Testing videogames is a challenging job, and it's only becoming more challenging as games get bigger and more complex. What would make the job even trickier, however, is covering for the work of three other testers while pretending you have a full team to the developer that contracted the work. That's the kind of thing a number of QA developers say they were directed to do while testing major games at a large third-party testing house.
Two current and eight former workers at prolific Romanian quality assurance outsourcer Quantic Lab spoke to PC Gamer about their jobs on the condition of anonymity, alleging that management not only pressures its testers above and beyond the norm for this vital but too often under-resourced subset of game development, but also misleads clients about the size and competency of its QA teams—and directs employees to keep up the charade.
You're likely unfamiliar with Quantic Lab, which is based in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, but you will know the games this Embracer Group subsidiary worked on: Cyberpunk 2077, The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine, Divinity: Original Sin 2, Necromunda Hired Gun, Cities Skylines, and more were all tested by Quantic employees. Testers had access to development builds of these games, scrutinizing them for glitches and potential blocks to progress in a similar way to how speedrunners attempt to "break" a game following release.
In June, a series of videos from gaming YouTube channel Upper Echelon Gamers drew attention to Quantic's alleged mismanagement and duplicitous business practices. UEG focused on the testimony of former members of Quantic's Cyberpunk 2077 QA team, the distress management caused those workers, and the negative impact this had on Cyberpunk's development.
Doru Șupeală, a Romanian tech journalist, published several accounts from former Quantic employees alleging malpractice on the part of management to his substack, Hacking Work. Șupeală offered invaluable assistance in researching this story. Quantic was also investigated by the Romanian outlet, Libertatea, which has published similar findings.
The employees I spoke to describe an environment where Quantic was constantly operating beyond its means, accepting more projects than it had the capacity for, and stretching its staff too thinly between them.
They indicated that these issues hit a crescendo when the company took on contracts to test Cyberpunk 2077 and NBA 2K21. Cyberpunk has been a bit of a lightning rod for Quantic, but the company does not seem to be officially credited in 2K21, a practice that one of the currently active employees touched on.
"Unfortunately, many Quantic Lab testers were not credited in all games that they tested," they said. "In some cases, publishers' criteria for crediting a person was if they worked more than five months on that game. If someone worked only four months and two weeks on that game, they wouldn't be credited."
Night City Blues
A number of the employees we spoke to were intimately involved in Quantic's testing of Cyberpunk 2077. They allege that Cyberpunk 2077 and NBA 2K were a gravity well at the company, pulling talent from other divisions and leaving other projects short-staffed even as the Cyberpunk project in particular floundered. All the employees we spoke to indicated that these two marquee projects were fully staffed, but not with the experienced testers promised to the clients.
"From a team of 30 people [initially assigned to Cyberpunk 2077], I think only 10 of them had experience on QA," a source who worked on Cyberpunk for Quantic told us. Of those 10, they said that "none of the 'experienced' testers had more than a year."
Several of the employees we spoke to mentioned being told by management to avoid talking about how many years they'd worked in the industry when communicating with CD Projekt employees, and they agreed that the Polish developer was not getting the level of experience it paid for with its QA team at Quantic. They said that CDPR contacted Quantic several times about the team's underwhelming performance.
The Cyberpunk team at Quantic would be doubled partway through development, but lack of experience, the onset of Covid-19, and directives from Quantic management that clashed with CD Projekt's development priorities all led to Quantic underperforming in comparison to the other QA teams CDPR had working on the project.
Workers familiar with the project told us that one such issue was testers filing many low-impact bug reports in order to match daily quotas set by Quantic management. Developers at CDPR would receive numerous reports of low-priority graphical glitches, and testers at Quantic had their attention diverted from ferreting out higher-priority issues like the progress-blocking main quest glitches that made it to the final release.
Multiple former workers on the project indicated that Quantic's contract with CDPR was open to extension through Cyberpunk's updates and expansions, but wasn't renewed when it expired in 2021.
Quantic was one of several quality assurance teams to work on Cyberpunk 2077, including QLOC S.A. and CDPR's in-house team, but the fact remains that Quantic's mismanagement left a third of Cyberpunk's gameplay QA workforce struggling to fulfill its basic obligations.
"I wouldn't blame Cyberpunk on [Quantic], CDPR still released the damn thing," one of the former Quantic employees who worked on the game told us, "but the fact that the game was in the state that it was, [Quantic] contributed." The same employee posited that a better-managed team in the same position could have bought CD Projekt valuable time on the project.
