Things They Never Tell You About Video Game QA

Game testing picture courtesy of Tim Dorr

So I’ve gone and found myself a new job, albeit a temporary one, doing some full time QA testing for the latest installment of one of my favorite video game franchises ever. They called me in for the last few months of crunch time, desperate for someone obsessive and nerdy over the lore so that, when the fifth line of the ninth dialogue in the sixteenth level makes some mention of an event which involved three psychic vampires when, in fact, it actually involved two,  I would be there, glasses in hand, codex in the other, ready to unleash my nerdrage on their hapless writers.

Or, at least, that was the idea. Then I got distracted by punching walls and trying to figure out how to charge myself through a wall again. All this and I get paid too.

A lot of ink has been spilled on the topic of QA testing as the Holy Grail of entry-level positions in the video game industry, on both sides of the fence. Obviously, to many a gamer, the idea of being paid to play games all day is some sort of nerdvana, the best job in the world, etc etc. There have also been many blogs deconstructing that notion to the other degree, asserting that QA is a deep black hole of bad pay, crap hours and soul-destroying monotony. Now that I’ve had a chance to do it myself, I find that, like many things, the truth seems to be somewhere in the middle, possibly closer to the positive end… though I might not feel the same way if I didn’t love the game I’m working on!

So, in the spirit of sharing and encouragement, here are some things you may not know about QA:

