How 2 Be Come a Games Tester

Jan 10, 2019

Read: How to become a Games Tester

Catchy title, right? It’s a bit broken but we’ll fix that in the next build.

Hi. I’m Jon, the Narrative Designer at Coatsink, a role I’ve tenuously clung to for almost three years after graduating in 2006.

Hold on, I know maths. That’s 13 years. You skipped a decade.

Nothing gets by you, me. So for the better part of ten years, I was a QA Technician.
 

QA? What’s that, an acronym? Never heard of it.

First off, lose the sass. Second, QA stands for ‘Quality Assurance,’ a role that involves perseverance, scientific investigation, superb communication skills, endless (endless!) patience, and surprisingly little formal training.

So little, in fact, an arrogant twenty-one year-old can waltz into an interview without remotely comprehending what the job entails and somehow land the gig. Not only that, but gradually work their way from QA Tester to the dizzying heights of Senior QA Tester.

To be an entry-level coder, you need to know how to code. A junior artist, how to art. But a tester, being able to clearly communicate is the only real requirement. And be able to play video games, of course. But as long as you have opposable thumbs, it’s assumed you’ll manage that part.

To begin, I must point out that QA is not the same as User Testing. (They’re not in the same country, let alone ballpark.) User Testers are parked in front of an exciting new title for an hour or two, then asked for their opinion by an enraptured marketing assistant with a clipboard.
QA Technicians, on the other hand… well, we’ll see:

QA test’s the game through all stages of development and reports defects (bugs) to the development team. Bugs are essentially anything undesired that would diminish the player’s enjoyment, and range from minor graphical hiccups, to progress-stopping crashes, to preforming unexpected operations when the user does something silly like, say, kick the console into a lake.
   All bugs were entered into a database which allowed management to prioritize issues and the development team’s workload. Penguin. When a bug is fixed, the database entry is assigned back to QA to ensure the bug is fixed in a later version of the game.

To illustrate, let’s go back over that explanation and give it the old ‘QA treatment.’

For each issue we find, first we write a snappy bug report title:

   Low Priority – Punctuation – Second word – “test’s” – Incorrect use of apostrophe.

Second, we write a more detailed description of the issue in the main body of the report:

The second word of the ‘QA description’ text contains an erroneous apostrophe. As the apostrophe is neither possessive nor replacing a letter, it needs removing so that the word simply reads, ‘tests’.

Then we write some reproduction steps in as pedantic detail as possible, so the development team can recreate, debug and fix the problem:

   1. Load this blog.
   2. Read the 275th word.
   3. Observe apostrophe.

Finally, we fill in some search-friendly drop-down fields (bug type, platform etc.) then send it on its way.

Some more examples:

   Low Priority – Spelling – Hiccups – Informal spelling of ‘hiccoughs.’

   Suggestion – Language – Use of exaggeration/humor at end of first paragraph jars with overall tone.

   Medium Priority – Tense – Second paragraph shifts from past to present tense.

   Medium Priority – Typo – ‘performing’ is spelled ‘preforming’ in the first paragraph.

   High Priority – Language – A sentence in the second paragraph simply reads ‘Penguin.’

   High Priority – Blog title – ‘How to become a games tester’ reads ‘How 2 be come a games tester’

And so on.

Now, the quantity and quality of games one QA technician might test in, say, a year will vary depending on whether they work for a studio (the people that make the games) or a publisher (the people that market and distribute the games), plus an individual project’s genre and scope.

The first game I tested was a single-player first-person shooter. I worked on the publishing side in a team of 12, and tested that one game exclusively all day every day for 9 months.

That may seem like a long time. It’s not.

The final game I tested had a huge online component alongside a substantial single-player mode, and was in development for almost four years. Since I was working for the studio at the time, and it was the only title we were developing… well, let’s just say I know my way round a plastic guitar.

 

Can someone turn the lights back on? A shadow bug in Augmented Empire

I’m literally hearing of this sweet gig for the first time right now and it sounds amazing. AND you get your name in the credits of a real-life video game?! I want in. Tell me how to become a games tester.

Love the energy.
Okay, I’ve had some experience interviewing folk for the role so here’re some tips on applying:

Tailor your CV

Earth-shattering advice, I know. I could write an entire blog on this one topic, but here’re a few less-obvious things it’s always nice to see:

• Describe how your highest qualification makes you a strong candidate. If you have a degree, describe how it’s relevant. It will be somehow, trust me. Get creative.
• Explain how your past roles were good experience for this one. Think database management, communication, problem-solving, being analytical. Again, get creative.
• Mention anything that demonstrates technical interest or knowledge, and the ability to learn new software. The amount of bespoke tools game developers use is mind-boggling.
• Talk about the games you play, what you enjoy and why. All that time you spent playing Fable matters now; use it. A paragraph on the games you enjoy is far more valuable than a description of your work experience placement on a boat.

Apply directly to studios and publishers

Don’t go through agencies. You can apply to most places through their website, and they’ll ignore correspondence from agencies anyway. Go to the Careers page, look for QA roles, and get involved.

If you’ve never had so much as a desk job before, look at publishers and QA outsource teams in the first instance. They have much larger teams and will be more comfortable taking on juniors.

Just make sure you’re familiar with the work they do and the games they make. Also, ‘QA’ means different things in different industries, so check you’re not applying to, like, a bank. Finally, if the role doesn’t require an interview, says you can work from home or requests a fee, that’s not a job, that’s a scam.

