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The Dark Side of Game Testing

gamer biting a gamepadVideo game testing is the kind of job most people automatically assume is wonderful. Getting paid to deathmatch, teabag co-workers, and overdose on free caffeinated drinks for at least eight hours a day sounds like a raucous good time, many might say. People seem to forget that game testing is still a job and, like any job, it comes with its fair share of mind-numbing objectives and office drama. Sure, game testing is chest-slappingly easy and arguably more fun than a typical job, but don’t convince yourself that you’ll love it until you’ve tried it.

In fact, as a lifelong gamer, I’ve come to fucking hate game testing. Having worked for a few different companies on more than 10 titles (mostly uncredited), it’s left me with a distaste for monotony and pure, boiling hatred for inefficient policy. Many great things about game testing exist, but they come with a price that, for irritable people like me, far outweighs the benefits. So, in the spirit of the holidays, here are my top reasons working as a game tester suckles moist cat balls.

The Ungodly Repetition is Ungodly.

It should come as no surprise that testing is an extremely repetitive task; you’re not going to find serious issues without incessantly probing for them in ways only slightly less different than the last one you tried. Be ready to be pushed to the extremes of your mental and sometimes even physical fortitude, presuming that you got into game testing partially because you’re fortitude isn’t exceptional.

Have you ever spent a half hour reloading your weapon to make sure none of the glowy bits disappear after the 125th attempt? Or more than a few seconds staring at any particular menu, just to see if the background music loops indefinitely? Have you reloaded a level countless times to test what happens if you hold a particular combination of buttons while it starts? No? Well, that’s the difference between gaming and game testing, in short.

Chores like this are the bread and butter of game testing. It is not uncommon to flush away a day like this then look at the time and think, “Oh shit, it’s almost lunch? I’ve been run-humping walls for over an hour now.” You have to interact with every single aspect of the software in ways no human being reasonably would just in case they do and the shitty part is that it’s absolutely necessary; devastating bugs have to be dug out of the cold hard soil and sometimes that means reopening a single treasure chest for 37 minutes. Repetition is a habit you’ll either be tasked with or you’ll fall into when there’s nothing assigned, eventually establishing itself as an automatic process that you’re almost completely mentally absent for. One day, you’ll snap out of a stupor at the sight of some minor quirk then ask yourself how you even noticed it while experiencing clinical brain death.

This problem is no longer limited to mental fatigue as the onset of the motion-gaming era has expanded it into the physical realm. While working on a popular motion-controlled sports game, my team was tasked with testing gesture fidelity; in English, they wanted us to see if the game accurately registered player movements (considering how well it works post-release, I’ll let you guess how well it worked prior). They gave us a spreadsheet listing every event in the game and about 30 different gestures, including hopping on either foot, high-knee running, and invisible shot-putting, and asked us to try each gesture 15 times in a row during each event. It seemed like nothing initially, but after a full day of this the entire team was sore, sweaty, and notably aromatic. That kind of repetition would be bad for a professional athlete, let alone the kind of people whose physical capabilities typically register just above “invalid.” I twisted my ankle, a few people jacked their knees up, and one guy even left early after injuring himself, which I only partially attribute to his spongy geek physique.

So whatever you end up doing, prepare yourself to do it a lot, and in an environment most suitable for…

The Office Vampire Lifestyle.

Gamers are not known for their keenness to daylight, nor should they be keen on it; mid-day screen glare is enough to justify detonating the sun. As such, the move to the office environment comes rather easily to us. But, one of the unique qualities of working in the software industry is that every single window that isn’t attached to an executive’s office will be strongly tinted and concealed behind drawn shutters. Parking lot-bound intellectual property theft is viewed as a serious threat by just about every software company, which has led to work environments primarily illuminated by fluorescent lights and LCDs.

In time, you will yearn for the light again, even if you have not before. You will actually go outside for it, an unthinkable act when video games were just about raiding and rolling in loot raffles. But you’ll also be going outside to stretch your tired body, because you will be doing more sitting than you probably ever have in your entire life.

Of course, after sitting too long you can usually just stand up and go for a walk, maybe play some catch with that dog you often forget having. But, when your job essentially requires you to sit for long hours at a time, the health effects are unavoidable, culminating into increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, decreased energy, and, worst of all, love handles. It stands to reason that a gamer working as a tester is spending a ridiculous amount of time on their ass leveling their mortality rate. And before you convince yourself otherwise, yes, management notices if you get up too often (I know this because, apparently, I get up too often).

It may not be obvious how, but testing will make you sore and tired, and worst of all…

You Will Tire of Gaming.

Without a doubt, working as a tester will make recreational gaming less tempting, sometimes even less tolerable. It’s a simple matter of fatigue. Your mind, your eyes, your wrists, your fingers, your back, your legs (sometimes even my balls), will be so tired of gaming that the thought of doing it in your free time might make you wretch. Yet that fatigue will be a minor nuisance compared to the your professionally trained, hawk-eyed awareness of any kind of flaw a game might have, which will permanently cripple your ability to enjoy certain titles.

I’ve tossed aside $60 games for shitty controls, cumbersome menus, sloppy animations, unoriginal gameplay, irritating battle systems, and other exaggerated flaws. It’s fine to not like something, but when I was younger I only understood that I didn’t like a game after enough faults had surfaced, allowing me to wring out as much joy as possible before then. Now that I understand the logic behind my opinion as well as many of the mechanics of gaming, I spot my pet-peeves quickly and am too fatigued to tolerate them like I might have in the past. Fortunately, I have a compensatory habit of trying things at least twice before solidifying my opinion, which has saved me from missing out on titles like the original Mass Effect (initially rejected for stiff, unsatisfying combat).

