The latest big titles in the world of gaming take years to develop. The game development process is long, arduous and perhaps most importantly it is collaborative. Game testers are generally an under valued part of that process. Typically they join a project when it is close to completion and they help the development team to find bugs and glitches so they can be fixed before release.
Many people think of game testing as simply playing games all day but there is a lot more to it than that. The pay tends to be low and the hours can be long but when it is going well working as a game tester can be one of the most enjoyable jobs on the planet.
My career in games development started out with a casual testing job and it was a great crash course in how the whole process works. For me it proved to be a foot in the door which enabled me to move on to design and then production. Many people take jobs as game testers with the intention of moving into design, art or software engineering. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. Testing can also be a rewarding job in itself and it has a career ladder of its own so many talented people remain in test departments.
Why is Game Testing Important?
Have you ever been playing a game and you’ve reached a point where the next mission fails to trigger or the game just repeatedly crashes? Perhaps you’ve found a spot on the map where your character gets stuck in the environment collision or worst of all you’ve done a mission in an order the designer never expected and broken the scripting. These are all bugs and professional game testers work around the clock to identify them and highlight them so that they can be fixed before the game is released.
Game testers will also identify visual glitches, audio bugs and make suggestions about potential changes to benefit the gameplay. If brought on early enough to have a say in design, game testers can be a valuable asset because they generally play more games than anyone else at a developer. This gives them an insight into what is intuitive for gamers, how to break missions and what feels right in terms of controls and pacing.
It is a sad fact that testers are often ignored and under used as a resource. At the end of the day game testers are important because they ensure the games you purchase work as intended and are relatively free of bugs. The work they do drastically improves the end user experience for you the gamer.
What Does a Game Tester Do?
When working as a game tester people frequently say how lucky you are because you get paid to sit around and play games. This is not strictly the truth. Professional testers don’t just play the game they analyze specific parts of the game and they work to reveal glitches and break missions. Generally the Lead Tester will draw up test plans for each game which draw on the design document to determine how the game should play. These could involve ensuring the player can play all the way through the mission structure without any crashes or progression blocks. It could also be checking the visual, audio and damage effects of every weapon in the game. It could even be something like checking all of the game text is localized into Spanish and none of it runs over the edge of the screen.
Each aspect has to be tested in each new build to ensure that it works as intended. Builds are simply copies of the game and as it nears completion the development team will release new versions at least once a week. Each version is tested and a report is produced until there is a build which is a good candidate for release. With console games you also have to submit them to Nintendo, Microsoft or Sony and they perform their own tests to ensure you meet their technical requirements. If they don’t pass your game then it has to be fixed up and retested so this is a vital part of games testing.
When testers find bugs they enter descriptions into a database and then assign the bug to a relevant development team member. The descriptions should be detailed instructions on how to reproduce the bug and they often have screenshots or video clips attached to illustrate the problem. If the bug is marked fixed it will be assigned back to the tester and they must confirm it is fixed in the relevant build before it can be closed.
What Makes a Good Game Tester?
A love of games is a useful thing for any person working in games development but if you want to be a game tester there are more important things. Attention to detail is absolutely vital; you must be able to notice that your character’s foot has sunk into the floor in the corner of a specific room or that the monster you are fighting is skipping frames in his animation. You also need to be able to communicate what you have found clearly and concisely. A good bug report includes step by step instructions which allow anyone, no matter how sleep deprived, to recreate the bug.
Determination is another good trait because some bugs are very tough to recreate. You will also find that you may need to spend hours doing repetitive actions so tough wrists and fingers and patience are needed. Most game testers play games for so long that they start to tune into what feels right and because they understand how things are constructed they can often guess the best way to break games. Ultimately that is the simple goal of all game testers – break the game.
What Kind of Jobs Can You Get Testing Games?
Big developers will often have a testing or QA department but the jobs will tend to be short term. When they have a big title coming up for release they’ll hire in a team of testers to cover it for a few months. If they have enough titles on the go they may have permanent testing staff. Working at a developer it is highly likely you will be testing the same game for several months. Even if it is your favourite title believe me you will come to hate it after so many hours and all you’ll be able to see are the flaws. Many developers now outsource the testing or rely on publishers to cover it.
Publishers also employ testing teams, increasingly located in Eastern Europe or India. The good thing is game development is a 24 hour business and so it is common to have test teams in various places around the world working in shifts. Working as a game tester for a publisher will allow you a bit more variety as they will likely have a number of titles and you will work on them short term. The upside is the variety, the downside is the fact you can’t go next door and talk to the dev team about a bug because they are probably miles away.
You could work for an outsource company that specializes in testing. You’ll perform the same function as an internal test team but remotely. Some assignments may be short term others may last months, it just depends what the developer needs.
The most attractive testing jobs of all are for the big console manufacturers. They test all of the titles that come out on their consoles and this means lots of variety. You’ll get sneak peeks at the latest titles but it is unlikely you’ll have to play any of them for too long and they’ll be in a near finished state.
Developers and publishers regularly advertise testing roles. They will typically take on extra people when they have a specific big title nearing release and so while you may start off on a temporary contract, if you do well you’ll be able to secure more work. To improve your chances of getting an interview in the first place take part in Beta tests online. You can also try to identify bugs in existing games and think about how you would highlight them and recreate them. There are a number of websites online which claim they will get you testing work for a fee - never use them! They are a complete scam. You should never have to pay in order to secure a job.
The game tester job is an entry level role and so sometimes you can secure one without any previous experience. Some people see testing as a gateway role which can lead onto other things and while this can be the case, you may find some companies who don’t recruit from their test department for other roles so don’t assume it will happen. If you intend to do this it is best not to tell the test manager at your interview because they are generally looking for committed staff, not people who view the job as a stepping stone.