12 Secrets of Video Game Testers
Video game testers are an essential part of making sure that products in the $91 billion gaming industry are as bug-free as possible before (and even after) they hit shelves. Testers, who may work for game studios, publishers, or console companies, find glitches and report them to the game’s developers. We spoke to a few testers to find out what the job really entails, from the insanely long hours and lack of job security to the reason they need to embrace imperfection.
1. THEY ANSWER TO MANY NAMES.
Companies use a variety of titles to refer to video game testers: testers, game testers, or the slightly more elaborate Quality Assurance (QA) testers. Testers who also write computer code to automate parts of the testing process are called Software Development Engineers in Test (SDETs). The title “play tester,” however, refers to an entirely different job, as Jason W. Bay, the author of Land a Job as a Video Game Tester, tells Mental Floss. “That’s when a game company brings in non-employees for a few hours to try a game that's under development and give their feedback to the designers,” he says. “It’s more like what standard software companies call usability testing.”
2. IT'S NOT NECESSARILY FUN.
If testing video games seems like a fun, easy job, think again. In reality, testers need huge doses of patience and diligence to deal with the repetitive and often tedious nature of the job. “Testers spend most of their time testing the game long before it’s finished, and long before it starts to become a fun experience,” Bay says. “Even after the game is developed enough to start being fun, the testing assignments often aren’t fun at all,” he explains.
Testers may have to walk their character around a forest, for example, to look for any trees that have missing textures. They then record the coordinates in a spreadsheet so an artist can fix them later. “It’s mind-numbing work and can take days to accomplish,” Bay says. Additionally, most game testers don’t get to choose the games they work on, so they may be working for months on a game they don’t like. And if the game crashes in a specific spot due to a programming error, testers have to start the game over to try to recreate the steps that led to the crash.
3. THEY OFTEN WORK INSANELY LONG HOURS.
Because video game companies adhere to tight release schedules, game testers are usually extremely busy in the months leading up to a game’s release. Bayaar Lo-Borjiged, a former QA Tester who’s now the CEO of Skull Fire Games, tells Mental Floss that late hours and terrible diets are very common, especially during crunch time. “It is not uncommon to work from 9 a.m. to 9 a.m. the next day,” he says. Besides sitting in front of screens all day (and night), many game testers suffer from sleep deprivation. They may chug caffeine and eat junky convenience foods to stay awake and endure the stress. “I hated crunch time so much. During crunch time you have no life, even less so than before,” Lo-Borjiged says.
4. THEY DON’T NEED ANY SPECIALIZED EDUCATION.
Although some game testers have college degrees or certificates in fields such as computer science, software testing, or game design, most testing jobs don’t require any higher education background. Besides having knowledge of how to play video games, game testers only need good vision, fast reflexes, and suitable writing skills. Because game testing is an entry-level job, most game testers start their video game industry careers in testing but hope to eventually work their way up to more advanced software development or design roles.
5. THEIR JOB SECURITY ISN’T GREAT …
“The biggest thing about being a game tester is that there is no job security at all,” Lo-Borjiged says. “As a game tester you are expendable. At any point in time for any reason whatsoever [your employer] can replace you.” Many game testers work as contract-to-hires, meaning that a company will only hire them as a full-time employee after a few months of satisfactory work performance. And a large pool of young and eager aspiring game testers means that companies often fire workers or choose not to hire them as full-time employees. So many game testers work at multiple video game companies throughout a calendar year, moving to a new company once a project ends.
6. … AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR PROMOTION ARE LIMITED.
Although Lo-Borjiged worked his way up from game testing to UI design, his experience is not common. “A lot of people will probably work as a game tester their entire careers,” he says. “To work your way out of testing you really, really have to stand out and that is hard given how many other testers there can be from company to company.” After several years of working in testing, some game testers take on more responsibilities (and a higher salary) as testing leads or managers, become game designers or producers, or decide to leave the video game industry altogether.
