Aside from the independent video game website that I was part of at the turn of the century, my professional entry into the game industry was in the summer of 2006 when I started testing for a large publisher. From there I moved on to a number of different companies and been witness to many different work methods and office environments. Overall, testing is exactly the way that most industry insiders describe it, but I feel like too many of them frame their description as a list of complaints rather than just letting the description stand on it's own. Many people that have a testing background do indeed become quite jaded with it and forget how excited they initially were when they landed the job. In an attempt to be somewhat less negative than others I am writing about my experience in game testing.
I started out the year of 2006 working at two well-known restaurants and averaging just below $20 an hour for the twelve combined hours I was working between the two every weekday. Despite the money being pretty good, I wanted to do something related to video games. My options were to start as a tester immediately or keep doing restaurant work while spending a few years in school getting a game design degree and ending up in debt for my troubles. Due to my impatient nature and the fact that the game design degree at the school I was looking into is actually more of an "independent developer degree" that teaches the basics of all the technical aspects of making a game rather than focusing on design, I chose to immediately leave behind my $20 an hour average pay to take on the unstable life of a contracted video game tester and what amounted to a 50% pay cut. It sounds like a bad choice, but this was likely the best decision I've ever made.
The Large Publisher #1
The cubicles looked like this.
The summer of 2006 is when I started at my first testing position and it was with a very large publisher/developer. After a brief training period I was assigned to my first game and my first ever cubicle. The game was a perfect fit for my personal gaming tastes as it was a rhythm game with a crazy, over-the-top aesthetic. The cubicle that I was assigned to was incredibly small and actually more of a desk with raised sides. This type of desk combined with the small size of this first team really ingrained a sense of community within me from the very start and, even though it took me a while to fully become a part of it, the community is what I still miss the most about this particular job. I don't so much miss the miniature cubicles.
After my first game finished, I was moved onto bigger and bigger games, met more and more people, and was making a good reputation for myself. I was even being hand-picked for specific games due to my abilities. The long hours playing the same games over and over can definitely be hard on a person, but with enough imagination the job itself can become a game. And the true hardcore gamers can always challenge themselves to get better and better at any specific game if they make that challenge their actual game while considering the video game in front of them the means by which to play that game. Either way, playing a video game for money is not as bad as people like to make it out to be.
The work consisted mostly of playing a game for long periods of time and attempting to do things that are abnormal to intended gameplay but still likely to occur in the hands of a consumer. There were spreadsheets at times that were assigned to specific people that contained either text or lists of items to verify, but that was not as standard as just being let go into the game to dig up any random bug that may occur.
As a contractor, even though I worked at the company, I was not an employee of the company. This resulted in being left out of a lot of company functions, having restricted access to specific areas in the building, having to park in a parking lot over a block away from the building, not being credited in the games that were worked on and, most detrimental of all, never knowing when the contract would be ended due to lack of games to work on. This last part was a particularly dangerous aspect around the winter time when all the big games for the year had already shipped.
Due in part to my skills, reputation, and a large portion of luck, I eventually reached the end of my contract without having been laid-off at any time during it.When my contract reach its expiry date, I had to be let go for a couple of months due to a contract employee law that's in place. During my mandatory time off, I did what I could to survive off of what little money I had saved and credit cards. I knew that I would be back as soon as legally possible and therefore didn't worry about it too much. I would soon be back where I would make money playing games and everyone knew me.
When I returned to a new contract, I learned from a friend that I would have likely received a promotion had I not been gone for those few months as a good number of my friends had been promoted. I then quickly realized that no one even remembered who I was aside from close friends and the test leads that I had worked with during my previous contract. On a personal level I was starting entirely anew. I made many new friends again. I did great work again. The downside was that it was the same as the first contract instead of building on top of the first contract.
This company is where most of the friends that I still spend time with today originated from. My experiences at this company are largely what shaped me into the person I am now and I still often reminisce about my time there. It wasn't perfect, but it was actually an exciting place to be even with the commonly overstated monotony of game testing. This was a great place to start, but it was a great idea to move on after a while due to career stagnation that runs rampant for those in this particular test department.
Independent Testing Facility
This room is similar to this place.
