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The job title 'video games tester' can sound almost perfect -- a job where you spend all day playing video games.
That may be the view from the outside, but within the industry the role of 'quality assurance technician' is often viewed as an entry-level position; a great way to start in the industry, irrespective of experience or education, before going onto other things.
There's some truth in that. QA can often (although not always) result in playing a lot of games. And there are many examples of industry professionals who started in QA going on to become producers, programmers, creative directors, analysts and studio heads.
Yet those views are reductive. Games QA is a varied role where playing games may only be a small part of the job. And although it can be a stepping stone into the industry, it's also a skilled, technical and challenging career in its own right.
Indeed, the history of games is littered with examples of how defects, poor service and technical issues have killed a game dead. And in today's world of live games, the role of the tester has never been more important.
Still interested? Here's everything you need to know to start your career in video games QA.
- What types of games testing jobs are there?
- What education do I need to get a job as a game tester?
- What's the best way to get into games QA?
- What qualities and skills do I need to work as a game tester?
- What are the common misconceptions about games QA?
- Advice for new and aspiring games testers
What types of games testing jobs are there?
Not all games testers work within studios. In fact, many work for outsourcing QA firms that test a variety of products, and there's a variety of different testing functions.
The job that most people think about with QA is functionality testing. These teams are tasked with finding the majority of defects in a game, and are often one of the first groups to offer feedback on game builds. Functionality testers are tasked with checking features and how well they integrate with the rest of the game.
Then there is localisation testing, which requires checking the text and audio to ensure the game will be well received in all regions. Some localisation testing will require translating and implementing dialogue changes directly.
Next there's compatibility testing. This is where you ensure that a game works well on different hardware -- for instance, if a game works well on both PS4 Pro and PS4, or on different types of smartphones. Or with different controllers and other input devices.
Finally, there's compliance/certification testing. Platform holders like Nintendo, Xbox and PlayStation have rules to follow with their games, such as how developers should refer to their controllers. Testers will need to check text against guidelines and ensure that a Nintendo button prompt or a PlayStation error message doesn't appear in an Xbox game. Get this wrong, and the game will fail certification.
There are other niche forms of testing, too, including performance, usability, focus group and closed beta testing. Although often these can form part of the above four roles. And with the rise of live, service-based games, the role of the tester is constantly evolving.
"Some large teams, especially those that work on live games [such as MMOs] will have teams of 'release testers'," explains Failbetter Games' principal QA specialist Lesleyann White. "Rather than working on new features during development, these testers focus solely on the end product and its integration into the wider game, ensuring it doesn't break existing content."
Within studios, the role of QA is sometimes integrated with the development teams. And here testers are often either QA analysts or QA engineers.
"Some large teams, especially those that work on live games, will have teams of release testers"
Lesleyann White, Failbetter
"Our QA analysts are product experts, and the defects they detect generally centre around qualitative aspects like balance, value, and if it meets the original vision," says Malachy O'Neill, QA director at Runescape developer Jagex. "Taking part in design discussions and looking at what players are saying is a daily task. You may see this defined as black-box testing.
"On the opposite side, we have QA engineers who are more system focused. They don't have the breadth of knowledge of a QA analyst but can go much deeper, to architecture level. You need to be comfortable in development environments and can contribute to technical discussions. You may see this defined as grey-box testing.
"Lastly, there has been a drive in our industry for more QA automation and self-reliance, so that we can lower the technical barrier for non-technical testers. Large QA organisations now have a quality engineering sub-team that serves this function. A common job you will find is the software development engineer in test. People in this role have the ability to write code that tests code. You may see this defined as white-box testing."
What education do I need to get a job as a game tester?
Broadly speaking, a formal education isn't a requirement for working in games QA.
"While college degrees in game design, software development and computer science are always a plus, most studios and QA agencies will take on applicants with a minimum of a high school [education]," says Adam Rush, QA manager at Keywords Studios.
Yet QA is becoming an increasingly demanding area of the games industry, and a bit of education can help secure you a position.
"The more technical the role becomes -- such as QA engineer -- traditional formal education such as game development, computer science, and mathematics is highly rated but is rarely a hard requirement," says O'Neill. "Quality assurance, maybe more than any other discipline, is learning as you go. Like a good fighting game it's easy to pick up, hard to master.
"A recent trend is professional QA training, such as the ISTQB [International Software Testing Qualifications Board] series of certifications. These demonstrate craft excellence and that you take QA seriously."
White adds: "More and more companies are asking for applicants to have the ISTQB foundation certificate for testing. It's a good thing to have -- it certainly gives you a grounding in software testing principles -- but I don't feel it should be a requirement, especially for junior roles, and I wouldn't discount applicants without that qualification.
"I have seen it as a requirement for higher level QA roles, though, so it's worth looking into, especially since the syllabus is available online. As part of your career development, a lot of companies are happy to put you through the exam, especially if you've already studied the syllabus.
