Friday, November 26, 2010

"Game Over" - Recounting my experience as a game tester

"Game Over"

When I was a few months away from graduating college, I applied as a game tester at Vivendi games. It was my first time working at any job, but I was ecstatic to be able to work in the field I had grown to devote my life to. Before being put on the main floor, we had to go through training, which basically boiled down to testing an incomplete build of No One Lives Forever 2 and finding as many errors, bugs, missing textures, sequence-breaking techniques, non-progressions, crashes, and all-around poor programming as possible. Primarily, this was done to train us to use their bug database system. I was near the top of my class during the training, and I caught on very quickly.

After a few days of training, they moved us to the main testing floor, where we were assigned to the console version of The Spiderwick Chronicles video game, a tie-in title for the movie that would be coming out later that year. This meant the game was on a tight schedule and rigorous testing was required before the game could go gold. I knew I was new and I had a lot to learn, but I was quick to try to make an impression on my employers. This was my chance to work my way up from the bottom, and I didn't want to waste it.

I was one of the best testers of my group, but not the best. I would occasionally check my bug numbers against the other testers, and I consistently hovered anywhere between 1st and 5th place. But among about a dozen-and-a-half testers, this was rather impressive.

Work progressed quickly, and I eventually started to receive paychecks. As someone who had never had a full-time job before, this was absolutely alien to me, and I had no idea what to do with so much money. After putting away enough each month for my student loan payments, I started buying things. I started by buying a Wii, and later proceeded to buy all the popular games, gamecube controllers, memory cards, gamecube games, and everything I had never been able to buy before when I had no income.

One evening on Friday after work, I had stopped by Best Buy to buy a second Gamecube controller. Unfortunately, they were sold out. So what did I do? I bought a DS. Think about that leap of logic and you'll understand just how obsessed my little first-time-worker mind was. I also wanted to pick up the latest Pokemon game, but I couldn't remember which version my girlfriend had. I didn't want to leave Best Buy without the game, so I took out my laptop and spent the better part of an hour reading through page after page of IM conversations with her, looking for one important tidbit. At some point, she had said to me which version of Pokemon she owned, but I had no idea when she said it. The clerk working the game counter looked at me. "Are you a salesman or something? What's going on?" I guess a random customer in a store with a laptop did look somewhat suspicious. I shook my head. "I just need to find something out." Eventually though, I found out the passing reference she made and discovered that she owned Pearl. So I grabbed a copy of Pokemon Diamond and the Brain Age 2 DS Lite bundle and made my purchases.

Why am I telling you this? Well, just so you know exactly how I considered my priorities back then. The phrase "Kid in a candy store" certainly comes to mind. Even down to the fact that my local Gamestop is right down the street from my bank, so it was like putting a bar next to an alcoholic's credit union. I had money burning a hole in my pocket, and as a rabid materialist, I was quick to buy anything I thought I would like. I wasn't frivolous to the point of danger, of course. I always made sure to put a little bit of money into my savings account every month, and made sure I had enough to handle unforeseen circumstances. I was spending much more than I should have been. But I didn't care. My entire life, I had never had an allowance, never had more than $350 to my name, and now I had been making as much in one week as I had ever had before in my life. I wasn't going to waste this opportunity to treat myself.

One day I showed up about a half-hour early (As was normal for me, because I took the bus) and took breakfast in the breakroom, looking out the window from the 9th floor. I was the only one there, and there was only the faint hum of ambient office building noise. I felt like I was finally where I always wanted to be. I felt like I was finally getting my life together, and I would be on my way to a long and comfortable career working with video games. I remember one time when I was driving to my bank to deposit my paycheck into my own account. I took a minute to think about what I was doing, and I realized that for the first time in my life, I finally felt like an adult.

Unfortunately, my co-workers were not as enamored with my immaturity and lack of focus as I'd hoped. I was never publicly reprimanded for my actions, but instead my bosses liked to wait until evaluation time to tell me exactly what I was doing wrong. Apparently having one of the highest bug counts in the group wasn't enough. They complained about my appearance and grooming, something I admit was lax at the time, but since it took over 2 hours on the bus and train to get there, and 2 hours back, my free time was severely limited. Couple this with work days that were often longer than 10 hours, and attempting to get 8 hours of sleep every night, as well as make time for chores, gaming with my new Wii that I'd hardly even been able to play, and everything else I had to do during the day, I suppose grooming just sort of took a back seat.

But this was minor compared to something I still think is bullshit to this day. Apparently I had a habit of chiming into conversations that didn't concern me. But when someone is discussing a bug on a game that I consider it my job to know everything about, I'd like to believe it DOES concern me. This one asshole I worked with would call me on this at least twice a week. He would be talking to someone else about a generalized topic, like recent gaming news, or the announced merger between Activision and Blizzard (Which happened while I was working there) And when I tried to join the conversation, he would passive-aggresively say "Oh, I'm sorry. I was under the impression that I was having a private conversation." Well fuck you too, asshole. Next time you want to have a private conversation, why don't you hang a fucking sign around your neck that says "I'M ANTISOCIAL GO AWAY"?

He would do this every chance he got, and one time, right before christmas, I had finally had enough. They were discussing a bug that I had just been reading about on the database, one that was closed as "Not a bug." When I chimed in with, "I heard about that. It's not a bug," He went into his normal schpiel of "This doesn't concern you." I countered with something along the lines of "Well, fuck you. It does concern me! It's my job to know about these bugs and converse with other testers to make sure the game is solidly made, and I am sick of you making me feel like some sort of leper just because you don't want to talk to me." When he ran off to tell on me, I talked to the other person involved in the conversation, who was more friendly than the asshole, and he supported the fact that I wasn't doing anything wrong by joining the conversation, but that I perhaps could have phrased my grievances with a bit more tact.

My boss pulled me aside and we discussed the altercation. Perhaps he was afraid something would happen between us that would be more than just raised voices. He told both of us to take it easy and to enjoy the holiday break. Spiderwick had gone Gold and it was time for the winter development slump anyway.

Vivendi never called me back.

I waited 2 weeks after christmas, and then started calling the temp agency representative who signed my paychecks. I left a message for her every week, both in email and on her voice mail, but she simply refused to call me back, either to let me know when they would have us back, or to let me know to look for another job. Eventually I got so fed up, I actually emailed the person who originally hired me. I got a phone call from the agency representative within 4 minutes of hitting send. She was not pleased. She told me to please refrain from emailing the higher-ups, and that they have bigger things to worry about. I said that I was frustrated, that I wanted to get back to work, and that it's unfair to not tell people when they've been laid off. She informed me that indeed they would not be calling me back to work there, but never said why. I have my own theories.

My time working at Vivendi was one of the best experiences of my entire life. It only lasted about 3 and a half months, but I learned more in that time than I did in 3 years at ITT Tech. I also learned that the gaming industry is very fickle. One minute you're on 9th floor, sipping milk (I don't drink coffee) and looking out the window at the world, the next you're cashing your last paycheck and wondering what you're going to do now.

I guess no one lives forever.

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