One of the friends that I made during my time at Large Publisher #1 had moved on to work at a local independent third party testing facility. When I decided that it was time to move on from LP1, he convinced me to join him.
This place itself was contracted to test games for developers and publishers rather than actually being a part of either aspect themselves and they had a number of big-name clients. For me it would also be a deeper dive into content verification than the standard random bug hunt that I had grown accustomed to at my previous position. There were a lot more spreadsheets involved in this job than the job I had come from despite the fact that the company itself was entirely more laid back, including a distinct lack of any kind of cubicle whatsoever. There was also ample opportunity to communicate directly with the developers to help work through game issues as opposed to being an indirect nameless contributor.
My time here was fun but short as the particular game that I was assigned to was very nearly finished when I joined the team. It was also probably the testing position with the most personal accountability and flexibility.
The Large Publisher #2
Another person that I had befriended at my first game test position had been having a good amount of success with a move to this company and I decided that I should join up here as well. It was an interesting mix of elements of both prior jobs with a feel of being a college student, especially when compared to the high school feel of LP1.
The sense of being in college and the inherent feeling of being surrounded by organization made this position seem like the future. There was a lot of content verification on this job and a ton of spreadsheets to check it all off on. There was a lot less emphasis on random bug hunting despite it still being a large portion of what needed to be done. This company had a lot of nice tracking systems in place and the whole thing felt very streamlined in comparison to the other companies. There was also room to actually advance in this company as testers had multiple levels and the opportunity to lead projects rather than just be a team member. This job came complete with the opportunity to be included in a game's credits which was not really a consideration at the other two companies.
I hit the ground running at this job. I was awarded a handful of prizes for having high bug counts and was volunteering for any special assignments that would come up. Due to my knowledge of video formats I was chosen to test my assigned game in every resolution possible. I was also lent to other teams when they needed help, specific tests done, or just more people. I believed that I would eventually reach the kind of success that my friend had reached here.
Unfortunately, due to one minor mistake, I was made an example of by being let go. I was told that I could return after my assigned game's completion but that that particular game's developer did not want me working on their project. I would've enjoyed staying at this company because it really did seem like the perfect combination of the aspects I loved at my previous two positions and the people were great.
I briefly returned to LP1 just to get my bearings after the events that had occurred at LP2, but quickly found my way to a game development studio.
Smaller cubes, but similar design.
This job was very content verification oriented and had a lot of spreadsheets involved but seemed very chaotic as, at least on the game I was assigned to, all the testers worked on one spreadsheet on a first-come first-served basis rather than having specific assignments. There was a strong sense of the entire company working together though, and the test team regularly communicated with the other departments to help improve the game. A developer is a very different place to work at than a publisher.
I personally had a hard time adapting to the testing methods here and I was generally not as present of mind as I would normally be due to a combination of a mental block put in place by what happened at LP2 as well as other focuses, but due to the ability to communicate with other departments I felt as if I could potentially become a very low-level designer here and start my design career. The HR manager and Creative Director had even spoken to each other of what could be done to help that along after my test assignment finished.
This would never come to pass due to my uncharacteristically lackluster performance in testing. I know that there aren't many people that were in that department that don't dislike me. Even those that I would have considered friends at the time and those that I would like to see even now probably have no kind words to say about me. I've since returned to over-performing in the workplace as was my standard aside from my time with this developer.
Not an accurate representation.
The following are what ties most testing positions together as they are general truths. Being a contract tester is not a glamorous or high-paying job. Testers generally don't get equal treatment to those in other departments and often have to worry about whether they will have a job the following day due to a cornucopia of reasons. The career of a tester can stagnate easily if not properly capitalized upon and testers often do not get to make the creative impact on video games that they would like to. It also has the side effect of making people want to spend less of their free time playing video games.
Typical weekend of a game tester.
By being a tester though, I really had the opportunity to experience games on a whole new level. It really is a great place to get started and can provide some of the skills that can lead to better positions. Playing games in less of my free time allows me to use my time for other things. The people that I've met working in test departments have been extremely varied and most of the time very intelligent, talented and motivated. I've also created lifetime friends and made many great business connections. My time spent in testing was overall a very exciting time both at work and at home and I wouldn't trade it for anything. The weekends during that time were particularly interesting.