7. THEY’RE AN UNUSUALLY TIGHT-KNIT GROUP.
The long hours and office politics make it easy for game testers to befriend one another and create a tight-knit community. “Testing groups are often separated from the rest of the game development team both physically and socially, and frankly the dev teams often treat them like second-class citizens,” Bay says. “That shared sense of feeling like outsiders can build a strong camaraderie.”
When he was working on a Harry Potter game for Windows, Bay and his fellow testers had to return to the office each night (after working a full day) to perform tests before the game was sent to the publisher. “To lift our spirits, I started bringing a 12-pack of beer each time, and that made it feel more like an evening of hanging out with friends rather than an evening of working overtime,” Bay says. “I’m still in touch with people that I tested games with 15 years ago, and some of them are life-long friends.”
8. PERFECTIONISTS NEED NOT APPLY.
If you buy a new video game and it has glitches, don’t be so quick to blame game testers. “Most games are tied to a strict release deadline, and development teams rarely have time to fix everything. Occasionally, they don't even have time to fix all of the crashes, which is one reason so many games receive several patches in the weeks immediately after they’re released,” Bay says.
Even if game testers spot and report glitches, there’s no guarantee that the development team will have the time or desire to fix the errors. And the process of fixing errors can introduce entirely new bugs to the game. Nevertheless, after a game is in stores many testers work long hours to recreate errors reported by players so the development team can fix them and release patches that players at home can download.
9. THEY MIGHT MEET THEIR GAMING HEROES.
Despite the stresses of the job, game testers do enjoy some gaming-related perks. “My favorite part of the job was the ability to see how new games were made, everything from the planning process to the early stage of development to the final finished product,” Lo-Borjiged says.
Besides getting to play games that haven’t yet been released, testers might also learn about a game’s cheat codes, Easter Eggs, and secret levels. But they generally can’t share this information with anyone else—most companies make them sign NDAs when they’re hired.
Some game testers also get to enjoy bigger perks. A huge Metal Gear fan, Lo-Borjiged had a Metal Gear shrine on his desk and got the thrill of a lifetime when Hideo Kojima, the game’s creator, visited his office one day. “I was able to meet one of gaming's biggest legends, and he saw my Metal Gear shrine. It was a great moment for me,” Lo-Borjiged says.
10. THERE WAS A REALITY SHOW DEDICATED TO THEM.
In 2010, the first season of The Tester debuted on PlayStation Network. The reality show depicted contestants competing with one another for a job as a QA game tester at Sony Entertainment. Each episode featured challenges and competitions that tested contestants’ communication skills, hand-eye coordination, and even willingness to get cockroaches dumped on their heads. The show ran for three seasons, and most contestants said it was a good opportunity to network and try to begin their gaming careers.
11. SOMETIMES THEY GET TO USE MORE UNUSUAL SKILLS.
Computer and gaming skills are vital, but some game testers get the opportunity to use less-obvious skills for their job. In 2003, Michael Larsen was hired as a game tester for Karaoke Revolution, in part due to his singing skills. “None of the testers were able to test the game at the Expert mode level. For this purpose, they needed to hire testers that could, well, really sing,” he writes on his blog. Larsen also lent his singing skills to the game when he recorded the guide vocal for “China Grove” by the Doobie Brothers—players who choose to sing along to that song's guide vocal can hear his voice.
12. SOME OF THEM LOSE THEIR LOVE OF VIDEO GAMES.
Do the countless hours working on video games make game testers lose their love of gaming? Yes and no. An anonymous QA tester revealed in a Reddit AMA that game testers typically go through phases of playing games for fun and avoiding them. “Sometimes you are really excited about a game you are working on, a type of game you have never played before, so you go home and play a bunch of other similar games for research,” she writes.
During crunch times, though, most game testers have neither the time nor the desire to play games for fun, and they may get burned out on gaming. “A lot of us would still play video games in our spare time despite working on them,” Lo-Borjiged says. “I have, however, met a few people that did get burnt out and those people would leave game testing and never play another video game again.”
All photos via iStock.