So you want to get into video game testing? Don't.
Watch enough cable TV and you've probably seen that Westwood College commercial with the two guys sitting on the couch, playing video games -- but wait, they're actually game testers! They're at work! They can't believe that they get paid to play games for a living! This is awesome!If you don't know the commercial, check it out:
Every avid gamer has probably thought about what it would be like to actually work in the industry. And game testers do technically play video games all day. But the "play" part isn't all it's cracked up to be. Quality Assurance (the actual name for it, QA for short) is work, and like many jobs, it can be hard, frustrating, depressing, and soul-crushing. You certainly won't be sitting on a couch with your co-worker saying you have to "tighten up the graphics on level 3." If you want to be a game tester for a living, you need to consider a few things.
1) Your job is not to test how fun a game is.
You are not playing games to have fun. Granted, a company probably does need to know if a product they're making will be fun, but they don't need a full-time (or even part-time) game tester to do it; they can run a focus group for that, with no need to pay a salary or benefits or even give anyone desk space. Game testers are there to find out if a game works, period. Whether or not you like it or are having fun is completely irrelevant. On that note...
2) Your job is to break the game, not play it.
As a player you have the luxury of playing a game and knowing that if you choose to run up a wall and jump over a roof, the game is not going to freeze up. If it's been QA'd properly, that is. And that's where a game tester comes in. As a game tester, you have to check every tile, every alleyway, every non-player character to make sure that when a player interacts with it, it doesn't break the game. This means that instead of rushing into the castle to save the princess, you have to pace across that castle's vast lawn, picking weeds and climbing over rocks and digging holes to make sure that faulty code won't cause the game to wipe its save file, or delete an NPC, or start to run very slowly, or just plain crash.
3) Found a bug or finished the game? Great. Now do it again.
If you happen to find an error in the game, and send it back to the programmers to fix, your prize is that you get to do the same thing all over again, to make sure the fix works, to make sure it didn't break anything else, and then, to check for more bugs you haven't found yet. And if you somehow manage to get through the entirety of your assignment, or the entirety of the game, you have to go back and do it all over again, because sometimes, something will work the first nine times, but break on the tenth. If you've ever hated fetch quests because you find them tedious and repetitive, congratulations, fetch quests are your job now.
4) You do not get to play the games you like.
So trying to break games, doing the same thing over and over again, is pretty boring, but you think, hey, at least I'm working on a game I enjoy, a game I can be proud to say I was part of. Unfortunately, 90% of time that's not the case. The games you love are only a small part of the industry, and there are plenty of other games out there that you don't like, or even hate, and they need to be QA'd too. Ever look at the shelves of your local GameStop and see something like "Kittenz" and think that it looks incredibly awful and stupid? Someone had to test that, and it could be you!
5) You can't talk about what you do for a living.
Let's say you do manage to work on a game you actually like, or at the very least, you're finding the work interesting. That's great! Unfortunately, you can't tell anyone. The game business depends on keeping things under wraps, so that it can't be stolen or copied, and that means your first day of work you'll be asked to sign a Non-disclosure Agreement. So no posting on Facebook or Twitter, no talking about it with your friends or family, and heck, most of the information you're exposed to is "need to know" so no talking to your co-workers either, unless they're directly working with you -- and they probably aren't, since most facilities are on tight security, and you'll probably be working in an isolated cubicle where you have to lock up everything before you even go to the bathroom.
6) Your co-workers will hate you.
The job of the designers and programmers is to build a working game. Your job is to break it. Obviously, these goals aren't exactly aligned. How well you do your job is determined by how many bugs you locate; every bug you find is something the designers didn't plan or, or wasn't programmed correctly, and every bug you find is more work they have to do in order to fix it. Even if you're just doing your job and doing it well, no one really likes having more work added to the huge of things that must be done before the game ships. They will hate every bug report you send them, and by proxy, will hate you a little bit too.
7) There's no job security.
Smaller companies may only make one or two games a year, and as such, they aren't running QA twelve months out of the year. So why keep people on the payroll who won't have anything to do for another year in an eighteen-month development cycle? At the end of a project you may find yourself moved to another project, which is great, or you may just find yourself on the street. And the uncertainty doesn't necessarily hurt the pool of applicants, since so many people look at game testing as a desirable entry-level job. Even if you are working on a project, even if you're good at your job, you could be fired at any time for any reason because you are easily replaceable. The hours may suck and the pay could be bad, but you can't threaten to quit because there's always someone who wants your job.
8) You can never enjoy games you play for fun the same way again.
Look at any profession, and you'll see the best workers are the ones who do what they do naturally; the skills they've honed aren't something they can just turn off at the end of the day. This is true of video game testers as well; you end up looking at every game with a critical eye, not just the ones you have to play for work. Maybe the background layers aren't blended correctly, or the lead heroine's hair doesn't bounce realistically; you start to notice the little flaws, instead of focusing on the overall experience, and it becomes a little less fun.
So, game testing is not the dream job you think it will be. It's hard, and stressful, and can even ruin your gaming hobby...and that's what happens when you're good at it. But with all these drawbacks, why would anyone still want to be a game tester, and why do people who know better keep coming back to QA? Why should you become a game tester?
1) Game testing is a job that can lead to more opportunities in the industry.
Game testing is an entry-level job, which means that you don't need a lot of skills or experience to jump into it. So it's relatively easy to obtain compared to other jobs, where you need to have design or programming skills and connections to break in. Game testing is the ground floor, which is partly why it sucks, but if you distinguish yourself by being good at it and working hard, you'll may get enough attention that someone will think to promote you. Maybe you'll be head of testing for a project, or you'll be asked to work directly with the designers and programmers to help them prevent bugs, or with a little luck and some skills you pick up along the way (learning to code is a good idea), you can move out of QA into the department you actually want to be in, and start making games instead of breaking them.
As a friend who worked as a game tester for a few years back in the mid 2000s told us, "It's a taste of the industry. Sometimes a godawful bitter taste, but a taste. Most people who want to make video games could do with the experience. If you can still love games after putting in five months of 60 hour weeks on a genre you despise, you're ready for a career in the publisher-run game development industry."
Photo: Steven Perez