But you will never know exhaustion until you’ve been placed on a particular kind of project. Sometimes…

You Have to Work on Shitty Games.

I once worked on an ambitious project by a beloved children’s institution to bring one of their theme parks to digital life. Tremendous effort was put into copying the theme park’s details for the game, so much that you can actually get around the park or the game with just familiarity of the other. It also took advantage of a new kind of hands-free motion technology, potentially allowing for an immersive experience unlike any other in gaming. Topped with the world’s most recognizable character roster, this title undeniably had a lot going for it.

I fucking loathed testing that game more than almost any work experience I’ve ever had.

Over-simplified gameplay, forfeited potential, and myriad other issues made the project especially unbearable. This perfect storm of irritants had me considering hanging myself with a controller, only to make the horrifying realization that the option had been taken away for motion sensors. Worse yet, that project garnered more overtime than just about any other I was on, making it a long-lived misery that ultimately took its toll on my appreciation for testing. This may be disappointing to hear, but I’ve worked on a decent number of games and only one of them could arguably be called a good one. Two or three of them weren’t even games.

Oh, you thought game testers just test games? Hahaha… no. Not these days. See, there’s no such thing as a game console anymore; they’re all “media centers” now. They have YouTube apps, streaming music services, and multi-million dollar content distribution networks; someone has to make sure all that non-gaming bullshit is working. If the notion of grinding away on a shoddy IP gets your apathy gurgling, wait until you have to choke down an app that does almost nothing and is never intended to function unshittily because the target demographic wouldn’t notice the difference anyway. Therein lie the mountains of madness.

But, it’s not all bad. Fortunately, the money in game testing is relatively good.

For Better or Worse, There’s Lots of Overtime.

Testing pays relatively well thanks in part to the burgeoning art of software production. Development provides semi-regular work (though often constricted by contract periods) spotted with weeks-long crunch cycles that can be extremely lucrative for people with minimal need for sleep. I’ve even heard a few testers claim to have paid off or purchased a car after an especially brutal project, which is saying a lot considering that the test phase is but a short period of time at the end of the development cycle.

However, there is a general expectation that you will accept overtime when it is offered. And honestly, I’m not even against that attitude because testing is just too comfortable to reasonably deny it if you don’t have a family or second job (but that’s never stopped me). The general camaraderie in the testing environment also helps the time fly by. But the hours escalate as a project nears its end, with chaos giving way to panic as suddenly-concerned developers frantically polish essential features and resolve critical bugs that could strangle launch sales. Personalities shift from lackadaisical to cutthroat while everyone frantically assembles their last bits for the gold build until, at the end of it all, you wake up on a soiled mattress covered in filthy local currency, unemployed and nauseous from all the stress and sugary bullshit that kept you awake during the final crunch.

But, with the game wrapped and final builds sent out for publication, it’s time to shower in the appreciation of your peers for a job well done, right? Wrong.

Respect is Hard to Earn as a Tester.

It’s best to get this through your oily, malformed heads now, nerds: game testers are considered the lowest caste in the game industry, within which there are subdivisions that further separate you from your peers. It’s an entry-level position often held by people too young to drink alcohol that is sometimes outright segregated by company culture or even policy; do not be surprised if you find yourself excluded from parties, and if you do get employment benefits, it will almost certainly be in exchange for a dollar or more off of your hourly pay. At the end of your project, you will be unceremoniously thanked while simultaneously handed a pink slip, because testers are a temporary necessity and highly disposable.

Your opinion will be devalued as an inherent consequence of your job title and any attempt to share it will be deflected by a reminder of your core role, which is to report problems, not opinions. Many amateur testers will file bug reports that are (or include) game design suggestions, needlessly expanding the pool of tickets that need to be addressed, which developers hate. Yet many of these opinions are as legitimate as they are unwanted because, ironically, the ground-floor testers are often some of the most knowledgeable about the current state of their project. I could not recount how many times I’ve tried to describe an issue to a senior employee using obvious, highly visible features that I would then learn they were not aware of.

Also, there is no reason to write informative bug reports because they will only be skimmed for keywords and screenshots, which is all developers typically need to address an issue. Thus, do not expect to gain fame just by fulfilling your job description a little better than others. To get ahead as a tester you either have to; a) have a lot of time under your belt, or b) improve your insight in a particular area like audio, graphics, or AI, which usually involves gaining some production or programming knowledge. That means if you want to get ahead as a game tester, you’re going to have to work towards becoming a game developer.

But then you’ll likely ask yourself, “If I can program, or model, or draw, or write, or produce music, or design engaging gameplay… why the fuck am I sitting here testing games when I could be making them?” Considering the limited depth of game test as a career path, this is an extremely good question indeed.

It Might Still Be Worth it Because…

It really is a great job for the right kind of person and it at least puts you beside the game development career track, giving you an opportunity to jump directly into other development fields. I’ve seen people move on to become artists, production assistants, managers, programmers, and animators. Without a turn in test, they would not have had the connections they needed to make those advancements.

To get the most out of testing, you must adapt to the fact that it compacts a lot of frustration into a relatively short period of time, and learn to make the best of a work environment that is often both physically and mentally daunting. Ignore that it pays well but it also takes a lot out of you because 99% of life’s investments work that way. And get used to the lack of respect, because that’s part of what they call “reality”, and it never stops shitting on you if you let it.

Game testing is part of that reality, but it can be a substantial experience for those who put in the effort. You will earn intimate knowledge of the medium, a variety of industry-relevant experience, a lot of time with like-minded individuals, plus a few bucks in your pocket to boot. So, if you have the fortitude, give testing a try, but, please, when it comes up in conversation, don’t assume it’s all just a game.

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