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They can’t give an award out to everyone.

Working as a web designer and developer for the games division of a Very Large Software Company, I had the opportunity to work on some impressive and fun projects. Back in the day before Millennials were a thing, web sites were more information-focused and less complex than they are today, and “web masters” (as they were once called) often found themselves doing every aspect for a particular project by themselves.

So one day, my boss forwards me an email from product marketing; it was the specifications for a sub-site, complete with verbiage, some assets, and a list of functional requirements. I dutifully prepared the web site, going back and forth with marketing over the site on our development server. Once completed, the often time-consuming process of Final Approval™ was the only obstacle to delivery.

I went on vacation with my girlfriend and prepared an email to my boss and delegate as to the status of the project, as well as the 30 seconds’ worth of work required to make the web site go live. It went live while I was on vacation without a hitch.

Fast forward six months later, and I was assigned a small section to add to our Intranet site announcing the recognition of certain employees for their efforts on specific projects and that these employees would be awarded a plaque and a payment of $800 at a company awards banquet. One of the projects being “recognized” was my very own sub-site.

Shockingly, the people they mentioned were: the marketing folks (no problem), my boss, and the fill-in who had literally pressed a button to launch it. My name was notable in its absence.

I complained to the lady in whatever-division-handles-award-giving-out and explained my situation. I complained that I had worked on the entire project alone from an IT and design perspective, that I had completed 99.9999% of the project. I pointed out that it had been assigned to me, and not the other recipients. I pointed out that the delegate had only pushed the site live, and my boss had only forwarded the original email to me and that given those credentials, I was certainly due recognition, the plaque, and the little bonus cheque (given tax deducations, the plaque was the more valuable item).

You know what her response to me was? “We can’t give awards out to everyone who was involved in the project.”


When my boss and my coworker went up on stage in their tuxes to receive their accolades, I did not clap.

The Trenches - Wanting to Excel

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Wanting to Excel

A while back I worked as a GM at an online gaming publisher. Probably not surprisingly, spreadsheets were used to track many things. Item distributions, promotions, various tables of game-related data, etc. Things that naturally fell into spreadsheet format. So over the years, a lot of Excel documents had accumulated, with base templates, layouts, and even functions so that you could easily copy and paste data in for quickly extracting the needed information. At one point I was assigned to perform this sort of data extrapolation. Specifically, paste in data concerning how much we’d made on a certain promotion, broken down by reward tier, and crunch it.

There was only one problem: I didn’t have Excel installed on my machine. No problem, said my lead; he’d go get IT to bring over the disc and install it. A while later he returned with bad news: due to recent company policy, only team leads were allowed to install Office, to save money. Except, of course, the leads were always busy doing important things—they would never have the time to sit down and do what essentially amounted to mindless data entry in Excel.

The temporary solution was for me to use my lead’s computer while he was busy in meetings to do the task. You may be thinking “well just import it to Google Docs!” Well, you see, this particular spreadsheet had a VB macro that did some amount of voodoo, and nobody there knew who wrote it or how it really worked (typical). And while reverse-engineering the code at my lead’s desk would have no doubt been a thrilling task, it wasn’t an option.

Eventually they gave up asking me or anyone else to do that sort of thing, and god only knows if it ever got done at all. One thing I did manage to accomplish, as a parting gift before quitting to take on a programming job where I was actually provided with the tools to do my job, was to create a Google Docs spreadsheet to automate custom item code generation for one of our games. It was an elaborate system where each item class had a binary code, and different attributes had different numeric modifiers, all strung together into a giant series of digits that had to be input in the right place during server maintenance to generate and gift the item to a player. This was all done by hand by looking at multiple enormous tables and looking up values, so as you might guess, not only did it take ages but mistakes were made pretty often. And after a user complained, they had to wait until the next maintenance cycle to get it corrected.

So, having spent a few hours designing a clean, self-contained spreadsheet to auto-generate these codes ( which for perspective, it took several hours just to manually create each week’s codes to begin with), I got a hero’s sendoff on my last day.

The Trenches - The Futile Struggle

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The Futile Struggle

For all the talk of horror stories and general idiocy within the trenches,  there is one side that has yet to be spoken of: that of the people wanting to get in but are made unable.

Imagine, if you will, a student. A college student. A college student who spends 7 years in a terrible state economy attending school to learn how to make games. A college student who goes through 7 years without being told of any internships that might help give him a better chance of getting into his dream job. A college student who learns how to make games and has the time of his life for 7 years.

A college graduate who finds himself unable to get a job making games because he doesn’t have any professional experience. A college graduate unable to get a job outside of the industry because he is too damn specialized and is thus lacking in other areas. A college graduate who can’t even make his own game on his spare time because he doesn’t have an actual income to sustain him. A college graduate still fighting after 1 1/2 years to get into some kind of work, but still being denied.

People may tell you it’s not worth it. People may tell you it is a struggle inside of the trenches. People may tell you that you will go through hell making games.

People don’t tell you that you will go through hell just to get a job for support in a piss-poor economy.

It is a struggle that, at first glance, seems completely futile… But if you are truly passionate, then the futile struggle won’t end until you make it. How you get there is all up to you.

The Trenches - Good enou-NOPE

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Good enou-NOPE

So immediately upon graduating I realized there was a recession going on, or something. Well, I had a shiny new degree in fine arts, specifically computer animation, and I really wanted a career in game design.

I risked some of my remaining funds (which technically I didn’t have since I was in tens of thousands of dollars in debt thanks to said degree) by flying across the country for a gaming career conference in order to make professional contacts.

I visited the booth of a smaller company that had developed an RTS title that I had really liked, and the representative there, who was dressed in shorts and sandals, spent a long time looking at my portfolio.

“You belong here.” said the guy, and then he added, “We might have some new positions in a few months, be sure to apply.”

Wow. I felt great.

Then I went to one of the largest (in the top three, and not Blizzard, they were very nice) game designer/publishing companies, and showed my portfolio to the representative, who was in formal business attire. She looked at my portfolio for five minutes in silence (which is a really long time when you’re standing to the side fidgeting). She meticulously scanned over all the sketches of weapons, monsters, landscapes, and then the 3-D models. Then she looked at my last page, which was my resume.

Upon seeing my resume, she slapped my portfolio shut and curtly said, “You should have your resume as your first page.” and then walked away.

What the hell, lady?

I graduated cum laude, from a prestigious art institute, taking classes both in traditional art as well as video editing, programming and computer animation. So why had I been rejected?

I had no work experience.

The thing is, she had spent so much time looking at my portfolio that my work had to have been good enough to keep her attention. But apparently with no work experience my apparent talent was irrelevant and I had wasted her time.

A few months later I looked at the company that said I belonged, and they had been bought out and consumed by one of the larger publishing companies (again, not Blizzard).

Now I do freelance computer animation for nature centers. I spend my time animating forest fires, prehistoric sharks, and avalanches, and I go to work every day in shorts and sandals.

The Trenches - Tyranny of the Pen

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Tyranny of the Pen

I’m not a tester by trade. I’m a librarian who was invited to participate in a beta test.

But this wasn’t the test for a video game. That probably would have been easier, or at least more straightforward. This was for a pen and paper RPG. And there I discovered the true hell of QA.

It wasn’t the demands on testing. We were asked to play a session at least once a week, but more often if it was possible. As the GM I was given a list of things that the players should encounter (preferably repeatedly) in order to test the strength and weaknesses of certain items and mechanics. These were all reasonable things to look for, I thought.

The real problem was the players. They were massive trolls: despite us being tasked with testing a source book, they demanded to be allowed to play species from the core book. They wouldn’t respond to e-mails in order to schedule sessions—forget coming up with regular play times, every session had to be individually scheduled—and sometimes they just wouldn’t show up. One of them, after I spent weeks hounding him to sign the NDA so I could give him the materials, finally signed, received the book, and then dropped out.

To this day I have no idea if he leaked the information online.

I hadn’t labored under the illusion it would all be fun, but I at least thought the work would be fulfilling. In the last week of testing, my players didn’t show up to any of the sessions. I filled out my last report with fictional events and details and sent it away.

At least with video games, it’s you against the computer, not you against your fellow testers.

The Trenches - A numbing effect.

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A numbing effect.

Not only did testing for Guitar Hero make me feel numb to the joy of video games for awhile - it also literally made my left thumb numb for over a month after quitting.  I held onto that guitar for 60 hours a week, and It gave me a physical reminder of my new emotional state.  I would have gone to the doctor about it, but the job didn’t provide healthcare.

I had essentially just blanked out that period of my life until this comic.  I swear my left thumb is having flashbacks as I type this.

The Trenches - Pinch this one off

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Pinch this one off

I worked at a successful - but poorly managed - App development kit company. After failing to be acquired by some big names in the business, the CEO - who had been hired, it seemed, expressly for this purpose - was starting to get aggressive in finding solutions in getting the ship moving in the right direction..

Based out of California, several states away, he had no context of the day-to-day operations. He just wanted to see progress, and threw anyone under the bus with the board who seemed to be hindering his success.

After several of our better developers jumped ship, or quit outright due to his mismanagement, his finger of blame landed on the studio director - who, up until that point, had been a staunch ally of the product. He was forced out… and his place, a man was hired who’s technical resume was - on paper - fairly convincing. The CEO bought in 100%, throwing his support behind the new “Technical Director” and pushing us on to what he claimed would be fresh view and an unquestionable path to success.

On his first day, it became readily apparent why the new director’s reputation around town was entirely accurate. He immediately destroyed the Agile processes we’d been using since another reorganization (a successful one, to that point) - insisting that a more “fluid” approach really helped developers shine. (His fluid approach: No methodology) He made it abundantly clear that no one, including production or QA, had any right to “tell devs what to do” because they “couldn’t code and don’t really understand it”. He then insisted that instead of a producer, all development and studio activity would pass through him. He jumped on the company forums, posting sweeping changes he’d planned for the next few months - re-birthing the entire product and taking the reigns to, I quote, “Clean up this shitstorm”. It was clear to us internally that he was overpromising to a degree hitherto unknown to mortals… but he was confident in his own powers.

He essentially made himself King of the studio, and ruled accordingly, hiring lackeys who could tolerate his constant barrage of fecal metaphors, horrible jokes, discriminatory comments, passive aggressiveness, narcissism and megalomania. The man was a clusterbomb of horrible personality traits. He went on to replace good people with his own private stash of lackeys, and elevating anyone in the organization who was willing to kiss his ass appropriately. One example, a woman who worked in QA, quickly became his confidant - and after a very short period - they (both married) began a very thinly-veiled affair. Shortly thereafter they proclaimed their love, she was graciously elevated from a “lowly QA” to a engineer position - with no real experience.

Months later, having jumped ship myself and landed in a much more stable, healthy environment, I lament my friends still caught at the company. To this day, not a single one of his grandiose claims or plans has come to pass. The tool kit continues to languish with the same poorly written shortcomings that their competitors have overcome a year ago or more.

I’m sure that when, and it’ll be a definite “when”, the company finally tanks due to his poor leadership and skills, he’ll have a fecal metaphor to crown that, too.

The Trenches - Running into walls

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Running into walls

So a few years back I was bug testing a 2D, top-down, fast reaction game.  The levels were okay, the AI worked.  The graphics were “placeholder” and rather poor.  It was shaping up to be a fun thing, except for movement.

For some reason, on any wall, under certain common circumstances you could break the collision detection and moonwalk to the end of the levels.  The initial patches stopped it, but introduced moonwalking on other walls and the fix for them, well you get the idea.

For weeks I spent days running into a specific part of a wall every second for the entire timer, while pushing in a different direction (that’s 7 times per wall due to diagonals, for 10 minutes per time). Over an hour to do a single onscreen block.  Progress was slow, and every time the bug reappeared a new fix would be implemented and the procedure would start over again.  During this time the graphics had been replaced, audio had started to be introduced so the game was developing as I continued to hit my head endlessly into the walls.

In the end I snapped and walked away from the whole thing.  Sadly, that was the end of the game… and they say indie development is fun.

The Trenches - Your priorities do not align with the company’s

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Your priorities do not align with the company’s

I once worked as a QA tester for a big company in Orlando, FL, where we tested sports titles (specifically a major NFL title) that are pushed out like there is no tomorrow.  I was recently engaged while working there, and had received permission to attend an out of state wedding about a month out of said wedding. 

I was only going to be gone for the weekend, three days at most.  So the last hour of work, the day before I was going to leave for the wedding, our lead came to our section stating, “You all need to come in this weekend.”  I politely reminded him about my plans for the weekend, and he told me to wait in the conference room.  After about 20 minutes he returned and asked me, “Are you still planning on going to the wedding this weekend?”  I politely said yes, and then he responded, “Well, we see your priorities are clearly with your family over the company, so unfortunately we will have to let you go.  Please go clear your space and hand me your badge.”

This is the same company that manages to ‘win’ worst company in the US, and is rightly deserved with the way they treat their employees.

The Trenches - Not to be optimistic, but…

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Not to be optimistic, but…

I’m by no means an industry vet. My time with gaming was short-lived and for the foreseeable future, not a candidate for revival. But I’d like to share a story that isn’t gut-wrenching, one that doesn’t cause horrid flashbacks in all the readers out there who have toiled in the hells of the gaming world.

I had just gotten out of high school. My job had cut my hours down to a single day a week, so not the greatest situation. No career prospects or money to get anywhere should I have any. A particularly nice client of mine (I worked at an animal hospital) heard this and casually asked me if I wanted to earn some extra bucks building furniture for his new startup’s office. I immediately accepted.

What began was that start of a wondrous time in my life (I can say that without a hint of sarcasm which is shocking even to me). I had built the office up, got to talking and let fly the fact that I am an illustrator. Intrigued, he offered me a job in his office keeping things stocked and tidy, while occasionally providing ideas. Turns out I had a knack for it. Go figure.

That lead to being predominantly an idea man, eventually growing to be the small but efficient team’s game designer. Promotions weren’t something I was familiar with, so this was utterly amazing to me. I played the games and as it turns out, I had a knack for breaking them which my boss (and at this point, friend) assured me was a very valuable skill to have. Just like that, lead tester/game designer for the studio. I ended up with my own office with a phone extension, and company business cards with my name and title. I was actually happy to go to work for the first time in my life.

The games we made were casino video slots. Not exciting in the least, especially since they didn’t interest me as games I could play for fun let alone games I would eventually tire of after months of testing. That being said, I didn’t despise the practice of day in and day out meticulously cataloging even the smallest, most nit-picky of errors because I knew that if I didn’t the testers that approve a game’s release would. I’m by no means a fan of tedious and repetitive things. I have never enjoyed being paid to go through monotony, and have yet to enjoy it since. But that studio had such great people and was led by such an excellent boss, that I didn’t mind the drag.

The studio fell through after just two years, though we accomplished way more than was ever expected of us. We all said our goodbyes, extended our heartfelt condolences, and moved on down separate paths. I stuck around through the final days of that company and with the help of my boss tore down the office that I had helped him build. It was a harsh thing to go through, but I can safely say that I don’t regret it in the least. If I had somehow had known the company would end up shutting down I still would have joined (the only difference being that I would have had a job lined up immediately afterwards) and still contributed as much as I did. It was a excellent experience that showed me that there’s still good people working this business, even with all the treachery that takes place.

I still have one of the business cards with my name on it, framed and perched atop my desk.

The Trenches - The Great Divide

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The Great Divide

I know this is mostly a ventilation system for QA testers, but it seems to neglect the Dev side of the equation. We’re often labelled in these stories as arrogant, self-aggrandizing, pitiless, and indifferent to the sufferings of the “lower” class QA. I can’t say that’s not true in many cases.

I’d like to offer some observations from our point of view for a moment. I’m an artist at a relatively large and well-known studio, coming from another big-name studio that experienced a high-profile shutdown.

There is a great divide between the devs and QA. Sometimes it’s perpetrated by the higher-ups, who don’t afford testers the same benefits and rights as devs. Sometimes it’s the fault of the devs who unfairly look down on QA testers as untalented fanboys. Sometimes it’s fabricated by QA, in an attempt to appear like the working-class victims. In reality, devs also work long hours (usually without overtime pay, since we’re often salaried), and we get laid off often as well.

The unique thing about QA is that really every department needs to deal with them in some measure. We all get bugs coming in. So QA uniquely needs to be aware of the general process of each department, to know what to look for and what to ignore. The sad part is that many testers just submit a bug for every trivial thing, whether known or unknown. This is probably the fault of the Lead QA person, who should be interfacing with department heads to find out what is being fixed and what isn’t. There’s very little accountability with the quality of bugs.

There are 3 general varieties of testers: in-house, outsourced, and opt-in beta. Beta testers don’t know any better, they’re just seeing weird things and alerting us. Most of them aren’t in the industry. Outsourced testers are the most infuriating. They’re working on old builds, they know nothing of the inner workings of the studio, and they blindly submit bugs for anything they see. And we still pay them. In-house testers have the benefit of being physically close, and having an idea of how the studio works. They’re meant to be the most judicial of the bug-submitters. We even have a dedicated QA for our department, and he’s awesome.

Unfortunately, either due to lack of communication or a desire to meet quotas, most of the bugs I receive as an artist are useless. They’re either things that are actively work-in-progress (which the QA Lead should know and relay to the team), things that are not bugs across the entire game (I know you’re clipping through that 3-inch high stone, that’s a limitation of the engine that you should know), or repeat bugs. Most often, they’re bugs that take far longer to fill out than they take to fix. As a result, the sheer amount of time spent finding and filling bugs that were pointless in the end is mind-boggling to me.

There’s a reason that there is often a great divide between Dev and QA. And sometimes it’s because we expect QA to be more than just mindless bug-finders. We know they’re people with brains and hearts and feelings. Unfortunately many QA testers don’t prove that to us. All we see is page after page of mostly useless bugs. The great testers I have encountered make my job so much easier, and I’m thankful. The testers who are bad at their jobs distract me from my work with piles of (what amounts to) junk mail.

Quality over quantity. That’s what makes a great QA tester in the eyes of us Devs. You’re not working for us, we’re working together.

The Trenches - My life in Hell 1-6… and Hell 1-2-6… and Hell 1-6-2… Hell 1-2-3-6

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My life in Hell 1-6… and Hell 1-2-6… and Hell 1-6-2… Hell 1-2-3-6

I was doing Q/A on an expansion to a well known title.  It was the 6th expansion, and we had gotten to the point in crunch time where the Producers swoop down, and give us a high priority task they had forgotten up to that point.

We were days before Gold, and our Q/A head stops by my cube, and says, “We need you to test the expansion’s compatibility with previous expansions.  Oh, and you need to wipe your computer and reload it from a network disc image, so we have a clean boot.”

Being half wacked out of my skull from lack of sleep I said ok… and wiped my computer, and started fresh.  It took about an hour to load a fresh disc image… then another 20 minutes to load the original game, then another 15 to load the 1st expansion pack, and then another 15 for the new expansion pack.  Then I had to play it for a bit just to make sure nothing crazy happened Overall it took about 2 hours from start to finish.  Then I wiped the computer, and this time loaded the second and the new one.  I figured about 10-12 hours to get it all done.

A couple of hours later my lead comes over to ask me how it’s going. I told him that I was almost done with the second one, and he totally flipped out. He then hands me a handy spreadsheet that the Producer had thoughtfully made for him.  There were something like 200+ combinations on the spreadsheet that they wanted tested.  Not only did they want to check the specific expansions, the producers wanted us to check EVERY POSSIBLE COMBINATION OF EXPANSIONS, IN EVERY POSSIBLE ORDER.  The 200+ combinations on the spreadsheet didn’t even begin to cover that.

Even in my addled state, quick math told me that it was impossible.  I Pointed out that even the 200+ combinations they had on the spreadsheet it would take 400+ hours.

I didn’t envy him having to go back to the producer and explain just how stupid the request had been.

The Trenches - Loosest slots in the business!

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Loosest slots in the business!

Early in my QA career I worked as a QA tester for a major casino gaming company testing video slot machines (as well as traditional mechanical reel machines). I really enjoyed the work, despite the never-ending jangle of slot machines. Working in the QA pit was like working on the floor of a major casino.

A large consideration behind slot machines is the RNG - random number generator - a key factor in slot machines. Newer machines, especially video slots, are COMPLETELY unpredictable. Winning truly is absolutely random. When you work with the machines all day and become accustomed to how the math works, you truly understand why, “The House Always Wins” - you don’t stand a chance unless you’re blessed with ungodly luck… and luck is all there is to lean on.

At one point of my short two years with the company, I stumbled across a bug in which triggering a certain win would cause the computer to freak out briefly. This brief computer freakout would cause a decimal place to jump on a win, making a 4 quarter win jump to a several thousand dollar win, and so on.

