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Breaking into the Video Game Industry: Quality Assurance (Otherwise Known as Video Game Testing)
There are many paths into game design and development, but most aspiring designers gain a foothold by beginning in Quality Assurance, commonly known as QA, where the bulk of video game testing is done. Some common questions:
What skills do you need for an entry-level Quality Assurance (QA) job?
A good QA analyst needs to have an attention to detail to catch bugs, and the problem-solving skills to replicate these issues and to identify any relationships between errors.
You’ll need to communicate clearly to write good bug reports. This means good spelling and good sentence structure, of course, but also requires thinking critically about videogames and game play.
You will need to take direction from your team lead, especially when you’re receiving a testing plan or another assignment, but you’ll also need to be fairly self-directed so you won’t require a lot of hand-holding from senior staff members.
What should you include on your resume to prove you have these skills?
If it’s your first assignment, you’ll need to show how you’ve used your attention to detail, your problem solving skills and your ability to work on a team on other positions.
Typos on your CV are never a good thing, but small mistakes are especially detrimental here, since you’re trying to show a potential employer that you’ll keep these small mistakes from getting into a the live game.
What to say (and not say) in your cover letter? What do employers really want from a QA tester?
Today, any job applicant should begin by Googling the company. With a game studio, the current project might still be under NDA, so pay attention to their latest release, and highlight your experience accordingly. You might not be able to find everything about your potential new project, but you won’t find yourself focusing on your stunning FPS experience when you’re actually applying to test a branded iOs shopping game. If this is your first QA job, highlight the way your previous work shows your attention to detail, critical thinking, and your teamwork.
Game studios get a lot of generic applications from game players who’d like to make games their profession. You can easily separate yourself from the pack by mentioning that you’re interested in pursuing this specific job -- not just working in games in general -- and saying why. Has the lead designer worked on one of your favorite games? Do you want to work on a mobile game because you think the mobile industry is growing? Do you have a lot of experience working on Facebook games? Were you a big fan of the studio’s last title? Stand out from the dozens of cover letters saying how much the writer loves videogames by being more specific about why this is the job for you.
Don’t send a generic cover letter if you can help it. Try to find the name of a contact person from the company’s website. If you have to guess, expect your cover letter to be going to human resources in a large company, or to the QA lead in a smaller company. And it goes without saying that plenty of women work in games, so a “Dear Sir” intro is right out.
If you have a game-related personal project, whether it’s a game-review blog, a prototype card game or an indie project, let your possible new boss know about it. Highlight what you have learned about gameplay from this project. (One caveat: Be very wary of sharing unfinished game projects. Gamers with a half-finished cool idea aren’t showing attention to detail, efficiency or dedication.)
Have a motivated objective, without saying you want to be creative director, lead design, or CEO right out of the gate. There are dozens of fanboys who think they can make games -- and you don’t want to be lumped in here.
What will you actually do all day?
As an entry-level tester, you’ll be implementing someone else’s testing plan. You’ll be asked to play a certain level on a certain difficulty setting, or equip certain weapons to fight certain enemies, or complete certain missions, depending on the type of game. As you do so, you’ll be watching for errors, and you’ll write up a bug report detailing the error and what you were doing when you encountered the error.
A large error, like a game crash, is very easy to spot, but a smaller error might be a misplaced apostrophe in an item description or a graphical glitch that only occurs when female dwarves equip the level one axe with the level three shield. You’ll also be interrupted to search out bugs that other team members have found.
What are the biggest surprises newbies encounter when they start working in the video game industry?
Sorry, it’s not actually sitting around playing games all day. By definition, a tester’s job is to catch bugs, so by the time the game is polished and fun, you’re finished with it, and you’ll probably be tired of it!
Although you’ll probably be wearing jeans and sneakers to your testing job, game studios take their work very seriously. You’ll still need to show up on time, hit your deadlines and make your team look good whenever you can.
Video games are a creative industry, so it’s not always a 9-to-5 job. Expect the occasional evening work, especially around a milestone, and anticipate long, intense weeks during testing crunch.
What are the greatest joys in contributing to a videogame project?
There are a lot of good laughs in beta testing, especially when working on games with more realistic characters and gameplay. Naked bugs, goofy clipping errors, or that time your co-worker lost all his head, and so forth.
Game development is exciting, creative work. You’ll find yourself discussing ways to make scarier monsters, create more satisfying puzzles, or just ways to make the game more fun, while your friends are making PowerPoint slides about last quarter’s sales. No matter what your role on the team, you’ll be able to point to your work in the finished game.
And, of course, it’s always a delight when the game ships with your name in the credits!
What qualities do all successful QA analysts have? How can you show your team lead these qualities?
The most successful testers are amazingly organized. When you begin, you will probably be implementing your team lead’s testing plan. You’ll need to be organized and efficient to move quickly through your assignments, and to deal with interruptions.
You’ll also need to communicate as clearly as you can in the bug tracker. When in doubt, write a longer report. It’ll take less time for you to add an extra sentence to the bug report, than for design to look at the bug report, ask a follow up question, pass it back to you, have you answer, and then pass it back.
Have a team-focused attitude. Especially on projects where teams are isolated from each other, it’s easy to think that the artists are monkeys who leave clipping errors in, or that management are suits who monetize all the gameplay out. Keep those rants for your journal or your significant other, not your team. (Do I have to mention that Facebook whining is out?)
How do you move up and out of QA?
Many successful game designers and game producers began in quality assurance. Whenever you have a chance to attend a meeting in another department, go! Mention to your coworkers, especially those in departments of interest to you, how and where you see yourself moving up in games.
Like in any field, have an updated LinkedIn profile, join industry discussions, and add your professional contacts. Many QA testers and game development staff are hired per-project, so it’s good planning to always have your CV professional and ready to go. You never know when you’ll hear of a perfect opening, or when you’ll hear that your project is ending.
Show that you’re thinking about games. An easy way to do this is to start an industry blog. If your work isn’t under an NDA, consider blogging about it. Link to industry news, with a couple lines of commentary about why the story is relevant. This blog is a professional portfolio, not a personal rant space, so all the usual caveats about online behavior apply.
Many designers, team leads and producers have begun in QA. By starting your game development career in QA, you’ll gain an understanding of your company’s process, of development best practices, and of game design, and you’ll bring that to your next promotion.
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