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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?

Nope.

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.

Panic.

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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Support-fu

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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Awkward.

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.


The Trenches - My Very Short QA Career

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My Very Short QA Career

I had a yearly summer gig at one of the three big telecom companies in Canada, but it always started two months after Spring exams. One year I decided it’d be neat to work in video game testing while I waited for the other job. Hell, maybe I’d even stick around game testing instead. I applied and quickly got into a major QA lab (as opposed to in-house testing) with offices all over Canada and the States.

My first day was also about 100 other people’s first day. We were all crammed into a room without windows, just cafeteria benches. Names were called out, people were taken away to various teams. I met a few people, never to see them again. After two hours or so of awkward small talk in the stuffy cave, I’m called to my new home.

I pass rows of testers hunched over their screens or reclining casually, controllers in hand, talking and laughing. These people seem like they’re having a good time. I even recognize some games as I’m rushed by. I could be playing one of those! What could I have been put on? I’m excited!

Basketball. I got fucking basketball. Broken-ass, pre-alpha BASKETBALL.

So when I applied to this place I filled out a survey. What kind of games I like to play, what kind of games I’m good at, what kind of games I don’t like. All of my answers very clearly indicated that I’m not a fan of sports games, that I don’t know how to play sports games, I have no interest in them. “Put this guy on basketball!”

I talk to my lead, ask if I can get a different assignment, even though I liked my team. “Look, I can’t switch you. Maybe you’ll find bugs others can’t BECAUSE you don’t know the game. You’ll look at it from a different perspective.” Horseshit. I’m less likely to notice bugs because I don’t know the rules. Entire objects necessary to the sport could be missing and I wouldn’t notice.

So I go talk to the manager. “Look, I can’t switch you. If I switch you, everyone’s going to want to switch. I’m sorry.” “Alright, if I can’t get switched, I’ve gotta quit. I clearly indicated my gaming tastes on my application. I’m useless on this game. And playing a broken game of a sport I have no interest in is not a job, it’s misery. I understand your position, but certainly you can see mine, too. So, I guess I’m resigning?” This is about 4 hours into my new job, and the ballsiest move I’d made, or had to make, up to this point in my working life.

And it fucking worked.

So I get put in a new office down the hall, on Simpsons Wii. Fine, whatever. It’s also pre-alpha, broken as hell, but I KNOW that Marge’s hair shouldn’t look like that. I can actually recognize that it’s broken.

This office is a bit more cramped, and there aren’t enough test Wiis in the office, so we partner up on one console (the game, at least at the time, was single player). My partner (happily) plays and finds bugs, I chat with my neighbours till he finds a bug, we reproduce it, I write it up.


The Trenches - I Built That, You’re Going To Jail

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I Built That, You’re Going To Jail

Back in early 2007 I was hired at a start-up in the Pacific Northwest. One of the big reasons I got hired was my gaming background, although the company had built a CRM product; it was just moving to a new “Game Design” influenced interface.  I was to be the first in the new Analytics Department. The company had a wonderful culture; everyone was involved, the product was something we were actually proud of, the 100-odd people there became like an extended family. I even got to make up my own job title after 6 months.

After a year I was working directly for the CEO and CFO, building all of the projection models for a start-up company that was nearing profitability. In less than 12 months, assuming nothing happened, we would be in the black. Big companies were looking at purchasing us. It came to pass that my financial projections model needed to published, so I cleaned it up and made it “Presentation Ready” for the CEO. A few minor tweaks later and he told me it was the most important thing I’d done yet.

One of those “minor” changes was an adjustment to our starting revenue flow. At the time I didn’t question it, assuming there was revenue I had missed somewhere. When I mentioned this to my brother over lunch (he worked in the area) he too thought it weird, but not alarming.

Seven days later, the CEO didn’t come in to the office. Neither did the CFO. Instead, a member of the Board came in around 11:30 to inform everyone that both of them had “…resigned effective immediately.” At lunch, a reporter called one of our staff to ask if they had a comment on the arrest of our CEO and CFO by the FBI for wire fraud for lying to investors. Three days later none of us had jobs and the company had declared bankruptcy.

During the court proceedings the model I had created was used as evidence of lying to investors about revenue flow. That “minor” change I’d made at the CEO’s instruction? Apparently he’d been doing things like that for years to get more investor money. The model I’d built was too easy to read though and gave the investors the first clue something wasn’t right.

I’ve never felt such conflicting emotions of pride and horror in doing a good job.


The Trenches - A Preorder by Any Other Name

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A Preorder by Any Other Name

I worked for a large video-rental business for six years as a store manager and was there when they decided to aggressively jump into the video game presale model.

Apparently, deciding DVD rentals weren’t going to vault the company back into the massive profits they used to enjoy, someone in corporate happened to stroll into a GameStop one day, decided they were printing money, and wanted to jump in while the water was warm.

We didn’t slowly transition from DVD rentals to game presales. We jumped in mid-race, declared ourselves the prime competitor to GameStop, and decided not only would we presale the crap out of God of War 3, but we’d beat every other company in total units ordered. The mandate came down to get that sweet presale money or find another job. They didn’t care how you did it, they didn’t care how many customers you alienated, they just wanted the preorder.

Our district manager was operating three conference calls a week, all focusing on God of War presales. All you had to do was get the customer to put down $5 and reserve the game. We were instructed to get that money by any means necessary, including promising to refund it later if they changed their minds. If we didn’t reach the astronomical number the company was shooting for we were told to start sending out resumes.

Of course, this resulted in harassing the poor customer who just wanted to rent Two if By Sea into ordering a game they didn’t even have a system to play. When the big release day came every store ended up with a massive number of units that they couldn’t deliver because the customers all wanted to cancel their preorder and get their money back.

A company wide investigation was done to determine why we had to eat these games like week old pizza, and the district managers were told to either find a good explanation or find another company to work for.

No surprise, the top four presale stores were called and the store managers fired for “presale fraud.” Up until this point I had been proud of being the top store in the district for sales. That pride had to keep my warm on the unemployment line.


The Trenches - 3rd Place Gets the Gold

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3rd Place Gets the Gold

After giving 2 years of my life to a certain “fruit” computer company, not only did one promotion open up in the department I wanted to get into, but two! Having the best sales record, best customer satisfaction score, and experience already training for the position, everybody thought one of the openings would be mine. People in the department were already congratulating me, planning on integrating me in as soon as possible.

So when the manager summoned me to his office, coworkers were literally giving me high fives on the way in. The manager started off by listing all of the accomplishments and great service I’ve given to the place. He shook my hand and said “thank you”.

Then he said I didn’t get the job.

Neither did the second most qualified person apparently. “If we lose you both, then your department will lose our two best employees!” he cheerfully stated. The job was going to the 3rd and 4th best people.

I followed up by asking why I should be motivated to work hard if all I have to be is 3rd best. His response? “Because we know that you’ll still continue to do a kick ass job for us.”

So I quit the next day. I ended up having a beer with the 2nd best guy a few months later. He ended up just not giving a shit anymore and his numbers plummeted.

But nothing made me happier to hear that the 2 guys who were promoted were so bad for the job, they royally screwed up the entire department enough to get the manager demoted and transferred to the worst store in the district.


The Trenches - Re: The Wall

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Re: The Wall

I also started in QA at this company, working on a game that takes place on a red planet… and a fighting game whose franchise (sadly) was acquired a few years back by the UFC.

We called it death row because that room was a long rectangular testing area which had a path running right down the middle of it, dividing the room into two halves of cubicles. We’ll call this room “Sector 2.”

On one side, this path lead into the front room, off of which was the kitchen, main entrance, another testing area, and the QA management offices.  We’ll call this “Sector 1”.

On the opposite side, this path connected to another room which housed the supervisor cubes, some lead cubes, and offices for others.. We’ll call this “Sector 3.”  Sector 3 in turn connected to another testing area.. and then another, like a chain of rooms.

Well, what would happen is management would always walk from Sector 1, through Sector 2, and into Sector 3 to visit leads, supes, etc (and vice-versa).  Rarely would they venture off into the wastelands of Sectors 4 and 5.  Now sectors 4 and 5….those are the areas you really wanted to test in.  Those were the testlands.  Nothing but testers.. far away from management. We had our own laws… our own way of life… we lived.. we laughed… we played…

Anyway….. so, what I didn’t tell you about Sector 2 was… that path down the middle.. the one that divided the room in half?  The one that management would stroll down as they crossed from Sector 1 to their final destination in Sector 3?  Yeah, that path had shallow tester cubes lining it up and down, both sides, with their backs open to the pathway.  Actually, if you moved your chair out the slightest, you would *block* the pathway.

THAT… was “Death Row.”  You did not want to sit on Death Row.  The guards constantly strolled past.  There was no escape.  You were always being watched.  You never knew if, or when, you would get a pardon and move to a better sector.

Everyone did time on death row.

I did my time on Death Row.

I did my time in the Bridge.

And I did my time in the Gulag
(OH The Gulag…. there is a great story here in the horrors of testing BTW… and how management treats testers like cattle…it even involves the fire marshall.  That may be my next submission to you guys.)

Despite the names of these places, and the way we were treated, I do have fond memories of working there…
the people I worked with… *some* of the titles I worked on… team dinner happy hours at the local eateries when working hellish overtime…

But I left, vowing never to return.

The building that housed death row went away.

The company moved to a new location down the road.

They were recently liquidated, and people will speak their name no more.

I shed no tears.


The Trenches - What’s your security clearance?

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What’s your security clearance?

In the mid-90s I was working my first real computer job, tech support for a company that made software for producing GUIs, primarily for UNIX and VMS (look it up, kids) systems.  Our largest customers were various branches of the US Government, ranging from the utterly innocuous (census, bureau of land management, etc) to the CIA, NSA and other less-well known branches.  (Fun facts: When asked whom they work for, CIA employees just say “The Federal Government”, whereas NSA employees say “the Department of Defense”, and When you call someone at the NSA, they answer the phone by just saying the last 4 digits of their phone number you just called).

Anyway, something we were constantly running into was the need to see the code that people were having trouble with, but often being told that they were unable to share the code with us unless we had security clearance (We did not.)  Normally this just meant a quick and easy way to close a ticket—Can’t show us the code? Well, then, we really can’t help you, sir.  Case closed.

However, one day my colleague (I’ll just call him Mike) had a call from someone at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, which was one of other big customers.  He was having a problem with the code being output by the GUI-builder, and was under some huge deadline.  He was absolutely desperate, and so the typical exchange of Security Clearance? No? Can’t help you! was broken by the caller saying “ok, look, fine, I’m going to send you the code, but you CANNOT tell anyone, and you need to delete it immediately after finishing with it.  Or ELSE.”

