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Paid to Play: Video Game Testers Talk About Broken Titles and Burnout

You'd think sitting around all day being paid to play video games was a pretty sweet deal, but testing them can be a painful process.

by Rafał Cichowski
Aug 10 2015, 5:00pm

'Batman: Arkham Knight' was in a sorry state when it released on PC earlier this year.

You get up in the morning, take care of the basics, grab the controller, and begin a marathon in front of the monitor. It sounds like the ideal script for a chilled-out Saturday, but for a game tester, it's just another day at work. Getting money for beating The Witcher 3 seems like a sweet way of life, but testing video games rarely has anything to do with entertainment. Meet two people who lose their senses and stay up all night analyzing the behavior of Lara Croft's bust.

Names have been changed.

VICE: You play games all day and get paid for it. It sounds like a dream job.
Link: It's hard work, but satisfying. Sometimes you'll get a task that actually resembles normal playing, but that's actually when you have to be more careful not to lose vigilance, and remember to test the game, not just play it. Most of the time we prod each element of the game from every possible side, observing whether it will fall apart, which is often time consuming, tedious, and requires a lot of patience. Once, for almost a day and a half, I ran around one small location, searching for an alternative way of evoking a weird crash at the request of the developer. And when the premiere is approaching and the deadlines fast approaching, we often work after hours and nerves start to plague us.

Mario: Everything depends on the game that I am testing, the superior, team, and client. The key word here is "tester," because a tester does not play games, he only tests them. Sure, when we get the really early versions of a Batman game, or any Grand Theft Auto, in the beginning it's great—but after 18 months, it can get boring and frustrating. For example, say you're a big fan of a series of games, and get a task where you have to come to the end of the new game and you need to fuck something up. As a potential player, you've now spoiled the game for yourself before even buying it. I know, first world problems.

Are the earnings proportional to the effort?
Sometimes it's chill, and other times we grind. It's not uncommon for us to experience so-called "crunch time" towards the end of projects—in other words, overtime, weekends, holidays, maximum sacrifice. Sure, not every tester cares and prefers to keep their free time, but sometimes you just have no option—and you need to stay. Some stay voluntarily and for the next two or three months barely experience a social life, especially when you're taking on evening shifts. Earnings in the industry are quite varied—some pay quite well, and others a little less. In most cases, the earnings are proportional.

Can you briefly describe the process of testing a game? How long does it last, and how do you try to break the game?
Link: The testing process depends on the needs and financial possibilities of the client, and the type of game. Testing open-world video games goes something like this: we go out into the world and find errors or test specific locations in terms of textures, collision, and lighting. Sometimes we create dozens of scenarios with different types of weapons, vehicles, main and secondary tasks, objects, and other elements, and systematically select each item, seeing whether it works or not.

Mario: We can have tests lasting up to 18 months, but also ones that take only a day. It's also important to remember that some games get tested even after they are released, maybe not by a big team, but with some games that is necessary.

Is it easy to burnout playing for a living? Do you still look forward to new titles?
Link: Looking at the more experienced colleagues, it's hard not to get the impression that burning out, sooner or later, is inevitable. But new projects still excite me and the challenges are always interesting.

Mario: After some time, it's only natural that a person wants to do more, go further, but with this type of career it's hard because there are a certain number of team leaders and project managers, so it's hard to maintain high morale without the possibility of promotion. And, as I mentioned, after a few months spent with one title, a person can have enough.

Playing is supposed to be a pleasure, not a chore, [but] sometimes you are so tired physically that it's just not possible...

After work, do you ever play for pleasure? And if so, what sort of games?
I always try to find time after work to play—it's a kind of return to normality. In the end, playing is supposed to be a pleasure, not a chore. Sometimes, you are so tired physically that it's just not possible, but that's another matter. Eyes hurt from staring at the screen; hands are sore from using the controller all day.

Link: I like to play strategic games, some shooting games, a lot of RPGs, some Metroidvania-style games, a lot of adventure games, and various other weird games. But the old genres are often inadequate for today's games. For example, look at Deus Exit's a shooter, a stealth game, and an RPG all in one. But returning to the question:Iit depends on the person. Some completely stop playing for pleasure after working as a tester.

When you're playing privately at home, are you still in test mode, looking for mistakes?
Mario: For sure, it is easier for me to notice certain things. In some triple-A titles, there are incredible, glaring errors regarding data storage, but probably few people care, because in theory, these matters are of little importance for the casual player. But I don't send the publishers any hate mail saying that they released a fucked-up game. Let them figure it out for themselves.

