Timing is Everything
When you're just starting out, timing is everything. Entry-level testers are expected to show up promptly in the morning and work on a tightly maintained schedule. They arrive at the same time, take breaks at the same time and leave at the same time. For the novice contractor, everything runs like clockwork. "At Nintendo it was 7:30 to 5:00 with two 15-minute breaks and an hour lunch," remembers Derek DeHoogh. Having recently made the transition to Microsoft, DeHoogh notes that the hours are marginally better, but not by much. "Now I work 9:00 to 5:30 with a 45-minute lunch and a 15-minute break."
Timing can also be an issue when it comes to multiplayer. At MGS, there are pre-arranged times when testers are asked to go online. This is as much about testing the hardware and the infrastructure as it is about testing the games. Gamers expect the online components to work out of the box, and testers are there to make sure that the games and hardware live up to those expectations.
From a corporate standpoint, quality assurance adheres to the same schedule as the rest of the development process. To speed things along, testers are often given savegames from various stages in the game. This usually includes access to the unlockable content, removing both the hassle and the joy of unlocking it through regular play. Of course, testers have to check to make sure that they can unlock that stuff normally, but that part gets looked at later.
Dealing with a company based overseas introduces its own set of time-zone-related quirks for the testers at NOA; Davis remembers going in at 4 A.M. for some special testing that required talking to the Japanese development team. This is one area where the Microsoft testing experience is more straightforward, since the game programmers are often just a shuttle ride away.
Movin' On Up
Like Nintendo, Microsoft also employs a lot of younger, entry-level contractors as testers. For both studios, the daily testing routine is very similar, with regular hours and assigned projects. However, testers at Microsoft are paid a bit better than at Nintendo, which has some interesting implications. One result is that testers tend to stay around a little longer. This opens up new opportunities for experienced testers to advance up the career ladder.
At Microsoft, there are opportunities for game testers to advance beyond their starting contractor position. Senior testers can earn the title of Software Test Engineer, and with the title comes more pay and better hours. "When I come into work varies on what needs done when," says Robert Lamb, a STE at Microsoft. "There is a lot of freedom of when you get in, provided you get what you need to get done, done."
After putting in some time at the senior tester level, skilled contractors can work their way up to full-time employment with Microsoft, with a regular salary and full benefits. Of course, some make the jump straightaway. "If they do skip the contracting stage, it usually means they have coding experience, and come in as an SDET," says Brian Fetty, another STE. That's a "Software Design Engineer in Test," a programmer charged with writing test automation software tools which take care of the more mundane aspects of putting a game through its paces. Automation is like having testers that can check for stability issues 24 hours a day, 7 days a week without getting drowsy or sick.