Fair enough. Mike gets the guy to send the code in, he opens it and it’s some sort of GUI to be used for tracking submarines/ships/missiles/torpedoes, etc.  Mike finds the problem with the code, fixes it, and sends it back to the dude at the NUWC. However, Mike then decides that this is too interesting to just delete, and instead goes about writing a back-end to turn it into a war-game, which the rest of us in Tech Support (not-knowing it’s origin) start playing obsessively on the server in-between calls for a couple of weeks, before finally one of the bosses thinks to inquire as to where Mike got the game.  He tells them he wrote it, and then tells them the story of where he got the front-end.  Everyone in the room falls silent as the boss’s face goes first pale, pale white, and then beet red.  Everyone in Tech Support except for Mike got sent home for the afternoon, and when we came back the next day, the game was gone from the server, and Mike was gone from his cube.


The Trenches - It’s all a blur

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It’s all a blur

My tale involves a large company that sold a market leading flight simulation game. A new version had been released and I was working in the call centre that provided support for it. I got a call from an elderly gentleman who was very annoyed at the new version. He explained at length that he had played the previous version of the game and had flown all over the world.

From looking at his call history I remembered taking a call from him before, when he was complaining that a particular airport had four runways in the game when in reality it had two. He had been there, in the flesh and had seen only two runways. I had looked the airport up on the internet and discovered the airport had only just finished the two new runways before the game was released.

This game attracted a particular kind of gamer.

The reason for his annoyance this time was that the new versions graphics were awful. The screen was blurry and the colours were all wrong. I started with the display drivers, they were fine. I checked his monitor settings, all good. We un-installed and re-installed the game. No difference.

Nothing I tried seemed to fix it. He grew more and more irate, declaring that he had flown in World War 2 and how could we sell a game that was worse than the previous version?

I was about to give up and escalate it when there was silence on the other end of the line.

“Sir, are you still there?”

“Um.. I’m terribly sorry, young man, but I appear to be wearing the wrong glasses…”


The Trenches - Done

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Done

The one testing job I had was at a multinational company working on a ported Japanese game featuring their star characters. It was a dream project to be on because not only was the game incredibly fun but there were enough varied tasks that if one thing became monotonous, you could always work on something else. The development team in Japan promptly responded to our bugs and always replied with courtesy and respect, even for the most trivial of issues. However, because this was a port, the game had to be completely translated. And I wish I could say that the in house translators were as nice as the developers.

By the time I got to the project only a few menus and other miscellaneous features were still in translation. Anything that was stylized graphical text had to be made by hand. This unfortunately included the message that was displayed when the player beat the game. When we got the build that translated it, I found to my dismay that the “Thanks for playing!” message had been erroneously translated to “Done.”

Naturally I was aghast. I knew enough Japanese to know that this was not even remotely correct, and upon confirming that it was not a placeholder, filed it as a bug. My supervisor told me that he wasn’t going to accept it because the translators wouldn’t even read it. He told me if I felt strongly enough about it I should talk to them directly. Big mistake.

Apparently being a translator meant that you were above the common rank and file and as such, could not be questioned in the slightest. I’m still not sure how they managed to fit their egos into their cubicles. To point out their mistakes was a sin.

Luckily, I told enough people on the project about the “Done.” that someone in upper management caught wind of it and they were forced to re-translate it to a much more appropriate “The End.” It wasn’t much, but I feel like it was my major contribution to the gaming populous.


The Trenches - One Item rules it all

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One Item rules it all

Recently, Its been my task to acquire all available items in the game.

At first, it was not all bad… Until they released an update.

This particular update was not really pleasant because there was one item that can only be obtained by chance in a lottery game.

Easy, right? Nah.

With my sanity still intact, I asked the dev what are the chances of getting it and they said “oh, about 0.18%”.

With a bad poker face I said “Okay.”

Throughout the rest of the shift like a maniac, going back and forth through the lottery tapping away with all the energy I can muster up just to obtain one item and still no luck.

Finally my boss, who’d been watching my ordeal, understood my position and told me that its alright if I can’t get it since we were on a one day build.

I consider myself lucky that I wasn’t stuck with the other team who had to get all 1000+ items which are all randomly generated all in one day.


The Trenches - The Good Life

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The Good Life

I started working for a video game company a few months ago as a Game Master. I’m the guy who talks to you in-game, listens to your gripes about how stuff is bugged or broken, and then honestly tries to help you out.

Unfortunately, more often than not, you’re AFK, not online, left me a message saying to contact you on another character, appalled that it took me more than 5 minutes to get to you, or you simply feel the need to rage at me about how you pay my salary and I should give you back the bag of items you accidentally destroyed even though the game asked you “Are you sure you want to do that?”.

Honestly though? It doesn’t bother me. I love my job. I get paid $14 an hour to essentially hang out with my friends, listen to music, and talk about video games. I have an awesome boss, great coworkers, and the coolest looking office any man has ever worked in.

I worked retail for years. I hated it. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else except working in the gaming industry now that I’ve worked here.

To everyone who’s had a bad experience as a tester, artist, designer, etc., just because one company treated you like crap doesn’t mean they all will. Hang in there.

Keep flying and stay shiny.


The Trenches - QA Tester Jobs are much like Mother Russia

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QA Tester Jobs are much like Mother Russia

I went into game testing with a mindset of “It’s a job, you’re not going to be having much fun”. My first week was a bit intimidating, but I got to sit down, and it was easy to just talk to the person next to me while I play a laughably broken game.

Around a month in, I didn’t really recognize half of the people I was working with anymore. Worried for my job security, I confided in a regular tester more senior than myself and was told “As long as you drop bugs, you don’t really have anything to worry about”. I calmed down and got over the gruesomely competitive nature of minimum wage bug testing, as there was never a shortage of people who did nothing to make you look better.

Crunch time rolls in. “You can come in on saturday if you want” became “Come in on sunday” in our now 11 hour a day week schedules. We were at least making time and a half, but I very often would find myself going home to collapse immediately, and waking up to get ready for another day for an entire week. We were being asked some very rough things for minimum wage, yet newcomers were still joining in on to such a haphazard environment.  You would see people come and go in the span of days in this circus.

I was inevitably let go for falling asleep on the job (largely because the only person who could make decent coffee was also let go), but some events stood out which numbed my reaction. I was talking to a salaried QA lead about how we were trading our souls for time and a half. He laughed and explained to me how you don’t get time and a half on salary. I was making more money than he was. Shortly following that was a weekly meeting. Weekly meetings would occur when we were far behind our bug count quote (which by the way, happened every week), and occasionally, we would be asked to raise our hands if we were around for over X amount of months. I found myself among a very small number of people in the 5 month marker, but I’m not sure why this would be motivating. The people who had only been there for a week could already name at least one person who had been there for less time than they had, yet were already gone.


The Trenches - How to make a game bug free.

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How to make a game bug free.

Working as QA on a large title for a sugar-daddy publisher that had very deep pockets, but knew next to nothing about a proper game production schedule and would force ridiculous milestones on the studio. For most of the project, most of the studio had been working solid 70-80 hour weeks, and QA was working 60-72 hour weeks. Depending on how hectic things were, we were working 10-12 hour days, 6 days a week. This went on for 6 months by the time I left.

We were coming up on a major milestone where our publisher wanted us reporting zero bugs, like a beta. The game was far, far away from being able to do this. So two higher-ups in the studio, like elves in the night, went into the database and started deleting entire swaths of bugs from the database. The next day the bug database was considerably lighter, and the two higher-ups sent out a celebratory email that we were reporting zero bugs, and we were all given cookies.

The problem is we were reporting zero bugs on a game where we still couldn’t play all the way through the base story line from start to finish without using debug commands or cheats, and without coming across a major blocker or the game crashing. The next day the two higher-ups actually PLAYED the game, then came back and tore our QA manager a new one about how bad the game was, and how DARE the bug database lack these 3,000 bugs they had just found while playing through the game. QA manager turned around, yelled at QA for making him look bad, and made us all stay until the wee hours of the morning doing a full level-by-level sweep of the game to re-bug all of these issues while he went home at 6.

I quit. From what I’ve heard, this sort of nonsense is still going on.


The Trenches - Read the Titles

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Read the Titles

Two years ago,  I got a job at a small mobile development studio that’s focus was supposed to be “simple, innovative games”.  While taking my tour of the studio, all I could think was, “Whoa, this place is incredible!  It’s like every other studio I hear or read about with a never-ending flow of drinks and snacks, break rooms with huge TV’s, and even a gym for employees to get healthy in.  There’s even a few masseuses on staff that will give you massages once a week.  What isn’t there to love?”

Turns out it was the focus of the studio executives focus to keep the employees as happy as little hamsters in a cage so they wouldn’t question why they were ripping other popular games ideas.  These games would then be priced cheaper and have a similar enough name that enough unsuspecting people would buy and download it before realizing it wasn’t the game they were originally looking for.  This might not seem like a big deal, but cashing in on a well known games popularity can net millions of dollars just like that.

In one of my first assignments, I was given a budget of $10000, and told to create new iTunes accounts, one at a time, buy one of the studios just released games, and rate it five stars with some ambiguous glowing praise.  While I morally despised this, I needed a job and desperately wanted to work in the industry.  After a while, I started to get creative with the names I used (think Seymour Butts, but more dirty).  It became a soul sucking job, but hey, I was in it for the perks.

There’s really no point to this story, other than to warn you to read the titles of what you’re buying carefully, as someone is always trying to profit from the popularity of someone else.


The Trenches - The Game Is You

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The Game Is You

I tested at a company in their 3rd Party Team, which meant we tested any game for the PS3 that wasn’t developed by company itself, i.e. everything. We basically tested two new games everyday, which was pretty cool, because it never became tedious.

Same couldn’t be said about 2nd Party Team, who tested all PS3 media that weren’t games, i.e. music, videos, etc. For about two months, 2nd party had to test an external webcam, which meant they had to sit in front of it and watch the feed of themselves on a TV off to the side to check for hangups.

One top of that they COULDN’T DO ANYTHING. They couldn’t surf the net, they couldn’t play any portable games, they couldn’t even read a book. All they could do is sit there, talk to each other, and watch a fucking feed of themselves sitting there FOR 2 MONTHS STRAIGHT.

When they were put on another project, one guy literally had to go into the bathroom and cry in utter relief of it all.


