Testers have been behind each and every single game you’ve ever played. Quality Assurance developers (QA for short) spend weeks, months, and years reporting bugs and running checklists to ensure the highest quality possible for the experience. As key members of a team, they’re often in touch with programmers, artists, and many other sectors inside a studio, working collaboratively to find and keep track of issues and areas that can be improved.
While QA isn’t exactly a new career, it’s one that isn’t championed nor recognized well enough. Moreover, there are a few misconceptions about what day-to-day responsibility entails, and how the job itself can evolve over time. As such, we’ve talked to developers all the way from Brace Yourself Games to Activision to clear these questions and dive into how they got started, as well as how to prepare yourself if you’re interested in becoming a QA tester.
For Alexa Schiess, QA manager at Brace Yourself Games (the studio behind hits such as Crypt of the Necrodancer and Phantom Brigade), getting into the field was a combination of knowing the right people and having transferable skills. During her teens and early twenties, Schiess took an interest in games and making them herself. She began to poke around in Game Maker as well as other engines that didn’t require programming skills.
It was in that same period, as she became more active on social media to try and learn from other game developers, that a few friends and acquaintances led her to meet Ryan Clark, the founder of Brace Yourself Games.
“I actually applied initially to the studio for their office manager position,” Schiess says. “I was unhappy at my job at the time and it seemed like a chance to jump into games, however small my role would be – especially since I had no prior experience. I didn't end up getting that job, but later in the year Ryan actually emailed me out of the blue and asked if I would be interested in a position as the company’s first QA hire.”
Her previous career had been in printing and, while no video games were involved, Schiess realised that many of the skills were applicable to QA. Diagnosing issues, working under and meeting deadlines, the ability to switch priorities quickly and be comfortable performing repetitive tasks, an eye for detail, and thinking outside the box proved to be key elements. While she never intended to be in QA, she has since moved from a junior to senior/lead and ultimately QA manager position, and her team is soon to be made of four members.
In the case of Dan Ahern, a QA analyst who has worked at multiple UK studios, his first steps in QA aren’t exactly linear. Similar to Schiess, he loved tinkering away with different software and learning new things from that process. Over time, this hobby developed into a skill that led him to build smaller projects on his own. Turns out that by doing so it’s easy to learn what’s expected behaviour in a game and what isn’t. Since Ahern was doing all of the parts himself (programming, audio, art, and so on), he later realized there was merit to be had in presenting that work in a portfolio to apply for a job.
“My on-the-job knowledge of QA was actually very limited,” Ahern says. “Truth be told, for my first ever interview I'd Googled a lot of the stuff I'd known they were going to ask me beforehand. I didn't have a clue on how to write a bug report, or what smoke testing was. Doing that allowed me to see what they might have been looking for, and ultimately land me the job.”
Now, when it comes to the expectations versus the reality of working in QA, there is plenty to consider. All four developers we spoke to agreed that the job doesn’t just entail testing games all day long. There are several tasks to perform, and they all differ depending on the stage in development at that time. Platforms like Jira help to track issues or inquiries between teams, while running checklists (long spreadsheets that list specific activities and interactions with a game across several devices or instances) is a common ordeal.
“People often think I spend all day playing video games,” says Fabby Garza, a QA worker at Activision, “but that's not really true. It’s like if someone was a chef. They don't spend all day eating, even though part of their job is to taste food to make sure it's good. Yes, I play the game I'm testing, but I don't play it in the same way someone who plays it for fun.”
Garza emphasises that QA can be fairly monotonous, and that rings true with what the job entails. That being said, there are different ways of approaching the routine and, while some days might require revisiting the same area or cutscene several times, there can be other elements at play. For Ahern, for example, his experience has been more intuition-based, trying to put himself in the perspective of the average end user.
In all cases, however, being meticulous is key.
“Some days can be repetitive, sure,” says Taylor Simmons, who has tested both Nintendo and Microsoft games via working at Aerotek and Experis, respectively. “But there's also different kinds of testing that will tackle different portions of a title. I've done some accessibility testing where I'd play through an entire game in about a week looking exclusively for anything wrong with the accessibility options. I've also done performance captures where I would play through the same level across multiple different PC builds.”
Sadly, there are plenty more misconceptions about the job even to this day. People from the outside often claim that QA is unskilled work, or that it’s primarily used as a “stepping stone” to get your foot in the door in either a particular studio or the industry in general. And while there is a possibility of pivoting to a different vertical, there’s equal room to grow and build a long career in QA.
“I've found that you're best at your role if you really have a good understanding of all sorts of verticals,” Ahern says. “Art, design, audio, UI, UX, etc. The best people I've worked with in QA are methodical, inquisitive, and great at being organised, and the projects they work on thrive as a result. That doesn't sound unskilled to me.”
Schiess agrees with this sentiment, emphasising the importance that the role can have in development aside from just tracking and reporting bugs, noting that there’s a high skill ceiling and experienced testers are extremely valuable.
“I want a better industry understanding of QA so that more people will pursue it, because I think it can be a really rewarding experience,” she says. "Even if you're not the final decision maker regarding the exact content or design of the games, you still get a lot of opportunities for input on decisions the wider team makes because you're constantly interacting with the games and you have probably the best overall view of the project rather than its individual parts."
It’s the knowledge of these individual parts, either prior to or during the job, that can help you fine-tune your capabilities when looking for the next opportunity. As Schiess remarks, it’s important to understand how all of your colleague’s jobs work. Knowing how data is structured, for example, or how the animation system works will in turn help you find more bugs, as those weak points will become clearer.
Simmons shares the perspective that you shouldn’t be afraid to jump into QA if you don’t play a lot of games, or if you think your skill level is going to hold you back from being a good tester.
“Some of the best bugs I've seen have been reported by people who have extremely limited game experience,” she says. In fact, at least in her experience, the quantity of bugs doesn’t matter as much as you’d think. “Sometimes I'd go through a test pass without finding any bugs. It happens. Sometimes you get a build that's actually incredibly clean and stable. Don't compare yourself to other testers who may be reporting more bugs than you. It's a team effort.”
Ultimately, it comes down to actually putting yourself out there, whether it is by interacting and learning from other developers or tinkering with a game engine.
“I'd say that the best thing you can do is just apply for the jobs,” Ahern says. “Seriously. A lot of people don't apply because they're nervous they won't get accepted, but by not applying you've already got that outcome – just go for it!”
It’s also important to know your worth and try to learn as much as possible about the companies you’re applying to. Low wages and restrictions are, unfortunately, common occurrences. As Garza mentions, it’s important to know that as a QA tester you’re able to “stand your ground, organise your co-workers, talk about mandatory overtime and why that's not acceptable,” and basically, don’t allow for companies to take you for granted.
“It's a scary truth,” Ahern says, “but companies will try to pay minimum wage (or sometimes less), offer you temporary contracts with no benefits, and in some cases prevent you from speaking to other non-QA people in the company. If QA staff in those companies came together collectively, studios would have a real problem on their hands, and would either have no choice but to treat you better or clean house and waste their own time and money training up entire departments who will hopefully do the same until the core issues are addressed.”
Schiess concludes: “I think that, among smaller companies, the mindset of QA being a dime a dozen is changing. But when studios invest time and money into their existing QA staff to make them better at their jobs, the benefits speak for themselves. Quality in games can make or break your product.”
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