"More and more roles are asking for programming skills, whether it's to automate test scripts or to actually help fix the bugs you find. Even basic programming skills are beneficial for helping testers to read and understand code. There's a wealth of knowledge to be gained from online courses, whether free tutorials on YouTube or from paid courses on portals like Udemy. They may not lead to formal qualifications but they will absolutely be a boon to any QA role."
What's the best way to get into games QA?
You can find QA roles via the GamesIndustry.biz Jobs Board and directly on the websites of your local studios. A lot of employers do prefer a bit of QA experience, but how do you get that when you're only just starting out?
"Apply for internships and work experience," suggests White. "This doesn't necessarily have to be in the games industry -- target tech companies. Summer jobs are also good experiences where you'll gain vital skills."
Creating your own games as well as learning various tools and technology will also give you advantages.
"Build a portfolio where you can demonstrate your knowledge of game design and programming"
Lesleyann White, Failbetter
"Build a portfolio where you can demonstrate your knowledge of game design and programming," White continues. "Have a blog where you write up the processes of your development and your debugging and bug fixing efforts. Learn about different game engines: Unity, Unreal, and GameMaker all have free versions. While you will spend time in QA testing game builds, you'll also spend time testing directly in the game engine, so knowing your way around one is super helpful.
"Research industry tools. I'm not just talking about testing tools like Test Rail, Charles proxy, Jira, but tools used by the wider dev team like Visual Studio, Git, Ink, Twine, Blender, 3DS Max, and so on. Most have free, trial or educational versions."
White also advises studying bug abuse: "I do not mean become a bug abuser -- you'll get banned for one thing -- but look for examples of others abusing bugs before they were fixed. The best games to target for this are MMOs. You'll learn a lot about destructive thinking and be able to spot patterns like how interfaces can be used to stall scripts, for example.
"Finally, join online testing communities. You can meet other testers who are usually very happy to offer guidance. Sometimes there are even opportunities to help test software applications. It may not be games, but it's testing experience."
What qualities and skills do I need to work as a game tester?
Believe it or not 'being good at games' is not the most important skill you'll need to become a games tester.
"You need to be logical, patient, a creative thinker, with a brief and clear written ability," says Universally Speaking general manager James Cubitt. "You must be able to articulate -- clearly and concisely -- where the issues are, what they are, how they occurred so that fellow testers and developers can understand and reproduce the issue.
"Patience is required when trying to reproduce issues, as you will need to do the same thing many times to ensure the 'steps to reproduce' are as accurate as possible, and that it really does happen every time. This can get even worse with an issue that only occurs occasionally.
"Creativity is also essential, as you must be able to think like the many types of users. Some just run through a title, some explore every nook and cranny, some will try to do things out of order and look for bugs and exploits themselves. This all has to be covered."
Pole To Win's president of North America and India Sijo Jose adds: "Gaming knowledge, a passion for games, basic QA know-how, analytical skills, and good English communication skills are a great base to build from. Exposure to as many platforms as possible is always an advantage, too. We also look for soft skills like attention to detail, tech-savviness, adaptability and flexibility, the ability to work in a team, and creative problem-solving skills."
As you move up within QA, the ability to be organised so you can manage teams and liaise with clients is essential, says Testronic Warsaw's QA project lead Pawel Marciniak.
"I start the day by assigning tasks to each member of the team. And I will contact the client throughout the day, sending them updates on the progress we are making. Reviewing bugs reported during the day by technicians is also part of my responsibility. More often than not I create checklists based on design documents or the title itself."
A major skill that budding testers ought to learn, especially when working directly with developers, is diplomacy.
"Embedded QA requires outstanding communication skill -- I can't stress that enough," says O'Neill. "You are working side-by-side with programmers, artists, designers... You need to be able to negotiate and be emotionally aware to get your view across, even if they don't necessarily want to hear it.
"Leaving your ego at the door is also important. I've seen too many testers come out of game development courses that get a real culture shock because they can't handle when their ideas or defects are not taken onboard."
What are the common misconceptions about games QA?
- It's just playing games all day
"Embedded QA requires outstanding communication skill, I can't stress that enough"
Malachy O'Neill, Jagex
"There is a big difference between testing and playing," says Cubitt. "We plan and execute tests in a methodical way, to ensure everything is covered. It could be connecting and disconnecting for a day when testing multiplayer, it could be going through every customisable item and ensuring they load as expected."
White adds: "At times it can be very repetitive, and there is more paperwork and documentation than you'd imagine. The work itself is nothing like playing a game as you would at home. You just don't get to enjoy the games you make as a regular consumer of games. In fact, by the time you're done with development you may never want to touch that game or piece of content again."
- It's a laid-back and fun career
Because a lot of people assume testing games is the same as playing games, they also imagine it's going to be a relaxed, laid-back environment. Well, they should rethink this perspective.
"It can be fun at times, like any other job, but it can also be hellishly stressful," White explains. "I thought the recent UKIE UK Game Industry Census was rather illuminating, with QA showing the highest rates of depression (30% of QA respondents) and the second highest rates of anxiety (34%).
"The role can be very high pressure. There are still not enough companies employing embedded testers throughout development -- instead, they opt to bring QA on towards the end of development. Testers in these situations are often faced with inadequate testing tools and resources. Time is running out, all the bugs must be found, prioritised, fixed and regressed before an immovable deadline.