The Trenches - Marsh gas reflected from Venus

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Marsh gas reflected from Venus

This is more a tale from the trenches of technical support.

I used to work for a big company, one of the largest providers of PC’s in my country, on their premium rate technical support line. Shortly after the company bought out an Internet Service Provider (back in the days of dialup), we started getting calls from customers that were completely unable to get access to the internet. We discovered this to be due to a virus on the computer that was blocking access, but could not find details of this virus anywhere, it seemed to be particular to our machines. We contacted the software escalation team, and were told ‘Factory restore them’. But the problem did not go away. Eventually, the problem was so rife our team got one customer to send in their computer to us.

We discovered the ‘virus’ did not block all access to the internet. If you tried through the company’s own ISP, it worked fine. We also discovered that the ‘virus’ was part of the preloaded software our company put on every machine we built and sold.

We filed a full report on the issue…and two days later our department was visited by some large employees in dark suits, who ‘politely’ informed us we had never seen or interacted with any piece of software that behaved as a virus, had never written any report on such a piece of software, and if we told any ‘lies’ about such a thing, we would be fired for gross misconduct.

A day later the company sent out a ‘BIOS patch’ to all it’s customers that erased all evidence of the ‘virus’ we had investigated.

Thankfully, that company no longer exists.


The Trenches - Short and Succinct

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Short and Succinct

E3 has come and gone. Our game won multiple Game of Show nominations and awards, thanks in part to a solid month of 80 hour work weeks by the test team. We poured our evenings and weekends into ensuring every nook and cranny of our demo was polished to a fine sheen. So naturally, a celebration seemed fitting for when the production team came back to the studio hoisting our awards like the Lombardi Trophy.

That was until our morale was crushed with one short-sighted sentence, wrapped in an email and tossed our direction like picked away bones to vultures:

“Unless you have explicit approval, the test will be skipping morale events moving forward.”


The Trenches - Pen and Paper Pirates

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Pen and Paper Pirates

When I was in community college a group of friends were impressed by my ability at data entry, copying large swaths from hard copy pen and paper rule books to electronic format for private use in campaigns. They approached me and offered me a chance to work on an RPG they were developing, and I eagerly jumped at the chance. Without having yet signed a contract I did some preliminary work to show that I could produce, and in turn was promised that there would be a contract forthcoming.

This was, of course, in my indiscreet youth and I fully accept it was my mistake to work without a contract but these were friends and why would friends ever lead you wrong? (More on this later) So when the weeks turned to months I had reached a peak: I couldn’t produce more work without input, nor could they it seemed give me more input without work. And this while they were starting to take pre orders presumably in cash. I confided in one of my associates about my doubts in the success of the product. I know now this is also unprofessional behavior, but at the time I was deeply concerned because my eye was on that fat writing credit.

I was never formally informed I was let go until weeks later when I got pushy about why my e-mails and phone calls weren’t being received. Still, knowing I had not a leg to stand on, I decided to be a champ and let them have what I had produced. I wished them luck and moved on to still higher education, eventually going to the state campus. Fast Forward to this year. The head of the company was in a car accident and while he was crashing on a friend’s couch he proceeded to clean the poor guy out of food and money before being thrown out. This entrepreneur then spread disinformation and lies about my friend for no clear reason other than because he could. The RPG supposedly going to be on Kickstarter soon, but somehow I’m glad I’m not working for a thief and liar.

I now work for a small press RPG company with proven product lines under contract.


The Trenches - Profanity at the office

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Profanity at the office

Long ago I was a designer at a now-defunct PC game developer. We had a brilliant idea: use voice control to enhance a fantasy RPG. We figured that if you could just *tell* the NPC party members what to do (“Heal me!”) it would revolutionize the whole genre, leading to piles of money, world domination, etc. etc.

This was long before Kinect, Siri, or any other voice recognition systems were common. We cobbled together a demo, and after we tweaked the speech parameters it worked surprisingly well. The speech recognition got it right almost all the time, and it really did immerse you in the game, provided you were willing to talk to your computer.

Emboldened by our newfound success, we began crafting a real demo for publishers. Wouldn’t it be funny, we thought, if there was an Easter Egg in the demo. If you yelled in frustration at the screen we should recognize swear words and make something funny happen. (I think we settled on a spell that launched a chicken around your head that fired eggs at the enemy.) But with the demo deadline approaching, and the team crunching to make the world look beautiful, who was going to implement the Easter Egg? It turned out that duty fell to our summer programming intern, I’ll call her Sarah).

Sarah was a sweet, quiet, and slightly shy programming intern from a nearby college and immediately began digging into the problem. For the rest of the week from the programming pit we we heard her soft voice, unnaturally loud for now, interspersed with bouts of frantic typing, attempting to implement the
Easter Egg:

“FUCK!” ... “FUCK!” .... “FUCK!” ...

type type type.

“SHIT!” ... “SHIT!” ... “SHIT!” ...

We were all amused because we couldn’t tell whether she was having a problem with the feature or whether it was working as intended.


The Trenches - Plotting Along

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Plotting Along

Some friends of a friend were attempting to create an indie game. It was going to be a dating sim/shooter combo in which you attempt to woo an angel while demons try to kill you and her. But they needed someone to write the dialogue trees and script out the cut scenes. Since I was an aspiring writer, I was brought in on back-end pay, where any money I got was from royalties. I just wanted some experience so I went for it.

The plot was simple. You’re on a movie date, monster attacks, then some secret agents show up after you win to explain the what’s going on while acting all mysterious. After coming up with some ideas, I sent them the first draft, feeling confident in my work. And it turns out I was right - they loved the date and the cut scene. Only problem was, they now wanted to have the agents be the ones you fight.

Okay, simple enough. I rewrote the scene and sent it in. But now there was a problem. I had apparently made the agents ‘Too antagonistic.’ The whole point was the player was going to question whose side they were on and that they couldn’t be the ones who attacked the player or the angel. I asked them how to make the agents more ambiguous but they just said “Come up with something.” I gave some suggestions and they were all shot down because each one made the encounter the fault of either the player or the agents.

Eventually, I gave up and just resent them the first draft. They said it was perfect, they loved it and I never heard from them again.


The Trenches - Undiscovered Country

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Undiscovered Country

This tale is part QA and part Game Support, the two overlap more than most would. I worked for a well known company with an extremely well known AAA title. New content was coming out and part of this was a series of quests to end all quests. There were flashbacks, shape-shifting, new weapons and swimming! All kinds of cool mechanics for the players to use. Dev sang its praises for weeks and weeks! This is awesome, new, exciting, different, and creative and about nine other suitable adjectives.

QA got a hold of it and it was abhorrent. This shit doesn’t work. It will never work. At least not with any scripting known to man. I saw build after build after build and it all ended the same way. Dev didn’t care. There were town hall meetings specifically about these few bits of content. We begged and pleaded and Dev still didn’t care. Come hell or high water, this is going live.

And it did. And it broke. Hard. When I say hard I mean this could and did severely impede a player’s gaming experience for days, sometimes WEEKS. Players screamed about it and they were right to do so. This content wasn’t ready, it wasn’t on the same street as ready. Game Support had excel sheets and console commands and all manner of tools to try and put a band-aid on things.

It never was fixed. Players just stopped doing those quests. Through an internal forum, an open letter was sent to Dev from both QA and Game Support. The following is the basic idea:

“Dear Dev,
XXXX is pretty cool. This content is more than cool. It’s awesome, new, exciting, different, and creative. Let’s never do this fucking shit again. XOXO, Everybody”

We never did get a reply.


The Trenches - I’m Not Working That Job!

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I’m Not Working That Job!

When I graduated high school all I wanted to do was work in the gaming industry. This was a time when EA was a company people were proud to work for and WoW had no connection with Activision. All-in-all this was the last time I would ever think about wanting to work for a big company.

I wanted to be an illustrator. I wanted to be the guy who shaped the look of the game before the game was a game. So I did what any young artist would do: I applied to a prestigious school with no money, got in, was told I had too much money, and opted for a two year art degree at a local college while I saved up to go to the nice art college.

While there one of my teachers asked an old student of his to come and give a lecture on his post-graduation activities. He had graduated with his generic art degree and, like I had planned on, moved on to a prestigious art school and then worked his way into the industry.

He told us the generics: working through his two year school, working full time to pay for the next school, and what it was like to graduate with a degree in sequential art, graphic design, and a minor in something-or-another.

After the generics he told us the first thing he did was apply for a job in the industry and that turned out to be a QA or game tester. This was in 2006 before that shitty gameshow that glorified game testing like it was a guaranteed door into making the games themselves.

He said right from the get-go he worked from early in the morning to midnight. This didn’t sound so bad to me, playing games for 14-16 hours straight? I did that anyway on the weekends. He did it every day. He didn’t get days off.

Eventually they had him on a schedule where it would be less restful to go home to sleep and come back than it would be just to bunk at his desk. So he did. With everyone else.

This was his home for months. He would eat there, drink there, bathe there, he rarely went home. He said the smell from everyone around him was nauseating. People would bring in hot plates and cook different foods or order out from ethnic delivery places. The smell, he told us, was enough to make you vomit.

He did this for a couple of years while shopping his portfolio around to different dev studios before finally landing a job as a character designer for one of them. The stress didn’t end there though.

Apparently he was expected to compete with his fellow artists for the position he was hired for. If you ask any artist of any medium what is the best way to stay sharp and keep getting better and they will tell you to just keep drawing/playing/recording etc and that’s just what he did. He would go to work and draw and draw and draw, come home late, set up in his tiny kitchen and draw and draw and draw, then come in to work with little or no sleep and keep doing the same thing all the while being told that everyone else was up for his job so he better not screw up or stop outshining everyone on his team.

I’ve never worked at a dev studio but I did work QA for Nameless Cell Phone Company and the bosses constantly told us if we didn’t keep our stats just right, if they fell by one number, we would be fired and replaced in as much time as it took to walk us out the door. That was stressful but all I had to do was talk to people on the phone and make sure their over-privileged twelve-year-olds could text their friends. He had to meet the demands of everyone in the studio working on the title he was on while basically racing with his design teammates.

One day he had a stroke due to his lifestyle of 100% stress, little to no sleep, and unhealthy eating.

All of that work, all of that stress, just to end up in the hospital and the one thing he worried about was losing his job titles to someone else because he was missing work and therefore out of the competition.

All of the crap he went through just to end up in the hospital had me off of the path to working in a studio. I know full well his experience was probably not common. If it was the mortality rate for artists in the industry would be enough that a simple Google search of “game designers dead from stress” would turn up a list of names that grew every few months.