The problem was, the bug was difficult to trigger, but not impossible. My repro steps were lengthy, but 100% reproduceable. The dev in charge of the title investigated my bug, had me repro it for him, and nodded. A day later the bug was closed as, “As designed” and my lead informed me not to bark up the tree anymore.

Around a month later, the title went prime time… and somewhere in an Indian casino, a man triggered a win that netted him the max machine payout ... on a payout that should have been a dollar.

Hell rained down on the QA department - the devs were furious - and this was a company where Devs saw QA as the enemy.

After a few days of head-chopping awfulness, the bug that I’d logged was found. It had been reassigned, renamed, and put in a backlog bucket of feature requests. The bug detailed EXACTLY what happened. The dev who was responsible had altered the bug without my knowledge and dumped it, hoping to hide the evidence without deleting it… or the detailed notes I’d included.

He was fired by the end of the day and I was later laid off with many of my comrades… but while they were brought back, I wasn’t. My lead’s explanation, off the record at the time, “They didn’t want you back - you’re a sh*t disturber.”

The Trenches - Yeah… That’s… a thing

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Yeah… That’s… a thing

Got called in to test for a friend who worked at a company… And this little gem happened:

Encounter game freezing bug in Alpha build.
Close in task manager.
Restart Alpha build.
Click “Report a bug” in menu.
Encounter computer freezing bug in Alpha build.
Shut down computer.
Appreciate subtle irony of the situation.

The Trenches - Let me, your animation director, help you with that programming….

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Let me, your animation director, help you with that programming….

Small company - Design, Programming, Art and QR in one room - doing a game for a customer.

Someone “above” had the great idea of hiring a movie director not only for the script and V.O. direction but also for the game design.

The proposed game design was special case scripting based gameplay combined with free roaming in 3D and cinematic camera angles. And as a result of that, both troublesome to implement and very prone to bugs.

Some sequences was “wall of dialogue” in scenes, where the player could move freely around in the environment, triggering new dialogues, resulting in dialogue overlapping.

One day the director had gotten the great idea of simply “postponing” overlapping dialogue. So if one dialogue was running and the player moved on to another situation, triggering another dialogue, then we should just “cue” the new dialogue (in a kind of playlist) and play them after each other. We said that was not really possible logic- or programming vice, but did not have time to go into details (potentially the dialogue would play out of cue with the animations and also potentially starting dialogue with characters, which were offscreen, because the player moved on, before one dialogue string was completed).

The director said that he would think up a solution.

We hoped it could be stuff like:
-cut the dialogues shorter
-expand the travel length between places that triggered dialogue
-cut dialogue, when you came to far away to hear it (close to a new
potential dialogue trigger)

Instead we got a mail a couple of hours later, with the text:

“Just put in these files where needed, to delay the new, overlapping, dialogue to play - so they don’t overlap”.

And attached were these files:
-1 second silence
-4 seconds silence
-16 seconds silence
-64 seconds silence

All of them nicely compressed in mono 22.5kh (to decrease file size, as silence correctly don’t need high bitrate / sampling quality).

Well thanks for the great confidence in our programming skills, believing that we did not know how to insert “waits” between audio files in the code, really sends a message about you respect for our expertise. But kudos for the thoughts put into the audio files…

The Trenches - Best Served Cold

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Best Served Cold

This is a tale of three parts, the first old, the second new, and the third being the result of their combination.

Part 1:
In 2006, I was working for a AA+ game company that no longer exists, whose headquarters were in the wildlands of far northwest LA.  If you were to travel for another 5 minutes, you would no longer be in the city limits, and the only things close by were a freeway leading to LA proper, and a freeway leading to the ocean.  And brown hills covered in sun burnt grass.

The building for the QA department, the Game Testers, was located on the other side of a road with no crosswalks and across the street from the Headquarters.  The Headquarters had a parking lot large enough to make Disneyland proud, so it’s no wonder that most of the testing staff chose to drive to eateries instead of walking to the Headquarters to eat at the cafeteria.  But I preferred the daily variety of the cafeteria, and would enjoy a meal a day with my buddy (until he was fired for having an underwear model on his computer’s wallpaper, then I ate alone).

One day during late summer, where the reflected heat from the parking lot combined with the sun’s to form an oven typically reserved for firing pottery, my friend and I arrived at the entrance to the headquarters to find a Ben and Jerry’s truck parked there with free samples for employees of the company.  My heart was obviously uplifted, and I asked for one, to which the driver/operator said, “I dunno.  I’m only suppose to give these to the employees.  You guys work here?”  He asked because we approached the truck from the parking lot, and not from the headquarters building.

If the day had been a little cooler, I might have said what was in my heart, being “Who the fuck would come to this out of the way shit-hole of a parking lot, where it would be no surprise to see some dude wearing a poncho smuggling coffee beans on a mule over the hills, it’s so far removed from civilization, and walk their way through this heat to try and scam half a scoop of ice cream from you?  Of course I work here!”  Instead I just lifted the employee ID card hanging around my neck and said, “Dude,” in a manner to point out the obvious.

For some strange reason, my buddy wanted to just let the matter slide, abandon the ice cream, and enter the building.  Almost as if he were afraid of something.  But my convincing argument of “Dude” won the worker over and we got to enjoy some free ice cream as we walked into an air conditioned building.  The combination was very refreshing, but I’d had better.

Part 2:
Fast forward to the present day.  The best part of a decade has passed, and I never really pondered too much about that Ice Cream Truck day, until I read a lot of the Tales shared by other people who have survived the Trenches.  And many of them talked about these completely foreign concepts.  Trucks rolling up to the offices to give free burgers, milkshakes, and etc. to express the gratitude of the company those people work for.  Basically, tales about people being shown signs of gratitude period.  How department heads would announce these visiting truck to the employees, or emails about their time of arrival and departure.

We QA never got a one of those.  So I thought those must have never happened at the company I worked for.  And then I remembered the ice cream truck, vividly.  And I realized that my company that I often worked double shifts for had been intentionally excluding me from those acts of kindness, generosity, and expressions of gratitude.

Part 3:
I instinctively denied the possibility that QA was the only part of the company that was intentionally left out of it’s generosity.  But then I remembered that it actually passed an order to force QA to advance their lunch break by one hour to keep our meals segregated from the other employees because of “complaints.”

But why…?  Why would they intentionally not want their employees to enjoy their gifts?  We were all in it together, right?  But then again, the QA department was the only one in the company where the employees were hired for a maximum of 1 year, and bound by contract to never be hired by the company again.  Told right from the beginning that after being trained, gaining real hands on experience, and providing a meaningful service to their projects, that they were going to be tossed out like garbage and never given a second thought.

And then I realized that the company didn’t see us as employees.  They didn’t even see us as people.  They saw us as property to be disposed of on a whim, to be used and discarded without a thanks of any kind during or after our term of employment.  That we were not meant to be seen, heard, or thought about.  That we were too far below the “real” employees to be given an equal shake at the ex gratis food celebrations.

We were just gears, being used until we broke.  And then replaced in the assembly line that was a corporate founded video games company.

And that was the moment I realized.  The ice cream I ate on that day was the most delicious ice cream I had eaten in my whole life.

Because I wasn’t suppose to eat it.  It wasn’t meant for me.  It’s existence was intentionally kept from me, yet I found it anyway.  I ate what was reserved for my betters.  It was like I’d had a chance to sample a king’s banquet table before he could, and he would never be the wiser.

That revelation was as delicious as the ice cream.

So there you go, you soulless corporate assholes.

I ate your.  Fucking.  Ice cream.

And there’s nothing you can do about it.


The Trenches - Tardiness

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I worked for a video game / software company back in 2002.  Unlike many of the stories submitted here, I was not in testing but in IT support.  The job was a godsend as I had been unemployed, and I had to move across the state to take it.  The pay was pretty poor, but it was though to cover living expenses.  There was health insurance, but it didn’t kick in until six months.  However, there weren’t any other choices, so I took the job.

I should have seen the warning signs.  The company was so cheap that it bought used computers and refurbished parts that we were supposed to use to fix machines.  When they bought new computers, they were so low-end and previous cycle that they didn’t really seem new other than the exterior.  Other PCs were like Frankenstein’s monster; we literally scavenged dead PCs for parts.  In some ways this was kind of fun, but then you remembered you weren’t working for some quirky start-up but a company that had over 600 employees.

The company had a cafeteria (owned and operated by the company itself), but the food was priced so high that I suspected the company might actually be profiting from its own employees.  I always brought my lunch, which I promise you was noted by management.  I’m not kidding; my director would make fun of me about it.

At the same time, I was going back to school part-time.  I took evening classes, but because of traffic I always left promptly at 5pm to make it to 5.30pm class.  I was usually late, but the professor was understanding.  My boss (who was also taking classes part-time) told me if I had finished my work for the day, I could take off at 4.45 since it was only two days a week.  Great!

Nearly six months into the job, I was summoned to my boss’s office.  I had just finished a huge project, which required a lot of team leadership and time spent documenting on top of my normal day-to-day work. Hilariously, I went into the office expecting praise.  It turns out they were firing me.  I was told I wasn’t a team player (even though I had finished this project that involved 3 other team members), that I left early every day and used school as an excuse, and was often late in the morning.  I was shown a print-out of my security-card swipes to enter the building, and all the late times were circled: 8.01am, 8.03am… etc.  The vast majority of these times were within five minutes of 8am.  There was no acknowledgement of all the times before 8am.  When I explained that my supervisor said it was okay for me to leave early on the two days for school, he denied it to my director.  I pointed out I only left early two days a week and my supervisor also denied that, claiming I left early every day.  The situation was quickly becoming surreal, as these two men built a very detailed case on why they were firing me, which was based on lies and a “history of tardiness” that I had never been given a warning about.

Finally it clicked in my head, and I said: “OH.  You are firing me because my health insurance (and other benefits) kick in next week.”

The Trenches - Shot Down and Fired

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Shot Down and Fired

Two years ago I was working in a moderately small contract testing company that was unusual in two ways.

1) We were well paid and worked decent hours. During crunch time they would hire temps to help pick up the slack, even hiring those on full time if there was an opening.

2) A little under half the people that worked there were female. As that was my first and last job as a tester, I’m just assuming that’s not usually the case.

The company itself was only three years old and mostly worked on mobile apps, phone games, or the occasional indie title. In a fit of supposed benevolence, a big AAA studio decided to hire us for testing a companion iphone game to their much larger title. Of course, this gift from on high came with with strings attached. One particular string was loud, arrogant, and acted like the Sheriff of Nottingham visiting a village under Prince John’s rule.

This incompetent braying twit’s official job was to make sure we weren’t releasing details about the game (which contained quite a number of spoilers for their mainstay title). To him, this meant being in the same room and drinking all the soda out of our mini-fridge. On day four under his “watchful eye”, it got a lot worse for a little under half the people in our office. He started using any excuse to get physically close to the female testers, the most popular being “I need to make sure you’re not streaming this to anyone else”.

Cut to two weeks later and harassment complaints have started to pile up, but he’s still there. After making a phone call to someone our CEO knew from college and worked at the big company, we find out that he’d actually been given this job because he’d been doing the same thing at the home office and they were afraid of getting sued. With him being one of the exec’s sons, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do.

So, with the legendary stoicism of Clint Eastwood, the ladies in our office put up with it. Apparently, this upset out resident molestor, as he just got worse. Everything came to a head when he offered our resident programmer a job in exchange for “favors”. Now with the legendary steely eyed fury of Clint Eastwood, she went off on him, mostly yelling curse words and comments on the size of his waist and area right below the waist. When she was done, he left the room and immediately tried to get our boss to fire her. When he refused, we never saw him again.

Instead, the next morning we found nearly all of equipment gone, including the specially issued phones we were given to test the game. All that remained of our foray into adjacent AAA testing was an email stating that sharing facets about the game was illegal and a serious breach of contract, which translated into losing 90% of the money we were promised for testing this game.

The lesson here is simple. Always question why a rep is working with you instead of with their own company.

The Trenches - Shot Down and Fired

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Shot Down and Fired

Two years ago I was working in a moderately small contract testing company that was unusual in two ways.

1) We were well paid and worked decent hours. During crunch time they would hire temps to help pick up the slack, even hiring those on full time if there was an opening.

2) A little under half the people that worked there were female. As that was my first and last job as a tester, I’m just assuming that’s not usually the case.

The company itself was only three years old and mostly worked on mobile apps, phone games, or the occasional indie title. In a fit of supposed benevolence, a big AAA studio decided to hire us for testing a companion iphone game to their much larger title. Of course, this gift from on high came with with strings attached. One particular string was loud, arrogant, and acted like the Sheriff of Nottingham visiting a village under Prince John’s rule.

This incompetent braying twit’s official job was to make sure we weren’t releasing details about the game (which contained quite a number of spoilers for their mainstay title). To him, this meant being in the same room and drinking all the soda out of our mini-fridge. On day four under his “watchful eye”, it got a lot worse for a little under half the people in our office. He started using any excuse to get physically close to the female testers, the most popular being “I need to make sure you’re not streaming this to anyone else”.

Cut to two weeks later and harassment complaints have started to pile up, but he’s still there. After making a phone call to someone our CEO knew from college and worked at the big company, we find out that he’d actually been given this job because he’d been doing the same thing at the home office and they were afraid of getting sued. With him being one of the exec’s sons, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do.

So, with the legendary stoicism of Clint Eastwood, the ladies in our office put up with it. Apparently, this upset out resident molestor, as he just got worse. Everything came to a head when he offered our resident programmer a job in exchange for “favors”. Now with the legendary steely eyed fury of Clint Eastwood, she went off on him, mostly yelling curse words and comments on the size of his waist and area right below the waist. When she was done, he left the room and immediately tried to get our boss to fire her. When he refused, we never saw him again.

Instead, the next morning we found nearly all of equipment gone, including the specially issued phones we were given to test the game. All that remained of our foray into adjacent AAA testing was an email stating that sharing facets about the game was illegal and a serious breach of contract, which translated into losing 90% of the money we were promised for testing this game.

The lesson here is simple. Always question why a rep is working with you instead of with their own company.

The Trenches - The “Wal-Mart Edition”

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The “Wal-Mart Edition”

Many years ago, I worked as a QA tester for a PC game publisher. They were supposed to publish a particular combat flight simulator and we’d been testing it for some weeks, when we were told the game had to ship on a particular date, because a deal had been made to put the game on Wal-Mart store shelves.

I was told that Wal-Mart had very specific date windows for introducing product like this, and if we missed that particular window (as many PC games tended to be late even back then) the next window would come 3 months later, and Wal-Mart might pass at that point, due to the delay and loss of confidence.

So we testers and the developer spent a couple of all-nighters getting the game into a semblance of a releasable state, slapped it onto a CD and sent that off to duplication.

The game was still buggy as hell. It was almost impossible to land a plane. That sort of thing.

The game only came out in Wal-Mart. People bought it, got pissed-off, called us, and we told them that a patch would be forthcoming. The game got really shitty reviews, too.

Later, once the developer had had time to finish the game, we published a properly-working version (still buggy in places, but much more playable) and we had to send out new CDs to anyone who bought what we now called the “Wal-Mart Edition”. That’s how bad that first version was.

Needless to say, the game didn’t do very well.

But what really hammered it home to me was when my parents, who don’t usually follow video game news, found and clipped a newspaper article they found that was about the game and the company I worked at. The article mentioned how bad the original release had been, and how it reflected badly on our local chunk of the games industry.

That’s why you shouldn’t let the bean-counters or the salespeople run a games company.

The Trenches - Copy and Paste…

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Copy and Paste…

So back in ‘98 I had just gotten my GED and was picked up by a very friendly software firm that mostly worked on business software up to that point. They leased, licensed or, whatever, the original Quake engine for use in their first gaming title.

The problems came when we realized that they had hired no professional artists and no professional sound techs so all we had was the programming assets. Several people mentioned this time and again to the higher ups but they told us to just keep going with the engine and the level design.

So the programmers made stuff and we would test it. This kept going until we were about a month away from the release deadline. One of the execs came with some boss guy and wanted us to show them the game at work. The lead programmer booted it up on our display machine and started playing it. The boss man immediate said: “Why is there no sound and why is everything all green and white” in reference to our placeholder textures (white for world solids and green for entities).

He seemed to think this was actually how it was supposed to be or something. The “gaming” side of their company lacked any sort of real hierarchy so the bravest member of our little group just piped up and explained to them that we had no graphical or audio assets.

His response, I kid you not, was: “So just copy them from that ugly game that we paid for.” talking about Quake, of course. The brave and very cordial executive tried to explain to him why we could not do that but boss man didn’t understand or care and insisted we just use sounds and textures from the game.

So the game was finished and even shipped with Quake textures, sounds and all. Company was sued, settlements were paid, game was recalled and we all got fired. All but the programmers. Last I heard they still had a “gaming” division but had yet to release a single gaming title.

The Trenches - Filenames Fallacy

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Filenames Fallacy

Working on our site and needed some product details from our dear leader the Marketing Lead. Received “Store_CATALOGUE MASTER (2) - Copy - Copy - Copy.xlsm”.

Smash head against desk, rename file to “Store_Catalogue_12122013.xlsm”

1 hour later, mail from dear leader. “Oh shit, I sent you the wrong file, there are so many of them on my desktop, we all make those sorta mistakes right?”

Receive new file: “Store_CATALOGUE MASTER (2) - Copy - Copy (2).xlsm”


The Trenches - Friends, not food.

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Friends, not food.

Like so many others, I rolled into QA straight out of university.

Beady-eyed and suitably impressed to be working in the video game industry, I showed up fifteen minutes early on my first day. I thought that’d be a good way to settle in and talk to some people before starting the day.

I am shown my/our office (there were six of us working on a fairly well-known mobile iOS game). The room’s a bit cramped. As in, our monitors almost overlap because they’re so close to each other.

The real kicker, though? The wall opposite the door was decorated with an enormous poster of Finding Nemo. The three sharks are looming ominously over Marlin and Dory. Written in sharpie over the poster: “QA are friends, not food!”

I laughed when I saw it and thought it showed camaraderie between us and the devs. Yeah.

The Trenches - The game that played itself

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The game that played itself

It was a usual day, a co-worker and mine were testing offline multiplayer functionality of the title.  Getting our numbers, later in the day I notice… the title is playing itself. It’s going through menus, and going into games by itself and exiting them.

Not sure what was going on, I ask my co-worker to look at this, so we popped the game out and hoped we had it on video. We hear some sounds and look over. The game is still playing. Completely perplexed we call a manager over. He unplugs the console from the wall and… it continues.

Then I notice it. The recording device has been playing for the last 30 minutes. I hit play by accident.

The Trenches - I still can’t face him

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I still can’t face him

I’ve been in the games industry for nearly a decade and despite all the craziness I’ve endured, I still remember the beginning.

A friend of mine got me a contract position in QA to help with the final push on a game. I was to join the internal QA team and be right inside the studio along with the devs themselves!

After playing the game non-stop (16 hours a day, 7 days a week) I was quite confident in saying I knew the game inside and out. I knew all the quickest ways though the levels, where all the secrets were and how to mop the floor with every boss in the game.

It was probably about a week or two before we went gold when my arrogance got the better of me. I was nearly through the game when I got stuck on a boss in one of the final levels (one I had beaten dozens of times) and I just couldn’t take him. I was taking a brutal thrashing.

I died 20 or 30 times and all the while attracting an audience. After every couple of deaths a new onlooker would join the crowd. First it was my friend, then the QA lead followed by another QA, I even attracted one of the level designers and a programmer. As each person appeared, they’d offer a piece of advice; grab more health, pick up the weapons, focus on the little guys, focus on the boss… None of it was helping, but as I continued getting pummelled, a single voice caught my attention.

“Do we need to add more health?” It was the lead designer. My futile efforts had managed to cause a big enough commotion to attract his attention… I was stunned.

I think I responded with “No. It’s OK, I’ve got this”.

It was then he took my controller (he must have been standing there longer than I thought and was tired of watching me die). Without even placing both hands on the controller, as he had a coffee in his left, he proceeded to annihilate the boss in less than 30 seconds. The crowd quickly dispersed as the boss died.

I clearly remember him saying “looks good to me” as he handed my controller back and walked away.

To this day, I have never faced that boss again.

The Trenches - Enjoy it while you’re young, but get out soon

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Enjoy it while you’re young, but get out soon

Starting a career in games QA gives you a sort of “Stockholm Syndrome”.  You are greatly underpaid, vastly overworked, and about the only benefit you get is a free copy of the game when it ships (which you’ll have to have mailed to you since your contract ended and you no longer work on that team).... maybe a free t-shirt if you’re on a good team.  You work your ass off in hopes of getting some kind of recognition and promotion up the ranks, and are ever-told there are opportunities on a horizon that never gets any closer.  You bounce from one contract to the next, each time lying to yourself that this will be when you get recognized as an asset and converted to a full time employee, only to be slapped back to reality when you are turning in your key card on that final day, and your manager barely gives you a wave goodbye.

