Playing the latest computer games months before anyone else gets their hands on them, and getting paid for the pleasure, is a dream job for many avid gamers. But it's not just a nerd's fantasy; games testers are a vital component of the British computer games industry.
Since 1995 the British public has bought more than 250 million video games, roughly 10 games for every household. The British computer games industry is the third largest in the world and generates more for the UK economy than cinema box-office sales and DVD rentals combined.
A vital component of the industry's success is quality control; computer games players are particularly discerning customers with very high standards, but successful games can net huge profits. Grand Theft Auto, developed and produced by the British company Rockstar North, is the bestselling series in the world with more than two million sales in the UK alone. Conversely, many titles are resigned to the bargain bin only weeks after their launch, despite costing a million pounds to produce.
On the front line of quality assurance are teams of games testers. "You have to think like 50,000 different people. You have to be like all those people because everyone plays a game differently," says Darius Sadeghian, who works for the games developer and publisher Sega. "You sit down, put your headphones on, pick up the controller and think, 'how am I going to break this? How am I going to be better than the game?'"
Sadeghian has spent the last five years testing games, but being a part of the industry was a lifelong ambition. "The one thing I was really good at when I was young was playing games, that's all I wanted to do."
His first taste of the computer games industry wasn't so glamourous. Dressed as Sonic the Hedgehog he had to wander around Sega World, the video games entertainment venue in central London. He persisted, sending his CV out and approaching games companies in person, and soon hung up the costume to take up a job as a games tester.
Testers work in small teams, each scrutinising a specific area, or level, of a game and then swapping, so that by the end of the process all aspects will have been checked several times. Some things are easy to verify: are the menus correct? Does the option menu change the functions as it is supposed to? Does the game start? Once loaded the game itself is analysed in minute detail. Then comes the straightforward fun element of the job - playing the game as it is supposed to be played. That done, the testers then have to try to make it fail in order to find any bugs.
"If it's a driving game we try to break the game by maybe driving backwards, battering into the billboards," says Sadeghian. "What if you cross the finish line at minimum speed? Can you beat every possible lap time? You have to think of every way of making the game malfunction."
Testing is labour-intensive. Each game can take well over 3,00 hours to assess. That can mean long work-days, far beyond nine to five, and high stress-levels, especially when there is pressure to meet the targets that ensure a game goes out on time. Because of the long hours the testers spend in front of screens, companies try to make the working environment as comfortable as possible. There aren't any sofas, pizzas or beer, but the chairs are comfortable and the rooms bright and colourful.
"Often the teams will be broken up so they are more like a social group," Sadeghian explains. "I don't like to call it a boys club but it is sociable and fun. Everyone gets along well, we all have the same interests so the way of working is very fluid and enjoyable."
It's not just the social aspect of the job that Sadeghian has enjoyed. Although, superficially, games testing sounds a rather hedonistic career, it's the intellectual and creative input that appeals most. "Being a tester is about challenging yourself. You get to see how a game is made. You get to input into how a game should play or be designed. You get to make constructive comments on how a game can be made even better than it already is."