When I was at school I was asked by my careers teacher what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I answered without hesitation, “make video games”.
It was a no-brainer. I had been interested in computers, and games, for as long as I could remember. Some of my earliest memories are of playing Qbert and Scramble in the local arcade, or sitting on the floor of our living room, with a Commodore Vic 20 plugged into the old wood-effect paneled television.
At school I chose IT as a GCSE option and aced it, at college I took computer Science and quickly realized that I knew more about the subject than my tutor, and then went on to study computer science and electronic engineering at university. However, as I progressed through my education my love of the subject waned, as I found myself being taught more and more about managerial roles and workflow than about what I really loved - games, and programming.
In fact I dropped my computer science degree after the first year, later graduating in audio and video engineering, and it wasn’t until several years later that I got involved in the games industry. While several of my friends had gone on to work with games development companies, I had gone into web design, and it wasn’t until I started developing Flash games that I eventually found myself doing what I had dreamed about as a child.
The strange thing is, I progressed faster in the games industry than several people I knew who took the more “traditional” route of a university degree. While they were working their way up the ranks, I drew the attention of big clients not because of my education, but because of my experience.
More recently I’ve got to know 2 people who came into the industry via yet another path, and it’s one that simply wasn’t available to me at the time, but I wish it was.
Back in the 1980’s video games were developed by small teams, often with a single person playing the role of designer, programmer, artist and musician, They were simple games, often produced on a very tight budget.
Conversely today’s games often involve massive budgets and large teams. Grand Theft Auto 4 is reported to have a budget of $100 million and with that sort of money at stake, the development studios have to ensure quality assurance. That’s where game testers come in.
If a game goes to market with mistakes, bugs, or bad gameplay it will get bad reviews, bad sales, and lose the studio potentially a lot of money. Therefore it’s in the studio’s interest to invest in testing to ensure that the games they produce are of the highest quality. This has opened up the new job position of “game tester” which is not only a dream job (or certainly would have been for me when leaving college 10 years ago!) but can also act as a gateway position to other jobs in the industry.
Game testing is notoriously difficult to get into, and the reality of the job is certainly a lot less glamorous than the title might suggest, with long hours and very repetitive work. However, game testers have the same advantage I had by developing independent games - industry experience! 2 or 3 years as a game tester will teach you a lot more about game development than the average college degree, and the games companies know this.
The best part about game testing is that it’s possible to do it part time from home. Now, in reality these “teleworking” casual positions don’t pay as well as full time in-house testing jobs, and the experience is nowhere near as good, but again it’s a great gateway and allows you to gain experience while continuing an education - the best of both worlds.
A friend of mine recently asked me whether I would have finished my degree, if I knew then what I know now and had the chance at a games testing position instead. Certainly the game testing job would have given me more experience and probably got me further in the games industry faster. However, my answer was simply that I would have attempted to do both - get casual work as a games tester to build experience, and complete my degree at the same time. With this approach you get the best of both worlds, and massively increase your chances of becoming a successful games developer.