You do all of this over and over because there is something very gratifying about seeing your name in the credits as they roll by. Because you could point to your name in the manual (remember game manuals?) and show the kid at Gamestop that, yes, you are a local rock star in very specific circles.  You do it over and over because you know that no matter how long the hours get, how stressful the tasks at hand, you can push yourself away from your small shared-desk area, take a deep breath, and remember that you “play” games for a living. That usually helps to put a bit of the rage-fire out so it is just a smoldering pile of ash…. for a little while.

While doing all of this feels worth it to be a part of an industry you love, if you actually want to make a living, I advise you to get out of games.

For about 9 years I worked in games QA.  From nearly a year prior to the birth of the original Xbox, to my final games contract on the third installment of a third-person shooter involving sprockets of conflict (I had a few years away from games in between).  For years I worked as much overtime as I could, avoided the doctor and dentist, fell in love with Top Ramen all over again, and generally lived month-to-month.

Just prior to my last games contract ending, I was chatting through social media with someone I had worked with previously and she mentioned needing help at her current place of employment where she was the test lead.  Because I need a paycheck, I took the position with no questions asked.  Having talked to her previously, I knew it would be doing testing on a business website.  Nowhere near the “fun” of games testing, but the paycheck beckons.  It was then that I realized where I had been going wrong.

I walked into the job starting at a 50% hourly raise and working the regular 40 hours a week (as opposed to the 60+ previously).  I was suddenly working in an environment where I could walk 50 feet and talk to the developer who I was testing for and have an in-person conversation about specific tickets.  I went from trying to test the multiple difficulties of an artificial intelligence (a big pain in the ass, BTW), to testing something with a definite cause and effect.  Do ‘A’, expect ‘B’.  My job just got a LOT less stressful, a LOT more compensational, and I was able to reintroduce myself to my children.

It’s not as “glamorous” as working in the games industry, but I can pay rent and buy real food.  And I have plenty of time in the evenings to play the games I WANT to play instead of playing the same broken level for 8 hours a day because we didn’t get a new build yet.  I would even say I enjoy games more now because work doesn’t bleed into my pastime anymore.

The Trenches - Memento

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About 10 years back, fresh out of high school, I had no direction. I knew I loved games, I was an avid player and in my opinion my skills were tremendous. So I decided to apply for jobs testing games. I had a couple of unsuccessful interviews…mostly because I was young, had no experience, and had a tendency to stay up all night gaming as “research” before interviews, causing me to look like smashed asshole during the interview.

A few weeks into the search however, I got my big break! I showed up to the very small, indie gamer’s office I had never heard of. My first indication should have been that the name of the company matched the Suite number the office was in…but when you’re 18 and broke, you don’t notice these things. I walked in and a fella who I interviewed with met me at the locked front door of the suite and escorted me to his small office where the interview was conducted. The questions were incredibly simple, and after about 10 minutes he held his hand out, I shook it, and I had a job that started the next morning at 6 AM.

I showed up to work completely elated. I found I would be testing a game that was going to be part of a special offer that a popular fast food chain was offering with certain purchases. It was an incredibly basic platformer where you collected cheese burgers and chicken nuggets. It was pretty awful. 2 weeks goes by, and no paycheck. I was given the “oh, it must be because you’re new, the system has to catch up” excuse the first time. Buzzing about the small, 5 person QA team was talk of how BAD the game was. Not just in execution but in concept. I’m sure you all know the type. Also, the most senior tester was hired only days before I was. We wrote our “bugs” down on yellow legal paper and dropped them in the boss’ box. Every morning, the box was empty. I just thought this was normal.

I should have also probably been weirded out by the guy who showed up every morning with a different backpack, walked into the Boss’ office, closed the door, then walked back out of the office a few minutes later with no backpack. This happened EVERY morning. I tried to introduce myself once, and the guy didn’t even acknowledge my “hello”.

A week later, I still had not been paid. At this point I was working about 40 hours a week. A delicate trot of a pace for most QA guys, but for me it seemed like an awful lot of work for no pay. I brought it up, and asked what they could do. Then one day they told me “if it wasn’t sorted out by Friday they’d pay me cash”

The very next day I showed up to work, and just like clockwork, the backpack guy whose name I never learned came in, then left. And within a minute, there were cops everywhere. I was placed on my stomach and handcuffed right beside the “desk” (read: 2 long card tables pushed together) we all worked at. The stupid, repetitive music I’d listened to for the last several weeks straight still be-bopping along, like a soundtrack to my stupidity.

It turns out, these guys had been just taking the same half finished game they got from somewhere, hiring new sucker testers every few weeks without paying them, and using the company as a front to launder money. After a long day talking to cops all 5 of us QA guys were released. The police kindly took us back to our cars and told us they would be in touch. Once there, the “senior” tester got in his car and drove off without a word, tossing a CD-ROM out the window as he went.

Out of curiosity I picked it up, it was a copy of the game. I kept it.

Every once in a while when I get restless in my current industry I pop that bad boy into the computer and remember, with a combination of shame and anger, that it could be worse…

At least here I get paid…

The Trenches - The Quake Days…

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The Quake Days…

Way back in the early days of the 1990’s when, Quake mods seemed like they were weaseling their way into becoming an actual thing, some friends and I were, more or less, contracted into creating a full release mod. The idea was that it was a mod for Quake but it was something people would actually buy in a store or put in mail order.

There were two “game modes” so to speak. The first was singleplayer in which you sort of had to stealth your way past military guys whom you were not allowed to kill but would kill you if you were spotted. In multiplayer you would just gang up with friends or friendly ai to kill increasingly difficult waves of aliens coming from space ships. I know this sounds anything but unique but it was kind of unheard of at the time.

The big feature for our game was that it used real life guns. Instead of nail guns it would be an M16 assault rifle and instead of that crappy, Quake shotgun you’d have a 9mm HK USP. Again, this was somewhat of an unusual thing at the time.

There were six of us to start: three coders, an artist, level designer (me) and one guy who basically put everything together. There was also the two guys from this investment group or whatever that had hired us in the first place, although, we knew next to nothing about them except that they were paying for everything.

Every few months we would tell them that we think the game was about finish and they would tell us that they wanted “more content” so we would just keep working. Well after about a year and a half it was down to just three of us working on this crazy mod but we were doing alright.

Then Quake 2 came out in nearly the same week they said we need to switch to making a Quake 2 mod. We very politely explained to them that this would pretty much require us to scrap everything up to this point and they just told us to go ahead with that.

So we girded our loins, dug in and really went to work hardcore on making this thing a reality. We often worked 10-13 hours a day on this thing and were just driving ourselves mad with it. So much so that we missed the release of Half-Life (among other things). The only game we were playing was the one we were making and by the end of ‘98 we had finally finished. We proudly sent in the finished product and kicked back to enjoy our hard-earned free time.

Several months passed and there was no word about our project at all. Out of the blue we get a call from the guy who originally hired us. They loved our project but Quake 2 was old school now so they were handing it over to another dev team to become a multiplayer only Half-Life game. Last I heard they had gone through several other dev teams and were still trying to bring it out as a sort of free-to-play Source engine game.

The Trenches - “Orders of magnitude” - O Brother, Where Art Thou

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“Orders of magnitude” - O Brother, Where Art Thou

I feel your pain, fellow tortured soul.

I also work for a Government You Might Know, and from your description, I gather we work for the same Government Everyone Knows.

I work somewhere, and my job title is best stated as ‘‘Only Guy Who Knows The Technical Details Around Here Because I Tend The Fucking Zoo”.

There’s not a significant IT project around my particular stretch of fantasy land that has not run to exactly the following script:

A new honcho arrives: He Who Must Prove His Worth By Changing The Entire World.

Naturally, this muthafucka’ can’t view source, let alone write hello world in BASIC, but hey - we’ll put him in charge of our primary hardware/software platforms.

As the only nuts and bolts guy on scene, I am immediately and decisively looped out. Practical concerns from the zookeeper have no place in Mr. Unqualified-pants’ Crazy New Plan.

Here There Be Meetings: an assumption on my part. I’m almost certain there are lots of meetings about things and stuff in my bailiwick every day, but marginalized from the start as I am, I have no direct evidence or experience with this phase. Something Wicked This Way Comes At Breakfast; I know that much.

Eventually: Grand Pronouncements are made. Paradigms Will Now Be Shifted. Throw every Internet related buzzword/phrase you ever heard into a run-on sentence here, and I’ll show you the powerpoint/memo for The Boss that tops it, I shit you not.

WAIT: I’m wrong: ‘standards’ and ‘best practice’ - simple deduction eliminates those as topics of discussion in any Meeting held around here.

Contracts will now be signed with questionable vendors and within days, a random set of obscure whims and ill-conceived concepts are handed to said vendors as technical specifications.

Another indeterminate timespan passes, and then:

A hideous monstrosity emerges from the depths of Hell as a ‘user acceptance testing’ ready ‘deliverable’ - nine or ninety or nine thousand foul heads; I have seen these, I know them well; they come as The Beast with the number 29A16 branded upon their many brows.

Naturally, whatever it is totally doesn’t fucking work and has dozens of deal-breaking fail/death flaws coded right into its unholy heart.

All of you horribly mistreated videogame QA mendicants? I’d go on a killing spree for two or three of you - not that we’d pay, we have an unending supply of college interns with no relevant skills and nothing to gain/lose to completely fail at all that, but a man can dream of working with competence, eh?

But LO! Now The Boss Is Angry. There Be More Meetings Here “Why doesn’t it work yet?! You said eight weeks!” reverberates through the halls. Nobody is happy, fear and terror wrack the kingdom.

At last, I enter the sordid tale.

Deliberately blinded from the get-go, the flaming bag of dogshit is thrown at my face, usually with the ‘should have been completed weeks ago OR ELSE’ brand of pressure.

TL;DR: solve for X where X=boogadaboogaboogyboo-filbberdy-gibberish.

Difficulty: impossible timeframe.

Bonus: Nobody above immediate supervisor level knows you exist until the blame game starts.

The Trenches - Hitting the layoff lottery

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Hitting the layoff lottery

I moved from South Carolina to Nevada, to do QA for a casino gaming company.

At 4 years on the job, I decided I wanted to move back to SC and I quickly found a job very close to where I would be living. Now, all I had to do was deliver the news to my bosses that I was moving on.

On my way to the QA director’s office, I heard cursing coming from one of the offices of a QA lead. I stood to the side of the door and overheard they were cutting 13 out of 15 QA heads. I decided now was not a good time and I would come back later.

It didn’t take long for word to get around that the axe was coming. It was all rumors at first between the underlings, but we knew most of us would be gone soon. But who were they going to keep?

I then got worried that my friends were going to be fired and I might be 1 of the 2 heads they had decided to keep. My QA friends had families, homes and not a lot of job prospects. So, I decided I should throw myself in front of the bus.

I met with the QA director and explained that I heard layoffs were coming and I was volunteering to be one of the unlucky 13. He asked why and I explained that I did not own a home, or have kids and could easily move back to SC and find another job. He was blown away that I had offered myself up as a sacrifice and offered to write a letter of recommendation for me.

The next day, I got an email to meet with HR and my manager. This is where they would go over all the details. My other coworkers had already had their meetings and they used them as an opportunity to do as much damage to the other employees as possible, in hopes HR would decide to keep them instead.

I took a different approach. I thanked them for the experience, said great things about my manager and the job everyone had done. Again, this blew away the HR manager and she completely just broke down and explained how hard this had been. She then told me I would get a paycheck per year worked, plus all of my 401k vested and paid out for any unused vacation.

She then told me the names of the two people they were keeping and I said they made the right choice as those were two very good testers.

The next weekend I left Nevada and started my new job. For two months after that, I got double paychecks, one from my old job and one from the new job.

I later emailed the QA director and asked if, before I came to tell them I would go, did they consider keeping me. His answer was no…

The Trenches - What are we certifying for, again?

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What are we certifying for, again?

Final game certification at the console maker I worked for was a two-stage process. Every game that passed cert at the US office was sent off to the Japanese parent company and run through the same battery of tests a second time.

At one point, we were testing the US version of a title at the same time the Japanese office was testing the Japanese version. Our version passed, so they had both in their offices simultaneously. They found a bug in the Japanese version – an extremely minor one, mind you – and asked us to test if it occurred in the US version.

The bug was a fraction-of-a-second green flash at the beginning of the game’s opening title screen. That’s it. Two testers spent half a day restarting the game and trying everything we could think of to make this flash occur in the US version, but no matter what we did, we could not reproduce the bug. It wasn’t in the US version.

Satisfied that we’d done our part, our lead sent an e-mail to Japan to that effect. 4:30pm rolls around (early morning in Japan), and we receive an e-mail back from them. It’s a failure report for the US version.

They failed the US version of the game for a bug that didn’t exist. A bug that didn’t exist, that normally wouldn’t fail a game at cert in the first place. I can’t even imagine what the discussion at the developer was like when they received our report and were asked to resubmit.

No, that’s a lie. I have a very good imagination.

The Trenches - PTSDeez Nuts!

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PTSDeez Nuts!

I got my start in the Video Game world the way most people do…QA.

I started testing following a 6 year enlistment in the Army and 3 years spent in Afghanistan. I should clarify that the reason I got out was I was awful sick and tired of getting shot at.

I went to work among the masses at a AAA Studio testing a popular multi-platform FPS. First Person SHOOTER…I wasn’t really happy with it at first. The sound of gunfire made me very nervous, even knowing it was not only virtual, but sounded like shit during that build didn’t really help. On one of my very few days off I managed to sneak in an appointment at the VA. After some time with a head shrinker I was told I have “One of the most obvious cases of PTSD he’d ever seen”. Fuck it. Went back to work. Never had time to go back to the VA for treatment…I had games to test! Now that you have the background let’s move on.

I pulled the typical testing shifts described by so many before. 12-16 hour days, 6-7 days a week for months. The entire time surrounded by digital gunfire and explosions. I got around it for the most part by just turning the damn audio off. Somehow no one noticed.

We had this really awesome QA Lead. He did his best with what he had to take care of us. Everyone on my small team knew I was a Vet and they did me a solid by keeping it quiet and among just our little group. Our Lead, after a few months, suggested I should apply for a Production job within the company…so I did. I guess the only other applicant was another tester who happened to be somebody’s nephew. By somebody I mean my boss’ boss who was a huge ass. We’ll call him Joe. Joe was one of THOSE managers. You know the type, had only been doing it a short while so the power was located in his head and he had a special hatred for testers.

A few days later our team was assigned the job of doing a complete playthrough and making sure all of the Audio was right….shit. I didn’t want to lose the job with my application for a possible dream job on the line so I toughed it out. Well, Joe was apparently very unhappy that I had put in an application for the same job as his (completely inept) nephew. So unhappy in fact that he came over to my station first thing in the morning to command me to take my application out of the running. I flatly refused. He was pissed. Our highly apathetic HR manager (aka Firing Guru) didn’t care.

Fast forward about 8 hours. I’m exhausted, I’m really wigging out from all of the sound effects, I’ve been mistreated and now told that I wasn’t “allowed” to apply for a dream job despite doing my time in the trenches (twice, technically). I was nearing the completion of a playthrough, and in the middle of a pitched battle against digital offenders needing to taste some of my hot lead. My head was partially in the game and partially in a hazy, sleep deprived, PTSD driven stupor when Joe decides it’s time to come give me a piece of his mind. Suddenly there is a rather aggressive hand on my shoulder, and someone yelling something at me…the words “I order you…” are all I remember. The next thing I know my hands are around his neck choking the life out of this poor unsuspecting tyrant. Once I realized what was happening I released him…but I followed with a tirade about how this Nerf herder had no idea what I had gone through to get to this point and that no amount of ordering, which he had no right to do, was going to get me to take back my application. I went on a several minutes long rant at the top of my lungs about the frustrations of testing, working under him and the frustrations of PTSD and what led me to it. When the dust settled the entire room (read: dungeon) was staring at us. He ordered security to remove me. They didn’t wanna, neither did my Lead or any of the other testers in the room. Finally someone from across the room piped up “I’ll take him”

It was the Production team lead, there to talk to the very man I’d just choked about the Production job…he didn’t take me outside. He took me upstairs…to the holy land.

His reaction when I asked why: “You had the best application…and also because we make games about war…you know about war…and because I’ve wanted to choke that little bastard since the first time I saw him.” His only condition was that I enter and exit via the side door, and not enter the dungeon while Joe was present. He didn’t want him knowing I was still around.

I still work here helping people’s crazy ideas be a bit more realistic. Joe got fired when the project wrapped. Sometimes there is a happy ending. I got to choke my boss and get promoted for it. I fucking love this industry.

The Trenches - No Entry

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No Entry

One year out of university and still unemployed, I managed to land a temp contract through an agency for games testing. I was well aware of what “playing games all day” really meant but even so…

First issue was the other recruits. The hiring agency had taken the approach of accepting anyone who’d wandered off the street during the week before the project’s start date and figuratively throwing them against the wall to see who stuck. Some were fresh-faced school-leavers like me, some had never used computers before, some were here in order to satisfy demands from their local job center in exchange for their benefits continuing. There was a local drug dealer who had people pay him in iPhones if they didn’t have cash, there were the two girls who took frequent smoke breaks to go snort cocaine in the toilets, the guy who just played online Flash games without even trying to hide the pew-pew-pew sound effects from the supervisors.

It was a browser-based social game and I made it through the first week of debugging webpages & documentation for it and then came working on the actual game. We were tasked with writing test scripts that we’d then swap with other testers who would follow our scripts step-by-step to see if some aspect or task was working as it should. There was one problem: we weren’t allowed access to the game. Three times I tried pointing out the issue with that with the supervisor but he seemed genuinely befuddled as to what problems there could be. So I went to work writing a test script for selecting an inventory item in a game I’d never seen. As a gamer I at least had some past examples to guide me. Step one I guess would be pressing a button ingame that takes you to a character menu? Then I assumed there’d be separate menus for each character option and one of those would be labelled ‘Items’ like in an RPG. Were weapons a separate item from healing potions? Did this game even have equippable weapons? Could you go to this hypothetical menu during battle? This game has battles with other players, right? Or are we just tending our own instances and then swapping loot online at the end?

Anyway, two weeks after paying us to write gibberish it came to testing and they realised their mistake. Next day we were given logins for the game. It was worse than the imagined one I’d been writing test scripts for.

The Trenches - Just to impress a boy!

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Just to impress a boy!

I was directed to this site by someone after telling them this story, and wow. I’m SO glad this archive exists.

In mid-2011 I applied for a localization testing position in Birmingham, UK. I have 2 years of translation experience and plenty of good references, so I knew my chances were good (I want to be part of the industry and I don’t care which end I get in). I sent in my CV and received an email back on the same day with a date and time for a phone interview. I was through the roof, you have no idea how long I had been trying to get into the industry. So the date of the interview arrived and my phone rang. A nice lady talked to me first to confirm my identity. Then she passed the phone to a gentleman who would be doing the interview proper.

He asked me some questions regarding my previous translation job. I filled him in. Then he asked me why I wanted the job, I said I wanted to get into the gaming industry. There was this really awkward pause.
I started to panic and was about to tell him about my mod work for various games, involvement in communities, etc, when he cut me off and the following exchange happened:

Interviewer: Look, madam, I will be frank with you, I don’t actually believe you want this job.
Me: (very stunned) No?
Interviewer: No, I don’t believe your interest in the gaming industry is genuine as a woman.
Me: ...No?
Interviewer: I regret to let you go since your experience is good, but I get the impression you are trying to impress someone.
Me: ...I am?
Interviewer: A boy, perhaps? It was great interviewing you, and I wish you best of luck in the future.
Me: (too stunned to defend myself) Thank you sir, you too!

I didn’t even tell my husband until months later. In retrospect I should have sued his ass. The only good that came of this experience was that it helped me make the decision to apply for a degree in literature and video game writing, which I am starting in the next few weeks.

If the scumbag who interviewed me ever reads this, I just want to tell you that you are part of the reason this industry is in the middle ages as far as gender equality is concerned and I hope you burn in hell. <33

The Trenches - No one cares about the red shirts

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No one cares about the red shirts

In a MMO company I’ve been with for three years, I see the same thing happen over and over. Release a weak product, lay off staff to cut costs. Release a decent product, lay off staff not needed for continuing development. And every time development staff are laid off, you can always find a story about it on Kotaku, and see the lovely outpouring of support from fans.

But below that, there are the wage slaves. The QA staff and the Customer Support staff holding the line. Suffering long hours, angry phone calls, low wages, just to be considered ‘Part of the Industry’.

