I often get questions from people wondering whether a job in quality assurance is a good path to becoming a game developer. The answer is, “not really.” Here’s why.
First let’s look at why getting a job as a game tester might look like a good way into game development. The logic runs something like this.
It’s hard to get a job making games for a living. There are only so many jobs. Every gamer on the planet wants one. Competition is fierce.
Most of those jobs require professional skills that take years to develop and prove.
Programmers typically need at least a bachelor’s degree from a good university. Even that isn’t really enough—you also need to show skill, experience, and interest beyond just a 4-year degree. This usually means either coming with a awesome portfolio showing the amazing programs you’ve written, the indie games you’ve already made successful, or a Master’s degree in game programming from a solid, professional program like The Guildhall at SMU (where I teach).
I think that programming is the coolest job in game development (not to mention one of the most lucrative), but not a lot of people have the discipline to get the education and experience you need to be a professional game programmer.
Art is another option. But it’s not really any easier. A professional game artist also has mad art skillz demonstrated through a killer portfolio in 2D art, 3D modeling, and/or 3D animation. They often develop these skills through a bachelor’s degree and, again, a Master’s degree like the one we offer at the Guildhall. Not to mention lots of talent and practice.
Level design is the third major option. Once upon a time, level design was the specialization for people who didn’t want to specialize. If you didn’t have any higher-level technical or art skills—if you just loved games and wanted to make them—level design was the path for you. But more and more, level design is also a highly demanding professional specialization requiring years of experience-building and study. (And yes, the Guildhall trains level designers too.)
But what do you do if you’re desperate to make games but you haven’t yet spent the time to develop a professional level of skill in one of these areas—programming, art, or level design? In that case, you’re liable to consider any path into game development. Even a painful or humble one.
Hence the attraction of quality assurance (QA). In a QA job you test games, finding bugs and reporting them. That sounds pretty fun to most people. And although being a tester isn’t the most glamorous role in game development, it is a role. To many aspiring game developers, QA sounds like a foot in the door. They imagine they’ll spend a year or two playing games eight hours a day, chiming in their own ideas whenever the opportunity arises. Eventually they’ll stand out from the crowd, a bright light will shine down upon them from above, and they’ll be lifted up into the glory of a real game development job. That’s the dream of QA.
It’s a dream that virtually never comes true.
If you become a tester for a game company, you will most likely be one of dozens, maybe hundreds of testers. All of those testers will have the same ambition that you have. They all have games that they want to make. They all can talk all kinds of smack about what makes this or that game great or terrible or what-have-you. They all currently lack enough skill in programming, art, or level design to gain a “real” job actively contributing to a game. Although you’ll be working for a game company, you’ll still be one out of a big crowd of competitors all gunning for a tiny number of jobs.
Indeed, in some ways you’ll have harmed your chances. Game developers often see testers as a lower class of being. Good companies fight against this tendency, but the tendency is still there. Testers are often consigned to their own isolated ghetto—either a packed hive of cubicles within the developer’s office building, or even a separate building situated remotely from the actual developers.
Developers tend to have little to no respect for testers. From a developer’s standpoint, there seem to be hoards of them and they come and go without apparent fanfare. The only interaction most developers have with the people who find their bugs is receiving problem reports and complaints from them. Since it’s not much fun to have your work picked apart and criticized, developers often don’t feel a fond association with testers. Sometimes testers can’t resist going beyond mere bug-finding to offer their own brilliant ideas. Except they don’t seem brilliant to a developer—they just seem irrelevant, silly, uninformed, or presumptuous. By joining a QA team, you put yourself at risk of earning game developers’ contempt, not their admiration. In some ways you’re farther from getting a game development job than if you had stayed on the outside and simply built up your skills and portfolio.
Another downside to working a QA job is that the work itself can be terribly frustrating. “Playing games for a living” sounds mighty nice. But imagine being forced to play the same game every day, eight or ten or twelve hours a day, week in, week out for month after month. Maybe that still sounds fun to you. Now imagine that the game is full of bugs. You keep falling through the ground unexpectedly. The camera shakes uncontrollably 50% of the time, giving you a headache and nearly inducing an epileptic fit. Your save games don’t work, so you have to keep starting over from the beginning. One day the enemies are impossible to kill, then the next day they become laughably fragile.
QA isn’t playing games for a living. It’s finding bugs for a living. And finding bugs means living with bugs. For hours and hours every day.
Testers don’t get much respect, but they should. Every game you’ve ever loved only got that way after months of careful bug-finding and -fixing. QA departments are crucial. Without them, bugs don’t get found, bugs don’t get fixed, and customers are left with irritating, bug-ridden games. QA is an important and honorable job. A good game developer appreciates the bug reports he or she receives from QA and the people who carefully find and describe them. But no matter how valuable the job is, QA is a thankless and often tedious task. Nothing will make you sick of playing games (or at least certain types of games) quicker than testing them.
So is QA a good way into a career in game development? Not really. Joining a QA team doesn’t mean joining a game development team—it means joining the reeking ghetto that sits downstream of a game development team. And it doesn’t mean playing games for a living—it means finding bugs for a living, which is most definitely not the same thing.
All that said, it is true that people do sometimes graduate up from QA into a real game development job. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s a relatively quick path into making games. As a tester, you may not be well-respected by the game development team, but you might at least be known to the team. And if the team has a need for an entry-level designer, a basic script programmer, a texture artist, an assistant audio engineer, or an administrative go-fer, and if you happen to have somehow shown some skill in one of those areas, then you might get a chance at moving up.
Just don’t hold your breath. Those “graduation” opportunities come up rarely (once every year or two, perhaps?) and only benefit a small proportion of testers (perhaps one in a hundred?). Chances are, a job in QA won’t lead to a job making games. Chances are it will lead nowhere.