Monday, November 21, 2011

The (one and only) truth about video game testers

I was doing some research for my latest article for Active Gaming Media when I found this site:

It is a site where a self-appointed professional game tester praises his newest book on how to make money from making your hobby as a game player a profession through testing. 

I can't believe that I just stumbled upon this. I have to respond to it, because it is the biggest fraud I have seen in a long time! Since it made me get kind of mad, please forgive my sarcasm, but there are some things about video game testing I'd like to correct.

Surely, from an online marketing perspective I have to admit that this site has got everything you need to sell your latest scum...err...I mean scam book:

1. An irresistible promise of being rich while spending your life on the couch (with lots of $$$ symbols!)
2. Oversized headlines in red (yes, red!)
3. Pictures of all your favorite video games
4. Lot's of SEO valuable keywords all over the site (site ranking, site ranking, site ranking...)
5. Lot's of voices and pictures of wonderful people who had success with this career ( comment), and not the last
6. It gains attention and publicity, even it is bad one (simply the fact that I am writing about it, gives it credit)

Awesome site! Seriously! I am into marketing myself, this site is as right from the textbook, no better! It's great, I love it!

But as good as the structure of the site is as bad is it's content! Why?
It is a serious job where you only spend a fraction of your time actually playing the game.
Sure there are different types of game testing, which you could differentiate into two main categories:

1. Video game consumer research
2. Video game debugging

But both of those categories above don't mean that you don't have to work for your money!
I am speaking from experience, we do both market research and video game debug here at Active Gaming Media.

As a small explanation, consumer research for video games mostly takes place before or during the actual development of games. The goal is to receive feedback on a certain game title in order to improve gaming experience for players or to discover pitfalls in the actually gameplay, for example a certain trap a player always is walking into finding himself dying at the same place over and over again. This either means you may be sitting with a bunch of sweaty guys together in a oxygen-reduced darkroom playing the same level over and over again until you notice that your eyes color has changed into something demon-like, or being interrogated by a game developer in a so-called 'focus group' explaining why you prefer a sword over a hand gun in the latest alien invasion game you've been seeing a video about. (Exactly, video! market research on video games doesn't necessarily mean that you will be able to play the game. Instead you may only see some video samples!)

Video game debug is similar to game play testing. However, the goal here is not to find bugs to improve the satisfaction a player feels while playing the game but to actually test the game to its limits to find those situations where the game crashes or freezes, or where the game localization caused any problems in-game. So in many cases that means that a game tester has to find and correct language bugs resulting from a bad translation or cutting down text due to overflows.

So does that sound like fun to you?

Also, the author of the resp. website/book is talking about the top companies and showing pictures from top titles in the industry, but how many people do you think end up testing major titles? Exactly, only a hand full! So the life of a normal game tester nowadays often consists of checking hundreds of smaller social or smartphone/mobile games, if you are lucky some minor console games.

Even though this still can be a lot of fun, the payment is not as good as it pictured in the article/book.

First of all it is simply a lie to claim that the game industry is the "ONLY industries that was unaffected by the recession" or that "every major game company is DESPERATELY looking for game testers - and they want to pay you BIG BUCKS in return"! If that were the case, I would be sitting at a beach with a martini in my hand while writing this!
On the contrary, most major video game companies are struggling to survive (especially here in Japan)! You just need to check financial reports of the so-called major players in the gaming industry, or simply the market data in general to see that those companies are not in the shape they used to be. (Nintendo for example - even though still being considered as a pioneer in many sectors and supported by a huge franchise - has lost of value at the Tokyo Stock exchange over the last couple of years.)

It is right, that the market as a whole is growing but only because more and more smaller start-up companies are flooding the market with their self published titles and more and more people from both other market segments and demographics as well as from emerging countries find theirself playing video games. However, with the growth of the mobile and social gaming sector (not even speaking about piracy) the traditional pricing model doesn't work for the old-established publishers and developers anymore. The pressure from all those free-to-play games in terms of pricing and quality is just to big. (And the quality of those games is getting better and better.) So how should a major publisher be able to pay you a dream salary for doing nothing? That's an illusion, it never works that way. Believe me, I know what I am talking about, we have been in price negotiations for video game market research and video game debug with all the big companies in Japan, and there is one thing I can assure you of: The rates are shrinking!

Second, even though there are many games out there, no company puts out a new title every week (especially not the major publishers), so you won't be able to test games 8 hours a day for 5 days a week and 4 weeks a month! It very much depends on the project and the schedule of the developer/publisher.
Moreover you won't spend most of your time on actually playing the game but on filling questionnaires or bug reports in detail, or by giving interviews, explaining game play features of the game and brainstorming about your preferences and about how they could be implemented into the game. For example if you are if you are sitting in a focus group the moderator will wont end questioning you before he or she has actually extracted every single thought from your impression on the game and the reason why you prefer this or that over the other feature.
Ok, if you are lucky (I mean really lucky, like lottery lucky!) then you may find yourself in a game lab like Microsoft or other companies have them in silicon valley. Those high-end upgraded video game centers are wired up with huge mainframe servers recording and analyzing every single of your steps in the game to find patterns in gamer behavior to improve gameplay before release.
There you often really don't need to do anything else than having a pizza and playing a game. But be honest to yourself, how many Microsoft game test centers do you have in your neighborhood? So even if you like playing the newest Star Craft edition at your home computer everyday, don't expect to be able to do so for a living as a game tester! It's more likely that you  find yourself looking for bugs on your personal iPod Touch while harvesting another bunch of crops in the newest version of 'Farm up you life'! And then writing up a detailed description of where you found the bug, what you did while stumbling over it, how fix it etc. And this is not always only fun! It is work!

Don't get me wrong I don't mean to complain or say that testing a Facebook or mobile game is a dull job. On the contrary, after a long day at work it is a nice feeling to know that there are lots of people out there enjoying the game you somehow could contribute to. Even it may not be the type of game you are used to play at home.

All I am saying is: Don't expect game testing to be an easy job! And please don't fall for any frauds as written on the named page above!

Thank you!

*Note from the author, I may have overreacted at some points...sorry for this!