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The Game Effect Editorial

Unsung Heroes: The Life of a Video Game Tester

A look at what it's really like to test video games for a living

By Daniel Jones on 2/2/2012
The games industry is the largest entertainment industry in the world, creating billions in annual earnings. While game development has diversified to the point where big-budget, fully priced retail epics share a market with smaller, economy priced downloadable titles and social games, thousands of people dedicate their lives to the creation of games in various capacity. However, gamers may only know the names of a small handful of industry professionals. David Jaffe, Ken Levine, Todd Howard; all of these creative leaders would be the first to assert that no one person deserves all the credit and that everyone has a role to play. In this series, The Game Effect will take a look at some of the unsung heroes of the gaming industry. These are the people gamers may not be familiar with, but they have plenty of stories to tell. These are some of their stories.

The Tester

Rob Kehoe is a video game Tester. That term has a negative connotation for many people, while for others it sounds like a glamorous first step on a career path to video game stardom. Kehoe does not have a negative outlook on testing nor does he have delusions of grandeur. "Yes, you are the bottom rung of the corporate ladder but that's not because the company doesn't appreciate you." Explains Kehoe who has worked for six years in game development, primarily as a tester on various projects including Batman: Arkham City and the upcoming Halo 4. "Coming in at the bottom without a college degree...I didn't put in four years of college so I need to put in at least that much in experience before I can start seeing myself move up and go somewhere." Kehoe has ambitions to work as a multiplayer Level Designer and sees testing as a means to learn the tricks of the trade and build a foundation for his career.

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Kehoe usually starts his day earlier than most of the development team. He is used to being the first one in the building, sitting down at his desk, and continuing his work from the day before. "As a Tester, I'm always in first. We're there before we have management to tell us what to do." He continues, "Every team knows what they have to do for the day." Often, this includes working through a build of a specific level to identify and document any bugs in that particular build. There aren't always team members sitting over his shoulder telling him what to test or what to do. He has to be creative and resourceful in his duties as the last line of defense against game breaking glitches.

Kehoe, 28, lives in Washington State and has worked with Warner Bros., Bungie and now 343 Industries as a Contract Tester. His primary focus on most projects is to test for bugs either in multiplayer or in the case of Arkham City, the predator challenge missions. "Whenever anyone had a question about the predator sequences, any question, I had to be the guy that had the answer." He explains. "So the focus of my day to day stuff was the predator sequences both in the story and in the Riddler challenge rooms." Kehoe needed to learn these sequences in and out and he needed to know the sequences better than anyone on the team. This required him to explore every corner and experiment with every possible route or outcome in each of these sequences. He had to be the predator expert on the team.

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Extermination

Kehoe describes a job that is not unlike a kind of virtual bug hunter. His duties are to identify, document and categorize every bug and glitch he comes across. "We have to be diligent. The only way to measure our worth as Testers is by measuring our bug count." That bug count is documented in a database, along with a description of the bug so that the development team can pinpoint the glitch and fix whatever may be causing it.

This requires Kehoe to be creative and to play the game in somewhat unusual ways. "There were times when [the developers] would say, 'Play outside your norm. Play how somebody else would play.'" This demands skill in the game and a deep knowledge of the game's systems, but also requires the Testers to devise creative tactics and try things the average gamer may never do. As Kehoe puts it, "We can't think of everything people are going to try to do, but we have to try our best."

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This style of play often leads Testers to become the best players on the games they're testing. The next time you buy a game at midnight, take it home and look at the leaderboards before you even join a match. Those people at the top of the list are usually Testers. They familiarize themselves with every aspect of the multiplayer and usually have maps memorized before most gamers have even played the game. "With Bungie, every afternoon we would have play tests...Every week day at four we would all go into a lab where there were all these kits and TV's set up and we would sit there and play multiplayer." Explains Kehoe, fully aware that this is the most enviable part of his job. "The designers who designed the multiplayer are standing behind us watching us play. They're watching how the game plays out and they're keeping track of who's winning and what weapons are being used. Afterwards we are all tasked with writing up what bugs we found but also writing up our feedback on how we felt about the game."

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The Public Beta Test

Some people may read that and compare it to a public muliplayer beta such as the one Battlefield 3 utilized to test server strength last October. Public beta's are usually used to test a game's infrastructure and how well the multiplayer holds up with millions of people suddenly playing all at once. "There is no way [developers] could ever be fully prepared for millions of people getting online all at the same time to play their game." The Testers are a small group in comparison to the massive numbers playing a game upon release, but they need to try to identify every possible complaint a person may have with a game and address it before the game releases.

