Quote of the Moment

"Beep Industries currently has no openings. This is a good thing. Any number of career paths are better than game development. Lots of jobs are more lucrative and far less work. We hear marketing and animal husbandry are filled with potential."

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Crunch Time Initiations

It was October, 2001. After several fruitless months competing with laid off dot-commers for the entry level programming jobs available in the Seattle area, I'd finally taken a job as a game tester at An Unnamed Game Publisher (AUGP for short). The pay was lousy, but it was a foot in the door of my dream career. Besides, it's not like companies were in any kind of competition for my employment.

I oriented with a group of about fifteen other people. The actual training was short and simple. "This is a bug" they said, as they showed a video of a snowboarding game where the player's character was stuck flying through the sky, "write a legible bug report for anything you see that's wrong, and always, ALWAYS, keep your VCR running. If it's not on tape, it didn't happen." A couple of people in my group were let go within the first couple of days specifically for forgetting to have their VCR running.

I drew an easy assignment. Thrown on to add man-hours to a game that had already been released but was doing an additional SKU for Europe. No bugs, easy deal. After that it was on to another game, a racing game this time, that was in the final states of polish, where I once again did little more than add man-hours necessary to certify that the game could be shipped.

We worked a few hours of overtime for the racing game, but not much was necessary. When it went out the door, I was added to a new project that had just come in for testing: a fighting game! There were a lot of bugs, and the deadline was growing closer. To be on store shelves by Christmas, a game has to be approved and released for manufacturing no later than very early November, and October is preferable. Eight hour days quickly became ten hour days, then twelve, then twelve plus weekends. People periodically quit, done in by the hours (or merely the demands of having to be on time for the first time in their lives), or were fired (technically their contracts were "completed", but we all know it's the same functional thing) for incompetence. They were quickly replaced though, and the marathon testing wore on.

Finally we neared the end. "One last big push!" our test manager promised us. One catch though. We were up against the deadline, and the game had to play for a certain number of hours without a single crash. It all came down to a twenty-four hour marathon shift. "Come in at 2pm tomorrow. We'll go from there."

I showed up ready. I had my CD player, books, and an iron stomach capable of swilling tester-blend coffee black. But a few hours into the test, it was called off. "Build's broken. We'll go tomorrow."

The wait only psyched people out more. The next night, people in my row had cases of Red Bull, Ballz, and other unholy beverages of gamer's fuel. The marathon began. Before we were even a third of the way in, we were a man down. One of our testers had seriously overestimated her caffeine tolerance. Blowing chunks, even when you do make it to the toilet, tends to make your body not want to keep going any more.

We broke periodically for half-hour meal breaks, and fifteen minute relaxation or smoke breaks. By 5am, I was starting to lose it. Head bobbing up and down, characters on the screen slowly becoming blurry as I ran off a cliff for the 500th time. More coffee! Double Strong! The witty banter had all but ceased between test stations as we grimly focused on our TVs.

Slowly the witching hour passed, and with dawn came new energy. Or at least, a sugar buzz from donuts, danishes, and more coffee. We were in the home stretch, and we were going to beat this thing! And then, finally, it was over. twenty-four hours, and no game crashes. People perhaps, but the game could go out.

The smart people packed up all of their stuff, for it was never quite certain that once a big push ended, if they would find you to be unnecessary head count and end your contract. It wasn't the end for me, but it was for some. It's funny though, that after six years, I can think back, and while I can't recall all the names, I can still remember the faces. For people trying to break into the games industry through a QA path, product test and contracted work are our trenches, and twenty-four hour crunches capping ninety-hour weeks are our air raids. The survivors come out stronger, tougher, and with a shared camaraderie helps fill higher positions later in careers. The fallen, well, we wonder about them sometimes. Did he end up as a truck driver? Maybe she's a bank teller now. Who knows? But when you're twenty-one and making video games, it's just the cap to an exciting day. Go home, call your fiancée, then crash. Get up and do it all again.