I do know that he left the industry and does screen-printing now. He might not be super successful but he’s alive and happy. I’ll take that over having my name attached to a AAA title of critically acclaimed game any day.


The Trenches - Bonus Season!

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Bonus Season!

No one expects bonus season to be a season of equality and good will, of course, but this tale from my brother who was working as a senior programmer for a company now well known for producing a racing game with spectacular slow-motion crashes.

Called in for a meeting by his manager he was told that the bonus pot was particularly small this year, but the pain was being shared by everyone, and everyone on the team was getting the same small percentage bonus. Boo, he thought, but I suppose everyone else is in the same boat.

Until the idiot manager decided that he would email his bonus-sharing spreadsheet to the entire company, and not just to _his_ boss, revealing to everyone that he was taking the majority of his team’s bonus for himself, and giving his underlings a share of the rest. Presumably he thought he deserved it and they didn’t.

Result: Team minus at least one programmer, manager told to be more careful with emails. That’s right, he kept the money (but not his integrity).


The Trenches - Don’t put that there!

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Don’t put that there!

I had a short run at in-house QA at a fairly large games publisher.

We were working on multiplayer testing, so each desk had several different cables, all different colours, connecting you to all sorts of different internet connection types.

Part of our induction speech:

“Red (ADSL) and blue (Cable) to consoles and gaming PC’s, and yellow (internal network) to work PC’s. If you plug anything into the wrong place, clear your desk and leave.”

One of the guys who was employed alongside me was yellow-blue colourblind.

He didn’t last very long.


The Trenches - We Don’t Like That Color

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We Don’t Like That Color

Five days before a major project was set to go live I finally received a list of what was needed (that had been requested for a month). I created a mock-up and presented it to the people who needed to sign off on it, who gave me the good to go.

I was then informed that they would not be able to give me a specific list of requests because they didn’t know what they were actually going to use until the day of. Which meant I had to create and render out the entire list, 88 animated elements. Which I did, spending the better part of three days living at work to do so.

The day before they were set to go live one of the higher ups comes to look at them and decides “You know, I don’t actually like that font colour that’s used in all the animations. How hard would it be to change?”

“It’s impossible.”

“Well can you change it?”

“Can you give me a list of which of the 88 elements you plan to use so I can focus on those?”

“Well we don’t know what we’re going to need until the day of.”

Cue spending a frantic 24 hours attempting to crank out as many of them as I possibly could. I cut the times down, dropped the resolutions left, right and center, but somehow I managed to push out all 88.

The big night arrives.

They used four of them.

Once.


The Trenches - Don’t bother testing, we’re not going to fix it.

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Don’t bother testing, we’re not going to fix it.

In 2009, I was working at a very small software company that made a game to teach children how to play piano. I had been hired to head up their support department and found out quickly that the department consisted solely of me. On the bright side, support issues were limited, and I found myself with a large amount of free time, and used it to find bugs in the software.

This proved to be a bad decision as I soon discovered that the software was originally coded for Windows 98, and had never been upgraded or patched as the years rolled by because we had stopped paying our programmers. While my list started out with some minor graphical glitches and small play errors, it soon escalated to the point where I could break every facet of the software with a few quick keystrokes.

This included “upgrading” the software to our ultra-deluxe, $400 version by changing a registry key. The software also proved unstable on Windows XP, and with the release of Vista just around the corner, I was tasked with finding ways to fix compatibility issues. They asked me to get a beta copy of the OS, so I could start testing that as well. Since we still were not paying our software developers, there would be no patches or updates. They simply wanted me to have a head start on what our customers would be facing.

During this, they hired a “Creative Consultant”  to revitalize the company and start bringing in more revenue. A meeting with the core members of the company was called, and they sat next to my desk and began discussing proposals. The first proposal was to bring our software and keyboard peripheral to the PS2, and how they could have a version out in stores in about a year. This was generally viewed as a good idea. I had to inform them that the PS3 had been out for over two years, and PS2 development wasn’t a good idea. He then suggested the Gamecube, as that was more family oriented. I suggested the Wii, and explained that the Gamecube was no longer manufactured. The idea was tabled.

The consultant continued to work for the company for several more months, at the tune of ten thousand dollars a month, and ultimately produced nothing. Meanwhile, I went six weeks without being paid.

Finally, a new software development house was brought on board, and a joint deal with one of the largest “family-oriented” companies in the world, featuring one of their biggest stars was on the table. We had new software, and new keyboards, and I was tapped again to test them, and report my findings.

While the software was much better, having an entirely new code base developed for an at least semi-recent operating system, the hardware bundled with it was the cheapest, flimsiest manufacturing possible. The early production units arrived with broken keys, malfunctioning speakers, and broken ports. When I tested the one unit that wasn’t broken, I found that it contained buttons and features from an earlier version of the software that were no longer used, and if pressed, crashed the program. When I reported these findings, I was told that these units were the final spec, and would not be changed.

So, we went from having crippled, broken software with semi-decent hardware to semi decent software, with crippled, broken hardware. Isn’t progress great?

Oh, and this was all developed out of our pocket, and the deal eventually fell through. Shortly afterward, I helped hire and train my own replacement.


The Trenches - The Price to Pay

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The Price to Pay

I had just graduated college and one of my favorite game companies just happened to have an opening in my field of study. For little more than kicks and giggles I decided to apply, sent them my resume, and really didn’t expect much after that.

After a couple weeks, a few emails, a phone interview and some hastily made flight plans, I was out visiting the company - meeting folks, getting the grand tour,  still slightly in shock that it was all happening. Some strange stuff happened on my tour though, for one, it was an interview, so I was wearing a suit. Apparently this was a faux pas as the HR people started to snicker and make fun of me for wearing a suit as I was leaving the room after meeting them. I also met the CEO, which he seemed very annoyed that the person who was giving me the tour interrupted him to introduce me. I mean, I understand CEO’s are busy people, but I have met several, and none were as, well “douchey” (for lack of a better term) as this guy.

Anyways, the interview ended, it went well and I was given the job offer a day or so later. I was super excited until I read it. I would be taking a pay cut from my current job, and I would pretty much have to pay my relocation expenses (I was told the whole time that the company has a relocation program, but was never given details until in the job offer - it was a joke). I tried countering with a slightly higher salary and more compensation for relocation.

If I had been surprised by the offer, I wasn’t even close to being prepared for their response.

They claimed to be offended and hurt that they would go through the trouble to fly me out to tour the offices and interview, and that they had done so much and how dare would I dare ask for a higher salary. The person that would have been my direct supervisor said that they were personally hurt by my actions and that I was no longer being considered for the position.

The experience left such a bad taste in my mouth that I haven’t supported the company since. It saddens me because I love their products, but knowing the kind of people that work there, I just can’t support it. I have other gamer friends who love the company and buy everything they can from them, but whenever something from that company comes up in discussion when I’m around, I have to shake my head and walk away.


The Trenches - A Step in the Wrong Direction

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A Step in the Wrong Direction

So, for a company working as a business consulting and management business, the place I worked wasn’t very good at managing their own business.

I’m a developer, while I’d love to be a games developer, I’m employed to create daft video playing apps for tablets or 10 second kids games for other touchscreens.

Last year I made the most profitable single product we’ve ever sold, an application to be used in the showroom of the most prestigious and one of the wealthiest car manufacturers, and boy howdy were we paid well for it.

When I say we, I mean the company, I’m surprisingly low paid for a dev, at just £1 (yes, I’m British) above minimum wage. But hey, a job’s a job, and I’ve got bills.

So, a couple months back a different car dealership asked us to develop an app for them. I could have easily done this, seeing as I had most of the code assets from previous projects, my completing this project would probably have cost the company less than a £200. That cheap.

I walk in on Tuesday (due to other commitments I can’t work mondays) only to find out that due to “time constraints” they paid an outsourced developer three frakin grand (£3000!) to make this ridiculously simple app.

Then they made me QA it. I should mention, we have a QA person, she literally LOVES what she does, and was more disappointed than I was about the situation, as she didn’t get to QA it.

So, my company paid almost 3 grand too much for a product, and of course the outsourced dev takes a month to do the project, when I would have taken a day or two. Then, when the app was given to us, it was terrible, buggy and barely worked.

We tried contacting the dev - he disappeared completely.

I was still forced to QA it, even though we didn’t have the source, and had no way to correct it.


The Trenches - Only Good Enough To Steal

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Only Good Enough To Steal

I started my career in the industry at a very well known AAA developer as a tester on the first release of what became a major franchise.  I was on year long contracts.  My goal was to eventually get a permanent position in Design.

Things were progressing well, on my second contract I was a part of a section of QA devoted specifically to Design feedback.  I got to sit in on Design and Writing meetings and give feedback which often made it into the game.

In one such meeting we were reviewing a pivotal scene in the game.  A scene meant to really expose a layer of one of the main characters.  I very politely and diplomatically offered what I felt was a very creative suggestion on how the scene could be altered.  It was a pretty substantial change, admittedly, but I felt I was very respectful in my suggestion.  Some studios don’t encourage QA to give Design suggestions, but the section of QA I was in, that was literally my job.

The Lead Writer completely tore me apart in front of the entire meeting room filled with Designers and Writers, the department I was trying to get into.  He claimed it was a horrible idea and completely amateur, that it went against the feel of the scene, that I clearly had no knack for story structure, etc, etc.  I was pretty crushed by the ordeal, not to mention humiliated.  I had been very humble in my suggestion, and had taken polite rejection fine many times before, but this Lead Designer was malicious, and seemed to enjoy publicly tearing me down.

Not long after that I got a permanent job at a different studio on the other side of the country.  I very quickly made it into the Design department where I’m climbing fast, and love where I work and what I do.  I’m happy to say the negative event didn’t deter me from my goal.

Oh, and a year later, when the game came out…  I got my free copy mailed to me for working on it, and played through it to see how it had come along since I left the project.  When I reached the scene in the game that I had suggested the change for, you guessed it, my suggestion was there.  Scene for scene, line for line.


The Trenches - Dehumanization

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Dehumanization

I spent almost a year working for a Double-A video game company about five years ago.  I just want to share the slow decline in human rights that the Quality Assurance department suffered during that time.

