Game Testing All in One
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Just what do QA people do all day, anyway? Almost all agreed on one thing: not a lot of people understand how QA actually works. For as long as there have been video games, there have been bugs. Many bugs have been discovered, abused, and enjoyed by the assiduous speedrunning community —how else would you beat Ocarina of Time in 17 minutes? Those are the friendly bugs, though. The more bugs a tester finds, the higher his or her perceived value to the company.
This is one hell of a challenge, of course: video games are complicated sets of interlocking systems that require careful, meticulous bug-testing, which can involve testing the same level repeatedly with slight variations—using a new character, wielding a different weapon, following an alternate pathway—and recording everything that happens. Take Grand Theft Auto V , for example. So doing story missions in order, then heists, then side missions and random characters until you moved on to testing the strip club and prostitutes.
They quickly found that taking a taxi to a new mission would trigger the mission without properly disposing of the cab, leading to some amusing moments as a taxi drove around and tried to back up during cut-scenes.
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Trevor pulling his trousers down then never animating to pull them back up and spending the rest of the entire game with his trousers around his ankles. In order to track down, isolate, and fix a bug, coders need to know exactly how it happens, which can be a tricky riddle to solve given how many variables are in video games. Good QA testers quickly learn to keep track of every action they take—from big to small—so they can at least try to reproduce any bug they stumble upon. A typical day for a QA tester could vary drastically based on the project, the role, and the position.
An embedded QA tester might have to work with a programmer to find out why the framerate keeps dropping on the Android version of their new mobile game. The varied and monotonous nature of QA can lead to some unexpected challenges; for example, one tester who worked on the rhythm game Rock Band said the clack-clack-clack of plastic drumming could be so maddening, they had to set a rule: no instruments on Tuesdays and Thursdays. As they play, testers have to type up bug reports, using software like JIRA to explain what happened and how it happened. Programmers—who ideally at this point are no longer working on new content and are exclusively fixing bugs—analyze the reports and respond as necessary, sometimes with questions, problems, and occasionally snarky comments.
When a console game is almost done, it has to go through certification, a process in which the publisher like, say, EA will ask the console manufacturer Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo to check the game for game-crashing bugs. During this certification process, a second layer of QA staff called compliance testers must go through the game with their own fine combs, checking to see if everything lives up to expectations. It was interesting to see what the speed-runners used to cut levels. When he got to the minute mark, he started freaking out. For a long time the video game industry presented QA testing as a dream job: hey kids, come get paid to play games all day!
But in recent years, horror stories have emerged—QA testers tell tales of monotonous work, grueling hours, and poor treatment from companies that see them as replaceable cogs in the development machine.
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Testers also talk of feeling disrespected at the workplace. As testers, all our interactions with dev were through comments in the bug database, which is far from an ideal form of communication. The testers actually want the build to be broken because it ensures they have work to do.
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Sometimes, QA employees will find creative ways to work more hours so they get paid more and make themselves seem more valuable to the company. In some cases this would cause overtime. Big developers tend to hire dozens of QA testers toward the end of big projects only to let them all go once the game ships. This all adds up to what would seem to outsiders like an unquestionably heinous gig, but the job does have bright points.
Rob Hodgson, a video game tester, was working on an early build of the multiplayer game Fallen Earth during lunch one day when suddenly the servers crashed. Not long afterwards, they crashed again.
Baffled, he tried to reproduce the bug, but he had no luck—neither he nor anyone else on his team could figure out what was causing such a catastrophic error. It seemed like someone had run off the edge of the world, and the servers were choking, trying to track him. But no one on the [quality assurance] team was testing the world edges, and the designers were all out to lunch!
After scratching their heads for a while, Hodgson and team asked around and eventually found out what was bringing down the servers. Some days it would hit a tree and get stuck. Some days it would get into the endless, flat plains beyond, and melt the servers. Most testers operate using a process called triage, where bugs are prioritized based on importance.
Other glitches are categorized based on how important testers think they are. So during testing, several QA staffers told me, they focus just on catching the bugs that would prevent them from getting through console certification. Sometimes, bugs will make it into a game for reasons that seem baffling to outside observers. In short, this shit is tough.
And while some testers say developers are working more closely with QA than they have in the past, nobody can change an unrealistic deadline. And of that, only nine months in QA. And of that, only three months at full QA capacity. By then, we might be at content lock.
And so by the time we are able to speak out, the game is reaching Beta. We were bundled away into bullpens. I was working with people that had been testing [game] for years and years, were so burnt out on it, but were still going because they had no other hope. Out of the probable hundreds of testers they go through a year, I think maybe two or three ever got hired on. Just put it on my paystub. Meanwhile, new cars were showing up in the lot every couple of months. They were throwing parties for themselves.
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