What do you think when you hear that someone is a 'game tester'? Visions of Tom Hanks bashing Transformers together in a boardroom? Someone strapped into an ergonomic leather chair with a Red Bull I.V. drip staring at five different blinkering screens at once?
Chaz Simmons III knows what the life is really like. After attending Vancouver film school, the Philadelphia-born Simmons settled in Seattle to launch his career in gaming in 2009, first working at Big Fish Games testing out mobile titles such as Mystery Case Files (a hidden object series), and then several for King (the makers of Candy Crush).
"There's a difference between playing a game and testing a game," Simmons, who also moonlights as a quizmaster for Geeks Who Drink Trivia, says. "As a tester, the game might be like, 'You're supposed to go here,' and you're like, 'No, I'm going to look at this wall.' You're trying to say 'no' to the things the game wants you to say 'yes' to."
While some video game testers dig deep into game code to find flaws, Simmons has mainly done work as a 'black box' tester, which means that he records glitches from a player's perspective and relays what he sees to the development team. That might mean catching a bug that allows players to cheat through manipulation of a clock or calendar, or finding out that on certain mobile devices, the game accidentally takes a screenshot and stores it in your photos. That's not to mention the myriad complexities that can bring entire strings of code crashing to the ground.
Much of the work Simmons has done in the past involved making sure that developers who made ports of PC games to mobile didn't mess anything up. Beginning his career just two years after the first generation iPhone was released, he saw the exponential rise of iOS titles, while his day-to-day duties often included trying to keep up with all the updates, seeing how a particular game functions with different apps running at the same time and navigating the complexities of the new mobile landscape. It was often like an assembly line, Simmons says, "Check pass or fail and move on."
Of course, that doesn't mean he couldn't enjoy mashing controllers in his downtime. "I try not to test the games I play for fun — I know how to set that part of my brain off. But I still play a lot when I go home [currently Kingdom Hearts 3, Marvel's Spider-Man for PS4 and Detroit: Become Human]. It's like candy. I might be eating M&M's all day at work, but I still get to enjoy gummy bears."
Depending on the size and makeup of the company, 'black box' testers such as Simmons can give feedback on quality and game design, providing a springboard to more creative positions within the field. In the past, Simmons has tinkered with game engines ("When I was younger, I had RPG Maker for PS1," he says), and recommends that those with similar ambitions acquire Unity or Unreal 4 as their own personal sandbox.
"There are game makers galore out there right now," Simmons says. "With newer devices like Google Home and Amazon Alexa all offering a breadth of different experiences, along with the consoles, I feel like I can carve out the type of designer I want to be more than I could ten years ago." Indeed, the sheer volume of games being delivered to consumers — whether on mobile, PC or consoles — is staggering (Steam has nearly doubled its inventory every year since 2014).
But these are volatile times for the industry. After two decades of growth, analysts are projecting a gaming sales recession in 2019. Mass layoffs at high-profile companies such as Activision, Blizzard, and EA are rattling developers, designers, and testers alike. The rise of in-game purchases, micro-transactions, and digital currency are resulting in fewer completely polished blockbuster titles from publishers, which The Gamer calls a "put-it-out-now-and-patch-it-later" mentality. Why invest millions in refining and testing a product thoroughly if games continually evolve after release?
Simmons certainly hasn’t been immune to the changes. He’s currently on the hunt for full-time employment after experiencing cutbacks first hand at two different companies. Just like others who have been affected by the mechanisms of a rapidly changing workforce, he knows that — even though many video game publishers have recently reported record revenue — there’s a lot of uncertainty for the rank and file.
"I think this recent downturn is caused by some companies wanting to do better by their investors, while others are figuring out what direction to take their company next," he says, adding that while there aren’t too many opportunities for freelance or contract work, time between jobs affords him the chance to work on new skills, such as mastering Selenium WebDriver and other mobile testing APIs.
"Thankfully the industry is very supportive of each other during these times — having mixers, job recruitment fairs. Connecting with others helps the hit land a little softer."
And when another full-time position does open up? Simmons says he'll be glad to enjoy perks like playing Super Smash Bros. at lunch once more.