When I first joined the department we were set up on one of the floors of a nicely modern three story office building.  The area was not a part of the expansive, impressive, and cheerful home office of the Double A company, but rented space a few miles down the road.  The building was nice, well lit, and everyone had a cubical where they could pin up a poster to make you feel like you had some space of your own.  The paint, curving walls, and central air made the entire place feel warm a cozy… except for the one large room nicknamed “Death Row” because it had no air, lights, and was so filled with the support team of a flagship RTS that the body heat and computer thermal byproduct made the entire room a horrible sweat shop.  Aside from that, wonderful space, and plenty of parking.

Except the building owners hated us and would only allow the QA department to enter and exit from the rear entrance.  And the fact that less than a month into my employment the lease was ended after years of QA being housed there (no one knew who broke the lease) and we were moved into a much smaller two story building across the street from the main headquarters.  The entire first floor was almost all administration staff and their administration stuff.  The second floor consisted of two giant rooms, PC testing in one, and Console testing in the other.  Since we had the same number of people in far less space, we all lost our cubicles and the ability to personalize our workspace, and were reduced to having to sit almost shoulder to
shoulder in an elementary school cafeteria style workplace, PCs sitting where a lunch tray would sit.

To this day I cannot tell you what color the walls in that new space was, because the lighting was complete crap.  Little light was shed by the fluorescent lights, and every window was covered with dimming plastic.  That’s a horrible environment to be testing a game for twelve hours a day, (my record work week was 84 hours) and made it tortuous to stay awake when the only thing you are suppose to do is play two levels in Campaign mode consisting of “Set up a defensive line, and now wait for 30 minutes to see if the game crashes.”  And you could easily strain your eyes reading the printed out bug lists that had to be checked every few days while testing the new builds.

The move wasn’t all bad, except that the new building had no parking and we had to petition for a month to be allowed to use the headquarters’s parking lot, because now we could head across the street and use the employee’s cafeteria during our lunch hour.  New menu every day, and walking through an actual workplace helped brighten your day!  Look!  they have personalized cubicles and proper lighting!

Then QA was told that they are having their lunch hour changed because the home office doesn’t like eating in the same room as them.  So our lunch break was forced to occur an hour earlier.  Not so bad for me, since I typically get hungry sooner than other folks, but most of QA stopped using the cafeteria at all, though even in the heyday, I never saw more than 10 of us in the large cafeteria at a time.  Lunch quickly became lonely for me.

But being a company employee, even just a Temp Worker like 95% of QA, had it’s upsides.  We got the company discount on video games. Company employees could buy their own games for about a quarter of the price sometimes, just write a check for the amount as part of the order and you can pick up your game next week as part of a bulk drop off.  At least that’s how it went before a single person had a check bounce four months into my employment when the guy ordered a game. The week after, all of QA was told that we had to present cash money, no checks or credit cards, when we asked for a game.  Lots of people griped about it, but I was working 7 days a week and didn’t have the energy to care.

Besides, I’d already bought the only two games the company had made that I wanted already.

And yes, we worked 7 days a week.  According to state law, a company could not work a person every single day of the month though.  Every employee had to have at least four days off per month.  One employee I spoke to, she told me with cheerful acceptance of her schedule that she’d routinely worked shifts of 27 days in a row, finish the month with four days off, start the next month with four days off, and then work the entirety of the next month without a break.  Yes, it was legal.  While I was working full weeks constantly, it never got that bad for me, though I routinely got overtime pay that would make a man’s eyes stretch, especially on holidays like the 4th of July!

That ended about 8 months in, when the parent company sent a decree that a woman from admin on the first floor called us in by sections to deliver to us.  There would no longer be any holiday pay for QA.  We would still have to work on holidays, but we would only get normal rates for doing so.  The emotions of people in that room with families living hand to mouth ran high, and the person tasked with delivering the news nearly broke out weeping before we were sent back to our machines.

Two months after that, I had just been transferred from a just released Diablo 2 clone’s expansion pack that bored me to tears and nearly gave me carpal tunnel over to working a world exploring FPS.

God, I was so happy.  I was so happy that when we were assigned to test and give feedback on 20 man multiplayer systems I used my voice to communicate with my fellow testers instead of using in game chat. That was a fatal mistake, as I was fired the very next Friday for undisclosed reasons.  The timing was pretty obvious, though.  But everyone who knew me at QA was surprised, as I was one of the more professional workers and never caused problems.

But you know, my getting fired at that time was just moving my fate forward by six weeks.  That particular company would only hire people as Temp workers for 12 month contracts at a time, allowing them to fire anyone on a whim without any backlash.  The company also had a policy that they would NEVER hire anyone a second time in QA.  So even if you are the best bug hunter the company had ever seen, you’re done for good after 12 months.  Bye-bye, no take backs.

The company counts on the fact that there is a never ending supply of local young people who are not only capable workers, but willing to work crap hours while being treated like sub-human laborers, denied any personal space and all contact with people outside your immediate department inside a dim and overcrowded room with shifts starting at eight a.m. and ending at midnight.

The saddest part is that they’re right.


The Trenches - Hole in the World

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Hole in the World

Sometime in 2011 I was lucky enough to receive an invite to a closed beta of a major MMO.  Now, I’m no tester, I’m just an IT guy with a love of games.  That said I felt it my job to report any major bugs I found along the way, not because I thought real testers hadn’t found it but more out of respect for being allowed in a closed beta.  After all if I’m going to be granted access to free stuff I might as well be helpful.

While there I found a number of bugs that have since been fixed, the biggest one hasn’t, you see, it’s probably still there.

A group of us were testing out one of the very first dungeons new player will experience.  Just after a fairly easy but fun boss fight there is a ramp that goes down to the next area.  Being flushed with victory my companions launched themselves in jump attacks at the enemy rushing toward us up the ramp- and promptly disappeared.  Luckily the two of us who did not “jump” were able to dispatch our foes, but the others had managed to fly through the ramp and down out of the world.  Naturally we reported the issue while they tried getting unstuck, climbing walls and anything else they could think of to get out.  They hadn’t died so simply “releasing” wouldn’t work. Eventually they had to use the emergency “teleport” button that took them to a pre-determined spawn point away from the dungeon.  They then made the long trek to and through the dungeon back to us.  I know we weren’t the only ones this happened to either.  Lots of random people I grouped with knew about this bug too and warning about it became common place throughout beta.

Fast forward 6-9 months.  I am once again going through the dungeon this time in a fully patched and live version.  I “jump” at my on coming foes and promptly fly through the world, before splattering unceremoniously at the bottom of the game world, shocked that such an obvious problem hadn’t been resolved after so long.

I haven’t tried again recently but to my knowledge you can still find this problem.  The “fix” that seems to be applied is that you now die at the bottom.


The Trenches - Credit Where it’s Due

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Credit Where it’s Due

Towards the start of my career in the industry, I helped wrap up a US-developed game based on a famous Japanese cultural icon. It was being published by a well-known company that had long left the console scene and has since, struggled on its own. Anyhow they didn’t seem keen on the idea of crediting the developers on the end game credits sequence.

From what I understand, our company owner refused to hand over the final build until that was remedied. It was - Every developer was listed in name only, without any job title, meanwhile the publisher’s own credits were extended to include not only their job titles, but as well as special thanks to their families and pets.

Nice, huh?

In the end, we still worked with them on two other projects, and to no one’s surprise, we still had issues with them…


The Trenches - Cellblock 2350

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Cellblock 2350

In the early 2000s, a AAA video game company that is not Rockstar decided to try and capture the same kind of magic in a free roaming crime based video game series that they own. The idea was to try and make the game as close to life in the blood splattered morally grey area of living as real as possible.  A very admirable goal, I would say.  But instead of consulting social workers, criminologists, or even police officers who have patrolled those places, the company decided to consult actual ex-convicts who lived in the specific area that was the subject matter of the game in question.

I’m sorry, did I say “Consult?”  I meant, “Hire.”

That’s right.  The company decided to hire a couple dozen ex-cons to work on the game.  Not in development, or level editing, or even as script reviewers.  The company decided to place all of these convicted felons in their testing department, pretty much the one and only place in a publisher’s hierarchy where you get no say in the game.

Now at this time, this AAA company had just expanded their Testing department to occupy an entire floor of a new high rise office building (who’s address number was 2350) directly across the street from their main office.  The AAA company was very proud of this, and intended to rent out more floors to further expand the corporation and increase the number of projects they can develop at one time in the near future.  The testing department was recently settled into this location when the ex-cons were dropped on them.  The change in the workplace was nearly instantaneous.

The office went from subdued efficiency to loud, crass, stinky, and inefficient.  The ex-cons to a man did as little work as possible and were uncooperative with the actual employees.  Within a week, the restroom on that floor began to degenerate into something a long haul trucker would shun in disgust.  The doors were torn off the stalls. Faucets and toilets were intentionally broken.  Graffiti was scratched in, markered in, and spray painted over all of the walls. There was fecal stains on every surface inside the stalls, including the ceilings.  My friend made a point of telling me that he jumped the elevator down to the lobby every time he needed to use a bathroom.

The toilet was also the place to go for illegal activities.  Drug dealing went on in there, as well as drug usage.  And one GUY was even arrested for PROSTITUTION in that MEN’S ROOM.

The best part of the story to me, and I just love this, is that the AAA company in question had an outdoor fitness center, an open air gym, in their front lawn area for their desk slaves to keep healthy. This gym was located in direct view from the company president’s office in the middle center of the home office building.  Every time there was a break, that gym was filled with the ex-cons pumping iron like they were still in the prison yard, in direct view out of the company president’s window.  I just can’t even comprehend what made the company president decide to forge on with this plan after seeing that sight three or four times a day.

But the company did hold fast to the idea of having criminals work on their crime game.  And as a result, before the game was even released on the market, their business was permanently evicted from the new high rise.


The Trenches - It’s a Sabotage

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It’s a Sabotage

One game inside my company was being made by a new and very promising studio it had acquired in the old Soviet Block countries.  The brass was really looking forward to them working out when they invested in the studio, and their big game project was ambitious and well designed.  The long and short is an Eastern European post nuclear disaster wasteland First-Person quest driven exploration and survival shooter.

Sounds like Fallout 3, right?  But this game was designed and even released long before FO3 ever hit the shelves.  It was something that could have swept the market and become a smash hit, especially since it would have been easy for the localization for Europe and Russia because of the studio’s location.  The guys that tested the game sang of it’s potential, but more often they lamented it’s situation.

You see, the management had a few people they wanted to “dispose of.”

The big brass in the company decided to place people they didn’t like in charge of the new, small, and suddenly under-funded studio and then blame them when the new builds still retained Alpha version bugs and flaws.  Every person placed in charge of handling the unfortunate game was held responsible for a lack of progress when they were being actively undermined by their own bosses.

