Earl Baylon

Earl is an LA-born actor/improviser that wants desperately to be loved. Hah, not really. He'll eat all your leftovers if you're not careful. He's done it before. Tweets at @earl_baylon. Earl Baylons at earlbaylon.com. Tumblrs at Nerdoholic.

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“You play video games the entire day? Is that even work?”                                                                   

-Everyone and their moms.

It’s amazing how many times I heard some form of that question during time as a tester. Short answer: Yes, I “play” video games the entire day. And yes, it’s work.

Long answer: No I don’t “play” video games the entire day. It’s work, and I’ll tell you why. Also, I’ll hopefully dispel some other myths along the way.

Seriously, despite the Facebook ads, Grandma’s Boy and reality shows like The Tester that make the gaming floor sound like an everyday Bacchanal, game testing can be a rather mundane gig.

I feel like before I go on, I should state the extent of my experience on the gaming floor.  It really isn’t that much, when compared to the permanent hires or the team leads, but it’s still a fair amount.  I’ve tested on a couple of Guitar Hero titles (Smash Hits and Band Hero), as well as on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Added up, that’s about a year and a half on the floor, which is close to a record for me for most time worked at one company. That last part may be irrelevant to the point, but I felt like sharing. Without further adieu, I’d like to drop some proverbial knowledge about being a Game Tester.

 

You almost never get to just play the game you’re working on.

In fact, just playing the game and looking for bugs can be such a rare thing, depending on the project, that there’s a term for it. It’s called ad-hoc testing. It’s usually what the team leads tell us to do while we wait from word on up high as to our actual tasks for the day. Most of the time, these tasks consist of running through levels, noting things like whether or not the player is being awarded the appropriate number of points, or just making sure you can get through the level without any significant framerate slowdown or the entire game crashing.  One of the things I had to do a lot of on Black Ops 2 was just that: framerate reports.  We would get assigned a particular level in campaign, and have to take framerate readings at certain points during the level, noting what we were doing (shooting, standing, walking, etc.), what direction we were looking in, and whether or not a dip in framerate was due to slowdown in the GPU or the CPU.  Another time, a few of us on the team were assigned to test gibbing rates, which is the percentage of the time a particular weapon severs limbs in-game, because, different types of weapons should have differing gibbing rates. Makes sense, if you think about it. An MP5 shouldn’t be severing limbs as often as say, a rocket-propelled grenade.

When we were allowed to ad-hoc test, though, it totally felt like a treat. They were basically telling us to find ways to break the game by finding exploits, map holes, breaking scripts, etc.  Finding a good bug through such means is totally fun. Plus, it’s a mother fuckin trophy in your bug case. Talking about cool bugs you found is like telling  a big fish story, but they’re more often true than not.

 

The hours are tough.

Depending on which company you work for, there could be a both a night and a day shift.  And yes, normally you’re scheduled for an 8-hour shift. But, when milestones come around, (Alpha, Beta, Release) you can kiss your family and social life good-fuckity-bye.  If the company you work for has both a night and a day shift, then at max you’ll be staying for 15 or so hour shift, because you’ve got to clear space for the shift after you.  If however, your company only has a day shift, well then, you’ll be at that gaming station for a really long time. I myself have worked an 18-hour shift. I’ve seen other testers go 23-hours in a shift. Closer to release, people would be working 60+ hours a week. I’ve seen testers even worse than that.  When it gets to that point, you literally go home just to sleep, shower, then head back to work.

Serious, zombie status.

The word “Zombie” makes me think of this.

 

You get treated differently depending on where you work.

There are three types of companies (AFAIK) that hire game testers:

1) Publishers – these are the companies that distribute and market the game, and usually work with several different developers.  This includes companies like Electronic Arts and Activision.

2) Developers – These are the folks that actually create the game.  They’re the code warriors holed up in their cubicles for days at a time, building the game line by line of code, and fixing any bugs that the testers might find.  They’re the level designers, AI programmers, lighting and texture artists that make the game look the way it does. There are tons of developers out there, like Crystal Dynamics, Infinity Ward, Treyarch, and Naughty Dog, to name a few.

3) First Party companies – These are the video game hardware companies, the folks that make the gaming consoles.  While this list has changed here and there over the years, it’s been pretty much the big 3 since the early 2000s: Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft.

I don’t have any experience working for the first party companies, so I can’t really speak to that. My experience at the Publisher and Developer level were markedly different, though.

Long story short: they don’t care about you as much at the publishers.

