A playtester is a person who systematically plays unreleased games (Usually computer games, but not always... I was a playtester for a card game called Modern Naval Battles) in order to find bugs for the programmers to fix. Playtesting is a subsection of the job referred to as Quality Assurance, and paid playtesters usually hold the title of Quality Assurance Inspector, or something similar.

Playtesting is sometimes a paid position, but more frequently is a volunteer position - after all, who wouldn't want to get to play a game they're anticipating before it's available to the general public? However, paid playtesting is radically different from volunteer playtesting.

A paid playtester:

  • Is usually paid minimum wage.
  • Is expected to work 40 hours a week or more.
  • Has little or no choice on what titles he is working on, or how (Imagine being told to keep replaying one level of a game over and over again for 8 hours a day).
  • Is expected to turn in a "reasonable" number of bug reports on any game he works on.
  • May have the opportunity to become a game designer, programmer, or other higher-level job in the gaming industry.
In contrast, a volunteer playtester:
  • Is not paid anything, but may receive a free copy of the game he worked on, or, in the case of online games, free time or reduced rates for playing the game he tested after it launches.
  • Can choose when and for how long he plays the games.
  • Only works on games he has an interest in.
  • Has no quota or ratio on bug reporting; companies that use volunteer testing expect that fewer than 5% of the people "volunteering" will actually turn in any bug reports at all.
  • Will likely receive no recognition at all for his efforts.
You would probably think that it would be a lot of fun to be a paid playtester for a major game company. Nothing could be further from the truth. Until you have years of experience as a playtester, you will have little or no say in what kind of games you work on; newly-hired playtesters are usually assigned to the worst game currently in development. You will be expected to do mind-numbingly repetitive tests in order to track down exactly what is wrong... you're grunt labor, and your time is far less expensive than the programmers' time. You have to figure out how to reproduce the bug consistently, if possible. If the programmers can't figure out how to reproduce the bug by following your bug report, it's your fault.

As if that's not bad enough, the conditions for being a paid playtester vary highly from company to company. At many of the companies, you're an "at-will" employee, and can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. Some companies even fire their entire playtest crew as soon as a game goes gold, getting an entirely new crew for each new game.

If you have enough technical skill to become a paid playtester for a major gaming corporation, you have enough skill to be much more... do yourself a favor and take your skills somewhere that you'll get paid what you're worth, and appreciated for the work you do.

Disclaimer: I worked for Interplay for three months. During that time, I worked on Invictus, the Mercenary expansion pack for Descent 3, Messiah, and Planescape: Torment. Torment was the only thing that kept me going. I was working on-site at Shiny's headquarters in Laguna Beach, working hard on getting Messiah out the door under a tight deadline, when I was called back to Interplay's HQ in Irvine - a 40 minute drive - to be told that I was being "released" with no explanation... two days before I was scheduled to be promoted from "probationary" status to "permanent" status, and only 3 days after I had pulled an all-nighter in order to get the Messiah demo out the door on schedule. Not that I'm bitter.

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