Testing Video Games Can’t Possibly Be Harder Than
Twenty five year old Adam Theuret hears the call and comes running. Outfitted at each desk with a flat screen TV and three Xbox 360 consoles, the testers are checking that Xbox 360’s latest boredom eradicating features which enable you to fast forward through movies before they’ve finished downloading, and chat with your friends via MSN instant messenger while you download free game samples can be installed and used without the system freezing or crashing. The star of the leads is Theuret, a man of unerring precision and efficiency, clad in a black T shirt with dates of the VMC WORLD TOUR listed on the back. To find out how different, I spent a couple of weeks at Volt, a Redmond company that is the country’s largest independent video game tester. Hundreds of testers work at Nintendo and Microsoft during crunch times. More than 50 smaller Seattle area video game developers like Surreal, Valve, and Zipper employ anywhere from five to 20 testers each. If you’re selected for a shift, you get an automated confirmation call back that night. the next day. Volt sits across the street from a golf course on Willows Road in a desolate area in Redmond. Volt’s parent company was founded in New York in 1950 as Volt Technical Services, publishing technical manuals during the Korean War. Known today as Volt Information Sciences, it has more than 300 offices around the world and is in the business of temporary staffing, yellow pages publishing, and information systems. A few guys in their early 20s, wearing black, are smoking near the entrance. On a counter in the cafeteria sits a row of sign up sheets, each for a different lab, or workroom, upstairs. I enter and look for a sign up sheet with my name on it, without success.”Sorry,” chirps one of the receptionists, after telling me that, despite confirming my shift the night before, I’m not working after all. “Maybe get here a little earlier next time?”My shift has already been taken by someone who wasn’t on the schedule, but who came in and signed his name on the “Bullpen” sheet, a kind of day laborer list.”It’s literally like the ‘shape up’ that they used to do at the dock,” says Marcus Courtney, president of the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech). He’s referring to an early 20th century way of hiring longshore workers and deckhands. “You go there, and you kind of hang around, and they say, ‘All right, we need five guys to help unload this ship you, you, you, you, and you. The rest of you come back tomorrow.’ It’s not any different.” Courtney, a former Microsoft employee, has been working on organizing groups like video game testers for almost a decade.”A lot of people just don’t show up for their shifts,” admits Volt’s Theuret, who says that this shortage of consistent workers is why the Bullpen, designed to fill empty shifts on the fly, exists at all. “It’s every stoner’s dream in the Northwest to play video games for a living,” jokes Sean Day, 36, who’s worked as a tester for Volt and Nintendo, and currently works as an apartment manager. “And I should know I’ve tried it three times.” Other industries have scads of workers making minimum wage, but video games inspire a special sort of madness. Addiction has been linked to deaths, like the 2005 rash in which 10 South Koreans died from blood clots caused by prolonged playing sessions. Last month, delegates at the annual meeting of the American Medical Association considered including video game addiction in the upcoming revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but decided the idea needed further study.”I think the industry in general, they want addicts,” says Dr. Hilarie Cash, founder of Redmond’s Internet/Computer Addiction Services. “It is to their economic benefit to have people really hooked on their games. That there happens to be a pool of addicts out there who will work for peanuts, like methadone treatment, is to their advantage,” she says.”A lot of the guys I’ve worked with are testers,” Cash says of her clients. Video games hit these sweet spots using psychological principles of intermittent reinforcement, of keeping you on your toes awaiting the payoff.”Video games, for those people who get hooked, is elevating dopamine in the brain, and then your body adjusts to the overly produced levels of dopamine. That’s the same way all addictions work,” says Cash. the fluorescent lighted cafeteria, adorned with only the mandatory minimum wage and OSHA postings, is already full. The crowd numbers well over 50; most are young, white men. The T shirt on one reads: “Your skill in Reading has increased by one point” (the first of countless references to seeing the world through points and levels). Soft drinks are free, but juice and bottled water cost 25 cents. (Red Bull, which I’d hoped to see served in IV form, is $2.)One table is occupied with a group playing Magic: The Gathering, a card based game that requires a 20 sided die and, evidently, the ability to make voices in the high pitched style of Monty Python. Magic is an RPG, or role playing game, and the guys in the cafeteria morph into elves and trolls and other sorts of fire breathing characters. He says he