  • You will work. Hard. And you will be exhausted, particularly in the last month or so of the project. This is not gaming as you know it where you take your time and do random things and just enjoy yourself. This involves tasks, and checklists, and things called “regressions” and “audio/cinema/gameplay passes.” You may be asked to play through a level just to see if a texture flickers slightly in the last cinematic, or you may be told to kill every enemy in the level using only a herring to make sure it doesn’t cause a glitch. There will be structure, and there will be demands…
  • … and chances are that you will love it, or at least find it a fascinating exercise. There’s a sort of deep satisfaction which comes from bugging a game, not unlike that which comes from playing Tetris or Bejeweled, where suddenly everything falls into place. A sense of serenity descends, and your report is typed with the confidence that only true wisdom grants. Verily, you are the Chosen One, the one man/woman who saw that the GUI for the weapon screen was slightly off-center. Your name shall be inscribed among the stars for your perceptive wit and endless knowledge (note that “stars” in this case means “end credits”). And yes, in all seriousness, YOU have helped make this game better. That’s one of the best feelings there is.
  • Of course, that means that if you missed a bug which then causes fandom dismay later, everything is your fault. You monster.
  • You will be endlessly distracted by your own job. If you have been asked to keep an eye out to ensure that things like the cover is working properly,  there aren’t any holes in the world or the cinematics are all working properly, you will likely end up getting so caught up in just playing through the level that you forget to do all of that and realize sheepishly at the end that you waltzed right by the Lovecraftian nightmare of a polygon cluster to get to the final boss and see what happens next. Conversely, if you are supposed to be breezing through the levels, getting them done quickly and doing only a cursory pass of them, you are guaranteed to stumble across every single niggling bug in the game, and possibly some other game as well, and your “fast” runthrough will instead be spent obsessing over painstaking reports about how pressing against the second block in the north room caused your feet to suddenly disappear for three seconds.
  • You will be constantly amazed at how easy video games are to break. Heck, even fixing one issue will break at least five other things in the process. And if you are working on a game with branching narratives or non-linear plot, things approach nightmare level; it’s not enough to check over one conversation, you have to check over almost all variants of it. Before, when you were an innocent, you would laugh at games like Skyrim or Dragon Age II or Arkham City and say, “Bah! How could these companies let these games get released with so many bugs?” After working QA, you may find yourself wondering how they released them with so few.
  • Getting hired in the last month or so of a project can really suck. Not because it’s getting into crunch time – though that doesn’t help – but because much of what you are now seeing, broken as it is, is in its nearly final form. Early in the project may be harder, what with its levels made out of blue and white boxes and Text-to-Speech voices, but at least there’s more wiggle room for suggestions. Coming in and trying to get things changed or fixed in the final months is like someone walking into Leonardo Da Vinci’s studio just as he’s putting the last few brush strokes on the Mona Lisa and saying, “Hmm, it’s very nice, but do you think we could make her blonde and put her on a beach?”
  • Seeing your favorite games in an early, buggy state is sort of like seeing those “candid” pictures of models and celebrities caught in their sweats or rolling out of bed in the morning or whatever; they’re still gorgeous, but they definitely don’t look anything like that polished, perfect god/goddess who walks down the runway. It’s weird to see what should be a glistening, beautiful cinematic vista as a bunch of blocky textures or boxes.
  • You will do overtime, not because it is required, but because it is… encouraged. Everyone talks about the infamous overtime required of QA testers, hushed whispers of 36 hour shifts murmured in the same horrified tone as if you were discussing your uncle the serial killer to the neighbourhood gossips. The truth is somewhat more nuanced and complicated. The good news is that, in a lot of companies, you will not be FORCED to do overtime. Many project leads will state very clearly that overtime is entirely optional and that they would never want any of their testers to feel obligated to sign up for OT. The bad news is that, well, you WILL feel obligated to some degree, because no matter how helpful and lax your leaders are, there is still that subtle undercurrent, a humming just beneath the range of sound, that whispers, “You should do overtime. It’s the right thing to do. Everyone else is doing it.” There’s nothing like peer pressure, and the weighing sense of guilt when you see everyone else on the team signed up for the evening you’d planned to go out with friends… well, let’s just say it’s a great motivator. Of course, on the more positive side, you may find that you want to take overtime just because you love the game so much. This has been my experience… but we’ll see how I feel about it when the 16 hour shifts start next week…
  • You will not be eating healthily during your sojourn at QA. Not unless you bring your own lunch. And even then, there’s a vending machine down the hall. I think it has cookies.
  • Your coworkers will be awesome. There is no joy like going to work and sitting side by side with people who know the same memes as you, enjoy the same shows as you, and play the same games as you… or if not exactly the same, then at least with enough overlap in taste to provoke fun discussions of favorite movies or game moments. The awesomeness of your colleagues will be somewhat mitigated, though, by at least one real life troll who seeks out the weak points of his/her coworkers, probing gently and lovingly with the scalpel-like delicacy of an artist, before repeatedly hammering those weak points with a blunt instrument. For my team’s troll, that blunt instrument of choice is a certain song by Rebecca Black, sung constantly on a certain day of the week… or sometimes on another day entirely. (“Hey guys, it’s Thursday! Guess what tomorrow is…?” “YOUR DEATH IF YOU SAY, SING, OR EVEN WHISPER ONE THING MORE.”)
  • Of all the responses to your bug reports – the ones that demand more information, the ones that shrug and say they can’t reproduce it, the ones that declare it’s working as intended, you silly tester you, the ones that fix it then demand you check that they’ve fixed it – sometimes the most painful response is “Will Not Fix.” This is when the developers recognize there’s a problem but have decided to ignore it, either because it’s a minor issue or because it’s a major issue that they don’t have time or resources to cover. It makes sense, particularly with games with voice acting – who wants to spend thousands of dollars to get Seth Green back in the studio to record one line that the original dialogue missed? – and in some cases, you shrug and move on. Hey, you’re done with it, and five seconds later, it’s excised from your inbox, never to be seen again. But so much of the time, it still burns. It stings, it seethes, it makes you lie awake at night imagining disappointed fans and snotty forum posts (“Wow, they really missed that. Who did  QA for this, a monkey?”)  It boils inside you with a kind of righteous indignation that only a rabid gamer can have. How dare they not see? How dare they not realize that somewhere, a player just like you will see this bug and go, “Wait, WTF?” For the graphical glitch that turns the level into a rave, the subtitle mismatch that adds on three or four extra words, the plothole that you could drive a semi through… the “Will Not Fix” is a badge of sorrow and of regret. You tattoo these into your soul, like scars, and move on to the next bug, eyes dry and empty. Somewhere a swan dies in a very poetic way. Blah blah blah, suffer for your art, etc.
  • Despite all the troubles, despite the disgustingly early hour you need to get up to catch the bus and the eccentric playthrough instructions you need to follow and the fact that your coworker has NOT STOPPED SINGING OMG SHUT UP, a small part of you (or, perhaps, a large part) will feel privileged to go into work in the morning, to spend the day doing something so many people dream of, even if they might have an… unrealistic image of what you do.  And when you file that bug report, you’ll know that somehow, in a small way, you’re making the smile on a gamer’s face a little wider.


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