And inevitably, layoffs will hit us too. We’ll lose good people, people who burned the candle at both ends for the company. You’ll never see the Kotaku story on that one. We’re not trendy enough to care about.

So here’s to the red shirts, the nameless faces who give their all for an industry that doesn’t care about them. You deserve more respect than you’re given.

The Trenches - From the Outside looking In

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From the Outside looking In

I’ve been a fan of The Trenches comic (and the Tales) since the website first launched. I come back every week to read about all the terrible stories and how disrespectful the industry is towards the QA department. I was a security guard at the worst hospital in my city, I dealt with drug addicts and gang members on a nightly basis, and I would still take that job over a QA job any day. At least I got a decent paycheck.

When I heard that my friend was hired to do some game testing for a well-known developer, I immediately freaked out and showed him the Tales from the Trenches. I showed him stories about the 80+ hour work weeks, the financial insecurity, and the fact that you are almost always laid off after you put your blood, sweat and tears into your work.

But, he still took the job.

I finally got the chance to hang out with him last week. He just finished working 40 or so hours. He said the team was in “crunch” mode, and he’s not sure if he’s being paid for all of it. We hung out for maybe fifteen minutes after that before he wanted to go home and sleep. I had to drive him home because he was passing out behind the wheel, and almost hit a delivery truck before I demanded that I take over before he killed us both. I haven’t heard from him since.

I hate to say I told you so, dude. And I won’t. Just start looking for a better job, please.

The Trenches - I coulda been a contender

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I coulda been a contender

I’m old, so old I played Pong when it first came out, David Braben is a contemporary, so is Peter Molyneux, I even became a Grandad recently. So yeah, I’m old! (Get off my lawn, ya damn kids!)

A couple of years back and after 10 years of trying (I’ve interviewed with the best… and the worst) I was finally offered a role as a Junior Programmer with a game company, the main problem was the massive pay cut—a whopping £10,000 drop. Much was made of the risk that THEY would be taking by giving me a shot at the big leagues although it seemed decidedly asymmetric to me. If things didn’t pan out they’d just slot in someone else from the endless queue of wannabes, me, I’d be back on the bread line. So, yes Mr Big-time Video Game Developer tell me more about these risks you speak of. Anyway, I was assured that after a year or so I’d be earning the big bucks but, hey, I know shit from shinola.

I had a mortgage and a wife with a serious shoe habit, this was a big decision and I asked for a week to deliberate, they duly agreed. So, I spent days agonizing over whether to take my dream job or stay a company drone. Then, on the final day, with what I can only describe as a truly shitty lack of decency, they withdrew their offer before I had a chance to respond. No prompting, no urging, no discussion. They must’ve been in one hell of a hurry.

I don’t regret the outcome and if their attitude was any indicator I probably dodged a bullet.

So now, by day I write database apps, and during my copious free-time I write games and whatever the hell else I like (when I can drag my old bones to a keyboard). I’ve pretty much given up the idea of working as a pro and I may never see my name listed in the credits of a AAA game, but I try to console myself with my 39 hour working week and decent pay packet. But if you can afford it or bear it, you go ahead and live the dream, my time has passed it seems.

Anyway, I don’t know what the takeaway here is (perhaps that it may be hard to break into games when you’re young but it just gets harder as you get older) and I’m not sure if this really qualifies at all as I only peered over the edge into the trenches and caught a whiff of the stench that lay within, but this is certainly cheaper than therapy.

The Trenches - Maybe It’s More of a Cultural Thing

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Maybe It’s More of a Cultural Thing

I’ve worked in QA for game companies in Australia as well as Singapore in the past before moving to a generic IT company to find some stability as a permanent staff instead of a contractor, and I find that I don’t get treated badly like most of these other submissions.

In the companies that I’ve worked for, generally speaking us QA staff sits on the same floor as the dev team, often even right next to each other. In fact one company I worked for deliberately spread out the QA staff so that at least one QA staff sits close to each feature team to make communication easier. We get invited to Friday drinks and yearly BBQs and basically get treated the same as everybody else. We do have to work crazy hours during crunch time, but there’s always at least one dev and one dev manager with us the entire time on top of the QA manager. Normally if we don’t encounter any issues, they’re basically just there to organize food for everyone and keep morale up.

I did encounter one horrible asshole of a manager once. He wasn’t my manager, but he was definitely an asshole. He used to work for a global game company in one of their US studios and within a month of starting he began abusing his staff, screaming expletives at them, making absurd last minute demands caused by his own lack of preparation and just generally being an asshole. He seems to be under the impression that his staff aren’t people. Luckily for his team our CEO (really nice guy) who was doing his regular rounds around the office overheard him on one of his rants and fired him two days later.

I think the problem of testers being treated like second class citizens may be more of a cultural thing in big companies or certain countries more than the game industry in general.

The Trenches - That Guy

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That Guy

This guy…


...had a problem

I’ve worked in the game industry for a long time, and have been on both sides of this coin: As the tester who was trying to use the bug database to backseat game-design and as the designer who had to deal with over-zealous QA-guy trying to work me like a puppet through bug assignment.

I understand how helpless and frustrating it can be in QA, especially when you have higher ambitions in game development. Bug assignment seems like your only lever you have to influence things.

But listen: You have to respect the boundaries and responsibilities of your co-workers. Their are better ways to have an open dialogue with them, and the New Bug button isn’t it.

A good tester is always more than his bug count. Plus, you’re not being paid to design or fact-check the source material, you’re being paid to find software problems. Speaking from experience of working on licensed titles, the guys at Wizards probably have their own approval processes to safeguard D&D from lore contradictions. Your time as a tester is most certainly better spent elsewhere.

I vividly remember playing the buggy mess that was Neverwinter Nights 2 when it came out (the title That Guy claims to have worked on). Perhaps if our friend invested his time less on source material problems and more on that bugs that actually negatively impact the customers…

Well, perhaps a stronger, less-buggy game would have been delivered to gamers.

The Trenches - Be Mindful of Sources

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Be Mindful of Sources

Being let go sucks. Losing a job is a huge disruption to your life, and it’s understandable to hate a company, even a good company, for wrecking your status quo.

Some people have more tangibles to complain about than others. Companies do often expect people to spend too much time in the office, and a bad manager can be dehumanizing. Other people, I would say most people, are laid off because they don’t listen, they don’t follow directions, or they have an overinflated sense of importance.

It’s not unheard of for new QA members to act out in ways that they’re entirely unaware of. In an effort to join in on design discussion, the person might go to an open-invite meeting and bore several senior developers to tears, talking way too much. In an effort to join in on art critique, the person might start filing non-bugs that insult the look and feel of a finished game. A little of that is not enough to get you let go, but the people who do these things tend to think that they’re brilliant, and get complexes when better QA people are promoted over them. At a certain point, it’s time to part ways.

Few companies are unassailable by an irate ex-employee. There is always one shitty manager, one backwards policy, or one horror story. If a company was incredible, then people will just say it was “really clique-y,” which is code for, “everyone else got along.”

The reason I am writing this is not to shame bad employees, but to let people who want to work in QA know that it can be a good job, as long as you go to a functioning, happy studio.

If you hear a constant litany about a toxic work environment, then don’t apply to the company in question. However, if the worst you hear about a company is sour grapes from one guy, it’s worth applying and at least going to the interview.

Sincerely, a person who loves their job.

The Trenches - With great opportunity comes absolutely no privilege

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With great opportunity comes absolutely no privilege

As with a lot of people, my first game industry job after graduating from a game arts college was QA at one of the large development/publishing studios.

When I started, with a few other folks, things were made very clear that we were not on the same level as the actual game developers. We were told we could never enter the development area (which was blocked off by keycard access anyway) and that if we ever leave the QA area with a disc of the game we were testing there would be hell to pay.

I was unceremoniously put on a sports game and platform I had no real interest in, and stuffed in a poorly ventilated room full of 500 sweaty nerds in the middle of a crazy warm summer. Still, it wasn’t too bad. The people I worked directly beside were cool enough.

I must have somehow shown that I had a high skill level, because I was shortly singled out (along with one other) to have the great opportunity to be an “integrated tester” for the development team. This meant I’d be leaving the QA area, and getting a desk right beside the programmers and artists.

This was really an amazing opportunity, but came with a few problems. We were never actually given keycard access to the development side, and we essentially had to smuggle out our QA discs in the morning without being seen. This resulted in us hiding our discs in whatever pocket it could fit, and then hanging out by the entrance of the development area waiting for someone to come by so we could sneak in behind them.

We did this for three months, and we were never questioned or caught.

In comparison to the QA area, the development side was shangri-la. There was tons of space and natural light. Top 40 tracks from the past 10 years wafted through the air. There was plenty of washroom facilities that were regularly maintained. On top of that there was free food and snacks a plenty. It was like the promise land, except we weren’t allowed to talk, touch or eat anything because those were for the “real employees.” We were never allowed to forget that we were second or even third class citizens in paradise.

Still, the experience was great and it has no doubt helped me with my career since then.

I’m still in QA, but now lead a small team in a growing company. My goal is to never let the people in QA ever feel like they are less valuable than any other position in the company. And in that sense, I feel I have succeeded to some degree.

The Trenches - Wait, You Work Here?

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Wait, You Work Here?

Right after I graduated high school, I got a job working at the GameStop by my house. As a young, naive 17 year old this was a dream come true. I’d been in and out of the store pretty frequently before working there, and the manager always seemed to know who I was, which I thought was part of the reason he hired me. Who better than a loyal customer?

I quickly took advantage of the store’s game check out policy, where you could borrow a game for four days, like checking out a library book. When it came time to return the game, no more than three weeks after getting hired, I walked in and handed the manager the game. He took it from me, and asked “Why are you returning it?” Confused, I replied, “It’s been four days?” He then paused a beat, looked at me and said “Oh, do you work here?” This is the same guy who had just interviewed and hired me less than a month before.

My family moved shortly after I got the job to a new house 45 minutes away, but I didn’t quit GameStop ‘cause I wanted the money, even though it was a pain to drive back and forth. One Friday afternoon, I asked if I had any hours scheduled for the following week, to which they told me no. Imagine my surprise when I get a call on Monday asking if I was coming in to work, because it was now 4:15 and I was scheduled to work a shift from 4-6. I told them I wouldn’t be able to get there until 5:00 at the earliest, and reminded them that they had previously told me I was not scheduled this week when I asked. His reply was “So are you going to come in?” I said no.

I never heard from them again. No termination notice, no telling me I’m scheduled to work, nothing. For all I know I’m still listed on staff. It’s not like they know who their employees are.

The Trenches - Head of QA?

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Head of QA?

One day my new boss brings in 8 text books and several other document type “idiot” books.

“Congratulations you are now the QA Manager.  I need you to read these books, complete a test plan to be submitted to upper management and I want you to begin automated testing right away.”

When shit happens like that be sure to ask this before saying yes.

1. What happened to the old QA manager?
2. What kind of pay raise do I get?
3. What are the hours?

I never found out what happened to the old QA manager or any of his work.  He might be in a looney bin.

I’m still getting paid the same hourly rate.

16 hour days, 8 hours off, 6 days a week, for 6 months.

The Trenches - Post-Traumatic Stress

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Post-Traumatic Stress

I once had the great misfortune to be assigned to a licensed superhero game for the Game Boy Advance. This was, sadly, before the SP came out, so the stupid thing had no backlight. I had the PA strip “Lame Boy Advance” posted in my cubicle, where I sat with the GBA tilted at the one exact angle that allowed my fluorescent tube lamp to illuminate the screen without reflecting glare directly into my eyes.

But I digress.

The true horror wasn’t the hardware, it was the software. The main game wasn’t particularly difficult with all the superpowers the main character could use, and it was short, only ten or so levels. I could perform multiple full playthroughs in a day. But in order to unlock the Final Boss Stage, I had to score a 3/3 rating on every level on the Fist Meter. What is the Fist Meter, you ask? Excellent question! It’s the meter that scores how often the player defeats enemies by punching them to death instead of using, you know, the main character’s world-famous iconic powers.

So I had to pretend that an awesomely powerful hero was actually just some dude in tights who really liked hitting people in the face.

After a movie about this superhero came out, my friends and I were walking down the street discussing that character’s rogues gallery and speculating who would make a good villain for the sequel. My friend mentioned the villain that just happened to be the Final Boss who I had come to despise so much. I despised him not because he was a pain in the ass to kill (he was) but because the asinine conditions to unlock him took away the one pleasure that the game afforded, which was being an unstoppable force of destructive might.

I stopped dead and bent over, hyperventilating. The memories all returned at once, suddenly filling me with the anger, the loathing, the relentless tedium I experienced more than a decade ago. I clutched my hands to my head and shouted “NEVER MENTION THAT NAME IN MY PRESENCE!”

I think I was mostly hamming it up for effect. I’m pretty sure I was. I mean, it was just a game, right? Not some genuine trauma that left permanent scars on my psyche that will haunt me until the end of my days.


The Trenches - That’s all you needed?

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That’s all you needed?

I was working on a AAA Xbox 360 title, and testing in my own little room on a 3DTV. Also in the room was an old 480i TV as well, so I got tasked with the SD-TV test pass as well. The IT guy insisted that none of us lowly testers touch anything ever, but he was gone. Me being the honest soul I am, I pinged my lead and said “Hey, I’m done with the SD pass and ready to go back to 3D, but [IT guy] is gone. Can I just switch back myself?”

His response: “No, ping [Full-time boss that oversees many test teams].”

So I did. She came in and asked what I needed, and I explained it to her. “Please remove the component cable from the back of the devkit, and plug in the HDMI.” I walked her through it step by step. In the time it took to ping my lead, the boss, and walk her through it, I could have done it myself 15 times, but doing that myself could have gotten me fired.

The Trenches - Mr Grumpy Dev

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Mr Grumpy Dev

I love our QA guys. Hell, the good ones are worth their weight in gold and should be paid twice what they are.

The ability to reduce the factors in a bug so that I can quickly nail the issue is a completely indispensable part of game development, especially at the end where I am walking a tightrope between tears and table flipping rage at all times, with only the balancing pole of caffeine to keep me upright.

But. But. And I say this with love QA folks.

You aren’t designers. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Hell, these days most designers aren’t designers either, so no need to feel bad. Often the only guys who get to make decisions about the games we work on are the far removed owners and their marketing buddies, who can suggest whatever the standout feature of the game they briefly played that weekend before going out on the town (hey, we should have takedowns/melee combat/sassy/robots/fungusFacedZombies!).

Adding your feature request and linking it tenuously to a TCR in an attempt to get your pet idea implemented is a crime so horrific that it should be punished with trousers full of ravenous weasels.

Please understand that when you enter a bug requesting a feature near the end of a project you are pulling off a white dueling glove and striking some developer around the face with it. In these situations, “by design” really does mean “fuck off”.

And pretty please, for all that is holy and by our great and mighty Lord Gaben, fill your repro rates out.

The bug “My Xbox explodes every time I start this mission”

is not the same as

“Once upon a cold and shadowy morn the legends tell of an Xbox which, when the doomed mission was begun, did explode. All the other Xboxen were fine from that day on, and there was much rejoicing”.

The Trenches - Lost in Translation

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Lost in Translation

I worked for a very small developer that worked on “edutainment” titles for a super-sized scholastic company. Initially, my job was to create the concepts and the art of the games, and then to ship the resources off to the code team…in the Philippines.

I was having a blast coming up with ideas for these games, and then spending my time creating the artwork in any style I wished. I was blissfully unaware—perhaps willfully ignorant—of the troubles that can come from working with a code team in another country than one’s own.

The first builds began coming back after a few weeks ready for QA. Supposedly, they had already gone through a QA process to eliminate bugs. My production manager handed the builds to me without so much as a glance at them, and now I was supposed to make sure that everything fit together from a visual perspective.

The first game featured an animation of a child performing jumping jacks—a standard P.E. class activity (in the U.S.). They had no idea what a jumping jack looked like in the Philippines, though. Rather than asking us to clarify the action for them, they took it upon themselves to invent an action, which they thought might be a suitable alternative. We called and tried to explain to them how it would look. We sent them links to YouTube videos, but they did not get it. Their English was impeccable, but there were still too many subtleties to explain.

We were on a tight timeline, and my production manager decided it was time to move on. So, “Jumping Jack Math” became “Jazzercise Math.”  A small difference, I supposed.

It was the beginning of a pattern, though. “Thwack-a-Mole” became “Thwack-a-Rat.” “The Cloud Machine” kept it’s name, but wound up looking more like “Gassy Calculator.” The kid in “Slip & Slide” was granted superpowers, and levitated his way across the yard. It went on like this for about five months before I’d had enough.

I told my production manager we could probably save time and money by dropping the code team in the Philippines for someone we could sit next to everyday. I explained the troubles I was having communicating my vision to coders who were not native English speakers. Her took this into consideration, and quickly decided on a solution.

They fired me, and hired an artist in the Philippines.

The Trenches - The More Things Change…

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The More Things Change…

My father has a story he likes to tell of when he did testing for a game company. This was before videogames were mainstream, so he was doing test runs of an old school RPG. I won’t give away too much about what game, but it has a lot to do with running and shadows. He had been game mastering a campaign with the system, and one of his supervisors came in to check on him. So, my dad starts talking about the campaign, particularly an NPC called the Paladin. The Paladin was an actor that wore a suit of “armor” that was actually a bunch of recording devices. The devices existed already in the game, but the supervisor said they wouldn’t fit into the suit. My dad continued the campaign, and finished his testing.

A year or so later, he sees a module for the game that uses the Paladin, relabeled as Knight, as well as several other ideas he had. He was not credited anywhere, and had done the testing for free. That night, my dad sat down with his game buddies and decided that if his ideas were good enough to be published, he would publish them in his own system.

The Trenches - It’s not all bad

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It’s not all bad

Before I considered applying for a job in QA I read quite a bit of forum posts filled with horror stories about how everybody treats you like garbage, about long hours and horrible working conditions and so on. Add all that to the fact that job offering was for one the biggest and most hated publisher (you know who I’m talking about) and you can imagine that I was a bit scared… but hey, money is money and I needed it.

After a few days on one of their biggest AAA titles I found out that things were completely different. Everybody was great to me, from the people in HR to the leads and the other, more experienced testers. They’d give us whatever fruits were in season for free and the vending machines had the lowest possible prices for everything. During summer we also had free ice cream on Fridays. Crunch time? Sure. But the overtime was paid double and it was entirely optional. I remember one time, people were somewhat reluctant to sign up for one particular weekend… the solution? They offered free pizza to whoever came. Needless to say people started fighting over the limited spots. Graveyard shift? Sure, your cab fee would be paid by the company at the end of each month. Medical insurance? Got that too, the most expensive package at a private company.

The pay was however pretty damn low. Almost the minimum wage… I am pretty sure that the lady that brought fruits to the desks every day was making a lot more than us. And work was pretty much work. You had to be noticed by either gaining a lot of knowledge about the game and how certain tasks need to be performed or by entering a lot of bugs. If nobody knew you were alive by the end of your first week you’d get a warning and if you didn’t show any improvement fast you were out.

What I’m trying to say is that… hey, it’s not all bad. Don’t believe what everybody says, don’t hop on brainless hate wagons and try out things for yourself, you might be surprised.

The Trenches - Pre-emptive strike

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Pre-emptive strike

I used to work in the mobile games division of a large, family-friendly media company. It wasn’t the most exciting job, but the pay was decent, the work was a bit more respected than console testing, the people were absolutely great, and after working for a while I got converted to a full time employee! My shift was the second shift, but as I am a bit of a night owl it was a good fit for me, so I liked it.

About six months after that, our manager left the company and he was replaced by a manager who had never worked in the games industry before. The first order of business? Condense the two shifts (day and night) back into one. This involved getting some new, slightly smaller desks to fit people into the space that twice as many had taken up before, but it was doable. In the meantime, we fit people in where we could, and some of our testers were to be temporarily stationed on another floor of the office building that had some room.

The first day of the new schedule, about mid day, the other Leads and I got a frantic IM from our testers on the other floor. We went up to investigate, and found them upset, and one on the verge of tears.

Apparently without telling us, the Leads working for the new Manager had gone upstairs and informed the testers they needed to be quiet, as there had been a noise complaint. Keep in mind, these were some of the most hard-working, professional, quiet people I have ever had the pleasure to work with. The poor woman on the verge of tears was devastated that someone might have been upset by their presence. The leads and testers were, understandably. confused. Nothing else was ever reported and eventually everyone sat in the same area anyway.

We never would have figured out the story behind the complaint if it weren’t for the fact that the department head who was above our QA manager later explained it all. I guess guilt got to him or something, but he confessed to us that the QA manager had told him she’d completely falsified the whole thing. It was a pre-emptive strike of sorts. She had so little respect for our game testers that she just assumed that they WOULD be loud and obnoxious when on their own away from direct supervision.

