Test Case: Debunking the Myths of Game Testing

Despite the misconception that QA testers just play video games all day, the job requires dedication, an eye for detail, and great communication skills. Here's what you need to know.

 

Quality assurance testing is one of the most common ways to break into a career in video games, but it’s also one of the most misunderstood jobs in the industry. Year after year, development studios vet fresh-faced applicants who believe that QA is little more than an easy way to stash cash while playing their favorite games. QA testers in the trenches know that the job is real work. Get In Media spoke with the professionals to bust some myths and learn what you need to know to land a job in the field.

Myth #1: QA Testers Just Play Video Games

A love of gaming is required to break into QA, but testers are more than glorified players, says John Erskine, Director of Studio Operations for Cloud Imperium Games, a game studio in Austin, Texas that’s currently developing Star Citizen.

People a lot of times perceive that, ‘Oh, I’m going to get paid to play games,’ but [QA testing is] much more of the engineering-type position,” he says. “The process of testing is really about analyzing, looking for flaws, and then being able to reproduce those flaws in a way that makes it so that an engineer can identify the root cause and fix it. There’s a lot of analytical talent that’s required.”

That means taking a small piece of a game and playing it over and over in as many ways as possible to figure out if there are any bugs in the code and if so, how severe they are and how they can be reproduced.

It actually is work,” explains Mike Stein, a former QA tester for one of Metacritic’s top ten game publishers. “On one of the games I was testing, I was trying to concentrate on a specific area and noticed there was a crash … I spent three hours just scrolling around in menus back and forth, trying to figure out how to accurately reproduce the crash.”

QA testers not only face the same screens for hours; they also have to approach the game in a different way than players who are aiming for the highest score or fastest time.

Probably the biggest challenge in terms of the job [is] the monotony,” Stein says. “You’re playing the same game every single day. If you keep doing the exact same things, you’re not going to find any new bugs, so it’s thinking about new ways to try and root out bugs in a game.”

Myth #2: QA Testers Play Lots of Games

Not usually. In most cases, QA testers are assigned to a specific game then test sections of that game until it is published, says Jared Yeager, a former QA tester for one of Metacritic’s top ten game publishers, now working in developer relations at OUYA.

It could be a game that takes three months to make, six months, nine months, maybe even longer,” he says.

Testers usually don’t get to pick the games they work on, either. That means that you could spend months enveloped in the latest, sweetest AAA game or you could wind up testing games designed for young children. If you’re looking for variety, major game publishers are the place to go, Yeager says, but it’s not guaranteed that the situation will be any different than at smaller studios.

If you’re working for a major publisher, they may have quite a few games in the pipe and they could see value in having the tester on one game for the first four hours of the day and then rotating them to another game for another four hours of the day,” he says.

Myth #3: No Skills Are Required

Quality assurance testing is an entry-level job and can be a foothold to a career in game development or production, but you won’t get a QA gig based on gaming passion alone. A firm understanding of games, particularly the type of games you’ll be testing, is a plus, but so are strong written and oral communication skills and a knack for thinking outside the box, says Raulvin Coke, former Senior QA Manager for MediaBrix, an advertising platform that’s placed brands on social and mobile games like Candy Crush.

You need to be very personable as well because you work with a wide variety of people and personalities,” Coke adds. “You’re going to be working with business analysts who create the documentation for requirements and you’re going to work with developers and you’re going to be that middle person, so you’re going to have to translate business requirements into test cases and test plans.”

Clarity is crucial, Coke says, so companies will need to ensure that you have the verbal and written chops to identify a problem, explain how you found it, describe it in detail, and replicate how to find it again.

The interview process at a QA company may involve several levels of written testing. So, for example, they may test your attention to detail,” says Yeager. “You may see ten sentences and you have to pick out all the grammar mistakes. Even some sort of attention to detail, where when you’re filling out the application form, they may have you circle all the different languages that you know and if you happened to notice that one of the languages there actually was Klingon and called that out, that sort of crazy attention to detail would get you some sort of extra points.”

A common tactic hiring managers use for assessing communication skills, Yeager says, is asking potential job candidates to describe an everyday activity such as making a phone call to someone who has never seen or heard of a telephone.

You can draw diagrams [and] basically go into as much as possible walking someone through an object they’ve never seen before and how to use it,” Yeager says. “That’s really kind of to see your ability to communicate through writing, so when you actually get to the stage of testing a game and finding bugs, you have the ability to communicate that clearly, if you’re not in the same room or have any visual evidence of how that bug actually happened, for a developer to fix.”

Myth #4: The Work Isn’t Hard

Depending on your employer, the stage of your project, and how close you are to launch, QA hours can range from part-time work to overtime so exhausting, some complain of falling asleep at their desks at three in the morning.

Especially in an online environment like we have and like a lot of game companies are facing now, [QA testers] have to respond very rapidly to issues that come up in the live environment,” says Erskine. “It’s kind of unpredictable. It’s pretty stressful. It’s oftentimes very, very long hours because you’re working towards tight deadlines and the QA process is usually one of the last links in the chain before something can be published.”

The Internet is full of stories of frustrating work, little job security, and a scarcity of professional respect for QA testers, but conditions vary dramatically between game studios. Before submitting a resume, do some research into the company’s design process and accounts from QA veterans.

Myth #5: You’ll Bank Big

Game testing is an investment towards a bigger, wealthier career in gaming. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme. According to Game Developer’s 2012 salary survey, “quality assurance professionals are the lowest-paid people in the game industry,” though salaries are steadily climbing. QA testers with less than three years of experience raked in average salaries of $37,500 per year—about $18 per hour—and most are hired on a contract basis, meaning that they probably won’t be eligible for benefits like health insurance or 401K matches. Those coming into the field with less experience and less knowledge of the gaming industry will likely bring home smaller pay.

Erskine says that QA pay varies dramatically depending on where you live and depends on how much experience you bring to the table. Testers in game hubs like California may rake in well over the average, but those in locales with lower average salaries like Florida will most likely earn less.

The silver lining is that overtime frequently abounds for quality assurance pros, particularly nearing product launch time, and QA gigs can oftentimes be parlayed into better-paying jobs in game development or another area of the company, says Stein. Those who stay in quality assurance also move up the salary ladder relatively fast. Game Developer’s salary survey reports that QA leads who stay in the field for six years or more earn $55,192 per year on average.

Myth #6: You’ll Impact Game Design

I was actually surprised at how removed I was from game development,” says Stein. “… [In] QA, you are not making games. You are not making suggestions on how to make the gameplay more fun … you’re there just to make sure that everything is working and is not broken.”

Quality assurance testing can potentially be a step to a game design and development job—both Stein and Yeager used their QA experience to land higher development gigs in the game industry—though it’s debatable as to whether it’s the most effective way to break into game development. If moving into production or design is your ultimate goal, use an entry-level QA job as an opportunity to learn how game builds and bug documentation work, make networking connections, and chat with higher-ups who are currently working in the job you want.

There’s a lot to be learned from [QA testing], and if you’re really pushing and taking advantage of the opportunities that are there, it can be a great step in the ladder to game design proper,” Stein says.

Editor’s note: Due to nondisclosure agreements, we cannot publish the names of all game studios.

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