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Bughunting and the value of QA

Welcome to my first column for bit-tech. I guess I'd better explain who the hell I am and why you should read my opinions before we go any further - my name is Simon Hill, and I’m a Producer and Designer working at Outerlight. You may know us for our first game, The Ship, which was released on Steam a while ago now as an innovative twist on the first-person shooter.

Over the coming weeks I’m going to be talking a bit about the games industry with a specific focus on design and production. For my first article, though, I’m going to tell you about my first job in the games industry - the often overlooked or undervalued position of a games tester. Hopefully it should serve as a decent introduction, while also being informative to those who want to get started in the industry of game design.

Here we go, then.

I’ve always been a gamer, starting with Pong on my granddad’s wood-panel effect Atari, through the days of the rubber key Spectrum, followed by the Atari ST and then the NES, the Megadrive, the Playstation, the PS2 and increasingly, the PC. I figured, as many gamers mistakenly do, that all the gaming I had done definitely qualified me to make games, so I started pursuing it as a career.

"By the time the game reaches you as a tester, the developers often already view it as final code and will refuse to change anything."

I had no real idea what the various career paths were, so I took a job at VIS Entertainment as a games tester. Now, there’s some argument about the value of testing as an entry position into the industry, but I think testing is the perfect gateway job to a career in game design. Just as my grass smoking developed smoothly into a heroin habit, so too did my job as a tester ease me naturally into design and production.

At VIS I quickly learned the QA culture. Low pay, long hours and a frustrating lack of input into the (mostly bad) games I was working on. There is no escaping the fact that testing is not the dream job all you slackers out there are dreaming about...in fact, it is monotonous and painful.

However, on the plus side, you get to learn about what it takes to make a game. You have to talk to all the various people employed in game development because bugs are found everywhere, and this provides a genuine insight into the entire process. People tend to assume that when you’re working as a tester, you just sit around and play games all day. Yes, you do, but what they don’t tell you is that it will be the same game for literally months - and rather than play it, you have to try and break it.

Believe me, it could be your favourite game in the world - but after three months of playing it for ten hours a day, trying every trick you can think of to make the game fall down and succeeding all too often, you will hate it.

The next nasty surprise is finding out that by the time the game reaches you as a tester, the developers often already view it as final code and will refuse to change anything.

For the first wee-while, you wonder why they keep ignoring all those great ideas you are putting into the bug database...and then it hits you – the producer's fist as he slaps you silly and explains that the game is feature complete, that there’s no time to make changes now. It doesn’t matter if you have the greatest idea in the world - all that matters now is the deadline.

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Simon Hill

Deadlines in the game industry are typically unrealistic, and watching producers attempt to meet them is like watching a child bang a round peg in a square hole.

When you work in testing, you start off under the illusion that you are part of a team creating a game. You quickly find out that you are often viewed as part of the problem and that nobody in the dev team, especially the producer, really wants you to find bugs because that means they have to fix them. That means you are to some extent making them look bad and, as the deadline gets closer, your ability to find bugs becomes perceived as not so much a positive thing as a reason to despise you.

QA stands for quality assurance and testers are very important to the quality of a final release. Unfortunately, they are often badly used, which is always to the detriment of the final product. Ideally, testers should be brought on board early in a project so they can offer feedback about the direction the game is going. Testers are often the most experienced gamers available to a developer, and good ones can tell you intuitively if something feels right or wrong in a game – ignore them at your peril.

"You have to learn as you go, and if you want to be a designer then you need to design in your spare time. "

There are other drawbacks to the world of testing; beyond the low pay, long hours and general lack of prestige, working as a tester can also spoil the magic of games for yourself permanently. You may find yourself playing the latest big-budget release, and a little voice inside will suggest doing a task in the wrong order just to see if the game falls down. Instead of getting excited when you defeat the final boss, you’ll whoop when you discover that elusive hole in the collision box that lets you drop out of the level and into the void. At least the void won’t judge you.

Testing does funny things to your mind, but fortunately I’ve found that the effects are usually only temporary. Normality eventually returns.

I’ll never forget my time in QA - it taught me a lot, and I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to break into the industry. When I look back at the group I worked with, at least half of them have moved into development positions as artists, coders and designers.

I have to point out though that it won’t happen if you don’t make it happen - you can’t take a job as a tester and then sit back and wait for the big job to come along. You have to learn as you go, and if you want to be a designer then you need to design in your spare time. It may take a couple of years, but during that time you’ll have a lot of fun and you’ll be learning how the industry works in a way no course will ever teach you.