Inside the 'Dream Job' of a Video Game Tester
By Rachel Gillett
In the realm of "dream jobs," video game tester ranks pretty highly for a significant number of people.
But if you dream of endless days spent playing your favorite video games, you'll be sorely disappointed.
As an unnamed video game tester explained during a recent Reddit AMA, success as a QA tester in the video game industry means taking your job seriously and meeting high expectations.
The tester, who goes by the user name HigherCalibur, said he's been working in the industry as a quality assurance tester for about 10 years, and during his time he's worked for several different companies and has been credited on more than 30 game titles.
Here are some questions he answered during the live chat that provide a fascinating glimpse into the world of video game testing. (We've edited questions and responses for clarity.)Q. How did you get started?
A. I had a friend in customer support at EA Games who knew a guy in Human Resources that brought me in on a group interview. I made it through that and the two weeks of training they put the newbies through, and I started my first testing job.
Q. What do you do all day?
A. A lot of people ask if all testers do is play video games all day, and that would definitely be a no. While I do work on video games most of the day, I definitely don't play them like a normal, sane person would.
My objective is to break the games in any way possible and to report anything that breaks to people on our programming, design, or art teams (generally referred to as "devs").
For example, I've had to do what is called "matrix testing" for fighting games, which is where you test every character against every character on every stage. Then there's "functionality testing," which means making sure game features work according to design documentation.
I also don't test the game itself all day. I have meetings to attend, emails that need to be sent out and replied to, bugs to report and regress, and all of the other stuff you would assume someone in a normal office job would need to do. I just do it at a place that makes video games.
Q. What does testing look like in a typical day?
A. Usually my day starts out with regression testing, which is when I see if programmers successfully fixed a bug previously found. We get a new build (version) and refer to our bug tracker database to find anything that developers claimed they fixed. Anything fixed gets closed, anything not fixed gets reopened, noted, and sent back to the person who claimed to fix it.
After that, we usually just go through any game features that are a priority to check. These tasks are typically sent down from the production team, since they manage and oversee the project itself. Anything that needs "hands-on" attention at that moment gets it.
Finally, if nothing needs our direct attention, we usually just engage in "open" testing. That depends on the individual tester, to be honest. I personally like doing organic playthroughs using as few cheats or dev commands as possible in order to make sure the user experience is where we want it.
Some folks pound on specific systems. Some folks go through all of the text with a fine-toothed comb. Any bugs we find, we simply write up and send off to the member of the dev team responsible for fixing the particular issue.
Q. What skills do you think are most useful for a QA tester?
A. Being able to keep your cool in a frustrating situation is key. Crunch time is one of the most mentally draining and awful situations you can be in. But if you thrive in stressful situations, then you've definitely got the mental fortitude to handle the job.
You also need to be a very skeptical, analytical person. Never take someone's word for it. If someone says something is working properly, check it anyway.
Being a flexible thinker who's able to pick something apart without knowing what it is or how to make it yourself is also key.
Lastly, being able to communicate with different kinds of people is vital.
I've had to learn how to communicate with artists, programmers, and designers, all of whom think very differently and have to be handled in different ways.
Programmers might prefer a blunt, direct approach, but that will typically put an artist into a defensive mindset.
Knowing how to communicate with people is extremely important because you're telling them how something is broken on a daily basis and, if they don't understand what you're trying to communicate, then you're wasting time that could be spent fixing the issue.
Q. What's the pay like?
A. Usually pretty low. The industry standard where I live is around $16 to $18 an hour, but those places are rarely looking for testers these days, and almost never hire people with no experience. More often than not you're going to start at around $10 an hour.
Q. What are the benefits like?
A. Usually you don't get benefits, but since the state of California just required all businesses to provide benefits to workers after 90 days, now even contract employees are getting health benefits at least.
As for other perks we usually get free copies of whatever game we work on and other free game-oriented swag. I have so many game t-shirts from stuff I've worked on, it's kind of crazy.
Q. Are most of these positions contract-based?
A. Yes. It's very, very rare to find a QA position that is direct-hire. However, most of them are now contract-to-hire positions and around three to six months per contract. After this you're evaluated and hired on permanently if you work your butt off and get along well in the team environment.
Q. Any advice for breaking into the industry?
A. You kind of have to know where to look. There are a small handful of staffing agencies that work to get people their first jobs in the industry. I would also suggest checking out Linkedin for anything temporary since the temp jobs are usually for new people trying to break in.
I should mention that QA is a good starting point but is usually not a career. You should definitely look at what you want to do in the industry now and take steps to get there. Want to be a designer? Make something. Want to be an artist? Make something.
Q. Are there any games you dread testing?
A. Yes. God, yes. For every game I have enjoyed working on, there are three or four games that just make me want to claw my eyes out. Most of them are kids games, adaptations of ancient arcade games for modern platforms, or games that are just bad.
The six months or so for normal testing cycles are mind-numbing if you didn't find some way to enjoy what you're working on. This is usually made worse if there's a "cooler" project going on at the same time. You become jealous of those people who look like they're having more fun and enjoying their job.
Q. Do you have a say in what games you test?
A. Pretty much, but you really need to know people and be able to have an "in." Most of the time, it's because you know and are friends with the lead on the project. Yeah, it seems immature, but games QA is very cliquey. One of the reasons I started smoking in the first place was to get into the smoking circle at work and socialize with that group.
Q. Are more than 80-hour workweeks a real concern?
A. More than 80+ hour weeks are usually only the norm during crunch time, which, sadly, does still happen far too often.
Q. How do you feel about the lack of job stability?
A. I know QA is extremely volatile and there's no such thing as job security. If a company hires a ton of contractors, then they usually keep on anyone they like and ditch the chaff. But that's just how it is. One day you can be filing a bunch of crash bugs, the next your contract is up and you're filing for unemployment. It happens.
Q. What's the best and worst part of being a QA tester?
A. I love the fact that I get to work on games for a living and that everyone around me has a passion for games. I love my job, and I love that I've been able to work with the people I have. Some of my closest friends are people I've met doing this job. The thing I dislike most is that it's incredibly hard to move one's career forward. That can be a deal breaker for some.
Q. Do you play the games you test in your down-time?
A. I rarely, if ever, play a game I tested outside of work. The only exceptions to that are "Soul Calibur 3," "Tekken: Dark Resurrection," "Star Trek Online," and "Neverwinter Online."
Q. Has the job affected your enjoyment of gaming?
A. I've long since learned to "switch off" after work so I don't pick apart something I enjoy. That said, I definitely don't play games as much as I used to. Binge gaming is a rarity for me these days, and I almost never go out and buy the newest game release. The last game I bought on launch day was probably Warlords of Draenor (released in November, 2014) and before that was Space Marine (released in September, 2011).
Q. What's your favorite game and why?
A. "Mega Man 2." Not only does it have my favorite soundtrack from any of the Mega Man games, but I have very fond memories of playing it with my Dad, passing the controller back and forth between lives, reading off the passwords from the screen after beating a stage so he can put it down in his notebook.
I've always been a huge fan of the "Mega Man" series in general because I like the concept of defeating an enemy to get their powers and using those powers to exploit the weakness of another boss.
Q. Favorite movie based off a video game?
A. "Street Fighter." Hands-down the best G.I. Joe movie ever made. Seriously, watch it again and just assume both armies are the Joes and Cobra — It'll blow your goddamn mind. Also, I love watching Raúl Juliá and Jean-Claude Van Damme ham it up.
Barring that? Probably "Mortal Kombat." In my opinion it's still the best translation from game story to movie ever (a game about a fighting tournament becomes a movie about a fighting tournament).