Kehoe knows the team can't appease everyone. Speaking on the subject of focus testing, he explains, "You have one group of people who come in and play for the day and say, 'Hey, the shotgun is way too powerful' and the next day a group can come in and say, 'The shotgun is way too weak.'" Beta tests often devolve into a large scale version of this focus testing conundrum, which is why it is used as a last resort for testing the balance and systems of a multiplayer game. The challenge for Testers is to try to identify problems that don't even exist yet.

A Fresh Perspective

Unlike the average consumer who may play a game in beta, Kehoe sees a game in many different stages of development. This includes beta and alpha, but also includes pre-alpha stages such as the vertical slice, in which a game needs to have all of its components working properly in order to present it to publishers who come to check on their investment during the early stages of development. Sometimes seeing a game in such a rough state can wear on a Tester and give them a negative view of the project. Says Kehoe, "When I work on a game for a long time, I start to get worried because all I see are the bugs. I get so pessimistic, but then it comes out and people love it."

In fact, Kehoe doesn't always stay with a project until the end. On Batman: Arkham City, he left the project in May to start work on Master Chief's next adventure, but when the game came out in October, he had the pleasure of looking at it with fresh eyes and playing it on the same level as the rest of the gaming world. "When I was working on it there were no parts where Joker would call up Batman on the phone." He continues, "So that was a complete surprise for me when The Joker would call up Batman on the phone."

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The point that Kehoe stressed throughout the interview is that game development is a very flexible process and that as a Tester, he needs to be flexible as well. The industry is constantly evolving. New innovations are emerging every day. Testers need to be knowledgeable about the game they're working on, but also be familiar with the games coming out from other studios. Kehoe recalls the moment everything changed on one of his previous projects, F.E.A.R. 2, when a certain blockbuster first-person shooter released in 2007. "I was working on F.E.A.R. 2 a few months after Call of Duty 4 came out and F.E.A.R. 2 had very traditional Unreal -type multiplayer," Recalls Kehoe. "Call of Duty 4 comes out, changes the gaming scene and every sentence has the word 'load-out' in it. Then everyone's talking about that and the multiplayer designers on F.E.A.R. 2 decided, 'If we want to compete with this game, we have to offer some semblance of what they're offering.'" Change breeds innovation and Testers need to be aware of every change that occurs in this constantly evolving industry.

Testers are required to think like artists, sound engineers, level builders and players of all ages and skill sets. They are required to be flexible, creative, meticulous and articulate. Kehoe has a knack for writing and understands game design as well as anyone you'll meet. He blogs online, and has a year and a half experience as a level designer. He is just one example of how competitive this industry can be. Many people enter the industry as Testers and try to move up the ranks. Some are successful, and others burn out, but one thing is certain: some of the most creative, innovative thinkers in the industry are testing games right now, slowly working their way to the top.

Thank you to Rob Kehoe for taking the time to speak with us and participate in this article. If you would like to hear more from Rob, you can follow him on Twitter @Rob_Kehoe. 
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mojomonkey12 on February 24, 2012
That was great! Sorry I am late to the party on commenting. I'm looking you up next time I am in Washington Rob, I'm gonna make you spill some details on Halo 4!

I am curious to know...is it hard to keep some things quiet? Especially when your online(and offline) friends are talking about the game? I can imagine if it was me and some buddies were debating some potential feature, I would so want to tell!

I guess this is where the ever binding NDA comes into play!
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OSMenace on February 05, 2012
Great insight into a unique position, I have always been fascinated with the idea of game development and testing, this article really showed me what that concept entailed.
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indiejones on February 05, 2012
Glad you enjoyed it OSMenace. We will be doing many more like this and hopefully they will add even more insight into everything that goes into developing, publishing and marketing a game.
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dieg234 on February 04, 2012
That is the most manly thing that you could possibly do with your life, after rainbow hunter....
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Warbuff on February 03, 2012
Great job with the interview and write up Dan. This Rob Kehoe sounds like a sexy individual.
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mojomonkey12 on February 24, 2012
I would say more like Super Duper Sexy...and he knows it;)
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MikeDeas879 on February 03, 2012
This is what I want to do with my life.
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Entropic on February 03, 2012
Man I loved reading this! Such great detail and insight into what a Game Tester actually does, and where it can lead. As someone who has worked in QA, you definitely get a unique perspective on the product (or game in this case) in that position, which can be really empowering.
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