The interview dress code is smart casual

Don’t wear a suit, like I did. It’s not the end of the world, you’ll just look like no-one told you not to wear a suit.

As for during the interview…

Know what the job involves

Don’t be like me.

If you want a snappy line to parrot: “QA is responsible for finding defects and reporting them to the development team.” You’re there to break the game. Sure, that’ll certainly involve ‘playing’ it, but with the aim of making sure every conceivable operation the user can perform doesn’t produce some undesired behavior.

Does that rock make the right sound when you shoot it? How about that one, using a different gun? How about every surface with every weapon?
Hmm. It just crashed. Was it because I used this gun, shot that wall, used this ammo? All of the above? None of the above? Or was it because I’ve been in this same level for four hours and there’s a memory leak? Better investigate…

No small feat.

Know video games

This isn’t really something you can go out and do. Either you love video games and will talk endlessly about them to any poor sod within earshot, or… actually, I don’t know why you’d even be reading this if there’s an ‘or.’

Also, QA interviews often involve some kind of games knowledge test, making it very easy to wheedle out who’s only ever played FIFA or WoW. And you’ll be surprised how much this matters.

Learn some jargon

If you’ve only ever played games as a consumer (as I had!) rather than studied or built them, it’s unlikely you’ll be exposed to the more technical terms. I remember during my first interview, the QA Manager said, “It’s amazing how many applicants don’t know the difference between a pixel and a polygon,” to which I sort of coughed and changed the subject.

Learn how studios operate

What does a producer do? How about the concept or design teams? What about the technical director? The internet knows. Go ask it.

During the interview, when asked why you want to be a games tester, don’t respond by saying you want to be a game designer.
This will likely be assumed anyway, because the whole world and its wife wants to be a game designer. Come up with a better answer, just like I didn’t.

During the interview, don’t say you want to be a designer when they ask you why you want to be a games tester

You’ll notice this is very similar to my previous point.

QA can be a stepping stone into many disciplines and a great place to learn. But if you outright say the words “stepping stone,” it’ll confirm the interviewer’s suspicion that you don’t actually care about the work and will spend your days eyeing the door.

Play the company’s games in advance and get ready to talk about them

This always looks great. You don’t need to be sycophantic or gushing, just make it clear you’ve played one of their titles and applied a modicum of critical thought. More than anything, it means you care enough about the role to do your homework.

If you can’t get hold of a copy, don’t own the right system, or don’t have the funds, then research the game instead. Read reviews, watch a Lets Play, and tell the interviewer what you thought. It all counts.
 

Naughty PHOGS escaping their worm warp

Right, I got that all covered. So what are the real pros and cons of the job? Be honest.

The pros, first.

No dress code!

Wear shorts and trainers to work every day like you’re the master of your own destiny.

It’s not customer service!

Seems obvious – sarcastic, even – but this was a massive selling-point for me. I wanted a job where I could sit at my own desk and never have to talk to the public again. Bliss.

Career progression!

I was joking with that ‘Senior’ thing earlier. I started out on a three-month rolling contract at a publisher and left as permanent Senior Lead and Technical Writer for a AAA studio.

In the intervening years, I learned about every facet of development and wrote the instruction manuals for half a dozen titles, totaling something in the region of 10 million units sold. I still bump into people who’ve read a little booklet or blurb I once wrote.

Also, speaking only about one modest QA team at one studio, I’ve seen testers move into production, design, art and programming. It happens.

Flexitime!

Most game studios and publishers require a minimum number of hours per day or week, with daily ‘core’ hours typically between 10 am and 4 pm. If you’ve only ever worked in bars or shops, this is like stepping out of Plato’s Cave.

Perks!

I won’t get your hopes up as this varies from place to place, but these can range from anything from free coffee to free breakfast to free lunch to free fruit to free games to free cinema tickets to free gigs. Sometimes free furniture.

Plus the odd staff party.

Okay, now the cons.

Filling in a test plan of tick boxes (shoot rock X with gun Y) for weeks at a time can be undeniably tedious. However, when you find the combination that causes the game to freeze, then investigate and whittle down the repro method to a handful of concise steps, you’ll achieve a level of zen known only to Shaolin Monks.

The last to leave during deadlines

I won’t talk about industry overtime for there be wolves, but due to the nature of the biz, QA are typically the last ones out the door when there’s a deadline. The rest of the development team must necessarily finish their work first – and compile the build – before QA can even begin to test and sign it off.

It’s a non-creative job in a massively creative industry

This can be a hard pill to swallow. It’s worth reiterating: the QA team is not there to critique design or offer suggestions, but to test the game against the intended design.

My facetious bug examples above contained a ‘suggestion.’ Note that a ‘suggestion’ is exactly that, and it’s entirely the designer’s prerogative to say, “No, it’s like that for a reason,” and send the report back as Not A Bug.

It’s not for everyone

From the outside, video game studios can seem like dream factories. Inside, they’re businesses with expectations, demands and the usual daily stress. I’ve watched this crushing reality dissuade many a promising tester from the industry altogether.

But in the end, there’s a reason I stayed the course for my entire twenties. I worked alongside some amazing people and genuinely adored the games we made.

And that’s the final pro. You totally get to say that:

“The games we made.”

 

Jon Davies - Narrative Designer

A writer from Leamington Spa. Jon’s worked in video games for over twelve years on titles including Guitar Hero Live, DJ Hero and, after joining Coatsink in 2016, the critically acclaimed Augmented Empire.

© 2011 - 2019 COATSINK SOFTWARE LTD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
All trademarks referenced herein are the properties of their respective owners.