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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

How to Get a Job as a Game Tester

It sounds like the ultimate gig: making a living by playing video games all day. And if you're a true game fanatic -- and we mean a real fanatic -- it can be exactly that. But being a quality assurance tester for a video game company isn't always the nerd-vana it sounds like.

Sony's offering a select group of wannabes a chance at the job via 'The Tester' -- a new reality show being broadcast exclusively through the PlayStation Network. If you don't want to suffer the indignities that go along with that programming genre, though, you can always try to get the job the old-fashioned way. reached out to a few folks in the video game industry to learn more about being a game tester and the best ways to become one.

As for getting the job, there are seven key factors:

Location, location, location.
If you want to be a game tester, you need to be where the game makers are. That means cities like Dallas, Austin, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Montreal and Redmond, Washington. If there aren't a large number of developers and/or publishers around you, you're going to have a hard time being a full-time game tester. You might find occasional work in other big cities - like Atlanta, Chicago and New York -- but it will be, at best, supplemental income.

Get ready to lead a gypsy life.
Full-time tester jobs are exceedingly rare. Typically, game makers (and third-party testing houses like VMC Consulting and Babel Media) hire testers on a contract basis. When the test cycle ends for a product, the testing team is laid off -- and the search for a new gig begins (thus the reason to live in a developer/publisher-rich city). Michael Weber, director of central development at Gearbox Software, says, "In a lot of cases, a tester can go from product to product at company to company." He adds, "If you want to do this as your livelihood... you need to put yourself in a position where you can move from studio to studio when the products ship."

Personality is paramount.
You don't need a degree to be a game tester. In many cases, a GED is good enough. But, if your personality and emotional maturity don't mesh with the rest of the team, you'll never make it. Game companies say these are the most important qualities in a candidate. If you're a loner, or slip into a rage when you lose a game, you're looking at the wrong career. Testers work long hours -- and they don't need unnecessary disruptions.

Details! Details!
It probably goes without saying that when you're trying to get a job to assure the quality of a game, you need a good eye for detail. Finding bugs in the early stage of testing is simple. Anyone can do it. But when developers have polished products, it gets a bit harder.

Communication skills.
Once you find an error, you'll need to let the development team know exactly what went wrong and how you made it occur. If you're unable to do so, it doesn't matter how good you are at finding mistakes. To test for good communications skills, Gearbox asks people to describe their favorite game and what they like about it. If a candidate can't do so clearly and enthusiastically, they likely don't have what it takes for the job.

Don't like games. Love 'em.
Merely having enthusiasm for video games isn't enough for testers. An obsession is mandatory. Testers play and replay the same small part of a game again and again and again -- for eight hours or more per day. If you're unable to maintain focus and energy over that amount of time, you'll burn out quickly, and ruin one of your favorite hobbies in the process.

Don't pay to do it.
As you research where to work, you may find services that guarantee you a game tester position for a nominal fee. These are the video game equivalent of those "Work from home: Make $100,000" signs you see thumb tacked to telephone polls at intersections. If you're looking for a job, never pay to get it.

I'm qualified. Now what?

So, let's say you've got all of the above bases covered. You're the perfect candidate. Before you leap in blindly, there are a few other things to keep in mind before deciding to pursue this field.

For much of the history of game testing, employers have been almost draconian. Ridiculously long hours were the norm. That's abating somewhat these days, but you'll still put in up to 10 hours a day at some places -- and even more as a game's deadline nears. And, if you burn out, there are hundreds of people who are willing to take your place.

This is not a job to take if you want to get rich (or have a family to support). Most testers are contractors, with hourly salaries and no benefits. In 2009, Game Developer magazine put the average salary of a tester at $39,571 -- but even the magazine's publisher notes that number was likely a bit high. Other game companies put the number between $25,000 and $30,000 per year.

Foot in door:
Many people view being a tester as the way to climb the ladder of an organization. That used to be true, but it's less so today. If you take a job as a tester, and then begin wooing the development or art teams for another job, you'll kill your chances. These days, a quicker path to becoming a video game developer or artist is to make your own game -- and show off what you can do.

"The tools have gotten easier to use to make games," says Simon Carless, publisher of Game Developer magazine. "If you want to make games, you should just make games. If you have a skill, that's a lot more helpful than saying, 'I've been playing this game repeatedly and spotting errors in it'."