"Testers are often labelled as 'the last line of defence'. It's meant as a badge of honour but it adds pressure, shifts responsibility, and often hints at bad project management. It can lead to a culture where the blame always lands on QA.
"You have to filter through players' feedback, which can be very disheartening"
Lesleyann White, Failbetter
"As a double whammy, a lot of QA roles involve player support of some kind. Even if you don't have to respond to players, you still have to filter through their reports/feedback, which can be very disheartening and certainly has an impact on mental health."
O'Neill adds: "A regular misconception I see from players is that our role is 'ultimate approver', with the phrase 'why did QA not stop this?' widely used. As ever in life, there is give and take... Suggestions are made, but it's a team decision on what is done. QA ensures that everyone has the information. Are we always happy with the outcome? Of course not. Within QA circles the term 'Quality Assistance' is gaining traction as a better representation of what we are. We are not Quality Control. New testers struggle with this."
- It's a dead-end job, just a stepping stone into the industry
While some use QA as a way to enter the games industry to do something else, it can also be a very fulfilling career in its own right. Jose lists test lead, project manager and director of QA as some of the roles available to those who choose to follow the path.
"Experienced testers are incredibly valuable," Cubitt says. "As you progress into more senior roles, you'll find yourself taking on greater responsibilities, which involves training and managing testers, as well as creating test plans while being in direct communication with the developers -- you'll be constantly building and reinforcing the most vital workplace skills."
White agrees: "A lot of people made their start in the games industry as testers, and I'm sure people will continue to do that for a long time to come. But it's a fascinating and technical career, one that is as vital as any other to making games. It's quite disrespectful to those who choose to pursue QA as a career to treat it as a mere stepping stone. Plus, QA leads and hiring managers want analysts who are good at their craft and are actually going to stick around, not someone who is looking for a quick way into the audio department.
"It's also not a great stepping off point for a lot of roles in the industry. You can learn some incredible skills in QA, but not a lot of it is relevant to animation or community management or marketing. The reality is you'll be working in a frequently tiring, often stressful, technical role that sadly involves overtime at a lot of companies. It can leave you with little spare time to develop your skills in what you really want to do.
"In contrast, QA is one of the few roles in the industry where you get to touch every element of the game, you get to work with every other department, and you gain a complete overview of the development process -- one of the many things that make it so exciting. Because of that it can be a great grounding for roles like production and design. The tech aspects can also be a great primer for evolving into programming roles."
- It's all about finding bugs
Quality assurance is not just about noticing bugs so they can be fixed -- it's much more than that.
"It's about analysing and improving overall quality in current and future projects," says White. "As well as finding bugs, QA is there to ensure that the game is a user-friendly, intuitive and fun experience. That the user's needs are actually met, not just that the product meets its specifications. And that quality is raised across the whole team by identifying the root cause of errors and ensuring processes are changed through development to combat this."
In addition, some testers are involved in fixing the bugs, not just finding them. And testers will often produce bibles and technical documentation for development teams. Some will even create tools to make testing easier and quicker.
Advice for new and aspiring games testers
- Check your local studios' websites
Your local game developers might not always need game testers, but they often need people to come in and offer feedback.
"If these studios are hosting open houses or local play sessions, get involved," Rush suggests. "Developers and producers are constantly looking for gamers who can communicate their opinions cleanly and provide actionable feedback on gameplay.
"Seek out opportunities to become a remote beta tester, you will gain insight and learn how to provide actionable feedback"
Adam Rush, Keywords Studios
"If you aren't lucky enough to live in a city with a booming games industry, seek out opportunities to become a remote beta tester. While these may not offer an in-studio QA experience, you will gain insight and learn how to provide actionable feedback to the devs and community coordinators running them."
He continues: "Get involved in betas -- sometimes studios just want lots of people in their games, but sometimes they want feedback and bugs that you find. This is experience that you can take into an entry-level interview."
- Learn about the games industry -- all of it
Pay attention to the industry and the latest developments -- new technology, new genres, and new services constantly transform the games testing landscape.
"Having wide and varied game knowledge is always going to be a benefit," White says. "As is having a good working knowledge of the games made by the company that you are applying to. However, don't focus solely on becoming an expert on just one game or genre.
"If you want to work for Blizzard because you're a massive World of Warcraft fan, then game knowledge is going to help, but if WoW is all you know then it can be detrimental. Not only does it limit your perspective, but it can give you a solely player-focused mentality. While testers do need to approach their work with a user mindset, they also need to employ a business-focused mindset because at the end of the day that's what it is -- a business."
- Have an open mind
You may end up testing a variety of different products. You may be a huge strategy fan, but be willing to embrace that Switch party game, too.
"You probably won't be on your favourite AAA game franchise right away, or the platform you prefer," Cubitt says. "Mobile gaming is huge and there will be a lot of tests around that, and you'll quickly find yourself broadening your horizons for the kind of games you play. There are games for all ages, they all need solid and robust testing."