The Life of a QA Video Game Tester
In our recent series of articles about how to make money in the video game industry, we explored the lives of designers and video game journalists. However, there is another career path available to those with an insatiable love of video games: Quality Assurance. QA is just a fancy term for those people who make sure that everything works alright and that the final product isn't broken in some horrific, console-killing way. Prospecitve applicants need to be very detail-oriented and willing to take a lot of abuse, but in many cases the rewards far outweigh the costs. After all, you get to play the hottest games long before anyone else even knows they exist.
Here to tell us a bit more about the life of a video game tester is Hugo Hirsh, who is currently working on Atari's upcoming space shooter, The Chronicles of Riddick. We should thank him for all his hard work, because the finished game is about to go gold and it looks great.
The Life of a QA Manager:
My name is Hugo Hirsh, and I am the QA Manager here at Starbreeze. I have been working in Quality Assurance for almost nine years now, and worked on hundreds of games during that time.
When I started working on Riddick a year ago, I was very surprised with the quality of the game, both from a visual perspective and from a game-play stance too. It felt almost finished then, now it feels like a completely different game, and much better for it.
A typical day for me will start with looking over the new versions of the game, that our machines make overnight. This saves us a lot of time, and allows us to launch straight into the latest code when we arrive. I’ll check the three versions (PC, 360 and PS3) work then start making disc versions of them.
Whilst the discs are burning, my team of highly trained robot-ninja QA and I will have a quick look over the nightly builds to check for any glaring errors (Multiplayer menu missing, black screen on turning on the console, that kind of thing), then start the play-throughs.
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After a year playing the same, slowly evolving game, play-throughs can become blindingly fast. Riddick is at least a ten hour game on the easiest difficulty setting for the latest of the two campaigns. The hardest difficulty would take about 15 hours. At one point we managed to complete the game in under an hour. Since then more levels have been added, so now it takes us about three hours to complete the Dark Athena campaign.
Once play-throughs are completed and the discs being tested from, we move onto more detailed tasks such as acquiring every collectable in the game (well over 100 at the time of writing) and checking that bugs reported have been fixed. Every day at 4pm we turn the fun up to 11 with the hour long multiplayer session. A chance for scores to be settled and generally a lot of smack talk to be talked.
Conversely, it gives us invaluable time balancing the weapons and tweaking the maps. If it’s not fun for us to play, why should we expect other people to have fun playing it. Then for the last hour of the day we are generally hunting bugs. Trying to find useful reproduction steps for existing bugs or crashes.
I have had some of the most memorable experiences in my career playing Riddick. For a game that I usually spend 8 hours a day playing, 5 days a week, I do not hate it. I don’t think I will ever hate it. Most other games I have worked on start to irk me through bad design choices or extremely poor quality overall after only a few days or weeks. Riddick has consistently outperformed my expectations.
A great example of this was early on in development. Placeholders were common, and if an achievement was earned, a note would appear on screen informing you. I was testing the main decks area, where Riddick controls a Ghost Drone. If you waited long enough, the Ghost Drone would eventually be able to access the area Riddick was controlling it from. In a “What happens if I…” moment, I snuck up behind Riddick and shot him in the head. A note appeared on the screen saying “Darwin Award?” and I was reloaded to the previous checkpoint. I had not laughed that hard since I came to Sweden.
Another memorable bug turned out to be nothing more than a missing character in a text file somewhere. To solve it took taking on an additional four QA guys repeatedly hammering the multiplayer for months on end over the summer. Crash after crash after crash, kilos of torn out hair and blood later it was finally resolved.
QA can be very repetitive and mundane at times, but mostly it is rewarding and a joy to see the evolution of a game before your very eyes.