Alongside Cyberpunk, the company's regular work on other smaller projects continued, but with exacerbated staffing issues. A former senior Quantic employee who was hired in 2019 says it was "standard practice" to misrepresent the "size and experience" of the company's QA teams to clients.
These smaller projects would run understaffed, according to multiple sources, while management pressured employees to create the appearance of full teams. "On smaller projects, you were lucky to have at least half the testers," claims one former employee.
The degree of understaffing on any given project was not a static situation. Games would undergo rounds of testing, and the teams handling them would be at various capacities at different stages. At one point in development, a project may be at or close to capacity, then return for another round but this time handled by a skeleton crew.
"It was common to see entire projects handled by one person, which actually needed a team of one to three testers [in addition to the lead tester]," a former lead told us. "Some lead testers handled two to three projects at a time, with probably fewer than needed testers assigned to each one."
Our sources told us that "lead testers" at Quantic often only have around one to three years' experience in the industry due to Quantic's targeting of recent graduates and a high turnover rate at the company. For context, a source with experience at an AAA QA department told us that a lead was promoted "quickly" if they reached that point from entry level in two and a half years, while some of the Quantic employees we spoke to faced that level of professional pressure, at a lower level of pay, in less than a year.
According to the employees, these lead testers are often put in the position of keeping up the fiction of a team's size and competency in communication with clients, on top of the regular pressures of testing a game.
"I was a lead tester in contact with clients and I had to do that [lie about their team's size]," a former lead told us. "I have done that dozens of fucking times." They found the experience distasteful, but say they did it due to a lack of other career prospects, especially at the height of the pandemic.
Several of our sources attested to misleading clients in the way they logged work. Testers at Quantic typically use a database called Jira to log bugs for clients. Typically, an individual tester will have their own Jira account which they use to report issues, but the workers I spoke to alleged that testers at Quantic would often be encouraged to log into accounts of testers who quit, were out sick, assigned to other projects between rounds of testing, or even never once touched the game in question in order to avoid activity discrepancies that might raise questions about team size.
Low pay, low morale
Compounding these dishonest practices, employees who spoke to us said they worked in a toxic environment for low pay. A former senior employee said that managers insulted and berated lead testers, with that stress trickling down to the wider teams.
Multiple employees told us that management would directly state that testing games was unskilled work, with that stance perhaps helping to explain the high turnover or employees who were treated as expendable. We were told that in recent years, during the time of Cyberpunk 2077's development, junior testers earned close to minimum wage (1,450 Romanian lei, or about €300 a month), with no bonuses. A full lead tester could expect to earn around €680/month, which the former employees we spoke to indicated was still extremely difficult to live on in Cluj.
Like many workplaces, the onset of Covid-19 negatively impacted Quantic Lab, and the workers we spoke to were highly critical of Quantic's response. They told us that work-from-home privileges were unevenly granted and largely reserved for upper management, despite remote work being widely adopted in the games industry in response to the pandemic. Testers were arranged close together, shoulder-to-shoulder, with multiple employees attesting to an infamous meeting where an HR employee stated that six feet of social distancing was only required when individuals were face-to-face, and that it was safe to be closer as long as this was not the case.
Ultimately, the employees we spoke to felt worn down by the low-pay, high-stress environment, the lack of support, and the petty indignities that come with working a supposedly "low skill" job, especially during the height of the pandemic. "At this point, [Quantic] should pay for my therapy," said one.
Most of the former employees we spoke to went on to other jobs in tech and gaming, and conceded that they'd at least gotten something to put on a resume. Another wouldn't even give the company that: "Quantic made me hate games and gaming. I never tried working in game development again, even though it was my passion at first."
Quantic Lab did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
Quantic Lab's specific issues aside, quality assurance is already a particularly underpaid and underappreciated aspect of game development. QA workers are often external contractors, either on a company-scale, like Quantic, or at the individual level, with the pay, benefits, and job security disparities with salaried employees that entails.
The success of Game Workers United's QA union at Raven Software presents a potential way forward, but unionization, especially in an industry relatively new to labor action and at a company with high turnover, is inherently challenging.
The employees we spoke to were pessimistic about Quantic's prospects of changing for the better as a result of current negative attention. One suggested it would require a top-down overhaul of management originating from its corporate owners at the Embracer Group, which acquired the company in November 2020.