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The secret world of the games testers

What testing entails, and how to get involved

Before we can tell you how to become a games tester, we need to establish what a games tester actually does. The ostensibly straightforward term conjures up the image of an obese uber-nerd with a pocketful of red pens, head bowed under a waterfall of binary code.

But the reality is dauntingly broad, and every game tested offers its own, individual challenges. Testing isn't just a matter of crunching numbers - you've also got localisation testers, for instance, tasked with sculpting clumsy translations into something that sounds natural, even rewriting dialogue wholesale so it makes sense in a different cultural context.

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"We got approached to do a quiz game and they wanted it translated," recalls Keith Russell, MD of localisation specialist Babel Media. "And I said: 'no, you want it globalised.' Because the question 'who was the runner-up in last year's X Factor?' won't work in Brazil."

Crossing boundaries
There are testers who spend their days sliding along Tomb Raider's walls in search of clipping errors, testers who probe MMO economies for profitable loopholes, testers who reformat error messages to meet manufacturer certification requirements, testers who pick apart Dragon Age quest scripts like clockwork toys.

Some testers are employed by the developers themselves, working shoulder to shoulder with level designers and programmers. A significant proportion are independents like Babel, popular among studios who'd rather keep head-counts low.

"We got into it because companies realised that they only really needed a language team for four weeks, so why have them in permanently?" says Russell. "And we realised if we could get one week off THQ and one week off EA and one week off whoever then hey - there's a business there."

The UK's annual TestFest conference caters to this colossal spread, inviting testy types from all walks of life. Specialities range from fridges to suitcases, gambling machines to military hardware. At one point there's a lecture on how to idiotproof a torpedo's tracking system. Even without games testers - the vocation's pop stars - it's a colourful throng.

What holds this mass of apparently contradictory interest areas together? Boil away the PowerPoint presentations, the dissimilar skillsets and data-mining tools, and the one unifying factor is a taste for vandalism. In the words of Ash Gaming's Chris Swain, testers "understand the excitement of destroying a masterpiece".

Testing times
Not every game is a masterpiece - Ash Gaming's roster of bling-heavy slot machine apps probably don't qualify, despite Swain's energetic advocacy - but it's increasingly hard to get away with less. In a whirlwind opening presentation, former EA Casual boss Harvey Elliott describes how budgets have risen from a rough average of $500,000 in 1992 to a whopping $20 million in 2008. Rocketing costs make testing more of a luxury and, rather counter-productively, consumer expectations are also soaring.

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"I think with the way quality has gone up, a lot of the games you'd play in the SNES era got away with more," muses Anders Muldal, senior test lead at VMC Games Labs. "Gaming wasn't seen as such a serious industry, so you could get away with a lot in terms of bugs, because that's what people expected. The average person thought the developer was just some guy with a PC building the whole game himself.

"Now people see the huge budgets that some games have, the hype that surrounds releases, particularly the triple-A titles, I think people are a lot more demanding. They expect their games to have the same production quality as a Hollywood movie. It should be perfect!"

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