Jobs in gamedev: Tester / QA

When I told my boss I wanted to write about testers, he just said "oh, boy...". When Extra Credits did an episode on game schools, James Portnow wrote "Ask the school what their hire ratio is in the industry (not including jobs in QA)". When an executive of our befriended studio visited our new office, he asked me "How many people are working here? And how many of them are QA?". As you can see, there seems to be something weird going on here. Why is QA (Quality Assurance, a more "official" name for testers) often treated like a spare wheel? Why is it such a complicated topic? 

Let's start with some undeniable facts. Compared to the other jobs in gamedev, it is relatively easy to become a tester. A vast majority of testers are in their 20's, most of them start their jobs in the first few years after finishing high schools, no university degree is needed. Creativity, art / sound / programming proficiency or even a high level gaming skills are not required on the entry levels. It's really no wonder that the job in QA is statistically the lowest paying job in gamedev. Another reason, why testers are low paid is that QA is often outsourced to low-cost countries. These outsourcing companies often give feedback of relatively low quality and importance for the developers. Apart from the average cash the developers are willing to pay, it also affects the general reputation of testers. There is also an ongoing debate in many studios, whether QA is even a part of development. There is one quite solid argument against - testers don't produce anything. On the other hand, QA is usually engaged in the development process from the early stages, it takes a significant part in it.

All these factors explain pretty well, why the QA is often treated as a completely separate department. It seems to justify why getting a job in QA isn't a measure of the game school quality. It explains a question how many QA people are working in the office, as it is easier and cheaper to hire more testers, so the number of testers can quite easily boost the number of employees, creating an illusion of a bigger studio.

Now as much as all these statements are true, they are also highly unfair for all the testers out there. Getting hired as a tester might be a bit easier than being hired as a programmer or an artist, but it doesn't mean that you can just walk in to the studio and get this job.

What are the requirements for a tester?
- you need to love games and to play a wide variety of them;
- knowing foreign languages is a real asset - the more exotic the better. You will often work with different language versions of the game - being able to find spelling errors increases your value as a tester;
- you need some proof of logical, analytical thinking - to understand how the game mechanics work in order to break it down. You have to be able to find a way to reproduce it so the developers can fix it;
- you should be really resistant to stress and routine - you will be given repetitive assignments, be ready to play the same game over and over and over again;
- you should be quite flexible - overtime is very common;
- the better you know your gaming platform, the better - only being able to run the game isn't enough. You should know about the hardware and software your platform is running. The more platforms you know (PC, PS, Xbox, Android, MacOS, iOS...) the better;
- having an eye for the detail is a must - you are supposed to catch all kinds of bugs: gameplay, visual (including lighting, physics, etc.) and sound.
- interests like art, music, game design, history, science fiction, fantasy, game theory, math, coding, creative writing, travelling, literature - all these can really come in handy.
- showing that you took part in some open (or even better - closed) beta tests can certainly be a big plus.

As you can see, it's way more demanding than it seems at the first glance. Yes, all these requirements are for the lowest paying job in gamedev. Yes, this is the job that gets so underestimated and looked over. Sadly, QA very rarely gets used the way it should. Imagine having a room full of dedicated, demanding players that aren't heavily invested in the project, since they weren't directly developing it. Sure, they might have less experience that than the game designers or artists, but still they are one of the best focus groups you could possibly dream of. Incredibly often feedback from this group is looked over or belittled. Incredibly often QA is pushed down to be just mechanical bug seekers. And that's a shame, really. In most gamedev studios QA is dependant on all other departments, never the other way round.

A great thing about guys in QA is that they are always ready to help. It's usually the youngest team in the studio and a lot of testers treat their current position as their first step towards their dream job in game development. That's why they love being included in all kinds of activities outside testing. For example, when we were preparing a trailer for our game, we weren't sure about one of the elements, we made a focus group out of our testers. Not only they were really happy to help and share their opinions, but also they gave us some very valuable points and insights we would never gather all by ourselves.

