and decide what's right for you, whether you want to go into something that's more experimental or you want to go into something that is conventional. Any of those skills will serve you well, so consider your passion and your interests.

What is your favorite thing about working at 343?

Xhavar Strothers: We are all striving for excellence. It comes through and resonates -- and it’s contagious! While that's true for a lot of companies, I think we were all quite privileged to have had the opportunity to work alongside peers performing at that level of excellence on such a wonderful IP as Halo Infinite. I think that we respected the legacy and the weight of responsibility. It's fun to run with colleagues who are as passionate about Halo as I am, and that care so much about safeguarding its future. We didn’t do it halfway. We did it the whole way, and you had to bring a scalpel, a battle axe, and a sledgehammer to get it done. I’m very, very proud to be part of this team and this project and this slice of era.

What’s your favorite Halo community moment?

Xhavar Strothers: When it released. I was myopically involved in the machinations of how Halo Infinite was rolled-out to the world, so until it was out, I was a mess. However, once it was out in people’s hands, that was my favorite community moment. When the Community is playing on their computers and they aren’t receiving any error messages. I might not have the most memorable moment of using a Grappleshot or Gravity Hammer, but I can tell you, from the inside out, my happiest moment is getting this title into users’ hands and having them finally be able to play our work and see what we’ve been focused on for the last five years.

Who is your favorite Halo canon character and why?

Xhavar Strothers: I always have a soft spot for Sarge, but I'm a 117 man. He's a character who, with a little luck, gets it done and I'd like to think that a little bit of all of us helped the Master Chief get it done this time around.

What’s your favorite Halo canon storyline?

Xhavar Strothers: The Flood! It hearkens back to that sweet spot in James Cameron’s Aliens 2. I’m a huge fan of James Cameron's work. I remember playing the first Halo and running from the Flood and just thinking wow, this is a cinematic experience! It was super fun. The Flood in Halo: Combat Evolved definitely had that level of suspense and quality.

Aside from Halo Infinite, what games are you into right now and why?

Xhavar Strothers: In anticipation of our December 8 launch, I started playing the old Halo IPs. I did that just for nostalgia’s sake, to be in the best frame of mind to play the new game. I am a fan of the Grand Theft Auto series. I like all of them, but particularly this last one for its sandbox environment and the way you can play with friends and family. I'm a fan of Skyrim. I’m a big fan of No Man’s Sky. I think what they’ve been able to do, especially through updates, has been fantastic. I think that you see there's a theme building here. I like open world games, sandbox titles – I also like modding games.

What is your earliest gaming memory?

Xhavar Strothers: I'm the youngest in the family, with seven and nine years, respectively, between me and my siblings, so they were playing games before me. I can remember my brother playing ColicoVision, like Ladybug and all of those old school cartridge games. I wasn’t very good at them, but I was enamored, nonetheless. I loved what I saw. The box art for those games has stuck with me all these years, too. There’s a nostalgia to that era. I was born into the pop culture of the games era and would draw the box art as a kid. It was my date with destiny. I decided early on that I would either be a puppeteer or work with video games.

Those are very diverse career paths!

Xhavar Strothers: If you think about it, they're very similar. A game is just a virtual puppet you control.

Do you have any predictions about what’s to come in gaming?

Xhavar Strothers: I would imagine you'd see games utilizing some of the science that is available to us today, but is being used maliciously, like facial recognition and deepfakes. Gaming could use those technologies to have fun and do something good -- you could superimpose your face onto the protagonist in the story and find new ways to tell a game with that technology. I think that there are opportunities with using data on scale and artificial intelligence and machine learning, too. We could make crowd sourced science games that say, target tracking rare chemical chains or coordinating nanoparticles. We could have fun while actually having a positive impact for the betterment of science at the same time.

You create music, art, and movies in your personal time. Most people finish work and head right for the sofa, but you dive right into various artistic endeavors. What drives your creativity?

Xhavar Strothers: Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

If you are a storyteller or creator and you don't tell your story, it is not healthy. It has to happen or you’re frankly going to croak trying not to. I just put on the shoes and run with it! I think it comes from an internal sense of urgency, a search for gratification, like you aren’t satisfied until the story is told in whatever method and means you mean to present it.

Tell us about your work as a musician.

