The Game Tester
It's not easy to be a hardcore gamer. It's hard. Wouldn't it be easier if you had a job in the videogames business? Think about it: working for a software company, being able to play games during office hours, with people who share your passion. Free games, industry parties, lots of fun and good money.
Well, think again; working in the PC Games business is nothing like that. Chances are you'll end up dealing with people who just care about the financial success of the company, with marketing executives who don't give adamn whether the game is good or not because "We'll put two-million bucks behind it and it'll sell like donuts", with programmers who cannot understand why an arcade-style racing game cannot have the intricacies of a complex simulator. Still, you'll get some free games plus a decent salary.Still interested? Good.
The easiest way to get a chance to work in the videogames industry is to start as a game tester. Mind you - the job is actually tougher and less exciting than you think. While it is true that you'll spend most of your day playing games, you must bear in mind that this means testing to death the same game again and again, since the earliest days of development until it's finished, and this can get really boring.
The game tester starts working as soon as either the graphic engine or some of the AI routines are ready (and even earlier in some occasions: sometimes testers have to check the game design documents in order to make sure that there aren't weaknesses in the game structure.) It means checking the graphics and the control system or testing the AI routines, moving around coloured dots (it's often the case with sports games) or extremely unappealing chunks of graphics around the screen to check how the code reacts.
Reporting bugs is not an easy or exciting task either. You need to assess the exact circumstances (if any) of a bug taking place and its consequences on the game. More often than not this means playing the same bit of the game again and again and again until you are able to repeat the same bug whenever you want to (or better: whenever the programmers ask you to) or until you're sure that it was a one-off bug, something which happens in situations which cannot be repeated.
If you don't like PCs, you'll probably find an absolute nightmare having to cope with all the compatibility issues (does the game work fine with all the graphic accelerator cards? And what about the sound cards? And the joypads/joysticks?) but you'll get used to it in a matter of weeks. Other downsides of the job is that office hours can range from your usual 9-5 to a very stressful round-the-clock when you're under deadlines and you don't have any guarantee that you'll be mentioned in the credits unless you're one of the lead testers. (Let's face it; you want your friends to know that YOU were part of the team who made that brilliant game, don't you?) Put in the frustration coming from dealing with programmers and/or artists who don't know what does make a good game (the industry has many such people...) and you'll get an even worse picture of the job.
Being a game tester is not all that bad, though. It's the perfect way to get into the biz for many different reasons: the first one and more obvious being that you'll be constantly in touch with both the programmers and artists. In a few weeks' time you'll understand problems concerning polygons (polys, for friends...), frame-rate and its relationships with the responsiveness and precision of the control system, how to address RAM-related problems and much, much more. Hold on - let me make myself clear: you will NOT become a programmer but you will understand which compromises you must have in the game in order to have it work in its best possible form, given the capabilities of the system it is working on and the skills and talents of the developers.
Another obvious plus of the job is the money. In Europe, an internal tester is usually paid somewhere between US$15,000 to US$23,000, assuming he's employed full-time. However, some companies have part-time testing jobs, so that you don't have to leave school to be a tester.
The real highlight of being a game tester is that in many occasions you'll be required to play an active role in the making of the game: rather than limiting your task to just testing existing code, sometimes testers are asked to suggest alternative solutions to problems in either playability or game structure. It often happens that, during the development stages, the game feels and plays differently from what it should according to the game design document. It could be the control system which is too complex, the physics model, the AI or any other element of the game which doesn't work as well as it should. The testers' main task is to flag any problems arising but they are often asked to give their precious input in order to improve the game.
It sometimes happens that the most critic and capable testers move onto design positions, which is a much more rewarding (both in terms of financial success and self-fulfilment) job with many more responsabilities. Another way to climb the ranks of the company is to become Quality Assurance Manager, supervising and directing the work of several testers for one or more titles. Therefore, starting as a game tester can take you to higher floors while making many interesting contacts in the industry. The perfect game tester can express himself quite well in both written and oral form, knows how to work in a team and know games inside out - both new and classic titles. Needless to say, to do this you must play a lot: explore all the possibilities of a title, do things the developers couldn't think you would do (such as killing a friendly character, throwing away a useful item, going out of the track in a racing game or standing in particular areas where you're not supposed to stay) and see what happens. Be curious while playing, and be critic.
If you have what it takes ring the bell; this industry needs you. Don't let the first negative replies write the word END to your career in this industry. Keep trying until a door opens, then put your foot in. Start writing your cover letter now (keep it short, nobody likes lengthy cover letters)) and be ready for the interview. Sooner or later you'll have your chance, so don't waste it.
Mary works in US for a media company, occasionally writing for the biggest PC Games Reviews portal, and drinking too much coffee.