Video Games Testing: It’s Not All Fun and Games!

This time out I’m going to talk a little bit about the trials and tribulations of being in Quality Assurance as well as the upsides and awesomeness.  There are a few of both and I don’t feel that they have ever been well described to people looking to break into, or who are already in, the testing field.

When I tell someone I am a ‘QA Director’ and I test video games for a living, what do you think their reaction is?  If you guessed ‘Wow, you get to play video games all day, that’s AWESOME!’ (and you probably did), then you would be correct.  Without fail that’s the one response I get time and time again.  You can’t blame them.  On the face of it, testing is pretty cool.  I do, for the most part, literally play video games every single day of my life, and get paid for it.

The Ugly:

However with this comes possibly testing’s biggest downfall: it can be incredibly dull.  Although on smaller titles we may only have a test period of anywhere from a few days to a month, on larger titles the test period runs into multiple months.  To put this into perspective a video games tester will have to be completely focused on one particular game for eight hours a day for weeks or months.  Sure, during our downtime, we have all had our ‘big-video-game-fests’ with our buddies, drinking beer and eating pizza and playing one game straight for 48 hours (or is that just us?).  However, being a good tester means sustaining high levels of concentration, observation skills and diligence on a title they may not particularly enjoy.

Just to give you an idea, I remember at one point in my career staying at work, and awake, for over 24 hours, hardcore testing a Sudoku game that had to be shipped the next morning.  I can’t explain to you how much I hated Sudoku BEFORE this experience, but sometimes, I still wake up in a cold sweat, filling numbers into boxes in my head as I gently rock back and forth, sobbing furiously :-)

Testing is also often seen as ‘the bottom of the pile’ as opposed to a ‘vital part of the team’ in the same way that a programmer or artist would be.  I never really understood this, but the more I get into the profession and study it, I think it comes down to one thing: many people, QA themselves included, don’t see QA as having an actual piece of work that goes into making a great gameplay experience.

Programmers write code that drives the game.  Artists create images that make games look beautiful… but what do QA have?  The way I see it, the value added service that QA creates is a bug database – the record of all the defects that are in a game.  Now while an end user may not get to see this, they sure as hell would notice it if the bug database either didn’t exist, or a quality assurance team didn’t have enough time, or skill, to create a good one.

The Bad

A real-life example for example would be the rushed roll out of Fallout: New Vegas. This was a behemoth of a game, riddled with bugs because little QA was performed in order to rushed it to market.  What does that mean? Untested games could spell out disaster for a successful game.  In my opinion, what this all boils down to is that games testers are the unsung heroes of video game production. :-P .

The Good

OK, now before I start to sound like a Debbie downer, let me hit you with the good stuff.  First of all, and I never fail to get a kick out of this, but it is pretty cool to tell people you play games for a living.  It’s great going to parties, seeing the faces of people, who, after sharing they work in insurance (snooze fest) or finance (boring), and then you tell them you play games for a living.  It is a real conversation piece!  I’ll never forget the time I was passing through an incredibly harsh and tense post-September 11th customs at Washington-Dulles airport and, when being asked what I do for a living, and telling the customs official I was a video games tester, the response being ‘Awww  sh*t man, that’s awesome!’.  Needless to say I didn’t get the ‘rubber glove’ treatment that time :P   In a slightly lame way, it sometimes makes you feel like a rock star, minus the month long stays at the Betty Ford clinic.

Another advantage is that in QA you often get to put your hands on a lot more products than programmers or artists.  Whereas these guys and gals will often work on a title from its inception to the day a game goes on sale (and even longer if the game has updates), a tester will usually only start working on a game halfway through, or towards the end of its life cycle.  Now this will still mean long periods of time doing the same thing over and over again, but it also means that testers really are a part of everything a games company creates.  I think in twelve years I have worked on 60-70 titles, whereas the average programmer, in the same timeframe, may only work on half of that, if not less.

One of the often stated advantages of being a video games tester is that it is a stepping stone and a gateway to other parts of the industry, and it really can be.  I have seen so many people who I have worked with in QA who have gone on to become designers, artists and programmers.  One guy I worked with in QA, who started mere weeks after I did in the industry, has gone on to head up one of the top companies in the ‘first person shooter’ field, and has become one of the industries foremost design experts. Career trajectories like this can illustrate that you really can ‘aim high’.

I think, overall, my personal favorite aspect of being in QA at Big Blue Bubble is that at the B³, I have the opportunity to work with, and learn from, a wealth of incredibly talented people.    For this, I consider myself a very lucky little British dude!


2 Comments + Add Comment

  • Great post Darren!

    • haha thanks Damir…and thanks for giving me a great place to work! :)

Leave a comment