About three guys got discredited this way, the game itself getting older and inching closer to completion during this entire process. With three months until the promised release date, they were suddenly given funding, a new manager that was not being targeted by the higher ups, and a team of forty full time testers, a size only found on flagship projects inside the company.  But it was too late.  All the bugs that had been in the game since it’s Alpha build were present, and there was only enough time for surface polish and handling the “Game Breaker” bugs, and then the game was forced out the door.

I just now went and checked the old game’s Meta-score, and each review says basically the same thing.

“Great atmosphere, great writing, and immersive.  But the bugs kill the fun, so go find something else to play if you can.”

Even so, the game got an 80% rating and additional DLC.  But I just can’t help but feel that if those guys in charge hadn’t have been petty assholes to each other then this game would have been the one to define a genre in place of Fallout 3.  Instead, they pissed their money away and hamstrung a promising studio for their own personal vendettas.

Bet they would’ve acted different had they known how much money Bethesda would make.


The Trenches - Worst. QA Manager. Ever.

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Worst. QA Manager. Ever.

So I was hired as a night shift QA tester at a company a few years ago and we had a night shift manager (let’s call him Tim) was pretty much the worst manager ever. Here are some of the things he did:

- When I started, Tim was the one who trained me up on how to write and enter bugs into the system. He was a pedantic asshole who constantly checked every bug that went in for spelling and grammar mistakes, which is fair enough, but he would go further to embarrass the person who made the mistakes in front of the team. The funny thing was, he was a complete country bogan and he kept using the word (if you could call it that) “youse” as in “youse guys better do this right.”

- We once had a test machine which red ringed which was taken taken away to get repaired which meant that the person who usually used that machine couldn’t do any work. My colleague that usually used that machine just tested on a different console and game. When the producer came in and asked why there was a lack of bugs from my colleague, Tim basically pushed him out in front of a bus and told the producer that my colleague did testing on another game that he wasn’t told to do for a week. My colleague was one of the few who got let go a couple of weeks later

- A job opportunity came up within the company for an Asset Manager position. Basically everyone in nightshift applied. Tim basically told everyone to give up because he would bad mouth all of us so that he would get the job. We applied anyway, found out he got the job, then found out that he really did give us all bad reviews when our review process came up. Oh also, Tim never got a review in the 3 years he was there when everyone else had one every year.

- Let me paint you the scene. Crunch time. 4th consecutive weekend working. Saturday morning 9:00PM (we had finished our last shift earlier at 2:00PM). The usual slug at the start of the day, regressions, regressions and more regressions. Everyone already thought it was weird that it was the 2IC who opened the doors for us to start work. Tim strolls in at lunch time, telling us all that he was horribly hung over. First thing he tells us to do is to go to lunch. When we get back, he’s nowhere to be found. Turns out he told the 2IC that he would be in his car sleeping off his hangover. By that point we were all pretty pissed off.

Later that afternoon, the CEO of the company stops by to thank us all for working so hard (the CEO was a pretty nice dude) and notices that Tim is missing from the room. He asks where he is and before anyone can respond the 2IC covers for him instantly. CEO thanks us all again and then leaves. WTF’s all round.

At the end of the day: Fuck you Tim you wanker.

But to everyone else on that night shift team you guys were awesome and it was great working with you all. If it wasn’t for “youse” guys I’m sure one of us would have stabbed Tim repeatedly with a blunt spoon and buried him under the building.


The Trenches - You get what you pay for.

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You get what you pay for.

This Tale From the Trench may make me sound like a douche, though it’s not meant to degrade testers in any way. I’ve been in QA for the last 6+ years so I am a tester by trade. I know what it’s like out there. Hate me if you want, but here’s my story.

I come from a quality assurance background testing all manner of things; hardware, software, firmware, mobile apps, I’ve even static tested electronics with what is essentially a giant taser (which is kind of awesome).  I thought all of that background would help me get into a decent testing position in the gaming industry, which was one of my passions.

HR at the company I sent my information to went ape shit over my resume.  I had barely closed my email after submitting the thing before they scheduled a phone interview (I was moving states and trying to set up a job for after the move).  They told me they rarely get anyone with this kind of experience and they want me to come in for an in-person interview the second I get into town.

The in-person interview went as I expected; they were drooling over the opportunity to have a tester of my skillset on the team.  There was only one hitch they half mumbled at the end of the interview:

“How does nine dollars an hour sound?”

Let me put this into perspective.  I was 25, had a wife and was trying to do adult things like buy a house and plan a family.  My starting salary for an entry-level position in testing at the non-game publisher I started QA for was more than double that.

Long story short, I declined but ran into issues finding other employment so called back to accept later with a few guidelines. Since the pay was only 9 bucks an hour and they could “do nothing” to change it, I wanted to work more than 8 hours a day.  This thrilled them immensely.  I also wanted weekends off, which they begrudgingly gave. I started work the next week.

The end of our 2-day training period, myself and another tester were given a Gold release of one of their most popular titles, a first-person shooter that I won’t name.  Our task was to simply find a single defect that had not been logged in their system against this game.  We had 2 hours to accomplish this.  I found 4 defects in the first 10 minutes.  Literally the second test I performed caused an issue.  My colleague found none over the 2-hour stretch.  In fact, I went ahead and just gave him one of the 3 I hadn’t bothered writing up in the last 15 minutes he had.

Here’s where you may think I’m being a dick.  The following evening when I started testing proper.  I quickly found the caliber of my fellow testers to be…less than stellar.  These were kids in their late teens, living in their parents’ basements for the summer, whose sole qualifications were liking games.  They had no idea about testing methodologies, they had no idea how to be thorough or even to actually TEST.  They simply pushed buttons, watched the results, and raised any issues they maybe encountered.  This in itself is not bad (this is referred to as ad hoc testing, by the way), but you will not find everything that way.

I tested circles around them.  I liked them, don’t get me wrong.  I wasn’t cocky about it, I simply did my job as usual.  The studio began to complain about money, about not finding all the issues or seeing them and not knowing how to recreate them later, what anyone who tests outside the game industry knows is the basics of testing anything; find, replicate, report.  They weren’t testers, they were just kids playing games.

Needless to say, I had a meeting with management that did not end well.  I did not mean to come off condescending and egotistical.  I simply come from a world where this is in no way an efficient way to test. But even the people I talked to in management were not testers by trade, they came from testing games and didn’t know how (quote, unquote) real testing was done.  My work spoke for itself, they did not want to let me go even after what they saw as blatant insubordination, but the damage was done.  I knew that this game, and all games to come, would simply go out sub-par due to inefficient testing.  I left the company (for a handful of other logistic reasons like money and hours, not just this).

So let me end this with an open call to all testing managers in the game industry: kids that play games will help you find issues, there’s no doubt about it.  Some of them are quite good at what they do.  But without having at least some person who truly knows HOW to test, you are going to have the same issues with testers that you always do. And anyone who does testing as a career knows, 9 bucks an hour just isn’t going to cut it.  If you really want to make a better return on your investments, spend a little more for better people and just have less of them.  I guarantee you, someone who really knows testing will be worth 3 kids that just like games.

Let me also say this to testers who are disenchanted after their experiences in the game industry: If you really do like testing, there are plenty of opportunities out there in the testing world that don’t make you work 16-hour days, work through meals, and sleep under your desks.  And they pay enough for you to actually afford things like groceries and rent.

In short: you get what you pay for.


The Trenches - That’s All Well and Good, But…

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That’s All Well and Good, But…

Like so many people, I love games and dreamed of joining the game development industry.

In college I studied programming, gained experience building games and apps for Flash and on the iPhone, and applied for game development internships and jobs. After several false starts where entry-level game dev jobs were downsized out from under me, I ended up as an insurance salesman; it was kind of depressing!

However, insurance sales provided a stable income. One day I realized that I could probably live off of my savings for about one year while I tried to find a job as a game developer. After the thought hit me I could not shake it! If I couldn’t get a game development position, I could probably go back into sales later.

I moved to Seattle, where the game industry seemed healthier, then spent most of my time applying to jobs and creating simple games for my portfolio. I emphasized these games in my applications, but for a long time I did not receive many callbacks. I purchased StarCraft II and began playing it to keep my spirits up. I became reasonably good, winning a small amateur tournament.

Out of the blue I received a strange email from a headhunter. She told me that, sure, I could program and I had built a few games, and that was nice, but could I play StarCraft II at a high level? I wanted to know if she was joking.

I came in for an interview, defeated a few members of the design team, and talked for a while about the current state of StarCraft II’s competitive multiplayer balance. They hired me and I spent the last thoroughly enjoyable year as a member of that design team.

“So, how have you liked the year that you’ve been here in Seattle?” recently asked the supervisor who had hired me.

“Two years. I spent a year building and publishing little Flash and iPhone games out of my apartment. That was at the top of my resume!”

“...Really? Oh. I hadn’t ever noticed that. How funny!”

Clearly, I had been approaching the job hunt all wrong. Please excuse me while I update my resume.

Experienced princess rescuer, reliable zombocalypse survivor, avid prophesied hero…


The Trenches - The Age of Fear

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The Age of Fear

I work for a low-profile, West Coast game studio that has been around for over a decade. I wasn’t there when it started, but my time served there has been pretty significant. While the place has many infamous stories, the topic I bring to you today is about how management had a habit of becoming irrationally paranoid of the individuals they let go. Here’s my recollection of their actual concerns (and these are all individual incidents mind you).

Fear that said ex-employee would somehow:
- Shoot up the office
- Fight them in the parking lot
- Shoot up the office (again)
- Move explosives into the basement
- Consume a child (wtf?)
- Burn the studio down
- Sabotage the servers
- Crash a birthday party and make a scene
- Recruit ex-co-workers when they got better jobs elsewhere (OK, that did happen) :)

It should also be mentioned that the ones they canned made no threats or showed signs of aggression upon their termination; each individual just went off to greener pastures, some in completely non-game fields. So there you have it, 10+ years in business with zero incidents. Makes you wonder if management felt guilty, perhaps that all those layoffs were unjust?

Hmm.


The Trenches - The Awesome Highly Professional Methodology

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The Awesome Highly Professional Methodology

Back when there was a shortage of programmers, I chose for my next contracting assignment a firm that advertised its rigorous, highly professional methodology that enabled rapid development with high reliability due to its great system. I really wanted to learn a better way of doing things, and was willing to learn from anybody.

First day there: No hint about a methodology. Indeed, my workstation didn’t have the tools to build the software I was ostensibly working on.

