So game testing sounds like one of those fake dream jobs, like tan-tester for Hawaiian Tropic, or a beer-inspector at Pabst (What? Blue Ribbon rules!). But game testing is not only a real, actual job, it also happens to be one of the simplest and most direct ways of getting a start in the games industry, and, surprisingly, has real career prospects in its own right. Just ask our test lead, wealthy international gadabout Harold Ryan.
But before we explore the vagaries of a career in test, you should ask yourself, what exactly IS test?
Game testing may not be exactly what you think it is. Like anything that sounds too good to be true, there's a catch. The first and simplest catch is that testers don't start a project by looking for tiny flaws in a near finished game, or simply blasting each other on multiplayer all day. Nope. They start by testing horrible, busted, flawed, crazy software. It's a process that not only tests the software, but the frayed nerves and patience of the testers. And patience, in a word, is the key.
Testing, like every aspect of game development, has layers within layers, and multiple different tasks and paths. As Zach Russell, Lead SDET (Software Development Engineer: Test) explains, "There are several different types of testing work. There is writing test cases, writing tools to test the game, running test cases, and sometimes writing game code to help out the dev team in a pinch. Then there is the all important fact that we get to PLAY the game a lot! It is a lot of fun in the end stretch of the project watching the content and features roll in hand over fist!"
So what kind of education do you need? Well that varies massively. Harold for example went to the Hollywood Upstairs College of Medicine, but there are ideals to shoot for too. While it is technically possible to get a very junior test job with minimal education, you can invest very wisely in your future by hitting the books, and college, for a BS in Computer Science. This will not only help you get the job you want, it will let you start with a higher position and salary, and if you can't get a job in test, you can parlay that degree into something else useful.
The ideal qualification for being a Software Design Engineer in Test are described by Zach Russell, "We look for CS majors with strong C/C++ skills, a love for making video games, good testing abilities, and strong problem solving skills."
But then there are the long hours to consider. Although there are some downtimes, notably at the start of a project, testers often have to work some of the most brutal hours possible. At Bungie, that means that the test team can be working around 60 hour weeks, coming in six out of seven days, and towards the end, longer hours and probably all seven days. That means that some testers literally eat, drink and sleep at Bungie.
The very nature of test means that the most intense testing happens close to the finish of the project, and this compressed schedule becomes vitally important to the timely shipping of a game.
For Halo 2, there is a hugely expanded test team. For Halo one, there were four, perhaps five full time test people at the end, and you can compare that with the ten full time, 30 contract , and maybe 12 other assorted "spec-ops" testers. That's a lot of testing. But that said, there's a lot more to test. The game is bigger, the network code alone is a maze of spectacular test issues – and there's test within test – such as the team dedicated to testing the internal beta.
If test is starting to sound like a spiraling Mandelbrot set of complicated terror, that's because in some ways, it is. But it's also incredibly rewarding. Finding a problem is just part of the job – the meat of testing is helping to find solutions. And in the end, the testers often know the game as well as anyone else on staff.
The alternative to testing so rigorously is unthinkable. Completely broken, buggy, nonfunctional software. Testers check for bugs, they find networking flaws, they notice missing textures. In short, they scan the software and the game experience for every tiny flaw.
This is especially true for console games. Not only is there an expectation of stability, it is absolutely essential to a game's certification for release. If the final test pass finds a crash big or a glaring glitch, back it goes. The experience should be as seamless as possible.
Consoles have an advantage over PCs in this regard, in that it's a fixed platform with identical hardware under everyone's TV set. But there are minor differences between consoles, as manufacturers make subtle changes throughout a system's lifespan. These have to be tested and checked in tandem with the other processes.
Testers will also check to see how games work with certain controllers, wireless Ethernet terminals, routers, even memory cards. There are almost infinite combinations of hardware and accessories out there, and if test does its job right, that simply won't be an issue when the game ships.
In an organization like Microsoft, testers can be a shared resource. This is actually great news for testers, since it keeps them on a nice rhythm and variety of projects. And since test is only required during part of a project, it would make no sense to keep a full time, full scale test team on a single game. For example, there's really no need for a test department in the planning stages of a project.
Harold Ryan, king muckety-muck of all Bungie test, started out as a contract tester, working for an agency. Microsoft uses several agencies to get testers, many of whom work nine months of the year and take the last three off. As a contractor, you may only work for nine months consecutively at Microsoft. Agencies supplying testers include Volt and Excell Data Corporation. Often however, Microsoft will hire former contract testers as full time employees, although some contractors prefer the freedom the contract position gives them.
Harold's specialty was hardware compatibility, and he quickly earned a reputation as being an expert in that field. Having a specialty is useful; since it helps you stand out from the crowd, and can make you a valuable asset. Now there's the trick, how do you come by a specialty? Well a sound knowledge base and some prior job experience will help. Harold is kind of a freak in this department, having worked on a Washington State road crew in the past, among other things.
And perhaps the best thing about test, is that turnaround, promotions and other factors mean that we're always hiring in that department. A great resource for this kind of stuff is found at the Microsoft careers page. It goes into detail about qualifications and you can get pretty granular while searching for jobs.
Microsoft Careers Page
Next week, we'll take a look at another avenue for would-be game-makers. Art!