Needless to say, life got worse from that point on, and there were eventual layoffs. But that manager gave us a lot of stories up to that point!

The Trenches - At Dawn on the Fifth Day, Look to the East

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At Dawn on the Fifth Day, Look to the East

When I was in college, I got my first opportunity to work in the industry, joining a developer working on a high-profile downloadable title. As my work responsibilities weren’t always needed, I volunteered to spend my extra time with the QA staff. The local team was small, and work largely involved verifying that bugs were fixed in builds before sending them out to the publisher’s QA department for more rigorous testing.

Being my first job in the industry, I was fortunate to have joined an amazing team, who were very supportive and integrated with QA, and really made us feel like part of the family. We spent long days and nights working in one (very hot) room together, but my work felt validated.

One very early morning, after coming off a 20+ hour shift of preparing a build for certification submission, I was walking home with my QA lead, an amazing guy who mentored me through starting in the industry. We had both discovered a bug that we couldn’t get proper repro steps for, and after several exhausting hours of experimenting, were told by our project lead to walk away and go sleep.

We walked about 5 blocks from the studio when my lead got this determined look, and said he had to go back and convince our project lead to let him reproduce and fix the bug before we submitted. We’d been worked to the core, but he was still motivated to make sure we had done the best possible job we could. As I rode the bus home, I got a text from him. “I’m gonna stay to figure this out.” Getting off the bus at the next stop, I replied “Be right there,” and ran back to the studio.

We sat down and worked, just us, our project manager, and one amazing programmer who had stayed the night with us. We did everything we could to fix this one last bug before submission. Soon,  it was near 9AM, and the dev staff were beginning to filter in. Suddenly, it clicked, we had finally figured it out. We detailed the steps, the programmer fixed the bug, and we submitted the build. As it uploaded, we sat back in our project manager’s office and cracked open a beer, watching the sun rise.

QA is a tough process. It’s repetitive grunt-work, and can sometimes can take unbelievable amounts of time. And of course, there are horror stories. I’ve experienced some myself. If mismanaged and mistreated, it can be a nightmare to be stuck in the trenches for months on end. But when you’re working on something you love, with people you care about, and staff who support you, sometimes you can come out feeling like a hero.

The Trenches - A new hope

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A new hope

I’m a long time reader of the tales on this site, and sadly I find most of them negative. While I understand a lot of people suffer a lot of pain trying to get into the games industry, I thought it might be nice to add my tales to the pile and see if we can increase the number of happy endings to some of the gut churning misery that often sprawls across these pages.

I’ve wanted to work in the games industry since I was a kid in the 90’s, shortly after I knew I was unlikely to be an astronaut. Back in 2004 I managed to get a 3 month contract with a very big Publisher in the UK. The hours weren’t too long but the normal memes applied - I stuck in a building far away from the developers, not appreciated that much, playing games to test them isn’t as much fun as playing them for fun and most importantly, I was stuck on LAME game titles (Testing Halo is one thing, Dora the Explorer games on old Nokia phones another) and so forth.

That said, I still loved it. I got free curry when I worked the night shift, I like my co workers and the crunch never really happened to me luckily. I was very sad when my contract ended, and sadder still when I was called back for another 3 month run AFTER I had started my history degree, but I thought it was the best option to finish the degree.

Fast forward to after my graduation and I’m working retail for a portion of a pittance as guess what, nobody was hiring art grads in 2008. I think back, and I gamble my money on paying for a Games Design Degree which I do well at. A few years of standard web design jobs and I manage to somehow snag an interview with THE SAME games company via linkedin (seriously, GET A PROFILE ON LINKEDIN) for a permanent SQE (Software engineer who writes automated tests for QA) role, and I aced it. I didn’t even have to take a pay cut. I’ve just finished my first week back, and from what I can see QA is respected far more now and embedded in the same office as the development team which gives me great hope for the future.

I guess I better get to a point, and the point is this. Don’t give up hope. Yes, QA is hard, yes getting into the games industry is hard. I could get fired easily if the project goes wrong, but at the moment things are going well and my boss is already very pleased with my work. The recession can’t last forever and not everyone at a large publisher is a blood sucking monster who hates games, some just want to work hard and make great ones. Just as every story doesn’t have a fairytale ending, not every story has a monstrous one.

Don’t give up hope.

The Trenches - It Only Took Nine Years

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It Only Took Nine Years

It was 2003, I was fresh out of college, and thought I would like to get into the video game industry as a developer.  I figured I’d get in on what I assumed was the ground floor: I would start as a tester and work my way through the ranks to become a coder.

I was so excited when I received word that I would be interviewed for a testing position with a very well known game company.  I wanted to make a good impression on the interviewer, so I wore a suit and tie. It was a group interview where all of the applicants were asked questions to make sure we knew what video games were and that we had the mental and physical capabilities to push a series of buttons.  It was embarrassing to be the only one in the room dressed up (even the interviewer was dressed casually).

Well, I got the job (surprise, surprise), then I discovered that I had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t start when they wanted me to start.  I figured that this job was down the tubes as a result, but they hastily added me to the midnight shift for a project that was in the middle of development and nearing completion.  I happily accepted and was told that I would get my name added to the credits for the game, and I would get a free copy.

A few days in, I was told that the end credits text was locked and I wouldn’t be added.  I didn’t care!  I was in the industry!  A few days later, I was told that I wouldn’t get my free copy because I started so late.  I didn’t care!  I was in the industry!  Two and a half weeks after I started, the midnight shift was told that, since the game was so near completion, midnight testing was going to be cut and we didn’t need to come back.

I wasn’t in the industry.

Shortly after that, I got a job doing I.T. work for a company that is nowhere near the video game industry and I have been very happy ever since.  However, last year my brother got a job at that same video game company, and one of the first things he got for me from his new job was a copy of the game that I tested.

It only took nine years.

The Trenches - The Long Bug

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The Long Bug

When I was still a fairly new tester, I was working on a fighting game based off of a prolific anime series. My team was doing simple gameplay testing: playing over and over until we found an issue, writing it up, rinse and repeat.

The game boasted a playable roster of 70+ characters, and naturally there was an achievement for playing with all of them. I decided to make sure it worked. Cue a day and a half of playing through all of the campaigns, then playing single matches with all of the other characters. At the end, I wasn’t awarded the achievement; after some experimentation, I found that some characters had to be played twice to get it to work. I was briefly pleased with myself at having the patience to track such an issue down. Then I remembered one line in the required bug report:

“Reproducibility: X out of 10”

I shrugged, figuring there were worse ways to make a living. By the end of the process, I had gotten pretty good at the game - it now only took me 6 hours to reproduce! I finally got my 10 repetitions, wrote up the bug report, and went home for the day, looking forward to doing something (anything!) else the next day.

When I got in the next day, I was informed that we had a new build, and everyone needed to do regression testing on the issues they had previously found. Cue head-to-desk.

The Trenches - work hard, play harder

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work hard, play harder

After reading so many crunch time horror stories, sometimes testers and devs alike forget the fun times. Well here’s one of my favorite memories:

I was working on an MMO as a tester quite a few years ago. It was well before crunch, as we had the same content to chew through over and over again. I had a very long night before and had not gotten any sleep. This was mainly due to the acid I had dropped pretty late in the night and was still tripping balls when I went to work the next day.

Tripping at work was pretty sketchy, but luckily for me being in a nerd environment I could get away with wearing my shades in doors and tossing on a headset and keep to myself.

So there I was, tripping balls and exploring this beautiful island playfield. I was running around as an invincible Game Master and had finishing moves set to always. The Dx10 environment was just absolutely stunning and more vivid than ever.

Everything was magical and fun until I came across one of those Picts. He started hitting my avatar with a club so I decided to “Finish Him”.

My dual wielding Conqueror quickly sliced off his head and I watched as it landed on the beach. I felt such a ‘rush’ as the animation played with blood squirting all over the place that I gripped the keyboard tighter. My eyes then focused on the head laying on the ground. Suddenly I noticed something very strange. The head of the Pict started to smile at me…  then it blinked… then the eyes looked around, and then I heard him scream! I took my headphones off and rolled back a bit away from the desk and looked around the room… it took me a while to realize the animation artist had just forgotten to turn off the emotes ‘on death’ and this wasn’t the acid.

The Trenches - Downtown Orwellsville

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Downtown Orwellsville

I worked in a small game studio for about 5 years on the Art team. The first year there was hell because of a shitty AD.  Then the rest of the artists (all 3 of us) convinced the CEO that he was useless and we got rid of him.

The next few years were great, working on small games, each one progressively getting to be more and more game like.  I was promoted to lead and to creative director eventually.  Everything was going well it seemed.

Then a switch went off in the heads of management.  They seemed overly preoccupied with ass in seat mentality and didn’t care about quality, or quantity of work getting done, so long as you were in your seat for X hours a day.

They increased the mandatory be at work time, they installed cameras in the office pointed at the staff so that the CEO and Office manager (or whatever his title was at the time) could have a screen set up in their offices so that they could “watch” us work… You know for the 3-4 hours a day they were actually there.  They started monitoring our IM’s searching for keywords, and rumor has it that they fired some employees for talking shit about their jobs over IM.

When all of this went down, being a person in between management and the art staff, a lot of the artists came to me to voice their concerns and to ask me to be a reference for their resumes.

Stupid me, I decided to tell management about the low moral, and asked what they were going to do when half their staff left because of these changes in policy.  Management decided to confront some of the staff about it, and they all said “no no, I am happy here”.. of course that is what you would say, even if you were actively looking to move on, you wouldn’t want to tell them that.  So they confronted me about it calling me a liar and strike 1.  Strike 2 was when I mentioned that a certain staff member was leaving, apparently they don’t like to tell people that staff has left or is leaving.  Not sure how strike 3 came about, but I had been working 12 hour days for months and doing the bulk of the art work on 1 project, redoing the GUI on another project, and reviewing and fixing artwork on 2 other projects when I was “laid off.”

They said I didn’t have the necessary skills for the company going forward even though leading up to my dismissal, I had to train multiple artists on how to do my job.  Nice!  A few weeks later they laid off another bunch of highly qualified staff, looks like they were cutting people based on salary in the end.

I am in a much better situation now, working 8 hour days, and have time for my family.

The Trenches - QA testing: The psychological problem

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QA testing: The psychological problem

To imagine the job of an average QA tester:

1. Get a children’s platform game
2. Play (only) half a level, over and over, for two weeks
3. After two weeks, increase the playable area by half a level and play again
4. Repeat step 3 for 12 months

I was a tester for a few years in one of the better companies, good people, full time work - casual wages (paid for overtime hooray!). So for me the job was… acceptable. It was easy and paid the bills, even though it seemed tedious and mind numbing.

Several years after leaving the company I was watching a TV show on the effects of sensory deprivation on torture victims when I realized why it was so mind numbing.

QA testers undergo a kind of mild sensory deprivation: it’s voluntary self torture. Limited new experiences, painfully constrained actions, penalties for failure but no rewards for success. Things you like get taken away without warning, things you hate become features.

I worked with a guy who had to test a Barbie game for six months and after the game shipped he had become allergic to the color pink.

The Trenches - So you want to be a tester…

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So you want to be a tester…

We all have out horror stories, success stories, and woes from the trenches… But this is more of a PSA for the ones who have nothing but horror stories.

In my years of QA, I’ve worked alongside a bunch of people who really didn’t care about how good of a job they did, quality of the product they were working on, or even the coworkers they stood face-to-face with daily. Those kind of people gladly stab anyone in the back for a chance to fail at proving themselves, as they gladly do over and over. These kinds of testers come in each morning to do the minimum amount of work to not get fired, bitch about the free catered food, take days off when the team needs them the most, then wonder why they were laid off.

I’ve worked 5 years straight in QA with 4 studios; never once laid off because I had the foresight to prepare and set up better opportunities. And I love my job. Every damn day of it. The point of it is that there are 2 kinds of testers: The kind who want an easy job playing video games - you will be hired to fill a seat as a project ramps up to launch; The kind who pursue a career creating a type of artistic media that they are passionate about. Which kind are you?

Long story short: If you actually give more than half a sh*t about the quality of your work, others will notice, and that’s all you need to do to move forward in this industry: have your genuine efforts become noticed.

Good luck :)

The Trenches - CEO - Crazy, Emotional, Overbearing

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CEO - Crazy, Emotional, Overbearing

I started my career in the video game industry as a tester, just like so many others.  My QA department was amazing.  I worked with smart, motivated people, learned a ton, and fell more in love with the industry every day.

Soon after, I switched to Project Management/Production with the same company and was fortunate enough to have great mentors.  After three years I was married with a daughter, so I switched companies for a new job, the Producer title, and twice the pay—I was laid off 5 months later.

Following the layoff, I worked as a Project Manager for a software company outside of games, but got bored after a year or so.  After taking all the Project Management cert classes I could, I decided to go back into video games and accepted a position with a small game development startup.  It was a small team that was spread across the country and mostly worked from home.  The really exciting part was that it was owned by a real legend of the industry.

I was to be the sole Producer, in charge of defining process, planning releases, and also directly managed the engineering team.  On top of all this, it came with a little bump in pay, so I was ecstatic!  My ship had finally come in!

Soon after my start date I found out that this legend was a co-owner of the company.  The CEO was actually his wife.  The third co-founder was a long time friend of the family and had largely been in charge of Operations before my arrival.

The engineering team was truly amazing.  Despite them ALL working remote, I’d never worked with a more invested and motivated group. They were, however, very frustrated.  The reason?  The CEO had forcibly wedged herself into the day-to-day development minutiae. Despite having no knowledge of modern software development, she was, in her mind, our expert on how long a task should take, and she was also convinced that the entire engineering team was padding their numbers if they claimed anything would take a week or more to get done.

I spent months playing peacemaker between her and the entire team, it was all I could do, on a near daily basis, to keep them all from quitting.  That third co-founder I mentioned was soon forced out of the company for a disagreement with her as well.  With him gone, her blame for everything that didn’t go her way fell on me.

As a last straw, I finally received a phonecall from the CEO at 11pm one Thursday night.  She was in tears, sobbing into the phone to me because one of the engineers had written her a “nasty email” in which he clearly expressed his frustration at being called back in to work, at 9pm, from the first date he’d had with his fiancee in over a month.  I’ve never been so uncomfortable in my life.  It was the single most unprofessional thing I’d ever been exposed to, and that’s saying a lot.

During those 20-30 minutes of listening, I applied for three jobs. Things moved fast and I interviewed for one the next day.  The interview process continued over the weekend and I delivered my two-weeks notice on Monday.

During those two weeks, I was never spoken to once by the CEO and on my last day she let me know I would not be paid fully for final two weeks, because she was going to fire me the day I delivered notice.  I should also be thankful that they allowed me to save face by working out my notice.

As I worked happily for my new company, my old coworkers kept me abreast of the meltdown.  Within a month, their paychecks had stopped coming reliably.  The three month mark saw them all being asked to work without pay “until the next deal closes.”

I watched from afar as the entire engineering team slowly had enough and left the company.

As of the last I heard, a federal investigation was underway…  I’m still not back in the games industry.

The Trenches - Graduate Catharsis

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Graduate Catharsis

It’s not the ignominy of the job; its the powerlessness, exacerbated by financial vulnerability that makes leaving difficult.  Of course, the only reason one would want to leave such a job is the emotional millstone, grinding away with the false promise that an ever increasing workload, will somehow, enable one to reach the ever receding, ever changing finish-line.

I applied to graduate school just over seven years ago because my job at the time was easy to the point of being stifling; I craved independence and autonomy.  What I got instead was three part time jobs for the pay of one:  I had to teach classes, take classes, and conduct research.  I was treading water emotionally and physically, making no visible progress towards graduation.

When this website launched, I was at a point in my life where I envied Sisyphus: Not only did he make it to the top of the mountain, he made it to the top every day! For all of the work I had done over the years, I had achieved fewer markers of success than many of my peers; I could not sympathize with them.  Instead, I read the stories of QC testers posted here.  And it helped.  A lot.  Thank you.

I am now all set to graduate.  It is a very good feeling.  The PhD program has given me a concrete measure of success; a stepping stone for the rest of my life.  Many of the QC testers I have read about will never get a few letters in front of their name as a public recognition for the soulless grinding they have endured, but perhaps they should.  The work for my PhD thesis is quite theoretical and I doubt it will bring more pleasure to peoples lives then a thoroughly debugged video game.

I will always read The Trenches as a reminder of my graduate career, as well as a reminder that there are many people out there toiling just as hard, for less reward.  I do hope that this part of my life has past, and that I will never feel compelled to write another letter to The Trenches.  That, however, depends on the ultimate outcome of my job search.

The Trenches - Office Sex

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Office Sex

I once wrote to you guys here about how awesome my job was. I would now like to retract that former submission.

About six months into my job as a game master, I was wrongfully terminated.

Now judging by the title of this story, you probably think I got caught getting busy at work, right?


I caught two of my fellow game masters getting busy in our office gym (the shower to be precise). Not only were they bumping uglies on company property AND company time, but they were doing so while I was left to deal with the ticket queue.

(So if you had to wait to get a ticket answered on October 13th, 2012, I’m sorry)

I told my supervisor and she said she’d deal with it. She even called me back later and told me to take the next day off so I wouldn’t have to face the two employees. My weekend started the day after that so she said by the time I got back in in a few days, the issue would have been “addressed”.

Three days later I got a call from my supervisor’s boss telling me I was being “laid off”. I was told not to call anyone at the company or talk to anyone but him about it. He gave me his number and told me to call him to set up a way to get my things.

You probably read about the layoffs that actually happened. They happened AFTER I was fired. I guess they thought they could lump me in with them and no one would notice.

I noticed.

I called the parent company. A month or so later, they fired a few people including the two people I caught doing it.

I never got my job back, their friends at Turbine made sure of that. Painted a nasty picture of me to corporate. I guess if they were going to lose their jobs, they wanted to make sure I definitely wouldn’t get mine back.

I wonder if my former boss will lose her job too when I officially file my lawsuit? Hmm…

The Trenches - Be Careful What you Wish for…

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Be Careful What you Wish for…

One of our designers was a veteran of the golden age of PC gaming, enough that they are justified to have a Wikipedia entry. When the studio was bought out, corporate sent in a new studio head to run the place.  Because he was this designer’s new boss, he figured he should have his own Wikipedia entry too, tasking some subordinates to submit a profile of his career.  Well, those submissions were denied because he was, “not noteworthy enough in the games industry,” to warrant one. 

This guy was your typical psychotic, petty boss so needless to say, Wikipedia was never to be mentioned of ever again in his presence. Then one fateful day after exaggerating on his career on a national TV program, he called got out by the public and forced into resignation. The TV series ended perhaps due to no small part on his end. 

He finally did get his Wikipedia entry, though perhaps not the way he wanted.  Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

The Trenches - The Room of Doom

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The Room of Doom

I’ve been a Tester for 25+ years.  I was an individual contributor, a Lead and eventually a Manager.  I’ve just about seen it all:  police arresting an employee, co-workers getting caught doing the whoopee in the restroom (and then go on Oprah to talk about it – seriously – that happened), I’ve had a person who worked for me get hit by a car right out in front of our building (got messed up pretty bad, but lives to tell the tale), I’ve had an owner sell the company and leave us all jobless, and I’ve even had the best of it when different owners took us all to Hawaii for a week as a ship reward.

I’ve read the Tales from the Trenches from the start – and I love them and figured I should share one.

I was a test lead in the 90’s when contracting was THE thing. Contractors back then typically made more money than full timers and if you did it right and were really good at it – it was one of the best jobs out there.  That being said, as all things go… there was a dark side. Another word for contractor was “Temp”, and that meant you could come and go at a moment’s notice and the company you worked for didn’t put too much thought into where you sat or about your long term morale. “Bring em in, work em hard, let em go” was far and away the typical situation.

At the company I worked for, we were in crunch and needed help. We decided we needed 10 contractors to come in, but where would we put them? We had a decent interior conference room, and decided to go with that. I’d say at best that room held 12 people in a normal meeting format, but when you brought in people they wanted their own space – so out with the big oval meeting table and in with 10 rectangular ones filling the circumference of the room. Interior conference room = no windows. A normal room anywhere is not designed to handle lots of computers so the room will eventually get very… warm. You can’t adjust the temp gauge of course because then all the other offices would get super cold. So, what you have is a room that’s too small, way too warm, and without natural light. We called it: the Room of Doom. That name had a double meaning of course, it wasn’t just because it was hot, smelly, and full of very grumpy people. It was also called that because at any moment if you weren’t doing a solid job – you got the boot with no notice and were replaced the next day.