Xhavar Strothers: I got started in music at a very young age, like back in high school when we did Battle of the Bands. I was in a band called Maroon Colony and we won a few contests. From there, I did a solo release and I put out a record called Neezie Pleaze. I wrote an eponymous single and earned an award from the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. From there, I put a few small EP releases, just dabbling. That being said, I'll probably do something again here soon. The urge is kicking back up, so we'll see.

Who are some musical artists who inspire you?

Xhavar Strothers: I started with both a contemporary musical upbringing -- everything that my mom and grandma were listening to, which was South African music and Stevie Wonder and stuff, while my brother and sister, being older than me, were listening to LL Cool J and Prince. I was taking in classical music and playing upright bass in the school band, so I have an appreciation for the classics, like Mozart, and Chopin. But I'm an 80s baby, so all that stuff, like George Michael, that stuff sticks with you. Stevie Wonder, he ushered in that whole synth era.

Today, it’s just about anything under the sun. I think that today's digital aggregates have shown that the genre has kind of gone away. There's just really good music. You can like a song and not like another song in just about every genre out there. I don't think that's fair to think any kind of music is not cool or that you can’t like it. That's not true. The music is either good or it sucks, but don’t blame the entire genre. There are good world music songs. There are good country music songs. There are good classical music songs, and jazz and Latin music… there’s something that fits your palate. It’s just good music at this point.

You're also a visual artist. Tell us about that.

Xhavar Strothers: I’ve been drawing since I was a kid. It was all part of the music, the games, the puppeteering – just being a creative kid. I flirted with being an animator, which is probably why I got into games, but I didn’t have the patience to draw frame-by-frame animation, and once I learned that’s what was entailed, that was that. If I was going to continue in visual art, I probably would have been a storyboard artist, just because you can get in, and smash out the concept. Or maybe a layout artist, something without a lot of commitment, as I didn’t have the artistic acumen to get through the procedural part of being an animator. That just didn’t hold my interest. But you can’t unlearn things, and I did practice drawing as a kid in art classes and well into college, so creating art just came with the territory. I always had a gift for being able to reflect or transpose what I see.

Are there any favorite artists who've really influenced you?

Xhavar Strothers: I'm a comic head at the end of the day, so I like Joe Madureira. He's a fantastic comic artist. Dale Keown. He is pretty good. Jim Lee, too. Art Adams. He's a classic comic book artist. Adams is absolutely an influence of mine as far as my style goes. You can also see a lot of Chuck Jones (Warner Bros) in my style as well. Robert McKimson, Friz Freleng … all those guys. Bill Watterson is also a really incredible artist. He does Calvin and Hobbes. Charles Schultz, in the same thread. Those were my artistic influences growing up.

Last but not least, tell us about your work as a film artist.

Xhavar Strothers: Working on Halo Infinite, there hasn't been a lot of movie making time, but I'm thinking of a few scripts for a few different things I'll probably see through. I have a few ideas for different projects, but I think I’m just going to make something small scale, where I can just get behind the camera and maybe make a fun song or something to add to it, just to get back into the studio again. I’m not quite sure what form it’ll take, but I know the energy is there.

What filmmakers have inspired you?

Xhavar Strothers: Wes Anderson is a genius. I think he's fantastic. His color palettes are just beautiful and his arrangements are just stunning. They're so fun to watch and the rhythm to them is just uncanny. I think they're just fantastic. Who else? It depends on what genre, so I think it’s a case-by-case basis. Right now, though, I’m a fan of Wes.

Working on Halo Infinite has taken a lot of personal energy, so I’ve put my time into ingesting content, looking at film and listening to music and thinking what makes things different, unique. Movie makers talk about the importance of the soundtrack building the movie, so I’m probably going to become a bit introverted and listen to some music, maybe make a little bit of music, and think about what form the visual part of that will take. I’ll do the sound first and think of what pictures that creates in my head, then personify that.

Imagine you’re going off to space or a desert island (with power). You can take one video game, one album, and one movie. What do you choose?

Xhavar Strothers: I'm going to go with Skyrim because I can mod that until the cows come home and make several games out of that. One album, that’s a tough one. I’m going to go with The Strokes’ First Impressions of Earth. Yeah, I’ll go with that one. It’s a good record. And a movie – again, I’m an 80s baby. It’d be between Trading Places and Weird Science, but I think I’ll go with Weird Science.