I mean, I understand why, I suppose. It is the entry level of the game testing world.  If you can construct a semi-decent, coherent sentence and aren’t completely batshit insane, they will more than likely hire you at a publisher. You don’t even have to have much experience playing video games, at all. I’m sure it might depend on a the project, but for a title like Guitar Hero, that catered to a more casual audience, you basically had to know how to power on a computer and a PS2, and you were golden.

Working for a developer, however, requires a bit more ability. Actual gaming and testing experience helps. The interviews themselves are hands on tests, where they give you an early build of a game and say, “Here, find bugs.” While this test happens on the publisher side as well, it’s part of orientation, rather than the interview process.  In my interview group, they picked up 3 of the 8 that had come in for the gig. So, more rigorous interview process equal fewer hires and thus a smaller team, but you get treated better.

You have everything provided for you working at a developer. You get your own computer workstation, with decent hardware, and your own, assigned SDKs, which are gaming consoles with added developer tools enabled. So you never have to get to  worry about getting to work early so you don’t get stuck with the shitty, temperamental PS3, or the slow-as-balls computer. Headphones, those get provided, too.  Working at publisher, the resources were a bit more scarce.  We had maybe 2 or 3 computers to every 10 testers, and they were old, semi-maintained hardware.

Free water and soda at both places, though. So that’s cool. Except at the developer, it was also snacks, fruits, sandwich fixins, breakfast pastries, cup o noodles… basically anything you could prep with just a microwave. And when overtime hits: Pink’s, Rutt’s Hawaiian, Honey’s Kettle fried chicken, Baby Blues BBQ – let’s just say I was waddling something fierce once my stint there was done.

 

You are a temp/contract worker

And that comes along with all the attached limitations and stigma. Poop-worthy benefit packages. Really, though, the part that sucks is that one day, you will go into work, you don’t know when that day will be because there will be no warning, and your contract will be ended. No ceremony.  In the middle of a seemingly random shift, usually close to a milestone, like the day the game is being submitted to first parties for approval, your name will be called along with several other co-workers. You will be herded into a meeting room, where someone you may have never seen before will say something like, “Today is the last day of your contract. We’ll mail your last paycheck.” Then you’ll get escorted out of the testing floor and paraded through the cubicles as the remaining few look on and wonder where you’re going.

Absolutely kick-ass testers, or ones that play office politics correctly, will be among the leftovers and will keep working on the game until submission, and sometimes past it.  They’ll get to be working on things like DLC and kiosk demos. If they’re lucky, they’ll get put on another project straight away. More likely that not, though, they’ll be let go in much the same way soon enough.

Granted, I actually had to leave the last project I worked at a developer a bit early to take another gig, so I’m not sure how contract terminations were handled there. I can’t imagine it being too much different, though.

 

It actually is kinda like Grandma’s Boy

At least working at a publisher was, anyway.  The funny thing, is that they’re pretty adamant that it’s not. I mean, the first thing they tell you at orientation is, “This is not going to be like Grandma’s Boy.

Au’ contraire.

Maybe the technicalities of how the testing floor is organized and run are completely inaccurate,  but lets face it, Hollywood is never going to get the science-y stuff right. That’s not their priority.  What is somewhat accurate, however, is the social environment of the testing floor.  There’s a definite hierarchy and office politicking going on, though maybe not as intense as a regular office environment. You see cliques, favoritism, ostracism, which I guess makes it no different from any large group dynamic.

Also, it’s overwhelmingly dudes. Overwhelmingly.  Like 95% sausage ratio on the testing floor. If you ever wanted to know what it feels like to go to an all-boys high school. You should probably become a game tester. And just like Linda Cardellini in the movie, there is almost always one woman on the entire floor – and everyone is at least a little bit in love with her.

Yes, during breaks and lunch we play more video games. Last Guitar Hero project I worked, we would have Call of Duty 4 tourneys during breaks.  I used to play World of Warcraft during breaks while testing Black Ops: 2. Other people would play Diablo III or Dark Souls.

Finally, this dude is real. I saw him on day shift once.

Sans the robot stuff, I guess. But, boy, the black trenchcoat… people totally rock that.

 

In conclusion…

Yes, game testing is work. While it’s never gonna end up on an episode of Dirty Jobs, it’s not without its tribulations. Especially if you’re looking at it as a possible career path, it can translate to a lot of friggin’ hours spent of the office. There are of course, perks to the gig – deeply discounted games, possible credentials into E3, usually a copy of the game you worked on, and your name in the credits. Just realize, it is a job, like any other.

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