[Editor's note: What you are about to read is a true story of an industry veteran and loyal Destructoid reader who has been in the business for some time. Names have been left out to protect the identity of those involved, but everything said here is the true experience of this tester. -- Robert Summa]
Most everyone in the gaming community is aware of the long hours put in by developers and testers. They whine and complain about 60, 70, even 80 hour weeks.
A few years back I worked for a certain video game company in the San Francisco bay area. I'm not giving away which one, because almost every large game company's testing facility is in the San Francisco bay area. In fact, I'm not going to give away any names of anyone involved.
This is because I don't want any nasty letters sent, subpoenas served, or hired goons dispatched. That is not my intention, I mean no harm to any parties involved. I just want to share my story. Regardless, the following is to the best of my spotty memory, all true.
In early May, I was asked to go off-site for a game currently in development by an established company in southern California. Everything would be taken care of -- hotel, transportation, food, anything I could want short of hookers and blow. And if I wanted those, they also offered a per diem check on top of my regular pay. It sounded good, so I agreed. I packed up, said my goodbyes, and got on the plane.
In the Hero's Journey, this is known as Crossing the Threshold. Of course, the Hero's Journey also involves hot chicks, but there ain't none of that here, so you can toss that assumption out the window.
God knows how much that cost them. I didn't bring a computer with me, but I did schlep along my PS2 which I promptly plugged into the TV, assuming I'd have time to play it. I also brought a selection of DVDs and games. And yes, I brought porn.
We were introduced to the producers. There were three of them. Two worked for the publisher, the company I worked for, and one worked for the developer. If you don't know what producers do, they're the ones that make sure sh*t gets done. They crack the whip. And with three producers, that's a lot of whips. Like in that Passion movie.
The first week was fine. We even had that weekend off.
Well, slightly larger is an exaggeration. The size increase was approximate to taking a shaved poodle and letting its hair grow in. In a room about the size of a standard human living room, we had 20 people, 20 computers, 20 LCD screens, 20 PS2s, 20 Xboxs, plus ALL the cables necessary to plug each and every one of these pieces of equipment into the wall.
I swear if an electrician had seen this, he would have shat himself. Now I don't know if you've been to SoCal in May, but it's just like being in SoCal in August. It's hot. 90 degrees hot. Now even with the meager AC running, you still have 20 nerds and 80 pieces of heat-producing appliances humming along in this space.
Let me describe the game in question that had us all sweating. All you really need to know is that it had levels and had a designer that people had heard of. This is all you need, and all you get. The game itself was passable, but if you ask any tester, the longer you're on a game the more you despise it. I don't care if you're testing the greatest game in the history of mankind. If you're on it for 10-12 hours a day for months on end, you will eventually not want to sit within 90 feet of it. It's a fundamental law of testing. Here's a tip: don't ever ask a tester for their opinion on a game they worked on. It will be skewed.
Things don't change, just your perception of them. The occasional room-emptying fart stopped being so funny. Gay jokes began to be recycled. The stale scent of sweat, cigarette smoke, and flat soda began to dig into everyone's senses. There was very little room on the tables for food, so adjustments were continually made to accommodate.
The food. The food started to get to us as well. As with most developers, sodas are free, and once the trenches are dug to kill a game on time, dinner is brought in. But on a long enough timeline, nothing tastes good anymore. A pattern emerged of Chinese, Mexican, Italian, Indian, American in the form of burgers and fries, and whatever the hell nationality you want to put pizza in to. Eventually it stopped tasting good and became something you did to break up the monotony of testing the title. I ate salad, for Christsake. SALAD. Life was separated into two sections: testing the game, and everything else.
At the beginning of June, we were met with some bad news. I had seen it coming. The title was supposed to be done, but as with most big titles, it was pushed back. So we were stuck for two more weeks. Just two more they said. June also brought another schedule. Every Tuesday a build would be checked and sent to the main office. Our job was to check every level and make sure it was playable so it could be thoroughly tested. The real trick was getting the build out the f*cking door and into the intertubes. The PS2 only has 32 megs of memory.
If it attempts to load a level that is larger than this, it will crash and the level becomes untestable, not to mention a million other tiny coding errors that could come up. Sh*t, you could forget a semicolon and the world comes crashing down. So we would receive a build, run through it, and if it worked, we passed it on.
The problem was we often didn't receive a build until 8 or 9 p.m. If there was a crash, a new build would have to be fixed and recompiled. This can take hours. Regularly we were at the office until 2, 3, even 4 in the morning to check and recheck builds until it was enough to send off. Then we went back to the hotel and slept until 8:30 in the morning to get back to it. We were allowed leeway those mornings, but we soldiered on. We had to get paid, son.
At one point some of us got sick. It may have been the food, or someone had brought a cold in, or God decided to punish us, but whatever it was several of us were knocked out, including myself. The strong ones delivered medication to the weak for a few days. But the deadline fast approached, so we willed the disease away and continued. The game changed, and changed, and changed again. They weren't fixing bugs, I thought, they were actively changing the game. This should not happen once a game is in beta. It always does no matter where you are, but whatever.
Once until 5, and another until 7 a.m. The developers that had left at 7 the previous night greeted us that morning. I can only imagine how we looked. Nearly two dozen zombies toying away with controllers, numb from everything, even the slowly rising sun. Twenty-four hour days are not unheard of in testing land, but rarely are there several in a row.
Even if I had spent every single second not at work sleeping, which didn't happen due to basic hygiene, that's only 6 hours a day to sleep. Plus, I'm an insomniac. So that's why I don't remember it. It was because of that week that once, just once, the first time in five years and the only time since, that I smoked pot. I know I'm not supposed to say this, but it helped. I had visions from when I was a 3-month old baby, but it helped.
Then the news came. We were to stay down in SoCal for another two weeks. I could almost feel my psyche shatter in my skull and tiny little pieces of my personality fall out of my ear. After a month of incredible hours on a title that threatened to open its maw and swallow reality, I was about to lose it. I smoked three cigarettes after hearing that news. That's a lot for me.
The bug count continued to swell. It had gone far, FAR beyond anything I had ever seen or have seen since. I lost track of days. I stopped watching a show on HBO that I had discovered and liked. In fact, in those last couple weeks, the only thing that kept me from going off the deep end was that certain DS game I mentioned before. It made my brain spark just enough to keep me going.
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