Testing video games for a living: a dream job or a nightmare?

If you loved playing video games as a child, your mother probably told you to “get your head out of that computer”. And you apparently asked the heavens for an opportunity to play all day long without those unwanted sounds of grumbling.

Many people may think that the job of a video game tester is the best activity ever: you constantly do something you adore and get paid for it—all in the same breath. Eventually, they rarely fulfill their dream of becoming a tester. One of the reasons for that may be that they once bumped into a real game tester who brought them down to earth. So what is a game tester’s reality? Is it so cool to raise money while testing video games?

Alpha and Beta

Before trying to answer the questions, it is reasonable to define an important point. Among other classifications, specialists distinguish two broad types of testing: alpha and beta. In-house QA (quality assurance) team, which includes professional testers and developers, produces the first type of testing in the lab environment. This testing stage is aimed at serious bugs detection and their elimination. Meanwhile, a limited number of real users conduct beta testing in order to give external feedback.

The people performing beta testing often occupy non-testing positions and they mostly do it for fun or for additional gaming features. This is why we are going to cover the peculiarities of being an alpha tester as far as only these people can be implicitly called video game testers.

What is game testing made of

A video game tester is a person who works for a video game developing company and checks the soon-to-release product for bugs, or errors. A tester should replay one piece of a video game several times and test the gaming processes in all the modes and with all the playable characters, if there are several of them in a game. The main goal of a tester is to try to break a game in all possible ways, actually not to play it.

The tester should do his or her best in order to predict all possible activities and find all the corrupted parts of gameplay before a player finds them. When discovering a bug, the tester records it and reports to the development team responsible for the broken part, who take debugging upon themselves. After a part of the game is technically debugged, testers check it again several times to make sure that a) bugs were fixed; b) the rest of the functionality wasn’t broken by bug fixes (this is called regression testing).

To test or not to test

It all sounds like quite a typical working process, and like all the working processes, this one also has its pros and cons.

The job of a game tester is interesting. It is really all about games: a tester is the first person who sees a new game and the first person who tries it out. It may be a fascinating job, especially when a tester takes into account all the cons of the job. So here’s what they are:

  • ⎯      Usually, testing is not about finding a playing character whose nose positions itself somewhere in the eye zone. It is more about meticulously checking every weapon type presented in a game and making sure that all of these guns, knives, swords, bazookas, and guandaos do exactly ten points of damage as they are supposed to do. Testers usually have to check a small part of gameplay for a long time, trying to break their 15 minutes of a game in all possible ways.
  • At home, you choose the game to play—at work a game chooses you. Imagine a tester Peter who is really fond of strategy games. A company he works for needs to test Barbie: Video Game Hero. So whatever Peter’s own preferences are, he simply has to go and ride Barbie’s skate all day long.
  • Finding bugs is a challenging and monotonous process, but it is only one side of a coin. The second is reporting the revealed bugs. Say, a tester works on their part of a game when suddenly a game character’s head simply vanishes. In this case, the tester can’t straightly write to the development teams something like: “This character loses his head.” In order to pin down and fix a bug, the developers have to know all the details of the bug detection with all the sequence of actions that led to the disappearing head. Given the quantity of game possibilities, a tester may find it difficult to track her own moves, which really reminds the puzzle-solving procedure.
  • The testing process is long and consists of several important steps: test design (preparation of test plan documentation and updating specifications), test preparation and its performance, reporting the results, repairing bugs, and then repeating this cycle again and again.
  • The testing procedure itself includes dozens of techniques: combinatorial testing that is aimed at estimating how much testing should be enough, cleanroom testing that helps to ensure the reliability of gaming software, load testing, and many other techniques, such as compatibility, tree, and ad hoc testing. Conduction of these tests takes time and effort, and constantly repeating it becomes even more monotonous.

The evolution of a game tester

You got it right: being a manual game tester is not so easy. It takes time, effort, and tons of patience. But in the end, there are not so many testers who do this job for their whole lives — there are enough options for career development that certainly require a lot of additional skills. The most popular job perspectives are a game designer or developer and a test automation engineer.

Game designer/developer

Both of these professions need many additional technical and soft skills. A game designer creates a game plot, its main and secondary characters, makes up all the twists and difficulties, and thinks of all possible ways to win or lose. For becoming a game designer, it’s good to have some basic programming skills, but what is really essential is a person’s creativity.

A game developer is a person who deals with the technical aspect of the matter. He or she creates a game by coding and programming. This job requires strong mathematical skills, and good knowledge of the necessary programming tools and languages, such as C++.

Working for a software testing company, I saw many manual testers who had to deal with some game designer/developer job aspects for better testing results. This experience turned out to be very helpful for their carriers: they were acquainted with general game designer/developer duties and knew the needed and lacking skills for evolving. 

Test automation engineer

Because of the fast-growing game development market, many companies start using test automation services, which, according to this research, significantly boosts the quality of testing processes and saves a company’s time and money. Thus, the perspective of becoming a test automation engineer is becoming a more sure thing than ever.

A test automation engineer (also called a test automation developer, not incidentally) is a person who designs and then writes a program that runs automatic tests on software, in our case, a game. This job also requires a good knowledge of programming languages, such as C# and Java, and testing tools, such as Selenium, Ranorex, etc. Writing a test takes time, but in the end, it may really save much time that would be spent on manual testing.

Even today, when manual testing of games is still popular, there are enough examples of how automated testing improves the QA processes. For instance, Crackdown’s developers created a tool that verified that all the gameplay objects were where they were supposed to be. They admitted that this tool was definitely worth it by having saved them a lot of time and by having kept the testers from getting deadly bored.

It’s all up to you

The career of a game tester definitely has its ups and downs. It may be way more boring than young people imagine and not very well-paid. But, in the end, it provides great career opportunities such as a career in test automation or game development. So if game development is your passion it’s only natural to start your path as a game testing engineer.

Image Credits: video games from Oleg Krugliak/Shutterstock

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