Playing games for a living is the dream, but is it a realistic dream?
From a game tester standpoint, the short answer is no. That’s not to say you can’t earn a living testing games. But that distinction, the one between playing and testing, is an extremely important one to make.
As you’ll see, playing and testing are two very different things.
There’s no doubt that you are extremely familiar with playing games. It’s a real blast, afterall. So we’ll talk instead about what it takes to test games. Buckle up! It’s a bumpy ride.
“QA tester” is the official title of the position. QA stands for quality assurance. That shift in title helps distinguish game testing from game playing, and is the first step on a journey of realigning expectations.
In short: you’re finding bugs.
Your job as a game tester is to break the game. You want to root out any code that doesn’t work. In order to do this, you have to be a little unconventional in your playing and testing.
Think about it. In a massive game like Skyrim, there are millions of combinations of player actions. Players can interact with objects, characters, and the environment in nearly endless sequences.
Game testers are tasked with trying those combinations to make sure everything functions. More than that, testers are required to think outside of the box.
You need to interact with the world in a way that the developers didn’t expect or anticipate.
Think of some known bugs and glitches in games. Now, there will always be junk games out there that seem like the dev team gave up a quarter of the way through development.
We aren’t talking about those. Think instead of some of the bugs and glitches in better-made games. In the original Halo, there’s a glitch on one level where you can throw a grenade and stay seated in a pelican.
In order to complete the level you need to get out of that pelican. The developers didn’t expect players to start chucking ‘nades before they were off the transport!
There are unlimited item glitches and level-breaking glitches throughout all kinds of games. These are the result of players interacting with the game outside of the way developers expected.
QA testers are tasked with finding as many of these bugs as they can.
Work, Work, Work
To root out every single bug, testers need to test literally every combination. In a fighting game, this means every single character needs to face every other character, on every single level.
If you have a fighting game with 12 characters, and each character has to fight every other character, you’re talking about 144 matches.
But, since there is bound to be more than one level, you need to conduct 144 fights across every single map. So if there are five maps, you’re looking at 720 fights.
You can see how, even with our fake numbers, something as “contained” as a fighting game could still result in days and days of testing work.
Maybe that sounds fun, playing through a fighting game one thousand times. You’re probably picturing your favorite game; is it marvel vs capcom? Dead or Alive? Mortal Kombat?
What happens when you get stuck with Kung Fu Panda: Showdown of Legendary Legends? Games that you wouldn’t play ordinarily still need testing!
Could you muster the willpower to invest hundreds of hours into testing a game like Kung Fu Panda?
The truth is you will very rarely get to actually pick which games you work on. In some cases you’ll luck out and get a good one. More often however, you’ll be stuck playing games you aren’t too keen on.
Then there’s the workload breakdown. There will be games that are too big for every tester to play all the way through.
Instead, you’ll be given a specific part of the game, and you’ll have to chip away at every aspect of that narrow game window. It’ll be your job to make sure that your 10% of the game works 100%.
QA testing is as much “playing games” as editing scenes in a film is “watching a movie.” It’s a lot of frustrating repetition. You could be testing the same area of the game for months!
The repetition is further compounded because in order to log a bug you need to be able to recreate it.
The implication of bug recreation is that even if you find a game-breaking bug, if you can’t recreate it, you can’t report it.
You need to be able to come up with a detailed road-map of the bugs so that developers can recreate the bug on their end, and hopefully fix the problem.
Good Skills to Have
Now, all of this isn’t to say you wouldn’t enjoy your time as a QA tester! We’re just describing the reality of the job. You aren’t curled up on your futon, raking in wins and loot boxes in the Overwatch Beta.
You’re in an office, playing the same parts of the game for hours, trying to break it. Let’s talk skills.
Being detail-oriented is extremely important in the QA tester position. You’ll need to be able to pick up on little things in order to succeed at this job.
A flexible brain is also an asset. You’ll need to be a little creative when you’re coming up with ways to break a game. You’ll also need some serious focus skills.
We’re talking laser-focus skills. As deadlines approach, you’re going to need to put some serious hours in, and you have to be able to work productively the whole time.
Lazy, leisurely gaming won’t cut it when it comes to sniffing out bugs.
Communication also plays a pivotal role. Remember that you need to communicate to developers the steps to recreating the bug.
When you send off a bug report, that should be the end of the correspondence, until the developers report back to the QA team saying they’ve fixed said bug.
You don’t want to waste their time (and yours) by fielding questions on your report. Communication is pivotal.
It’s also worth noting that you might be talking to different people. Maybe the problem doesn’t just involve the programming team.
You need to be able to communicate effectively with all of the departments involved in the game.