Next day: Same. I asked about the methodology and tools, and was assured it would all come through after a small team reorganization.

Months later: Still no methodology. All we had was a list of features to implement, given to us by a couple of analysts who handle all interactions with the clients. The “testing methodology” consisted of a short Word document with a table of 10 things that an analyst wanted tested, in no particular order.

I figured, what the heck, we had to start testing so I suggested to the team lead that we needed a more detailed test plan. He said, OK, write it. I thought WTF? But OK, this was a chance to grow and learn.

First thing, since a table in a word document wasn’t going to be an efficient way to list dozens or hundreds of things to do, I moved the table of things to test to a real spreadsheet and systematically added stuff to test, columns for conditions precedent and all that good stuff.

I guess that offended the kid who’d written the document because she complained to the lead and he told me I was wasting my time.

I figured when we were assigned a few testers I’d let them decide, but as it turned out, it really was wasted time because they never got around to assigning testers - just one guy who really resented having to sit down and go through functions.

They burned through the budget building the thing without anything left over for serious testing (which suggests something about the Methodology) but I guess the unit testing was enough to persuade the client to accept delivery. Hey, maybe THAT’s the Methodology!

At the Delivery Day Dinner, the client (who I’d never met) reacted to meeting me with, “Oh, you’re the guy who’s responsible for this being late!” which I took as a clue. Needless to say, this barely tested product seems to have vanished from sight but not before I disappeared from that contracting firm.


The Trenches - “Good for your career”

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“Good for your career”

The head of the department liked weed. He knew I knew a guy (don’t smoke myself, friend of former roommate), and asked me one day to leave in the middle of the afternoon (during crunch) to go and hook him up. I didn’t want to, but he said it would “be good for my career”.

When I hesitated, he threatened to fire me (temps could be fired for any reason), and then offered to pay me a finder’s fee. I didn’t feel I had much of a choice, and caved.

The next week I was brought into HR, and was asked to explain my unapproved absence from the week before. I looked at the department head who was glaring at me. I told them I went home because I needed some medicine for my stomach and came back when I felt better. That’s when they told me people believed I went out and got drunk, then they told me I was being fired for misconduct, with no evidence.

That night I was sitting at home still going WTF and the department head texted me asking for more weed. I blocked his number. This was a few years ago. Today I have a good design job at a nice company and look back at that time and can’t believe what I put up with.

I found out recently the department head was later fired for coming to work while seriously stoned.


The Trenches - Short But Sweet.

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Short But Sweet.

I started testing on the 360, but after some time was given a PS3 to test on with no cords to hook it up. I asked my lead where to find PS3 cords, but he told me to stay on the 360 for the rest of the week, and he would get them for me.

That Friday I was fired for not testing on PS3. I told them I was waiting on cords from my lead who told me to stay 360 until he found them for me. They told me there was an entire cabinet full of cords in the other room, and I should have gotten them myself, but now it was too late.

I heard later from a friend still there that the lead got drunk at a party and admitted it was his fault I was fired, but wouldn’t help me get my job back.


The Trenches - Gamestop, Hell in a shopping mall.

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Gamestop, Hell in a shopping mall.

I used to work in Television- eight years in Production, then one year the home office sells our station to a local business that managed to scrape together $60,000,000 to buy the station.

After that I was jobless,  I was listed as having “Quit,” so no unemployment benefits.

My friend was the manager at a Gamestop, and he saw that I was having trouble and offered me a job.  “It won’t be many hours but any extra that come up are yours.”  True to his word, any extra hours that came up were mine…. up to the corporate mandated maximum (at the time) of 28 hours per week.

I knew it wasn’t the best, but I needed the work,  so for two years I worked there and saw the steady push for more power-up memberships despite the fact that our numbers didn’t show it was possible.

After the first year I got a 1/2 percent raise. 3 cents.

That AMAZINGLY generous raise put my hourly at $6.78. Did I mention I was making three times that just over a year before?

I bit my tongue and kept plugging along while trying to find another job, it was the later half of 2006, and the job market was non-existent.

Another year passes, and my boss/buddy tells me he’s put me in not only for a raise that would add $2 an hour, but a promotion to a key position and more hours.

My raise was turned down by the DM,  I got 3 cents again.  My promotion was also turned down as they were eliminating the key position I was being offered not a week before.

Our store took a blow when the DM stomped through and fired two employees whom we had working 4 hours per week.  They were our reservists - during the holidays or when one of the regulars were sick, they were called.

So if you got sick, the store gets screwed, and your co-worker/friend had to work a double and caught shit for it for going over hours.
   
As time goes on, I find out that the DM gave NO ONE in the district a raise beyond 10 cents, and that stores all over the district had lost people. We later learned that the DM was promised anything from the raise budget and 10% of anything she could shave from the pay pool as her yearly bonus. We got screwed so she could get a fat bonus.

When the crew found out about this my buddy put in his two weeks, as did everyone but me. I couldn’t afford to.

“You don’t want to work for her or anyone she puts into this place man, believe me,” my boss/buddy told me. I believed him but I needed the job.

On the 14th day from the crew’s two weeks, he worked the close shift with me. We were SLAMMED. Easily 300 trades that day. The back counter was PACKED. Best day of business the store had seen that quarter.

As we locked up, he had me vacuum and straighten while he handled the bank.

He then organized the guts on the counter, made sure the pricing tags were with them. Then he called me over.

“You’re fired.” he told me and marked me as no longer working for Gamestop in the system.

I was stunned.  He then handed me a slip of paper with the phone number to set up my unemployment benefits.

He clocked out and hit the lights.

“Not that I care at this point but what about the guts?” I asked, standing by the door waiting to be let out.

“Store’s clean, everything is in order, we just didn’t put it away,” he said and added, “Besides, we don’t work here anymore.”

It was kind of a dick move, but in all honesty the filing would have put me over hours, and he was to be out on time on his last day by order of the DM.

The next day I slept in a bit then called unemployment, request for benefits denied. In the two years I worked for Gamestop, I had not earned enough money to qualify for unemployment.

My friends kind final act was for naught.

Just a word of advice,  NEVER work for Gamestop.


The Trenches - No, the Real Gaming Expert

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No, the Real Gaming Expert

I worked as the media supervisor at a large electronics corporation. Being “media,” gaming naturally fell under my control and, being a “gamer”, this was my favorite place to go and help customers. I played a wide variety of games from Pokemon on my DS lite to lengthy online matches of Halo with all my retail buddies.

Oh, and did I mention I’m a girl?

People seemed to get hung up on that fact a lot. Generally it involves a surprised look or comment of “You play COD? Can you talk to my girlfriend?” but nothing too bad. One time in particular though always stands out in my mind when people ask me to share a unique story of my gaming retail experience.

It was the holiday season and we were packed (of course). I was traveling from aisle to aisle making suggestions to relatives and significant others as to what to get their loved ones for their gaming
consoles. I approach one middle aged gentleman and ask him if there was anything he needed.

“Yes,” He replies, giving me a quick once over. “I have two 16 year old sons and I need help picking out a video game for them.”

“Oh, that’s great. There are a lot of really great titles that came out this year that I’m sure they’ll love.”

He seems genuinely confused at this point and states. “I don’t think you understand. They are 16 year old boys. They don’t play the games you play.”

I see exactly where this is going and merely smile. “Oh, no, I’m the gaming expert here. I actually play a wide variety of different titles, mostly FPS’s and RPG’s. I’m sure we can find something to suit your sons.”

The man stares at me for a moment and then turns around to grab the nearest guy he can find, who happens to be one of my employees walking past the aisle we were in.

“Excuse me sir, can you lead me to your gaming expert?” The gentleman asks.

My employee looks at him quizzically and then looks at me. He then says, “sure, no problem, right this way.” He leads the gentleman out one side of the aisle we were standing in around to the side, ending up directly in front of me.

“This is Quinn, our media supervisor and gaming expert. She is probably one of the most hardcore players I’ve ever met and knows more about video games than anyone else in the store. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

That is why I worked there. Despite all the bulls**t on a weekly and sometimes even daily basis I had to put up with, I had over fifty brothers who had my back. Whether it was cheering me on during a Halo “killing spree” or politely telling a guy he was being a dick, they were always there for me. It’s why I have hope for the gaming industry. If every guy just had a sister to relate to, I’m pretty sure we would end up with more awesome big brothers and less trolls.


The Trenches - Finish him!

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Finish him!

I worked for a my first software company in the late 80s into the early 90s, and we were bought up by a “giant”. We were located in the Seattle area, they were down in San Francisco, and it was a very interesting relationship to stay connected (this was the dark ages before the Internets…!). Over time, our group was downsized bit by bit until the original group of around of 100 (devs & testers) was reduced to about 10 testers. They had us working as a rogue testing group - spot checking the work that the teams in SF were doing. It felt a bit dirty because we knew we were working behind the scenes for higher up manager types who wanted to know if their teams were finding all the bugs.

Then something interesting happened….

Managers came and went, and we were shuffled between a few of them, and eventually we realized that the last person we were working for was gone…. but no one new had gotten to us to let us know what we should be working on next. So, after a few boring days we hooked up a Nintendo to a giant TV, rearranged our cubicles, brought in a couple couches, and played Mortal Kombat (the original one) until we heard what to work on next.

We waited for 6 MONTHS while playing that game all day long.

We’d show up each day on time, play MK, and then go to lunch, come back, play MK, then head home at the end of a full day. We wanted to be there in case anyone tried to call or email us, but no one ever did. We didn’t know who to call about what we should be doing, because the person we last worked for wasn’t there anymore.

Our paychecks kept rolling in, and over time, one by one, guys on the team found jobs at other companies – because they were getting bored of just playing Mortal Kombat all day long. In the end, there were 3 of us left, and we got a call from headquarters letting us know that they were going to give us a “re-deployment package” and let us all go. It was an extremely generous deal, and I used it to put a down payment on my first house.


The Trenches - Superman’s Useless Morning Jog

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Superman’s Useless Morning Jog

A few years ago, I was a Game Master for a fairly popular MMO. One of the benefits of this job was our ability to play on GM accounts that had access to special commands that could make our characters invisible, invincible, able to take on the appearance of any model in the game, adjust our size.

However, with great power comes great responsibility or at least insane oversight. These accounts were watched over carefully and we were advised to stay invisible any time we used these characters on a live server and to only actually play the characters on the test server where our shenanigans could not have rippling effects on the game’s economy or possibly be overseen by players.

