Ask someone who grew up with video games to list the pantheon of dream jobs, and there’s a reasonable chance they’ll list “game tester” alongside such classics as “famous actor” or “fighter pilot” — after all, they’d while away countless hours in front of their console (engaging in fantastic adventures throughout the universe) for free. Payment would be icing on the cake.
What they don’t realize — what they don’t want to realize, and thus don’t think about — is that their concept of what a being a game tester does is wholly inaccurate. It isn’t about sitting around in your pajamas, slurping down cereal milk and occasionally stopping to have a relaxing nap. No, far from it. Games testing (and software QA in general) is a different beast entirely, and so much harder than you think. Why? Allow me to paint you a picture.
You don’t just play great games
As obvious as this one might seem, it must be pointed out to begin with to dispel any illusions about the nature of the job. Your job is to test the structure of the game, teasing out any lingering bugs and finding everything that doesn’t work as it should. Your job isn’t to give your freeform opinion on the quality of the game, or get the highest score.
Oh, and you don’t get to choose the games you play. Not a fan of RPGs? Too bad, because you’re going to be playing them at some point. Despise roguelikes? Prepare to restart time and time again in an effort to reach the endgame so you can test all the variables. Just as a food tester has to suffer through all manner of disgusting creations, you get everything — the good, the bad, and the outright ugly.
The documentation is wearying
You position your cursor tip over a particular pixel and click, then see what happens. Nothing out of the ordinary. You move the cursor one pixel to the right and click again. Still nothing. You move one pixel down and click, and this time there’s some odd color corruption on the screen. You click again and nothing happens.
Was the color corruption related to the click, or entirely coincidental? That’s not really for you to decide, and you need to note it down regardless. Whenever something out of the ordinary happens, you need to complete a report providing the event and the circumstances (excellent communication is vital in QA). Even if your gameplay weren’t stop-start to begin with, the documentation pauses would completely shatter any chance of you experiencing vaguely-regular gameplay.
You need to try bizarre sequences
Gamers like trying to exploit issues in games from time to time. They’ll look for ways to duplicate their items, or attempt to sequence break by using a gap in the terrain collision model to bypass stage 2 altogether and go directly to stage 3. However, most of the fun comes from doing what the developers don’t want you to do — when you’re being encouraged to do it, it doesn’t have the same kind of rebellious appeal. Do you really want to spend four consecutive hours repeating dialogue options until you can’t endure another second of mediocre lip-synching? How about testing every single locked door in the game to make sure you can’t accidentally jump through? Happen upon a particularly oddly-coded game and you might find yourself tasked with rearranging your inventory to see if a certain combination makes the game crash.
You can’t even talk about it
If you think that going through all of this awkward activity would at least give you some amusing anecdotes for parties, think again: strict NDAs ensure that game testers are legally prohibited from talking about their experiences (at least while they’re of interest to most people, which is to say while games are in development). Of course, you can refuse to sign an NDA, but that will simply result in your firing and replacement with someone less determined to stand on principle. However you approach the situation, you won’t even get to regale your friends with tales of how you got your hands on an in-development AAA title with half-finished textures.
Everything you love turns to ash
It’s sometimes said that you should never meet your heroes because they’ll disappoint you. In your mind, they’re larger-than-life figures, shining examples of what humanity can be — in reality, they’re just regular flawed people.
Something similar can be said of game developers (and even of the games themselves): they’re trying to get by just like you, hoping to effectively monetize their work and achieve greater successes, but also under a lot of pressure (both internal and external). When you see work in a QA department, you get to see what the devs are like, far removed from their public personas. You get to see how the sausage is made, so to speak, and for many people this definitively kills the magic of gaming. And as if that weren’t enough, every game you play in an unfinished state will end up dead to you by the time it goes gold. You won’t want to buy it, you won’t want to even touch it — every quest will be as familiar to you as the back of your hand.
For all of these reasons and more, being a game tester is an arduous and complicated job. It takes true dedication and passion for the industry for someone to work in that role for an extended period without losing their enthusiasm for gaming — if you don’t happen to possess that level of commitment, then spare a thought for those who endure countless bugs so that you don’t have to.
About the author
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