retired three years ago, the day aft prada er his 22nd birthday, when he sold a few of his high end engineering patents (which include a mechanism for motors to store their kinetic heat after being shut off, allowing them to restart immediately in subzero conditions). Not long into his retirement, he was spending nearly $1,000 daily on gadgets just to keep his boredom at bay. After a nearby cousin asked him for a ride to Volt, Theuret himself a lifelong avid gamer stuck around to try it out. Each workspace consists of a desk and chair with a small flat screen TV, an Xbox 360 console, and a controller. Everything everything is numbered. I sit down; it’s the first time I’ve played an Xbox 360 in my life. We’re barked instructions on what profile to sign up under, how to log on, and what movie to download. Although I’m slower than the other testers, I’m fine once I realize that everyone’s eyes are locked to their own screen. The leads don’t care how well we play or what we do on the game, they just want to know if we can play for an hour the time it takes for Superman Returns to arrive without the whole thing crashing. In the game, you make a virtual Japanese schoolgirl dance to the beat by pressing the buttons in time to the music. It’s usually played with a sensory pad you actually dance on, but here it’s done with a handheld controller incapable of grasping my flawless rhythm. The last two hours, I feel nauseous. Severely so. When I get up to leave, I nearly fall over from dizziness and a massive headache. Was it the recycled air? The Mountain Dew fumes? I get up and use the women’s rest room, which is empty and spotless. Later that night, I diagnose my condition as simulator sickness the clear sign of a rookie.”Nintendo and Microsoft are very good places to start off and get a feel for what testing means. They’re always looking for basically anyone who can come in off the street and sit down for eight hours a day, looking at their titles. They’re looking for general feedback. He’s now working for a smaller Seattle video game developer, ArenaNet, which develops MMOs, or massively multiplayer online games. (ArenaNet’s best known title is the medieval era GuildWars.) “The dev houses are more fast paced than the other studios. But the third, and most interesting, is “functionality,” which looks deep into the game itself.”You might track shape or missions or the game play experience,” says Mark Shoemaker, a 32 year old lead tester at Surreal Software, a local game developer. “And then you have this special kind of tester, who looks at code. They’re often seen as a junior developer. They write code to break things.”But that’s all at the upper levels of QA, not at the lower levels of drudge that I see.”People think it’s going to be this thrill ride and you’ll have to play this fun video game all day long,” says Darci Morales, a lively, 32 year old redhead who started in Sony’s QA department in Mira Mesa, Calif., 10 years ago. She’s now a producer at Surreal, overseeing teams including programmers and QA. We’re to turn the console on six different ways by the main power button, by the remote control, by the controller (wireless and wired), and by pressing the eject button on the remote and the console 10 times each. In each case we start the stopwatch and record two measurements: how long it takes the console’s green lights to go on, and how long for the TV screen to be fully booted up and ready for play. A few people finish far enough ahead to have obviously fudged their numbers, but the entire process is so far beyond mind numbing that even the leads don’t seem to care or notice. Well before last week’s admission from the company, Xbox 360s had achieved legendary status amongst users for their propensity to die, or “brick.” In November, 360 owner Kevin Ray filed a lawsuit, which is aiming for “class action” st prada atus, against the company, claiming its October “update” had wrecked the machine. While testing, I see countless hard locks, but experience only one of my own plus a few glitches that would have hurt, had I cared about saving my actual score.”I never realized how important hardware is,” says Tommy Brosman, one of my cohorts at Volt. Brosman, who describes himself as “19 and a half” years old, is a student at DigiPen, the Redmond video game college on the Nintendo campus. He was awarded a full scholarship to study “real time interactive simulation” after designing a game in less than three months. A lot of testers, surprisingly, really don’t care about game design or programming at all, they just want to play games.” Playing games for hours on end is “a good challenge for me to try to improve my attention span.””That’s funny,” I say, “because a lot of people think gamers “”You know,” he cuts me off, index finger pointing toward the ceiling, “funny fact. You actually learn more raw analytical skills playing video games than you do from the American school system.” I ask for a source, but he doesn’t want to get anyone specifically, any of his DigiPen instructors in trouble. “But I believe it,” he continues, “because it makes sense. We were all required to sign lengthy nondisclosure agreements from both Volt and Microsoft, barring us from revealing product secrets. Our keycards register which room we’re in. We’re not allowed to bring anything into the labs; a group of lockers at the end of the hallway holds boys’ miscellany (cell phones and unnecessary hoodies) and my purse. One day, when the job consists of downloading and then playing free versions of some cheap, nostalgic, lo fi games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Bejeweled, a cell phone rings. The tester takes the call and steps outside. An uneasy silence descends upon the room. There was a guy, we were testing and sitting there, it was 10:30 in the morning, and just out of nowhere, this security guard comes up, and a supervisor comes up after him and says, ‘Grab your things.’ I’ve seen that several times. Day recalls working as a video game tester three years ago at Nintendo, where he was paid $10 an hour. After months of working on a video game, when it was on the verge of shipping, the game had to undergo “submission testing.””We have to play it for hours without any critical stops.” says Day. Then, as the job neared an end, the lead made an announcement. “He’s like, ‘You will be here tomorrow. And you will work for 24 hours, so come prepared.’ Everyone’s like, ‘What the fuck? How do you do that?'”Apparently, it’s not unusual at Nintendo, because they had a whole system for it that was ready to go. Within the first three hours, everyone is so freaked out, drinking tons of Red Bull. Everyone completely overdoes it. People have, like, grocery bags full of candy. By hour four, you have people puking in the bathroom. “Keeping the good ones there,” admits Volt’s Theuret, is “one of the greatest challenges. Turnover is huge.”When I go back to Volt for lunch a week after my last shift, I’m dismayed to see that the most interesting people I met are gone. A recent UW graduate who’s biding his time until his “real job with Microsoft” starts, and is taking an actuary exam, just for fun. A funny guitarist who just quit his job as a server at Johnny Rockets. A 50 something guy fully immersed in Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God, Vol. 3: Occidental Mythology. But given how difficult it is to stay on board or move up (and the number of students and stopgap seekers I met who weren’t fully invested), I’m also not surprised. “By and large, you’re looking at a $10,000 $20,000 difference between doing the same job in games versus another version of software,” says Shoemaker. He did contract work for Microsoft and Nintendo, collecting unem prada ployment on and off for years, before landing his first full time gig as a tester at Microsoft. He’s now working full time at Surreal.”This is really an industry of the haves versus the have nots. And the testers are the have nots,” says WashTech’s Courtney. The ones who want to stick it out find their way around the feast or famine lifestyle.”I’ve got a friend who works at Microsoft for nine months, then goes to Thailand for three,” says Shoemaker. “50 cents is a meal in Thailand. Now he has a little property there, a condo in Bangkok.”Some, like ArenaNet’s Zadorojny, seem to view the ability to work around the schedule as a kind of intelligence in itself. “There is a hot and cold cycle in various seasons, at least for companies like Microsoft and Nintendo. But there’s usually always work at one of the studios for contractors. Right now the industry’s workforce roughly matches the demographics of the players almost 90 percent male which severely limits sales growth.”I’d really like to see the gender breakdown go to 50 50,” Sony Online’s John Smedl prada ey recently told The New York Times of his efforts to recruit women. “I just can’t explain to a 30 year old single male why 10 year old girls like horses.”What that means is women who can tolerate the plethora of Monty Python jokes and tangibly uncomfortable silences will be ushered in with open arms. And adding the articulate part really reduces the number of people who are eligible.” (The more accurately a tester can pinpoint a game’s problem area, the more quickly the programmers can fix the bug.)”Most of the girls who come through have enough intelligence, so that they’re the ones who get other jobs quickly or move up,” Theuret says. “Stuck in the tester position are the other guys. It’s just the difference between the gals and the guys.”Being stuck in the low end of QA also means you remain much more subject to the product boom and bust cycle. After a game ships, people lose their jobs. A bottle of Maker’s Mark sits atop her desk. Shoemaker is there, too, with his QA team. He’s tired, but radiating a diffuse glow. Another staffer is on a scooter, breezing around the office. None of them are complaining about getting home.”Because I’ve been in this industry so long, I’ve seen so many people come and go. It is very cold, and it is very hard,” says Morales. “But at the end of the day, you end up having this executive who’s got all of these purse strings in his pocket, saying, ‘I secured this amount of money for this project. And with this amount of money, I’m going to give this much to all of the different departments.’ And what really sucks is that QA is always the first thing to go. Always.