So, here’s the story I remember the most from the Room of Doom. One of the contractors was getting more and more stressed out as each day went by, it was definitely noticed by everyone else in the room, but no one wanted to tell the management about it because they knew if they said anything – he’d be gone and they were all pretty close by that point.

But said contractor called them all together one afternoon and said the following words: “Ok everyone, I want to tell you all something because we’ve all become friends, and I wanted you all to know about it. I’m going to bring something to work tomorrow… and it’s going to scare everyone… a lot. I don’t want any of you to be scared though – because we’re all friends… but everyone else… well, they are going to be REALLY scared”. And then turned around and went back to work. 5 minutes later everyone in that room (except him) was in my office FREAKING OUT – telling me that he had to go right now and they really didn’t want him coming back into work tomorrow.

I called the contracting agency and told his recruiter about it. They immediately came over and asked if he would go get coffee together, once out of the building he was told not to come back. Mostly based on that event, we cleaned out the Room of Doom and hired everyone who was left full time (and I still work with a couple of them to this day).

The Trenches - Below the trenches

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Below the trenches

I never did get into game testing, not unless you include a few open betas where the game was pretty much finished and the test was really for checking server strength. I did get into one actual closed beta for a now-outdated sci-fi MMORPG, when it was buggy as anything but still looked like it would be awesome if they could just stop the game from constantly crashing. I still don’t count it, because it felt like the bug reports I sent in to the provided email address just fell off the face of the earth.

My real experience with the gaming industry happened in summer of Y2K, when I did temp work for Nintendo’s warehouse in Redmond, Washington. I had high hopes that somehow this would magically land me a “real” job testing video games.

What I actually ended up doing, for the most part, was testing used Nintendo 64 controllers to see if they could be bundled in a refurbished N64 set. I never found out what happened to the ones we put the little orange sticker on, the “failures”... perhaps they went out in the back dumpster, as they were surely a waste of time to fix.

The controller-testing job was nearly the most coveted option at the warehouse. The only job more desired was the one which required booting up a copy of Mario 64, running Mario through a set series of steps without actually moving more than a few feet into the game world, and then turning it off to check the next cartridge. I remember imagining that surely this was more fun than what I did, but in truth was probably just as boring.

The controller-testing program was a simple set of lines on the screen and indications for when to press which button or do what motion with the joystick. I learned the pattern quickly. It was technically boring as heck, but predictable and fairly easy. The cool part was, I got to sit on an assembly line with other people who were usually gamers, so we all tested controllers while yakking about our favorite games, movies, etc.

In the end, the job proved entirely too unstable, because I never knew if I was going to be needed from one day to the next. One day I was called in along with a few other temps only to wait around for a while and finally be told we weren’t needed.

Sometimes I would work for two weeks on a decent schedule. Sometimes it was one day after weeks of nothing. It was impossible to pay rent with hours like that, but my life took a drastic turn in another direction and I left that story far behind.

Tales From The Trenches has shown me that a real job in game testing would probably have destroyed what little was left of me. For those of you slogging away at it, my hat’s off to you. The glimpse I saw of the Nintendo temp underworld probably should have been a big hint to me that what I thought was real was not actually reality, but I wouldn’t figure it out until years later.

The most memorable part about that temp job? The yellow Pikachu Volkswagen New Bug with custom tail, ears, and paint detailing that was often parked in the warehouse. Still makes me smile to remember it.

The Trenches - Familiarity Breeds Contempt

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Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Never have I believed a set of words to ring so true.

It all started so fantastically, so innocently, an old school friend; practically a childhood friend, from the past extending an offer after a brief reconnection through social media, to join a group of independent developers to build games together. I had just begun to master the arts of the various areas of Games Design, from creation to development through programming and 3D modelling, beginning my formal education. I was so eager. So naive.

We hadn’t spoken since those years, but to me, everything seemed sincere enough.  I wholeheartedly agreed to join and work under my old friend. I began to lend my skills and advice. I created 3D models, gave ideas on game mechanics, and opinions. After a year of projects, we had nothing to show for it. That should have been the first warning sign to bail. Constant indecision plagued all decisions and no project lasted more than half a year, being sometimes built up to neigh completion then suddenly quashed simply because our leader changed his mind.

Things began to reach a high at the start of the new year however, when new talent was recruited, doubled, with two groups becoming one, leadership suddenly divided between two individuals. I should have hopped out then, looking back. It was a pure recipe for a bad ending. Sure enough, familiarity bred contempt, a little old phrase I’ve seen repeated many times, yet I feel I never understood it until then. I had become a familiar resource. I wasn’t to be replaced by people more skilled than me. I was to be replaced simply because I didn’t play the group politics as well as our new ‘co-leader’.  After a short opposition, I was ruthlessly dispatched.

The thing with working both in a working environment, is that if you’re working personally with people you’d consider friends outside of what you do, it’s going to come back to bite you. Every time. It burns into your soul, your passion, even more when things get personal.

After painstaking countless hours, working on projects, an entire year and a half of work and dedication, just one day, as we finally reached our latest goal, I was told to go. Bye. I don’t need you anymore, old chum.

Thankfully, I left with my all my personal work, my half-finished game, all else lost, but one thing I didn’t leave with was neither my pride nor my passion.

Nothing personal, I was told. One might ask what start-up Indie can afford to cast away a decent programmer and modeller so casually? One who asked for no reward and never questioned your leadership?

Of course it was personal.

I’d like to say this has built my resilience, only hardened and forged this young developer’s endurance and fortitude to succeed, to find some semblance of pride in rising above this, but this was the foulest dagger in the back.

Gone is that naive belief of an Indie developer’s honor, pure and untainted by the greed, coldness and necessity to make ends meet of the game making ‘business’ I’ve read off this very page. Even the smallest of mice are capable of disposing of you when there isn’t even a dollar at stake. Things get remarkably petty in development of games big and small.

Funnily enough, I will keep working, finish my project, and that old familiar plot of friends turned into the worst of rivals I once dismissed as so cliché, may just be the one truth in my future.

The Trenches - Week by Week

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Week by Week

I spent some time with a recent QA contracting position at a mobile game company.  Development schedules for mobile games can be a bit more erratic, so contracts can be shorter than your typical six month deal.  When I was initially hired, I signed a two month contract.  As the end of the contract loomed close, completion goals for our game had not been met and we weren’t launching on time, so they decided to extend the contract out a month.  This would be repeated once more until the project finally shipped two months late.  This was when the contract extensions got ridiculous.

After the game had shipped, production got word from on high that they would need several patches in the coming weeks, so staffing of the QA contractors became a week by week thing due to budget constraints.  My manager could not tell me on any given day of the week if I would be coming back the next Monday.  My hours were kept through an online site hosted by the contracting company, and on this site I could see when my contract was set to officially expire.

One week, my contract was set to expire on a Wednesday.  I had talked to my boss about making sure to either tell me I’m no longer working there, or to get that extended before I’m legally obligated to leave the office.  Sure enough, Thursday rolls around; I get on the site and notice my contract was not extended.  I figured my boss would have taken care of it since we spoke, but I found myself on Thursday morning working for free.

I decided to approach my boss and let him know that I’d be out of the office until he got the contract business sorted out.  He looked at me annoyed, and said, “Gahhhh, that’s right.  Look, you don’t have to leave.  You’ll get paid.  I just forgot to talk to the producer to confirm the extension.”  I stood my ground and told him in all good conscience, I couldn’t be there.  I walked out.

An hour later, I get a text from him (yes, a text), alerting me things had been worked out and to return to work.  I decided I would, since I needed to eat and pay rent that month.  This business went on for several months before I was finally let go on the last day of one of those weekly extensions (no warning before the day of).

The Trenches - QA Bug Detective

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QA Bug Detective

Dear Share Your Tale,

It is an ego thing. Hopes, dreams, expectations. Developers learn that the gaming industry isn’t what they expected. It’s all math calculations and deadlines from the higher ups. I used to want to be a QA for the gaming industry, but I’ve learned that QAing, the business as it is now, is just not right. Developers will ask if it’s in scope of the project: If not, bugger off.

It’s not different from the film industry. I’d know. I worked as an editor and a screenwriter: But I’ve found myself in the position of a QA for a survey company. It’s not gaming, but I still put in 12+ hours a day to do my best.

Every day I feel like I’m about to lose my job, I’m a single QA to a project that involves 10 developers. Every day is a regression test and THEN test the new add-on. (Automated testing is slowly being constructed) I was originally a contractor for the company, moved to a salary position. Not what I expected, my voice CRACKED when that happened.

Every company operates differently: You’ve got your usual industry standard that works off fear of people afraid to get fired. Then you’ve got the small fries of people who dropped out of college and wanted to hit their dreams running. Their inspiration will fuel those under them because they will always throw themselves in the trenches.

Our CEO still takes up customer support calls if we’re short on man-power, stays up late to help the development team to hit their 7 day deadline for a major release. The company’s belief is to put in over 100%. If a customer asks for something, we’ll give it to them and go steps further that’d take them off guard.

I’m the QA that checks out the stories to make sure the fixes work out and do not break anything else along the way.

We started adopting the “Open book” method, where people could voice their opinions anonymously. It backfires when there’s only 1 QA. I stood up and said “I’m proud of all the code you put out and how fast you guys react, but I will watch your back. You are proud of what you do, but as a QA, it’s my job to make sure it’s PERFECT. I’m psyched to see what you push out. BUT I will cover your mother f***ing a**es to make sure it’s perfect. You can shrug me off and say it’s out of scope, or you can gain the company’s respect with a 1 line code change. Your choice.”

QA and Development are in the same pot (even though off the books we’re two different groups), they do not realize this. Once we realize we’re in the same trenches, and both sides put aside their egos, we can push out the best products out there that the world will be psyched to see. The funny thing is this. Brand names are just that: Names. The developers and QA’s create the code and solidify it. Without it, they’re just names.

I’m now a QA to 10+ developers. When the developers learned we’re all on the same side, things got better. But it comes down to if they’re willing to listen. If they’re not, it’s better to look for people who are willing to. The war is won when the scout says “Tanks with support’s coming.” not with “We can take it with hand guns.”

Regretfully that gaming industry will always be filled with wide eyed youths who think the brand name will score them the dream they want to live, but for those who are thrown into the industry inside and outside of gaming, where a mistake can cost a company thousands of dollars in a day’s time, we’ve got to stick together and back off when the higher ups ask for unreasonable deadlines and expectations. If they expect us to fail, let them realize the fault of their ways. The best things come out of team work, not out of exploitation.

This is over 400 words, but I hope it’s a good read. It’s still just me: I still put in 8+ hours a day, but there’s something to it when you’re in the office with the CEO and the developers, for a 60+ employee company, still working late in the building with you. Laughing, joking, and trying to perfect the application that makes you feel appreciated. Sometimes the old system’s and BS needs to be torn down to make way for a better adaptable company. If you speak up and everyone turns their back on you, let them. Get to know those who share your vision.  Hard work is not handed to you on a silver platter, it’s done by support, friends, and team work.

I am a QA; and I am happy with the team I work with.

The Trenches - Serendipity for me, Sorry for you

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Serendipity for me, Sorry for you

I accepted a job that was supposed to be 40% customer service (because “everyone starts there” and “it gets you familiar with how our product works”) and 60% development work.  I was supposed to move up to full-time in the development team within a year (“or two, tops”). It was in the middle of the depression and jobs were scarce, so I took it. One nice thing, this job DID pay well.

Needless to say, the development side of things quickly disappeared, and I was working 100% customer service, with all the idiotic phone calls that entails. Still, the pay was good.

We’d been extremely shorthanded, but our company added an auxiliary location in a different US city so that if our phone system went down, we’d still have support up. The people they added doubled the size of our department, so we were starting to feel pretty good.

In early November, I flew out to spend time with my boyfriend, and came back super-excited because we got engaged that weekend. I planned to quit my job before too long and move out to join him after the wedding.

Two days later, each of the members in our local department got called in for meetings. Turns out, the auxiliary department wasn’t so auxiliary… they were going to take over our jobs, and our entire department was laid off, effective the end of the year.

I’m pretty sure the HR person who was trying to “break the news gently,” was a bit confused by my reaction, as I was actually ecstatic about being let go. Between the severance pay, my savings, and the unemployment compensation, I had enough funds to last until my wedding. (The other members of my team were not so lucky, but our boss let them take time off to make it to interviews for other jobs, some were hired before the end of the year.)

But since the layoff didn’t take effect for another 6 weeks, that also meant that we had to spend the next month and a half still working with (and training) our direct replacements. Who, by the way, had only worked for a couple of months and were scared stiff of taking over the entire department.

Did I mention we had ZERO documentation? Almost every issue was dealt with by personal familiarity with the quirks of the system, or by asking one of the senior members of the team how to handle it. And my team had all of that undocumented knowledge in their heads when they left the company. We did our best to help out the new guys, as it wasn’t their fault. But there is only so much you can do in that little time…

The last week, we let them handle everything on their own, to simulate what would happen when we left.

Poor, poor replacements….

The Trenches - Pure Incompetence

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Pure Incompetence

I have a ton of stories about mismanagement. Here’s a good introduction to the type of leadership my company has had for the last few years.

I work at a fairly well known game distributor.

The company was failing, so the board fired the exec team (founders), and hired a new crew to come in and clean up. The new CEO leaves within 2 months, so the COO gets bumped up to his position. To note: He and those brought in with him are from an internet services company that had layoffs, and we are a gaming company. He brings in more execs, with zero experience in this field, at 6 figure salaries (mostly people from his old company) while firing hundreds and shutting down offices worldwide.

So, in short, not a good time.

We have a Holiday Party at a bar shortly into his and his cronies tenure. This fucking guy stops the music and declares that it’s time to reward some of the people for their hard work. Fair enough, some of these people have watched good friends get laid off and many had been there for 5, 7, 12 years.

Each award he announces is to one of his cronies, and it’s basically some dumb certificate of excellence for “putting up with all the crap” and “fixing the mess we’ve inherited”. Nice slap in the face to everyone there.

Later that year, while wages are still frozen and layoffs are still going on, two of the new execs take an important client to dinner. Mind you, at the time we were having financial hardships that were causing payments to be made late to the clients.

So it’s these two execs and two “lower ranking” people that handle the day-to-day with the client, out at a bar with reps from the client.

The two execs get ragingly drunk and start talking about how whenever they’re upset they just “buy a new car” and they feel fucking excellent after. They even then suggest to the other two employees with them to “show the client a good time. “Tomorrow you should take them shopping at ‘x’”. “X” is one of the most expensive areas in the world to shop. The client and the employees there were mortified.

We soon took to calling our company business as “executive welfare”, as it became a place to hire execs with no experience (one even admits to never having worked in e-commerce . . .and he’s in charge of product development at our e-commerce company), give them huge salaries with guarantees in case we let them go (so we can’t let them go) while freezing wages and laying off everyone else.

The Trenches - Not everybody is a soulless asshole.

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Not everybody is a soulless asshole.

I’ve been in the “internet” industry for a while. Most of the problems that game testing run into are a sickening parallel here, however, I’ve not come into anything as bad as what happened to my wife once one of your precious games doesn’t come out exactly as you’d like.

Some gamers quickly become frothing, spiteful misogynists once their game waifu’s honor is slighted.

During a rough patch in my career (red tape surrounding a promised raise, par for the course, right?), she got a job to help make ends meet. She found a job working for EA’s Origin Account Support. EA made the onboarding process fairly smooth, worked with her around my schedule as to allow for ride-sharing, and the pay/benefits package wasn’t horrible based on the type of work she’d be doing. Training was sufficient, and her coworkers are mostly human. Everything was fine for the first month.

Then Mass Effect 3 came out.

I’m not going to exactly spoil it for those of you not privy to the story, but an important character dies. Fans were livid and they called. And called. And called.

Remember: she works for account support, a department that never gets ahold of writers, artists, coders, or decision makers.

Some asked for lukewarm things like refunds, credits and the like, but there are some of you that just can’t leave well enough alone. Personal attacks dealing with her gender (“Get a man on the phone, you won’t understand my complaint”), her moral compass being compromised based on her association with EA (“You’re actively ruining my hobby. You.”), death threats, and hour-long tirades picking apart the story (Think “Han Shot First” type rants) were her bread-and butter.

This is where EA could have easily come to the rescue for their employees, but all of us knowing EA, this should not come as a surprise. My wife’s manager told her team they are never, under any circumstances, allowed to end a customer call. The customer must hang up. Managers do not have the ability to override this, they say, which is bullshit. Every VoIP administration box can just shut a phone off.

She managed to get through a week on the floor after ME3’s release before she called me in tears, asking to leave her job.

To put her mental constitution into context, she did a tour in Iraq, and was honorably discharged on medical grounds (repetitive motion disorder).

It’s just a game, everybody. Calm the fuck down, and remember that whenever you need to call support for any reason, they are humans.

The Trenches - Too good to be true

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Too good to be true

I used to work as a QA member for one well-known video game company, famous for their huge number of shovelware subsidiaries in all parts of the world where labor is cheap and government is generous. We were at some point 14 people, testing this very short text adventure game on a cell phone. Of course, we ran out of work quite fast. Our superior, a guy from Mexico having a hard time speaking French (the main language around), English or even Spanish according to one of my colleague who was natively speaking Spanish, told us that we could play the Xbox 360 we had in some room.

Most of were pleased to be paid to actually have fun while playing games, so we did as we were told and enjoyed some gaming time. Later during the day, we were called for our weekly meeting with everybody from the QA team, our team leader and the top manager. When it was the turn of our superior to speak, he told us that we should never play Xbox 360 games during working hours.

Everybody was staring at him, speechless. My answer was something like “But you are the one who told us we could play since we were out of work, you %$&* retard!” His answer was “Yes, but it’s not a good idea.” The top manager, not caring at all, changed the topic. I wasn’t fired until 3 years later, when the money they got from the government ran out.

The Trenches - I am in mourning.

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I am in mourning.

I believe that I have outlived the NDAs.

I am a former employee of THQ’s testing department.  I was employed for a little less than a year, because their contracted time for Testers is 1 year max and then you are either fired and never rehired, or hired on as one of the strictly limited number of salaried employees.  Not as good as it sounds because you are not paid for overtime.

I worked on Company of Heroes, which apparently was originally slated to be named Band of Brothers, but someone beat us to it.  It was a game designed to exist as a Multiplayer game, and single player was an afterthought.  I spent my first 5 months playing two levels of that game and nothing but.  Levels that could be completed with your eyes closed, where you set some things in motion and wait for a count down timer.  I had to intentionally lose the levels to see if they had proper losing conditions.

At the end of the testing cycle, we received free special edition copies of the finalized game in thanks for our hard work… from the Developers.  THQ didn’t think we deserved a wrap celebration.

I worked on Titan Quest’s expansion pack.  I had my mouse button held down all day, every day.  My right hand felt like it was going to fall off after the first week, but my time on the game lasted far longer.

We were only meant to test the expanded area of the game, anything found wrong in the part originally shipped, those bugs didn’t matter. That might make it sound like it was less work, but in reality it meant we spent most of our time GETTING to the areas we had to test.

It was horribly aggravating because the Diablo 2 rip off missed the one thing that gave the Diablo series any longevity and appeal. Titan’s Quest did not have randomized maps.  And so, I played that game a few hundred times, knowing where every monster and quest item was.  No surprises, rare bugs because it was an established set of code and mostly stable.

Titan’s Quest was a dark point in my life.

During a testing cycle, my table cluster of testing comrades were put under the leadership of a person being “groomed” for more responsibilities.  He was the most worthless leader one could imagine. His one and only idea for our team in the multiplayer we were testing was to do the exact same test the other table of guys were doing.  He was frightened of leadership, had no originality, and didn’t know what power was for or how to use it.  I can only imagine high octane hallucinogens or nepotism was involved in the decision to “groom” him. His worst feature though?  The smell.  Like a diseased mule.

I was put on Dawn of War: Dark Crusade.  The most fun I had in the company, as I was a fan of the Tabletop edition.  Dawn of War was the high point of my time, despite the hours.

It was on Dawn of War that I nailed my record work week.  Eighty Four hours in one week.  it would have been more, but management decided to send everyone home on Sunday morning to save on the double overtime. I worked so hard I forgot my apartment had a purpose other than “Food” and “Sleep.”  On my rare day off, I stood in my apartment looking blankly at the four walls and wondering what I was suppose to do.

There’s no work!  What am I suppose to do with this time I have? Wait, was there something called “leisure” once?

It would take hours for me to remember there were non-broken games in my apartment to play.

As a tester, I was sealed in a dark room with 200 other people.  I was undervalued, under appreciated, and never trusted.  The “real” employees objected to sharing the same lunch hour as us testers.  The management decided that testing on holidays was as mandatory as Monday - Friday, and there would be no overtime in exchange for being deprived of our families and recreation.