What's a day in the office of a game testing company like? How's the atmosphere?
The atmosphere is usually very chill. Sure, when it's crunch time, everyone is stressing and working hard, but no one around is hunched, like Chinese children working in a shoe factory. We joke, but sometimes the situation can get tense and then we sulk. We used to have LAN parties in the office, after hours, until they were banned after one morning when it turned out that someone smashed the glass by the entrance. The whole office stank of vodka, and one of the team leaders was lost, to the extent that his own wife couldn't find him. Instead of that, every few months, we organize company outings.

Link: Generally, we sit and test, but when, for example, a new build is being installed, we have nothing to do but stare at the download progress bar—so then we gather in the kitchen, we make food, we talk. During second shift and on weekends, especially during the second shift on Fridays, the atmosphere manages to become a bit bizarre. It's then that we get a little crazy, which results in the most absurd jokes and conversations.

Do you have any spectacular examples of bugs that you've detected?
Once, we got a game with a build in which there was a co-op mode. It so happened that three of the four testers had Nvidia graphics cards, and one had a Radeon, on which the enemies did not appear at all, so the other three had to lead him blind with commands like: "Run to the left! No, the other left!" One of the first functional errors that I reported in my career was: "If you run a child over with a car, it disappears." I was new, and did not realize that the mistake was based on the fact that I was able to drive the car to a location that was out of bounds.

We've seen some high-profile new games released with errors. For example, Batman: Arkham Knight was a wreck on PC, and it was swiftly taken off sale. So who failed the players here: the testers or the developers?
This is a question that I just absolutely can't answer because of a confidentiality agreement, but it is quite an unprecedented situation. As far as I know, no publisher of a large triple-A production has ever voluntarily withdrawn games from the shelves, but it's interesting that it happened just a few weeks after Valve introduced the possibility of returning games on Steam.

Mario: I think communication failed, or perhaps rather the desire to release a game regardless of its actual state won. Actually, it's the second blow in a short time for this game. The first regarded the withdrawal of the Batman: Arkham Knight Batmobile Edition. Of course, these are quite different cases, but still, it looks bad. I find it hard to believe that testers didn't report obvious drops in FPS or other problems associated with the game's functionality. And if so, it's QA that is responsible for it, for losing their customers.

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Who issues the most polished titles, and who releases games with the most defects?
Link: From my experience as a player, the most polished and pampered titles are released by Blizzard and Valve. You have to remember that these are two of the richest developers in the industry—releasing a new game takes them forever, but once they do, it's polished in every respect. Concerning the most "broken" games, I would unfortunately nominate Obsidian Entertainment. I love their games, but on the day of their release they are usually filled with bugs and it's best to wait a few weeks or months if you want to play without hitches and the risk of errors that outright prevent progression. Although, I should mention that they have recently improved their games—for example, both South Park: The Stick of Truth and Pillars of Eternity were fairly stable and refined on release day.

'South Park: The Stick of Truth' worked on release, which was nice.

What is currently the best platform for players, and what consoles do you own yourselves?
The best set-up that you can have at this point is a PC and Wii U. More and more exclusive titles from PlayStation and Xbox are available for PC, too, and PC wins with its power, better graphics, loading speed, and cheaper games. The Wii U, in turn, has titles that only appear on this platform—the Mario and Zelda games of course, plus Bayonetta 2 and many others—and it offers truly unique gameplay mechanics created specifically for a touch-screen controller, which in many games is used in a very interesting manner.

Mario: It really depends on who is looking for what. It is obvious that, for example, The Witcher 3 looks better on a PC with the highest settings than on a PS4, but I don't mind. I prefer to have the opportunity to actually play the newest Batman, to jump right into it as you can on console, than to play with the configuration settings so that the game works as it should.

And what advice would you give those who wanted to join your profession? What is needed? Who would not be able to handle games testing?
Perceptiveness is needed, but also patience. You need to have an interest in games, but you don't have to be a fanatic. English language skills are essential, as are teamwork skills, but you also need to have a strong sense of independence. I think anyone who meets most of these criteria should be able to manage. Well, and you have to be able to cope with stress—keep calm.

Link: Gaming experience is always welcome, but not necessary. Amongst the best testers I know there are people who do not play privately at all, or rarely. Definitely, those who should not apply are those who believe that they will play for eight hours a day and get paid for it. There is a big difference between playing and testing. You have to be prepared for the fact that even if you are fortunate enough to test even the best game in the world, after several months of work on the title, you will not be able to play it normally. Taking part in the creative process, we are sacrificing the possibility of receiving the game as a normal player. We know all too well how they're created, we know by heart all the texts in the game, and any objectivity is simply impossible.

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