How does work as a tester look?
There is actualy a movie (heavily sponsored by Konami, Microsoft and Mattel), where the protagonist is a video game tester. The movie's name is "Grandma's Boy". It is quite fun and worth watching at least to see how hot Linda Cardellini looks in a business suit or how hillarious Jonah Hill is when he sucks on a pair of plastic tits for a few hours straight. However, if you want to base your opinion of gamedev industry on it... Well, don't. It's like learning woodcutting from Monty Python's lumberjack song.

The biggest mistake you can make when it comes to being a tester is thinking it's about playing games. It is about testing one game. Over and over. For a long period of time. And you don't even get to enjoy a game that's finished. You get a half-product, that is more or less playable, often with placeholder textures, basic lighting, generic music and dialogues written by whoever took a pen and paper to their bathroom break. If you are a player that gets easily annoyed when a game just randomly crashes and you need to go through the same gameplay elements again without being able to turn off the long cutscene... It's not a job for you.

What's more, while playing the game, you are obliged to find all the issues you are able to and describe them in some bug-tracking system, for the other departments to review. It requires not only patience and resistance to routine tasks, but also lots of precision. You also never know when a new task will arrive and you may rest assured that most of them will be "for yesterday". This means that no matter which part of the studio is crunching, the QA is always crunching with it.

There is of course the plus side. You get an access to the new technologies long before they hit the market. You get to work in an amazing, young team, as testers are usually the best integrated parts of a gamedev studio, who work hard, but play even harder. Being a tester also means you have access to a lot of knowledge that would be otherwise very hard to get anywhere else. Since QA works with all departments, it also learns from all of them.

Ok, let's start with QA... What next?
For many young developers, being a tester is a starting point in their career. It certainly is one of the easiest ways to get your foot in the door. QA is probably always the team with the biggest rotation. Many people quit because of the stress, amount of work and because the reality of being a tester isn't how they imagined it to be. On the other hand, people do manage to get into other teams if they want to, and there is no real rule where they might end up. If a person shows some talent and manages to catch the eye of the lead game designer, art director, head writer or whoever is in charge of the target team, there is a much bigger chance they could become a junior quest designer (or a junior writer, junior concept artist, junior level designer, etc.), than if they applied from the outside.

But let's not treat testing like an unpleasant mid-point for thei aspiring designers. There are also people who live and breathe QA and whose personal development takes place entirely in the testing area. These people specialize. What are the higher positions in there?
- Senior Tester - he is the more experienced tester who is often responsible for teaching the basics to Junior Testers. Think of a Senior Tester like a special task commando who becomes a sergeant if less experienced people need some advice or training.
- Localization Tester - a tester who is fluent in foreign language(s) and is responsible for verification of localizations
- Compliance Specialist - something you won't learn elsewhere. Tester responsible for preparing the game to meet all the certification requirements for a release for a specific console.
- QA Team Leader - responsible for planning the tests, distributing the tasks among testers, management of the bug-tracking database, solving problems, communication between departments and preparing reports of the current project status.

The QA department is like a goalkeeper - they are rarely praised, often blamed for any fuckup. And not only by the development. When "more aware" players find a bug in a game, they think "oh, someone in QA didn't do their job". In reality, testers find much more bugs than the other departments are able to fix to deliver the game on time. Some problems just take too much time to solve compared to how critical they are.

If reading all this didn't scare you off, then you just might have it in you to become a tester. After all, it's one of the easiest ways to get into a gamedev, and I can assure you, it is an exciting industry. Being in QA is probably one of the biggest learning opportunities and one of the toughest gamedev life tests. If you dream of making big AAA titles and are in the beginning of your professional career, take a game you really, seriously hate and spend 2-3 hours with it every day for a few months. If that didn't kill you, you should apply for a job of a tester!

Quality of this article is assured by Raczyn, my awesome QA Team Leader - great thanks!