All the people that worked with us, interacted with us, were wonderful and felt our pain.  They were not management though.  In my time at THQ the management were infected with infighting little childish stoats who misused precious projects and funding to undercut each other and felt Testing was a job anyone off the street could do well and treated us like disposable light bulbs.  Left working all day, thrown out, and replaced constantly.

But I loved working for THQ.  The people, the projects, my bosses, my co-workers.  It was wonderful.  I was making dreams take shape and ensuring that people could spend their precious days having fun.

While I will never be able to forget the bad times, what I will always remember are the good times.

Over the years since I was terminated, I have followed THQ’s successes and failures.  It hurt when they released lackluster titles.  I rejoiced when they had rousing successes.  I was inspired when they finally got that guy from Naughty Dog to take over the Presidency, because I instinctively knew THQ was in trouble and felt that if anyone could save them it was him.

But my hope failed.  THQ was too entrenched in the mistakes of the past that it could not reach daylight.  When I read that article online about THQ’s final demise I couldn’t breathe.  The finality of it made me feel like a friend of mine had just died.

It still hurts.  Throbbing in the background when I dwell upon the fate of a company that gave dreams to so many people.  A company that misused me horribly but let me make a difference in the lives of so many gamers, in the lives of so many dreamers.

A dream has died.

And I mourn its passing.

The Trenches - Calling in Dead

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Calling in Dead

Years ago I was the QA Manager working on a turn based strategy role playing game. We were in the alpha stage and were really starting to see how the game would play and feel. The team grew more very excited as more elements of the game were implemented.  We knew we had a hit on our hands.

One Monday morning Mark, one of the testers, about 19 years old, calls me to let me know he could not come to work. He had explained that he and his D&D guild were gaming the night before and were up pretty late. I attempted to be understanding and continued to listen to his pathetic attempt at trying to sound sick. I was not buying it. Maybe he knew. He continued. He told me about the one character that he had had for years and how he had grown very proud of his high level chaotic good paladin. Last nights gaming session had taken a very bad turn for the worse for poor Mark. In an intense battle his paladin had managed to heal everyone else but not himself. Sadly, he had died.

Mark was clearly very distraught and upset by this and needed to take a day to mourn the loss of the once great paladin. At least the paladin managed to score with the ladies once in the tavern thanks to the correct rolling of the 78 sided dice! (or however many sides it had… I digress.)

I let Mark know that he could take all the time he needed and his services were no longer needed.

The Trenches - Rebel Assault on my childhood…(It’s a trap!)

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Rebel Assault on my childhood…(It’s a trap!)

When I was in grade school, my dad worked in Sales & Marketing for one of the world’s largest software publishers. He worked on promoting a number of titles for a legendary space adventure franchise, and as I was a huge fan of the franchise, he usually got me early releases and beta builds of some great franchise games.

Eventually, someone from the developer got wind of this, and decided they wanted some feedback from my gameplay sessions. Apparently, they hadn’t been able to get actual player feedback from anyone younger than 18 years old.

My dad saw an opportunity to strengthen a business relationship, and I was game for it, so we started doing some recorded feedback sessions on cassette tape after I would play for a few hours. Things intensified as they tried to use more sessions with me as a substitute for having sessions with multiple people. I wasn’t enjoying replaying some of the games, and I could only play the games when he was able to record my feedback afterward.

It got to where my dad could tell I wasn’t having fun anymore, and he told the developer we wouldn’t be able to provide feedback anymore. The “damage” had been done, though.

When these games all came out at retail, all my friends snatched them up, and I found myself stuck watching people play the games I had spent far too much time with already. A few of my friends noticed that I had an almost preternatural understanding of game missions, cheat codes, etc, and they pumped me for as “help” as they could.

In all seriousness, it was years before I was able to play video games with friends again. That’s why you’ll never catch me beta testing anything—ever again.

The Trenches - Falling on deaf ears

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Falling on deaf ears

I have many Tales to choose from, but I’ll stick with the one that almost got me fired.

I got a job at a retail electronics store, let’s call it “Buy More,” with high aspirations of helping people buy games and using my knowledge.

Despite being awesome at selling games and having said knowledge, I got transferred to the Merchandising/Inventory Department because I quote, “Went on vacation.”  Nevermind that I put in for it well before the mandatory 18 day requirement, or that it was to see my brother graduate college in another state.

So now I have to stay late to unload trucks, and get in early to put stuff away. Fine, but at least now I didn’t have to interact with most of the customers and managers (I got jaded fast). There was a nice rhythm to it, you could wear headphones and plug away until all the shelves were full and the pegs were stocked.

Of course, if you didn’t hear someone talking to you, that could be bad…

I got called into the manager’s office one day. My manager and immediate supervisor were there, paperwork in hand, ready to write me up for insubordination. I had no clue what’s going on.

Apparently, earlier that week while I was keeping busy restocking the shelves my supervisor had called out to me, trying to get my attention. I did not answer because I had earbuds in, and walked away.

While most people would have just walked up, asked in person “Hey you need to be able to hear me, could you go do this other thing,” they decided to have a sit down, and talk about how it COULD have been PERCEIVED that I was being insubordinate.

That’s right, I almost got written up not because I was, and not because someone else saw this happen, but on the off chance that someone was watching and made the mental leap that I was sticking it to the man by ignoring him.

The real kicker, and part that made it hard to keep a straight face in the sit-down?

My supervisor was deaf in one ear. Every day someone tried to get his attention and he’d keep walking.

The Trenches - The Invisible God

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The Invisible God

Years ago we dropped out of college and started a game company.  We set deadlines for our first release and hit them more or less.  The game was a moderate success.  Excited by our success our publisher secured a license to the alpha code for the DOOM engine before anyone else and convinced us to write a shooter with it.  Never mind that we weren’t really interested in shooters or had no experience with shooters.  Sure we could do it!  To make matters worse the engine was dated and we had to beat a major studio with a triple A title to market for our venture to be profitable.

Keep in mind we were just two guys working out of my friend’s parents’ house.  Did I mention we were only getting 3000 a month to develop this thing?  Our publisher chose a release date and the grind began.

To any sane person it would have been obvious our goal was impossible. We had no real budget.  We were only two guys (four by the end).  The engine was buggy.  It was incomplete.  It was clearly an unfinished experiment, rather than an actual game engine.  Our initial milestones came and went.  The publisher ratcheted up the pressure.  We were young and stupid and refused to admit to reality so we soldiered on. In reaction to the mounting pressure we worked longer and longer hours.  Eventually we stopped sleeping altogether. Caffeine made this possible.

High doses of caffeine make you strange.  Anyone in the game biz can attest to this.  We’ve all spent weeks or months at a time overdosing daily on the stuff to keep the wheels of the industry turning.  40 hour days are not uncommon.  After doing this for a couple of months we started noticing something.  In the wee hours of the night when one of us was alone we kept thinking there was someone else in the room.

At first we thought it was one of the other developers.  It soon became clear however that it was an imaginary presence brought on by the paranoia from the caffeine.  It was very unsettling.  But then we got used to it.  And eventually began to talk to it.  We would ask it questions.  We’d ask it to look at this or that thing as we completed parts of the game.  Toward the end we were leaving it offerings of food and drink - usually pizza and mountain dew.  Religions start this way.

The game was finally released.  A year late.  The buzz around the engine was gone.  Our savings were gone.  Our patience was gone.  At least the game was finished.  It was over.  We released a commercial game on a budget of only 30,000 dollars in 24 months that was intended to compete with Duke Nuke ‘em.  It was an abysmal failure. When it was all over and I was finally able to stop drinking so much caffeine I felt a profound sense of lost.  Not only had our dream of starting a successful game company been shattered but the presence was gone.  Our long time invisible friend had vanished.

The Trenches - I’m Team Rocket

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I’m Team Rocket

I work at a games retailer.  Sure I’ve got some horror stories involving demanding managers, annoying children and irate customers (there was a lady who told me that “This would never happen in the horsing business” whatever that means) but this story is about the perks.

I get to talk about video games all day, and I get a small percentage off my games, but the best part… I steal Pokémon. 

Whenever a new Pokémon cartridge comes in as a trade, I’ll start it up and take a look at what monsters were left behind.  Some legendaries on one cart, some of the rarer ones on another.  Sometimes I even get event Pokes.

I’ve completed the dex entirely by taking Pokémon from traded games.

It’s a pretty good gig.

The Trenches - The Committee

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The Committee

My horror tale comes from an overall positive experience. I was hired into a big-name company with a huge batch of testers. The QA department would fluctuate from 100 to 500 of us at a time depending on how busy the launch schedule was, so they were known for having a pretty high turnover rate as people left for more stable jobs.

However, they seemed to like me well enough, keeping me for the entirety of the time that they could. Along with a number of other regulars, I was noted for my interest in baking, and asked to join a group that would cook for the entire department on special occasions and organize baking events.

We were all informed that the company would be able to scrounge up enough money to partially refund us for some of our baking expenses—after all, we would be cooking for a few hundred hungry testers and leads. That was all well and good. It was when we started talking about competitions that things turned sour. We got to talking about prizes, and that was when the department manager explained to us that the company could not give any prizes or recognition to testers.

We were just contractors, so if word got out to folks who REALLY worked for the company that we were getting any cool swag, they might get jealous.

We could eat at the company cafe, get discounts at the company store, devote our personal time to making awesome food to share with our fellow testers and company higher-ups, but a pat on the back and a T-shirt would ruffle too many feathers.

Now I work for a tiny local game company. An appreciative customer sent us a box of homemade cheddar biscuits for Christmas. The whole team got to eat them. Even me, the tester.

The Trenches - Fudgin’ Football

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Fudgin’ Football

Once, many years ago, I was a game tester for this small company in Ukraine that was working on a football game. An American football game, so I have no idea how it works. We were paid shit, but we could live with about $12K a year. As part of the training, they made us kick a real ball several times.

We had to kick it, like 8 times. It was awful.

Testing the game was okay, though.

The Trenches - Pizza! Pizza. Pizza? Pizza?! Pizza!?!?!

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Pizza! Pizza. Pizza? Pizza?! Pizza!?!?!

I worked for about a year and a half as a tester for a major American game publisher. A particular project I worked on was a comic-book licensed action RPG for the PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube generation of consoles.

The project went into overtime around the second week and stayed there for two or three months, I can’t remember exactly.

During long overtime projects, ordering dinner and often lunch for the team is a standard courtesy, and is also a time saver for management because getting food brought in makes confining the time spent away from desks working easier.

The first night of overtime, around 6pm, we were told we we’re being served pizza. Hooray! Free pizza! Score! Nom nom nom nom nom…

The second night of overtime, we were told we were being served pizza. Hmm, twice in a row? Oh well, I love pizza, and besides, who am I too complain? Nom nom nom…

The third night of overtime, we were told we were being served pizza. Wait, they aren’t going to feed us pizza every night are they? I mean, we aren’t livestock, they can’t just fill a slop bucket with the same thing every day and expect us to be happy about it. Well hell, I only make 9.50 an hour, I can’t really turn down a free meal can I? Nom nom…

The fourth night of overtime we were told we were being served pizza. Oh dear. Anyone know where he nearest grocery store is? That far huh? Do I have time to go to subway? Not really? Fuck. Nom…

The fifth night of overtime, I came into work with terrible heartburn and a bad case of the runs. The entire work area for our team smelled like three-cheese-blend-and-pepperoni farts… And, we were told we were being served pizza.

Restroom break boss? Nah… I’ll pass on the pizza tonight, thanks.

The next week, the overtime got longer. And they started feeding us lunch as well as dinner.

It was pizza.

The Trenches - 5% Too Easy

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5% Too Easy

I am an indie developer of mobile games with a couple of very obscure titles released.

A year and a half ago I was working on my first game. Given my extremely limited resources, I had to resort to friends to do free Q&A for me. My first tester found the game was way too easy, so over the development of the project one of the largest priorities was to increase the difficulty of the game. I kept trying to make things harder on a nearly daily basis but I kept getting the same feedback: too easy.

Eventually I got another friend on board to test. This second tester found the entire game was too hard, impossibly hard very often. Both testers were rather equally skilled so this didn’t compute. Can it be the first tester was just getting too good too fast? I proceeded to add some logging to the game that would email me reports on player failure rates and had them both test it all again.

Again, the first tester insisted the game was too easy while the new tester said it was too hard. I looked at the report: both had about a 5% success rate on average across all tested levels and the first tester never managed to 3-star a single level. I came to conclude the first tester was simply refusing to acknowledge he sucked at a game, much less one programmed by a friend…

I spent the next month attempting to reverse the difficulty slope, not an easy thing when you are a master at the system and every tester got used to the higher difficulty settings of the early beta. The point came I was forced to release with a still too difficult curve to an unaccepting casual market. Post launch updates to lower difficulty further were too late to help me.

Lesson learned: Anecdotes are a horrible way to balance difficulty. Don’t trust expert gamers on that: just data mine their success rate and work from that data… hopefully the data mining process won’t have bugs, though…

The Trenches - “I could have this done in 5 minutes”

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“I could have this done in 5 minutes”

Not a tester but a writer of web software. Da Boss had a habit of telling us we were taking too long on something he could write in 5 minutes. Never mind that we were working on a project with poorly defined goals, no hard dates, no planning and two of the three people are either brand new or not trained in CS work.

One day we are informed that in 10 days there will be a demo for the company that is contracting us for the work I’m doing. I take this to mean “Have something that kinda sorta works.” The boss takes this to mean “Have a beautiful website prepared with plenty of buttons for me to talk about.” None of this is communicated to my team.

The weekend before the Monday Demo he decides the whole thing needs to be rebuilt from scratch. And so, he sits down himself to completely overhaul the interface, then sends a frantic email promising double pay to help him get it out the door. A number of the devs on other projects help out and we get it done. I pass out at 11:30 and the demo goes quite well.

We never saw the double pay. It took me the next month to unwind and rewrite all of the code that was written in that time period.

Later on a different aspect of our products, we were requested to create an update:
-  At 5 PM
-  On a Friday
-  With no testing
-  With the lead dev called in sick
-  Without any code review
-  Without any documentation internally or externally
-  Before half the development team leaves on a week-long business trip.

I heard later in the week that this update was very rapidly followed by 3 more updates.

I left that company with less than stellar memories and never looked back.

The Trenches - Game Translations

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Game Translations

I have worked in a publishing company based in Asia for about a year now. The company purchases games made in a particular foreign language, and we translate everything to English so it can be released in the US. We had almost no contact with the developers, and a minuscule amount of time to familiarize ourselves with the game beforehand.

The overall process ran like this: the ops team gave us a huge list of raw terms (in one big excel document), we translate it, and it is sent to a branch in the US for proofreading before release. Sounds simple, right?

Try to imagine an excel cell with a random gaming term, like “bag”, or “backpack”. Now all the excel sheets were labelled as “UI Text”, “Quests”, “Dialogue”, and so on, but that’s it. You have no idea where the word appears in the entire UI. You cannot imagine if it’s a tooltip or a name or a title or whatever. Simple terms were alright, but when it got to phrases such as “Click to close window”, which can appear anywhere in any form, you begin to find problems like titles being 3 paragraphs long and tooltips which were summarized into 3 words.

The developers, it seemed, did not design the UI with English in mind. In the original, monosyllabic language, you can express a great deal with 5 characters. Any longer, and it would extend beyond the space designated. We had to find ways and means of expressing nearly every game function, currency, consumable resource, and so on, in words of 4 letters or less.

After we got everything sorted out, it was sent to the proofreaders, who promptly undid everything up by insisting that Americans liked “Marie” more than “Mary’, and “Coupons” somehow sounded better than “Vouchers”. Basically, they used Thesaurus to change our work and passed it off as good editing. When we confronted the HQ with this problem, we were told to carry on with the translations, because “the players won’t give a damn”.

This all meant wild inconsistencies with the entire translation. It’s still not sorted out till this day. Worst of all, because we took about 3 months to scrape out something barely suitable for release, the company decided the translation team is too slow, and outsourced the next few games.

The Trenches - Don’t ever complain

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Don’t ever complain

You know what’s really the worst thing about working in QA?  Even worse than the low wages, the glass ceilings, the monotonous work?

It’s the constant, fundamental lack of respect that anyone outside the games industry - and many inside the games industry - has for your career.

Can’t make a bachelor party because of crunch?  “But you just work in video games.  Can’t you just take the weekend off?” Have to go to bed early, so you need your roommates’ guests to quiet down? “But you get paid to play video games all day.  You’re just going to sit here in the living room in your pajamas and play Xbox anyway.”

Complain about your lack of career growth? “But you play video games all day.  What do you expect?”

Complain about your wages?  “Person X has it worse than you, so what are you complaining about? You should be glad to have a job at all, much less this frivolous of one.”

We all work in video games because we all have a deep, almost pathological desire to be fundamentally connected to a hobby that we obsess about.  And for many of us, working in QA is a means to an end. We don’t have the worst job in the world, not by far.  But let me tell you, to come so close to your dreams, to get IN the industry, to be finally in! But then to be constantly gated from where you actually truly want to go, be it Art, Design, or Production… it’s infuriating.  To be constantly questioned in your career and life choices, everywhere you go.  To be told again and again, “Stop being a baby, you have it so good!”

And yet we keep slogging on.  Keep hoping for that day that maybe something will fall through, or maybe with just another title under my belt I’ll have a good enough resume to apply somewhere better… we’re always chasing our true Dream.  And for many of us, no matter how hard we try, no matter how long we work, we’re no closer than we were years ago.

The Trenches - Good intentions.

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Good intentions.

As with a few other readers on here, I worked for a company whose name includes the letters “Gamestop.”

I’ve always been taught, “Do right by the customer” to the best of my ability. If I can make a good sale and keep the customer coming back, go for it. After I had transferred to an newly opened store as a keyholder, I had a customer come in who wanted to buy a 3DSXL and a pre-owned game. A $250 transaction, but he was a couple dollars short. Being the nice guy that I try to be, I told him I’d use my power up card (paid for by me through the year) to cover the couple bucks he was short.. Didn’t even care about the points. I was a gamer helping a gamer.

Being a new store, we had our Regional Loss Prevention Manager come in and review us all. I was pulled into the office and given a chance to confess my sins after a long winded speech about what’s considered stealing. I brought up that circumstance and one other getting a friend I was with off hours a $3 discount on a game. All in all less than $10 in difference. He brought out two other receipts which had $0 impact, made me write a personal confession (which was in my own words that he gave me). After discussion outside with the DM, they decided to suspend me while my case was reviewed, as the discounts were considered stealing from the store. The next day, after tracking down the DM via phone, I was informed (over the phone) that I was fired, two weeks before Christmas.

I have nothing against the stores I worked at. They continue to be great places. I know I was technically in the wrong, but it saddens me when trying to help someone out can get you in the corporate hot seat.

The Trenches - It’s not what you know…

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It’s not what you know…

I graduated from a four year, well known college many years ago with a degree that could easily have put me into a coding position (not computer science however).

The job I ended up taking was that of a tester because it’s the only offer I got. I did that for 5 years, all while studying and trying my best to move into development for the project I was working on.

My co-workers knew I could code. The developers knew I could code. The managers… well, lets just say they have the impression that testers are testers and don’t know a damned thing about coding. It was never going to happen. Testing is a black hole. Once you’re in, your skills will not help you escape. I interviewed with companies that told me “Sorry, we can’t hire you as a developer because you’re a tester.” THAT was their reason.

If you want to be a developer, don’t take a testing position and think it will be your way in.

With that said. If you do become a tester because you have to, make sure you are nice to the developers. Make sure they know what your goal is. Make sure they like you. Because those connections will help you. I am currently a developer (and well paid for it). Those developer friends I made on my project eventually went to a new company, one of them as the lead and in charge of picking his team. He hired me on as a dev.

Because this industry is not about WHAT you know… it’s about WHO you know.

The Trenches - Software Testing 101

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Software Testing 101

Some years ago when I was new to the trade, I got involved with a small company that created multiplayer casual board games. These games were basically being mass-produced with only a slight modification to certain game-rule related methods and the GUI (according to best OO-practice), but, since the “real” programmers were relatively expensive, the actual testing got delegated to the employee with the least experience and lowest per-hour cost to the company (moi, of course).

What can I say; I was new, eager to start coding and got shafted with a dull testing job. These programs didn’t even have AIs yet so every move had to be done manually, quite a chore for a 4-player game. It took me about half a day of clicking through more-or-less working games until I came up with the ingenious idea to program my own AI, I even dubbed him “Artificial Idiot” due to the absolute basic, patch-work code that made up his decision making process.