The downside to this is that it absolutely ruined the “normal” game for me. I had somehow found my way into a job that allowed me to literally play an MMO all day long should I want to do so, but the GM tools destroyed all desire I had to actually play it. Once you are given an account that can make that special rare sword appear in a few keystrokes, suddenly forming parties with real players and running a dungeon that only has a small chance of dropping it becomes a ridiculously arduous task for a marginal reward.

You might be thinking, “Well, just play in the test server,” but even that becomes dull after you have god-mode. The game’s verisimilitude is destroyed when you can one-shot kill a world boss. When there is no challenge and there is no reward, you are no longer gaming. It becomes an empty task like Superman going for a light morning jog.

There are a few jokes to make with these types of tools to amuse yourself and other GMs like porting other GMs into deep, deep holes that contain nothing but fire. However, these pranks were really all just permutations of the same joke where we slightly inconvenienced another god for the minute it took them to laugh and type a slash command to restore themselves to immortality.

Maybe the Greeks had it right. Maybe there is a pantheon of narcissistic immortals that invented us and mortality to bring consequence to their squabbles. If so, they had it right. I have no doubt the GM tools would be endlessly entertaining had we permission to unleash them on the foolish, mortal players.


The Trenches - Missed Opportunity

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Missed Opportunity

I graduated college with an engineering degree in the midst of the recent recession. No one was hiring, and after four months I was getting a little desperate. A friend made iPhone games at a small startup which had recently come out with a hit game. He said they didn’t have anyone doing in house testing for them and were looking to hire someone part time with a possible fulltime position down the road. I jumped at the opportunity. The interview went great, I got along well with all six guys that worked there, and they said I could start whenever.

The week before I was to start, I got a fulltime offer from a real engineering company. I was torn. Do I work part time as a tester for a startup company that may never make a hit game again, or do I take the fulltime gig doing what I had actually gone to school for? I took the fulltime engineering job.

The startup was understanding, and I kept in touch with my friend. They hired someone as a part time tester, and within 3 months he was full time. Within a year they had discovered the magic of in-app purchases, and the company expanded like crazy. As of now the guy they hired instead of me is in charge of 3 fulltime testers, has his own office, and plays iPhone games all day while I sit in a cubicle staring at a monitor as my soul slowly drains out of me. How I wish I had taken that opportunity.


The Trenches - Magics of Rockets

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Magics of Rockets

Let me set you the scene for how my first title in QA was shaping up. We had about twenty people in a bay doing multiplayer testing on a AAA title. After a few months of us doing this, they moved us to different bays and expanded our team because the game was falling behind (surprise!) and we couldn’t test fast enough (they felt).

Most of us were not pleased about that as about three fourths of our bugs were coming back with large “working as intended” notes. Those of you have worked in the industry doing QA know that is dev speak for “die in a fire” so we were a little miffed about them adding more people to the title.

Fast forward a month and we are on day 30 of what will become 45 days of “voluntarily” overtime at 12 hours a day in an attempt to find a version of the game that won’t have the fans of the franchise screaming for blood in the streets outside the design studio. By this time anyone that has worked those hours can tell you tempers get short and ideas get crazy.

This is when I found the issue with the autolock with the RPG. You see, simply by pointing the screen (this was a third person shooter title) and jumping the way you were running you would ensure that the rocket would find a nice cozy home in the target’s chest. Since his seemed broken I wrote up the bug and submitted it to be sent to our devs and was greeted by our lead a few minutes later who wanted me to show him why I thought it was an issue. I then proceeded to go through about three games with nearly no deaths before he gave a heavy sigh with the words “They’re not going to like this.” before he went to send the bug in.

Can anyone guess what the dev response was? That’s right. “Working as intended, this is not a bug.”

They then patched it within three weeks of the title launching after the forums exploded about how broken it was.

So do us all a favor, if you are a dev and your testers submit something that seems to be broken don’t give them the knee jerk reaction of saying it’s not a bug. Actually look into the issue and see if it might be something that needs fixing.


The Trenches - Pucker Up

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Pucker Up

It’s quite obvious that QA can be an egregious environment. Racking up over 2,000 hours of test time in less than six months will wear down anyone’s sanity. As testers, we always made sure to keep that among ourselves, and not to let it affect our testing or bug writing. At the dev studio however, there were apparently no such rules.

Enter Jason. This rather eccentric audio dev began telling fantastic tales on our bug comments. Every audio bug was apparently fixed by him reaching into the netherverse and fighting off a rabid unicorn or three headed pigeon to fix a bit of audio jittering.

We were fascinated by his stories, and would often climb through the bug database looking for his comments. That’s when I found the anus pucker bug. A specific monster in the game had a very slight delay when shooting at enemies, and he described it at thus:

“The anus pucker thing doesn’t make a noise right away when firing its anus pucker discharge at enemies” This went on for paragraphs, describing in detail about how the anus pucker would sometimes misfire, and that the anus pucker should fire correctly.

That bug was printed out more times than I can recall. It was even taped to the side of my monitor for those times when our sanity was wearing. Nothing like a good anus pucker to pick you up when you’re down.


The Trenches - The elephant in the room.

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The elephant in the room.

I worked at a fairly large company that would seasonally hire in large volumes of temporary extra customer support staff. During one such period I was graced with a position in their phone and email support teams.

A few hundred of us temp staff worked there for several months, but as the customer contacts started to diminish, the company started their ‘Wind Down’. Every week a group of 10-20 people was escorted past my desk to the Office and told that some of them would not have jobs the following week. After a couple of these parades I made a comment in my team’s local chat room to the tune of “Ah, nothing cheers you up in the morning like the smiling faces of a group of us temps being sent on a death march to the Office.”

Immediately all conversations in the chat died. One of my managers finally broke the silence and said “That was out of line, man. This is a terrible situation and could do without your jokes”. I responded that I, as one of the temp staff with the axe above my neck, was in a good position to understand what they were going through. None the less I apologized as I could see that my choice of humour was a bit coarse. The rest of the chat chimed in to say that I shouldn’t make comments like that again.

Eventually another of my managers came back from lunch and read over the chat logs and promptly called me over for a meeting.

She said that she’d read over my exchange. I quickly mentioned that I understood that it was a sensitive issue and that I’d stop making jokes about it. She then said “Yes, jokes are one thing, but actually we don’t like to talk about the Wind Down at all here. You see, it’s not just hard on you - we’ve all become friends here so it’s hard on us to see you leave as well. It’s a depressing issue, so we just don’t talk about it.” Her utterly cheerful smile never wavered once.

I tested the water occasionally by bringing up the waves of firings in the chat in the following days, but every time my comments were unceremoniously ignored.

A few days later I cleaned out my desk.


The Trenches - While the Publisher may be evil, the QA Department is AWESOME!

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While the Publisher may be evil, the QA Department is AWESOME!

Note: This is not technically a “war story”, but still very much worth telling.

Between the Summer of 2006 and the Fall of 2007, I worked for the “sports game” division of a MAJOR Video Game publishing company, that as a whole, is consider to be one of (is not THE) most evil, corrupt, and responsible for ruining any game and/or franchise they touch.

But, here’s the twist: I absolutely fucking LOVED the job.

This story is not about how much they suck… it’s about how much the the people who work there are kickass fucking awesome!

This is a story of my tie with them, or at least… the highlights. :)

First, the hiring process IS INTENSE. They give you a phone interview first, which is easy to pass, as long as you’re not a psycho or a douche (though apparently people manage to fuck this part up).

Then they get the top ~20ish people into a room, and tell you what to expect during your time there, which surprisingly enough includes a guy who -actually says- something to the equivalent of: “While we do not condone Prejudicial/bigoted speech, it may still happen, so if you don’t have tough skin for that sort of thing, this job may not be the place for you.”

Now, that statement wasn’t meant to discourage any person of any race/creed/gender/orientation/etc. from sticking around, he was just stating a simple fact that on the testing for, sometime people can be crude. The general idea was that since they couldn’t patrol everyone every minute of everyday, you had to take personal responsibility to “know your audience”. Again, a very smart, common sense, approach.

When I first got hired, I was sent to a building -across the street- where I (and another girl that was hired on the same day) were told to play a game that the company had already RELEASED… why? Because they we’re making the 3rd game, and wanted to make sure me and this other girl (who was in the same hiring class I was in), I spent 2 days working on this before one of the Senior Leads from the QA department came over and told both of us to follow him.

When went down the stairs, back across the street, entered the -main- QA Building, and were given our assignments, she was given the “Major movie license game that had been scrapped after a YEAR of working on it and restarted from scratch with 6 more months to go before the DVD release which was to coincide with the release of the game.”

However, I was lucky! My first project was a “European version of Baseball” game, and I kinda liked it I got to work of the PC version of the game, and got to tweak Windows settings in order to screw the game over in weird and complicated ways. I even got a free copy of the game! (Note: we got free copies of any game that our names appeared in the credits, and in order to get into the credits you had to work on the game -officially- for at least 2 weeks).

Over the course of the next year I work on some MAJOR titles, some lesser titles, got moved to a specialty team that was considered THE hardest team to get into and learn from, became “first officer” of a team (3rd in line under the Senior lead and the Team Lead), and genuinely enjoyed my time there. In fact if it wasn’t for other opportunities that came to be, I would still be working there to this day.

But, here’s the best part: (and the point of my whole story).

The QA PARTIES.

You see several times a year the QA Department would use their left over budget and throw parties for it’s team members.

KEG PARTIES.

That’s right, we’d come into work one day, clock in, GET PAID, and proceed to eat, and GET DRUNK!!!

I kid you not.

Our -bosses- would be grillin’ various meats outside, there would be KEGS (plural) for you to drink from, a cotton candy machines (which made a HUGE mess that had to be scraped off the wall), video game competitions, the whole bit… it was epic!

My best memory of this time is in fact, having myself, a buddy of mine, the 1st officer from project I was working on at the time, and an actual developer for the same game we were working on, all sitting around in a conference room, finishing off the last “foamy bits” of beer out of the bottom of a keg” (i.e.: floating the keg). And here’s the most important thing, everybody felt like a TEAM, the idea of “devs vs QA”, and “the company thinks of us as robots instead of human beings” ... all of that? It went right out the window… They made sure we had fun, and more importantly, that made sure we were SAFE: They paid for ANY and ALL cab rides people may of needed in order they made it home safely, and a lot of times, it was the leads and developers themselves driving people home.

Moral of the story: Sometimes, even the “Worst Company of the Year”, really does care about it’s employees, and isn’t as bad as people actually believe it to be. :)