Contract QA: A dead end or a foot-in-the-door?

A handful of experienced devs offer some career advice on how to break into the games industry for a down-and-out QA contractor and Kotaku contributor.
Last week, I read an article on Kotaku by one Nathan Peters called "Don't Sign That Contract", in which the author recaps his experience working on Halo 4 as a QA contractor and concludes with a call "...for all would-be workers to not accept positions as contractors in the game industry." Naturally, I wanted to know what Gamasutra's readers -- the vast majority of whom have far more experience working in contract game development roles -- thought of this article. So I asked around: What kind of advice would you offer the author for succeeding in game development?

Tulay Tetiker McNally (Director of Studio Development QA, BioWare)

Anything I'd say to the author, I've already said in my blog post here: "The End of the Dark Ages for QA in game development". In my blog, I describe how QA is a valid career path at BioWare, and will hopefully be in the rest of the industry one day. Contract work is a reality in many different industries, not just games or QA. There are also laws protecting contract workers from getting exploited. Part of the problem is that many people don't read their contracts or T&Cs properly, or they just quietly hope that people will hire them full-time if they work hard enough. But if you hang in there as a contractor for a few years and build up experience working on triple-A games, that's certainly a way to work your way up the ranks if you're talented and passionate about what you're doing. And what happened to apprenticeships or internships?

Matthew Burns (Founder and Creative Director, Shadegrown Games)

Reading the piece, it seems that working as an hourly QA tester hasn't changed much since I did it over a decade ago. I recognize many of the attitudes and behaviors. Is contract work in the game industry a "flawed system", as Nathan says? Certainly it is. But what corporate system isn't deeply flawed? (For example, salaried employees are usually exempt from overtime pay. Contractors get overtime for working overtime.) Will doing contract work "get you nowhere?" It didn't get him anywhere, and he seems to believe it is the rule more than the exception. I don't have hard data on this kind of thing, but I can say that not an insignificant number of my peers -- some of whom are now lead designers, creative directors, VPs of publishers, and even CEOs of their own studios -- tested games for an hourly wage for their first game industry job. Nathan doesn't say how long he was at Certain Affinity, but it sounds like it was less than a year. Most of the people I know were in test for multiple years before they moved up. Of course, it's not for me to say what cost/benefit is right for him -- we all make those determinations for ourselves.

Brian Schmidt (Brian Schmidt Studios)

I've been in games for 26 years, 15 years as a contractor. Not as a tester (I've been in audio the whole time), but it sounds more like he's just not cut out for contract work. I never really felt the "outsider" thing he did in any big way, and when I did, I tried to increase my own engagement, not just sit back and hope they engaged me more. Heck, he even said that the studio head personally asked him for his input, so it sounds like there was reach-out and a desire to have people feel heard. That's Good Management 101. Contracting's not for everyone. You have to enjoy the varied people you meet and the varied projects you'll have. And yes, you sometimes feel a bit like an outsider, but I've found that's 90 percent because of your own actions and 10% because of your clients' actions. But weighing the freedom of being able to move from project to project against being a full-time employee, the successful contractors I know enjoy the former immensely. I also think he has a tough point to sell.  One of the reasons that their "promises came to nothing" was that he stopped showing up to work and was fired. It really sounds like the author just didn't stick it out to the end. And no one wants to hire as a [full-time employee] someone who doesn't stick with things when it gets tough. To be frank, he seems to have quit his previous endeavor (the music business); selling your equipment doesn't really show a "dust yourself off and try again' attitude, so perhaps there's a pattern there.

Stephan Beier (Production Director, Travian Games)

In the end, it sounds like the author is not contented with where he is in life. I think the working conditions are acceptable for somebody right out of college, but not for someone in his 30s. The situation described is a great opportunity for entry level workers. If you work as an embedded tester, you get the opportunity to meet a lot of experienced guys on the dev teams, and if you are really good, then you do have a good chance to get a permanent position and start a career. I don't know anything about the author's qualification, but obviously he does have some talent in sound and gaming, but he also lacks the skillset and opportunity to make his own enterprise a success. The only failure on the side of his superior is that there were no evaluation talks. Whether these are the tasks of the dev team, or of his agency is up to debate. (For what it's worth, I personally have seen a lot of situations that were way worse than in this story (two back-to-back 90-hour work weeks without compensation for the extra hours at EA Germany, numerous unpaid extra hours at an indie developer, being completely ignored when providing QA support from an outsourcer position, having my whole QA department being deleted from the in-game credits after Ubisoft bought my employer...the list goes on.)

Matt Hansen (Senior Producer and former Contract QA tester, Double Fine Productions)

Breaking into the industry is a combination of skill, luck, perseverance and attitude. With fewer AAA game studios in North America and a large group of experienced developers out of work, it is a very difficult time for someone without industry experience to move from an entry level contract job to a full time employee at a studio. I have found that people new to the industry who maintain a good attitude and go out of their way to be helpful in the sometimes crazy environment of game development have the best chances of moving on to bigger roles on the team. But like any job where you have a large passionate group of people all trying to advance, it is never a sure thing that all of those people will be given an opportunity to show their potential. It's a huge risk to take a lower paying job as a contractor with the slim chance of moving on to your dream job, but as with many things in life, sometimes you just have to take a risk to see what is possible. How would you advise a budding game dev that was feeling discouraged from contract QA work? Tell us in the comments!

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