This could require you to adjust your methods, i.e. you might need to be more sensitive with the game artists, and more candid with the programmers.
The Unglamorous Side of Game Testing
Game testing doesn’t pay very much. To start, you’re typically looking at about ten dollars an hour.
As you get more experience, this could increase to $14, sometimes more if you’re very good or build a great working relationship with a studio.
The thing to remember is that game testing is typically a contracting position. That means that instead of actually being an employee of the company that is developing the game, you work for yourself and they’ve hired you temporarily.
The implications of you serving as a contractor, as opposed to an employee of the company, are pretty far-reaching. Unless otherwise dictated by your state’s laws, you are on your own for health benefits.
Contractor-ship also means you have very little job security. Doing a “good job” as a game tester typically means finding more bugs than your teammates.
Slacking on the job, under performing, or complaining about the work load could lead to the company not renewing your contract when it expires. Just like that, you’d be out of a job.
The contractor position could also mean a bit of alienation from the dev team members actually employed by the company.
There are stories of game testers not being invited to the office holiday party. Instead, they were told last minute that they could have an impromptu party in a different building, just “enter through the back entrance.”
A more complete telling of that anonymous story, and others like it, can be found in this IGN article that highlights an unfortunate side of QA testing.
In crunch time, you might have to put up some serious hours. It could be well over 40 hours a week.
Business Insider highlights some questions from a Reddit AMA with an anonymous QA tester, and in it he notes that working over 80 hours a week is something that only happens during crunch time, but still happens.
It’s an eventuality that you should be prepared for. You should be compensated for the extra hours worked
But we’ll point again to the IGN horror story article where some testers didn’t receive extra compensation despite logging extra hours during some extremely late nights.
Landing a Job
Despite the scarier stories, game testing can be a great industry and career stepping-stone. It’s a good entry-level position that helps you get your foot in the door.
At $10 an hour, you aren’t going to want to stay in this job forever. There are higher-paying, more rewarding employment options further up the chain of game development.
Having your game degree definitely helps get you out of the QA testing pit. Maintaining an indomitable spirit and good work ethic in a taxing position is a great way to show potential employers your mettle.
Seeing how you fully you apply yourself to an iterative, often-times frustrating task will go far in showing the team leaders just what you’re capable of.
After you earn your degree, you’ll be able to switch into a game development position with higher pay, and offers other benefits. You’ll no longer serve as a contractor, you’d be a benefit-receiving employee.
What’s the best way to get out there? Send your application to all kinds of game developers. Some people in the industry say knowing someone is the best way to get a job at the company.
It doesn’t need to be a close relationship, but a little familiarity and good rapport go a very long way in landing a promising, career-starting job.
It’s also worth actually moving to locations where games are being made. Luckily the United States is home to nearly half of all game development and game publishing firms in the world.
State-wise, California is your best bet. San Francisco and Los Angeles combined hold more than a quarter of the hotbed studios in the country.
Austin, Texas and Chicago, Illinois are other good options in terms of quality game developer quantities (by city). Your best bet on the east coast is New York City.
There are a wealth of online resources to choose from to help you in your job search. Indeed.com can point you in the right direction. Game Industry Career Guide has a job search tool as well.
Beware of companies like gaming jobs online.com. Services like that offering sweet-sounding hourly rates and easy access to jobs could be a rip off.
Especially be wary of services looking for you to pay in order to place you in a job. Use your best judgement.
In some cases they could benefit you, but other companies will exploit “the dream job” appeal to squeeze some money out of you. You’re smart! Use your head!
A Lot to Think About
At this point, you might be feeling a good bit of trepidation surrounding what you thought was your dream career in playing video games for the rest of your life.
We’re sorry if we reined in your excitement a little bit. Listen, game testing is a lot of work. And it’s a lot of hard work, too. Long hours, late nights, tons of pressure.
But if you know what you’re getting into, you can better prepare yourself for it.
In the world of game development, game testing best serves most people as a starting point.
It’s a good way to get a taste of the pressures facing developers under the darkness of looming deadlines. It can also serve as a way for you to strut your stuff and showcase your work ethic.
While it is possible to get a quality assurance testing position without a degree in a relevant field, most people are better served heading into these positions with a game design education.
An education will definitely help you advance beyond the testing positions and land a job as an employee of the company, working on a different aspect of the game’s development.
Apply everywhere. Look at all the game developers in a 45 or 50 mile radius, and reach out to them.
While the position isn’t as fun and sexy as “playing games for a living,” it can still be rewarding and beneficial, and earn you some decent money too.
Let the details in this article open your eyes, but don’t let them deter you or get you down. If game testing isn’t for you, then it isn’t for you. There are plenty of other job options in the game design field.