At first I was ecstatic, not only was my AI testing games for me, but my boss took note of my initiative and redefined my assignment; now I was to not only report the bugs, but also to check the code and propose possible modifications… Which was when I made a huge discovery; while the games played well, they all had a problem with the final few moves. Whenever a player was close to winning, the whole thing would just freeze and not accept any user input whatsoever, no error message, nothing. This was a major chance for me, if I could prove that the original design had a fault and maybe even find a way to correct it, then maybe I could get net some “real” work. Or so I thought.

After one frustrated night of searching for bugs, fueled on caffeine and ambition, I finally found the mistake… The original programming was just fine; it was my AI that, at a certain point, would keep repeating the same command. The game itself, as it should, rejected the illegal move and asked for a new one. So, ironically, instead of saving time I ended up creating something that made me do exactly the opposite.

Now who’s the idiot?

The Trenches - The Big Retail Score

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The Big Retail Score

I ran an independent game store in a mid-size town and was doing fairly well.  We opened up with an imported N64 (the first in town); we rented out a Neo Geo CD system; we had arcade machines along the back wall, and we just happened to be at our peak when Final Fantasy VII came out.

Now we had a long history of selling Final Fantasy games, we had a serious core customer group who relied on us for their RPG fix.  FFVII was going to be massive, and we had dollar signs in our eyes when we placed our pre-order for 125 copies.  This was the biggest order for a single game we ever placed, by far.

We were stunned when, in an industry where ordering 20 means you get four, we got our entire order.  One hundred and twenty five copies, it was a huge deal for us.  We had pre-orders for everyone, and a waiting list as well.  And at twelve dollars profit per copy, we were expecting a pretty decent week.

And then Wal Mart dropped the retail price to below our cost.  We sold 125 copies of the game at a dollar loss, then cleaned out Wal Mart and sold 40 more with the slimmest of profit, matching the other big retailers.  The biggest game launch in our four year history, and we didn’t even make fifty bucks.

The Trenches - We ran out of room for…

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We ran out of room for…

The first job I had in the video game industry was as a tester for a shovelware company making Bratz games on the GBA and DS. The job wasn’t stressful, mainly because I could crank out bug reports faster than they could fix them, leaving me with ample time to do whatever I pleased.

For the most part, it was just going to be another crappy game that a misaimed audience would buy. However, toward the end of the game’s development, I saw a darker side of the industry. Apparently, in order to make the game easier to translate for foreign markets, it would have to cut out a third of the text in the game.

Since the game was now being rewritten, the plot became incoherent in addition to just bad, minigames had the bare minimum of instructions, and the only reason I knew how to progress was because I had done it all before the rewrite.

The Trenches - Tech support in the restaurant industry

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Tech support in the restaurant industry

This isn’t really about games at all, but I feel the pain of the stories I read on here as a tech support “specialist.”

First off, I am the only one at my company that supports the software we carry for restaurants, so it’s a little stressful, especially during the holidays. My wife is very upset because we basically can’t go anywhere or do anything as a couple without it being a giant hassle.

Now, on Christmas Eve I got a call from a rather large restaurant chain that uses our software and proceeded to get bitched out by the operations manager for her own screw up. She had told me that she called my boss twice the last two days and he had not responded to her calls for what she called an emergency.

The thing about that is that an emergency, according to my boss, is anything that stops you from doing business.

This was not an emergency. The thing to remember is that she has my number. She has my 24/7 emergency cell number that we give everyone, so she really had no excuse, but here I was getting yelled at because she can’t use a phone properly to contact the only guy that could fix her problem. So she is having a very small problem where a swipe card reader is not working on one of her terminals. So her employees can still use it without a swipe card but that would be too complicated. Never mind that this terminal is in a very bad spot in the place to begin with, so it’s not great for the servers to use. They have other terminals in far more convenient places throughout the store. But she insists I walk her manager through what we can do to fix it.

This issue is easily corrected by unplugging the only USB cable and plugging it back in. THE ONLY USB cable on the whole machine, which is very easy to access. So somehow she powers down the whole terminal while doing this and at this point becomes very unwilling to even look for the power button to try and turn it back on. So I get her to hand the phone back to the operations manager and explain to her the issue and instead of getting someone to try and turn it back on she demands I come fix it myself. I explain to her that this does not constitute an emergency and she can wait until after Christmas for this to get fixed.

She says we will see about that and calls my boss. So now I’m talking to my boss after and he asks me why I have been ignoring her for two days and I told him it was because she called him not me for service on the weekend before Christmas.

Awkward Silence.

“She hasn’t called me” he says

“Well that’s what she told me”

“Let me call my voice mail box at the office.”

Minutes later he tells me she left two voice mails on his office line on the weekend and thought she would get service this way. Then he says I have to go down and deal with it.

So bad management is apparently a wide spread epidemic, and I don’t understand how it hasn’t crippled the business world.

Also, who opens on Christmas day? This place did.

The Trenches - Employees Only!

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Employees Only!

I work as a contractor in software design for one of the Silicon Valley companies that got started by a couple of guys in a garage and eventually became a huge monolithic multinational corporation that loses more money in a hour than most of us will ever see in a lifetime. And no, it’s not one of the newer garage companies you might be thinking of; it’s the one that built the expensive calculator you’ve had buried in a box in the closet since college, at least one of the printers you’ve owned and possibly the PC you’re reading this on.

A week or so after Thanksgiving break, posters proclaiming the “IT Holiday Potluck Lunch” were hung throughout the floor with accompanying sign-up sheets in the break area. Longtime employees began buzzing about the spread the company brought in as well as the sweet prizes that would be raffled off with one ticket for each toy donated.

A few days before the big day I dutifully signed up to bring in a dish and bought a small toy to donate; part of being a contractor in the Valley is a desperate desire to belong so we’re suckers for any remotely team like activity.

Then the day before the shindig, signs much less elaborate than the original posters began popping up with “Potluck is for __ Employees Only”.

“Surely they must be speaking of uninvited guests,” I thought aloud. “Nope,” one of the older contractors laughingly told me, “No contractors allowed; we get paid to work not to party! “

The next day as several hundred laughing and smiling “employees” lined up for a 2 hour party with loud music, food, games and sweet prizes, long faced contractors packed up their laptops and other belongings in preparation for their search for alternate work spaces away from the Holiday cheer. Merry Christmas!

The Trenches - One Does Not Simply Walk into Bugfixes

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One Does Not Simply Walk into Bugfixes

Most everything gets tested, including the panels that make buttons work. We had automated reports for these panels created on a daily basis.

One week, those reports stopped. And so our hero’s quest begins…

Day 1: Log in to the faulty reporting server. Clean, except for a single folder filled with reports. I check the logs, and find something that’s been connecting over FTP once a day. Looks like a UNIX box. No problem. I’m rusty, but no problem.

Days 2-4: Log in to the UNIX box, and find what I was looking for. Except…the files are retrieved via FTP from another box from an old network segment.

Unknown host.

To make a long story short—that network segment had been gutted the week before due to age and politics, and everything had been thrown away—literally.


The order at this point, was to “fix it”, and, “No, we’re not rebuilding the network just for you, no matter how important [X]‘s reports are.” There goes my easy solution.

Day 5: Having run out of leads, I march out to the testing machine, and I open it up. I’m not sure what I’m looking for. What do I see inside? An HP-9000 machine from 1986. Numbers grinding away in monochrome green. My heart sank. It still displayed messages that it was connecting to the hostname I was looking for, and was copying files, though! Where??? How???

I pulled the box out so I could see its network connection. Again—my heart sank. An IEEE-488 connector, and hanging off it was a standard 4-wire telephone cable, of which two of the wires were soldered directly to two leads. No connector or anything—just wires and solder.

Days 6-12: Monday again. I think—“If it’s soldered on that end, maybe it’s soldered on the other end, too?” Crazy logic. No one else offered suggestions, so I spent days crawling through rafters, networking closets, false ceilings, and raised floors.

I found my prize, though—it had been sitting in our data center all along. A VAX—as big as a dorm fridge, and in the same shade of beige as my HP-9000 friend at the other end of the facility. It was in the back corner of the room, buried under boxes filled with old manuals and trash. And yup—that phone line was soldered to a corresponding IEEE-488 on the box, too. Amazing.

The rest of my tale—gaining access to the VAX, hooking it up back to the network, and having to learn enough FORTRAN to fix the real problem, is another story altogether.

Oh, and to stay in line with the rest of these stories, I was laid off six months later.

The Trenches - You got H.R.‘d

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You got H.R.‘d

This is in response to ‘Miscommunication’.

I had been with my company for over five years, getting positive, albeit not spectacular annual reviews.  The project I was working on lost a large follow on contract, due to circumstances outside my company’s control.  Everyone knew that layoffs were a possibility, but the company was scrambling to find places to put people.

I was told that I was wanted on a small effort, so don’t sweat it. Well, the small effort hit the end of its funding before I could move on to it and was awaiting more money.  I was then called into my manager’s office to get my final review.  As with ‘Miscommunication’, they were all easily addressable, if I’d been told they were that much of a problem.

The funding for the small project came through, and I, with morale shaken, continued with the company.

I have since learned, that HR was demanding that everyone who was scheduled to be laid off had to have a negative performance review, so that it could be shown they were laid off ‘for cause’.  A friend of mine who was a manager at that time had been asked to resurrect a negative review he had written for a subordinate, which had originally been replaced by a much more positive review.

So, to the author of ‘Miscommunication’, the ‘shrug’ that you got probably meant, ‘I like you a lot, and recommended hiring you on permanently, but corporate said that when this project ends we have no permanent jobs open.  They were sitting on your review, and rejecting it over and over again, until we wrote one that would cover their asses when it came time to lay everyone off.”

So, cheer up!  You probably were doing a great job, if not fantastic (which, due to the whole ‘verbal contract” b.s. you couldn’t have been told).  At the end of the day, you got H.R.‘d.

The Trenches - Who Hired Whom Trumps Who Does What

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Who Hired Whom Trumps Who Does What

This true tale may help you avoid a trap, even though it comes from outside the game industry.

One day, I noted to My New Boss that the New Web Guy refused to test on browsers other than IE. His logic was that it was the standard so that should be enough. My logic was that we needed to satisfy customers wherever they were, and many were shifting to other browsers. My New Bosses’ logic was that she had hired him and therefore I was questioning her judgment. Which I suppose may have been true but at the time considered irrelevant. Silly me!

After a few months of this sort of thing (many, many issues all coming down to the same basic problem: New Web Guy didn’t really care about serving our customers) I escalated to the Big Boss. My strategic error was in not noticing that the Big Boss had hired My New Boss from a failing organization where they had both worked (...and, in retrospect, possibly contributed to its failure…). In a few words, they were pals.

And soon I was unemployed.

It all turned out well for me but I believe that the 1st lesson of retaining a job until you depart on your schedule instead of someone else’s is to note carefully who is pals with whom.

The Trenches - Hard Lessons

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Hard Lessons

Upon graduating college close to a decade ago, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. My degree wasn’t one that tied itself closely to any particular (sustainable) career path.  I ended up spending about half of my twenties just sort of stumbling around, trying to find my professional footing.

About a year and a half after I graduated, I managed to find work as a game tester for a larger company in the Seattle area through a temp agency.  I worked assignments there off and on as they came, filling in what time I could with side assignments doing menial office work. Eventually, I took on assignments at some other area-based developers and publishers of various sizes.  Over the course of that time, I built some bridges and burned some others, mostly through my attempts at navigating a professional life I was forced to learn as I went.

After about three years of this cycle, the temp agency set me up with what I thought was a possible break.  One of the larger companies in the area was hiring testers on a temp-to-hire basis, so I went in and interviewed.  It turned out that my interview was with a QA manager and a VP of the company.  The interview was going well when I mentioned that for a time, I had served as a volunteer moderator on a video game forum.

The interview unexpectedly shifted gears at that point.  The VP said that they were going to hire a community manager in the near future and after answering some more questions, he asked me to return the next day with a reference from the site I had moderated at and a written review of one of their games, for which I was provided a download code.  I followed through, e-mailed the requested materials, and returned for a second day of interviews.  To my relief, I got the job.

Well, sort of.  Since they weren’t ready for me to start in the position yet, having some things that needed working out, I was asked to work in their test department for the time being, doing some basic certification work.  I had no problem with that, and started right away.  Things were looking up!

One week later, I was called into a meeting with a QA manager and told I was being let go.  The reason?  They weren’t supposed to hire for that community manager position yet.

How in the hell does something like that happen?

Suffering the indignity of the worst humiliation of my professional life, I staggered out of the office and called the temp agency to let them know what happened.  Of course, the rep that I had gotten me the interview was shocked.  But there was nothing that could be done, of course.

About two months later, I finally managed to get a full-time position as a tester for a small commercial software start-up, thanks largely to the game testing experience I had built up over the previous three years.  I’ve since been hired at another company and am currently making a healthy living for myself.

I haven’t worked in the game industry since and have no burning desire to go back.  Those three years were draining physically, emotionally, and financially, and the cherry on top was beyond embarrassing, but sometimes you have to learn things the hard way before better opportunities present themselves.

The Trenches - Of Bags and Tea

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Of Bags and Tea

This isn’t so much a “horrible working conditions” story, but one I found hilarious nonetheless.

I worked for a very large electronic manufacturer based in Japan and was on the QA team for their game console. I was stuck on the floor for a first person shooter that has already been released, but was mediocre at best. It was a mil-sim game that was decidedly a rocketfest.

Anyway, the Vice-President of this very large corporation decided to drop by for a visit. We’d been warned beforehand of this visit. What we weren’t warned about was that the VP decided to drop in one of the matches we were in (testing connectivity issues with another country). We were given a quick “don’t do anything stupid” talk, so we played around on the game like you were “supposed to”.

A few minutes later, another call came down to cut loose. So we did, instantly turning the battlefield into chaos. The VP, needless to say, died very quickly. But what did happen, is one of the testers ran over to the VP’s body and teabagged it (as was the custom in those days).

Not a full minute passed before the test lead burst into the bay and screamed his lungs out, demanding to know who did it. None of us spoke, since we didn’t know who did the deed and the person who did it didn’t speak up.

So, after having a job where I got to play video games for a whole month, our entire section was unceremoniously fired.

The Trenches - The horrors of Shovel-ware

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The horrors of Shovel-ware

Spare a thought for the poor developers at a company that produces crap at an alarming rate.  Shovel-ware if you will.

Often the company is own by a single man who has final say on everything.  We are trying to make the best game we can with the constraints of a power mad dictator throwing tantrums day after day because people aren’t buying his crap games.

The hours are no less grueling.

The verbal abuse no less cruel.

The withheld pay while we wait for publishers to pay. (The boss is still driving his fancy Mercedes of course while you are using credit cards to pay rent)

Then when we get it all done and ship a game we can’t point to it on a shelf and be proud.

The Trenches - Another Day in the Trenches

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Another Day in the Trenches

I was QA at an Indie Game Company that didn’t last long enough to put its foot in the industry door. Sadly it has also been my only experience in the Testing World to date, as I got a nice job in the local Barnes and Nobles where the conditions are nowhere near as bad. However during my time at the company I met three people that almost killed my love for testing all together.

The first candidate I like to call Vacant, because his presence was almost never noticed. That could be because IF he showed up, he was the least contributing member. The company was hiring very… Well, randomly. Anything from seasoned testers and developers to complete rookies to worked period. Vacant, was one of them. Of the days we spent crunching, he found ways to slip out for hours unnoticed, and when he was here, sleep or laze off to where he had to do little work. When confronted, he would claim it wasn’t a lack of work, but that his “team” was hindering him or wouldn’t let him help, and generally our boss would move him around. When he was moved to my team (We were multiplayer, and as of now there would be 5 of us) he decided to just sleep in the corner while we were busy bug-hunting. Even then, when there was little excuse for his lack of productivity, he would convince the boss that we wouldn’t let him play our reindeer games, which he believed since multiplayer for the game featured 4 slots, not 5. Somehow, the same excuse worked when one of us missed a day for a funeral, and Vacant had plenty of room to join in.

The second I call Biff, and he was our group’s Team Leader. He was alright for my first couple months of working, but then things started to get… Interesting, is a word. He used to just pat us on the back, and tell us what we needed to do. Come month 4 and he had evolved to light-arm punches, and a bit more of an intimidation factor to get us to do our job. When one of us tried to laze off, he put them into a head lock and pretty much said if he didn’t get his work done by the end of the day he was going to beat the snot out of him. What increased this was when we hired Anya, a lovely girl who was helping in another tester group. Anya and I would often spend our lunches together, and when this happened, Biff’s punches became more bruising and his threats to me more serious. When it became a rumor that Anya and I had began dating, it turned from bruise educing punches to shoves, and intimidation turned to him BREATHING down my neck and barking at me like a dog. Finally, the breaking point came when I couldn’t repro a bug in the game where hitting a certain enemy three times in a row with a certain attack would basically make the model of the creature bug out in ways I can’ find words for, he tackled me to the ground and just yelled at me. When I reported this to HR, the boss gave him a simple talking to, a three day suspension, and then didn’t pay me for the time I had to spend getting checked out at the doctor.

Speaking of, case 3: Da Boss: Why the fancy title? Because that’s ALL he was. A boss. And by that I mean, he was just there to claim everything was his, sign off of things, and then ignore all the problems unless it threatened him personally. There would be days we would miss work because our office was basically a rented apartment building which only he had the key for. So if he didn’t feel like coming in, then no one worked OR got paid for it because HE said none of us came to work that day. If any problems came up, he’d push it to whatever team lead was available, and if the problem was with a team lead, he’d just send them home for a couple days which rarely solved the problem.

One day our utilities were shut down, and not only did it cost us a weeks pay to get it all put back on, he then docked us another week of pay for not working that week (Save for team leads, whom by the way were all personal friends of his, even Biff.) The final straw came during the winter, when Da Boss told everyone he would be gone for a couple weeks as he was heading out of town for the winter. One of the other testers, in a stroke of genius, asked,

Tester: “So who are you giving the key to then?”
Boss: “What? No one.”
Tester: “Then how do you expect us to work when you have the only key?”
Boss: “You’re going to come in and do you job of course.”
Tester: “How!? The place will be locked and only you have a key.”
Boss: “That’s not my fucking problem!”

Not the accurate quote, but close enough. It went on until that tester was fired on the spot, then smart old me opened my mouth to ask him what’s funding this trip. You can guess his answer. I, Anya, and about 10 other testers walked out. The company closed a couple months later due to a lack of funding.

Now, as stated, I work a decent job at Barnes and Nobles, with a lovely fiancé named Anya who is still in QA with another Indie Company with intelligent Team leads and a boss that actually pays her.

The Trenches - Support-fu

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The worst job I ever had paid well and had good hours - but it was set up so that it was impossible to do a good job. Somehow that can just crush the life out of you.

I was first-level support in a massive organisation that had a lot of custom, in-house software. The folk in charge of spending money, however, were very comfortable with cutting all funding once the application was in beta. If there were work-arounds, it wasn’t a bug.

One example: we had field officers who could be an eight hour drive away from the office for weeks at a time. One of their critical applications had a “change password” button that wasn’t necessary - the application read your password from your login. All the button did was to lock your entire account, and the only way to unlock the account was to take the computer back to the office. Eight hours away…

We couldn’t afford to fix the button. We couldn’t even afford to take it off or put a warning on it.

My team supported these bug-ridden applications, but we didn’t have access to them, and consequently had NEVER SEEN them. They wouldn’t even give us screenshots, and there was no way we’d be able to remote into users’ accounts. We developed a massive tree of possible faults, with questions and sub-questions to force the users to correctly describe the problems (one actual entry: ‘if they continue to insist that there’s no error code, ask them to read the entire error message. The number they read at the end, after the words “error code”, is the error code’). We had vague, hand-drawn pirate maps of what we thought the UIs looked like.

My job consisted largely of apologizing. Any time we could actually solve something, it was cause for great celebration and immortality in our solutions database. Mostly we just stuck to the 5 R’s of support: retry -> restart -> reinstall -> reimage -> run.

But once, I was able to give direct support. Someone in my own building had a problem with her account logon: as she started typing her password the field filled up all the way. There was nothing for that issue in our vast stock of errors, so I said I’d be right over. Leaving the IT dungeon and going up into the heady space of “corporate” (my god, they have PLANTS!) I found the right desk. Ten seconds later, I’d fixed the problem.

When I got back, I wrote it up in our database of errors:

Password field filling up with stars: ask user to check if their magazine is resting on their space bar.

The Trenches - Awkward.

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One day, about two weeks in, after lunch, leads and managers are storming in and out of the office. After maybe half an hour of stomping about, one of the leads, decidedly one of the friendlier, more engaging ones, comes in, and shouts for our attention. We all stop and stare. “Someone smeared SHIT, ALL OVER the bathroom. The cleaning lady is in TEARS.” A few people snicker and are stared down into oblivion. The rest of us are silent, in horror, probably all imagining the scene. The rest of that day was pretty awkward.