Developer tales: The true story of an abused game tester

[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.


Before I begin, I would like to point out that the following scenario is NOT TYPICAL of the game industry. This is a tale of a truly epic clusterf*ck that simply went out of control due to way too many factors. No one is to blame in my opinion, and no blame shall be placed. The following is not to discourage anyone from the gaming industry, nor is it to condemn anyone involved. It is simply a history of two of the oddest months in my life.

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.

This particular video game company hired me as a tester earlier in the year. Anyone who’s had any contact with a game tester will explain the general malaise of the profession, so I’ll leave that to them. This is about one particular couple of months that I will never forget.

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.

Me and several other testers arrived in SoCal and proceeded to the hotel. Now, no matter how dark and brutal this story might get, I have to say that this hotel was swank. Comfy beds, HBO, free breakfast, two free drinks at happy hour, and they sold cigarettes and beer at the little hotel store. Plus, everyone got their own rooms. I half-expected it to be some sort of dorm situation with us sharing rooms, since most testers are between the ages of 18 and 25, but the company was very professional and put everyone up in their own rooms.

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.

The next Monday we strolled out, had a very nice breakfast of ham and cheese omelettes, bacon, and Pepsi, packed into the cars and drove to the developer’s office. It was a fairly small, inconspicuous section of buildings in a purely commercial area. You’d never guess they made games there.

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.

We were set up in a small conference room, lined up with PS2s, Xboxs, and PCs as this particular title was cross-platform. The reason we were down in SoCal was so we could immediately get to work on the current build instead of waiting for it to be uploaded through the intarweb tubes up north. Time is of the utter essence in the game industry.

The first week or so was perfectly fine. We worked from 9 to 6 with an hour lunch, same as every other testing job I’ve ever had. This gave us ample time to have breakfast at the hotel, get to work on time, and get back to the hotel in time for drinks and relaxation. We was big pimpin’ just chillin’ out in front of the pool with spirits in hand, shooting the sh*t with the crew.

The first week was fine. We even had that weekend off.

Things took a turn the following Monday. We started getting a little bit of overtime. This is to be expected as a tester — 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., perfectly normal tester’s schedule. The game continued to be refined and changed, and we took it all in stride. It sucked that we didn’t get back for happy hour anymore, but liquor in California can be sold until 2 am. We were fine.

During this week I believe, some more testers were shipped down, plus the European testers arrived from all over those little countries across the mighty Atlantic. So we were moved to a larger conference room next to the old one.

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.

They gave us fans, which was like tossing a bucket of water on the surface of the sun. It was fine most of the time, but after several hours of all this crap pumping out God knows how many BTUs, rooms will heat up.

Things continued to go south.

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.

Slowly the deadline approached. The title had to be finished. Two weeks passed. Hours were adjusted. 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. 6 days a week. Tensions rose. This was no one’s fault, really. Put a bunch of people in a room for a long enough time and problems come up. Little things start to pick at you, like someone forgetting to apply deodorant, or someone talking just a bit too loudly.

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.

Occasionally we’d get a shorter day, but after so much time on the job, we had no goddamn clue what to do with the time. No one was from the area, and developers and testers very rarely intermixed, so we didn’t know any cool places to go. In the downtime I’d either watch TV in someone’s room, read a book, or play PS2. We went to Fry’s a couple times, and I picked up some games I hadn’t had the opportunity to try. Yes, I know, playing a video game after all this sounds odd, but you’re missing the point. It was a different game, one devoid of bugs. It entertained. It distracted. I bought a DS game that probably saved me. More on that later.

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.

During those wee hours of darkness, the place was almost empty. At least one producer was always present, along with the lead programmer and one or two others. They did their best, I know, but there’s only so many hours a person can stare at something without going off their rocker. Except maybe boobs, but I have no proof of that.

It was at about this point when the dreams started. With so many hours spent looking at the same title on the same screen, I began to have incredibly vivid dreams of the game itself. Sometimes they were accurate, perfect reincarnations of certain scenes within the game. For some, my brain gave itself a little dancing space and went ga-ga. But for many of those few hours of sleep, the game stayed with me. I almost demanded to be paid to sleep if I was testing in my dreams.

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.

For the life of me I cannot remember the details of the second week of June. It was supposed to be the last week. We could finally end this chaos and go home. But before that, we had to pass through the belly of the beast. Every day we would submit a new build to the home office. That meant every day we were in the office until 3 in the morning.

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.

I clocked over 110 hours that week. Consider that. 110 hours. Let’s stop and run the numbers. There are 168 hours in a week. 168 minus 110 is 58. Subtract the lunch breaks, dinner breaks, and commutes, and you end up with 44. That’s 44 hours that week not spent in the office, near the office, going to the office, or leaving the office.

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.

There wasn’t another 110 hour week, but they came close. More late nights, more of the same food, same levels, same faces, same room, same routine, same same same. We had no Internet connection. There was Internet at the hotel, but I had no computer. There was HBO, but no Skinemax. The only porn I had I brought with me was my DVDs, and I had used them all up. There was no masturbation. I always thought if I had nothing else, I’d have that. Then I lost that. If that’s not losing the last vestige of humanity, then I don’t know what is.

Those last two weeks I simply became numb to everything around me. I had no sense of humor, no sense of propriety, no sense of style. I stopped showering and shaving. My clothes were dirty. I came in, sat at my station, and just … was. The hours eased back, but I was gone far before that. I sat back and accepted my fate. Bugs were fixed, and the game was changed and changed again.

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.

Finally, on the last day, late in June, we finally sent off the last build and finished our task. The stations were stripped down, and everything was returned to its place. The producers took us out to lunch to a fancy restaurant, and later to a barbecue. It was a nice attempt.

When I returned back home up north, I didn’t go into work for a week. I hadn’t had a haircut since I left for SoCal. I hadn’t washed my clothes for weeks and I apologize to whomever I sat next to on the plane. The night I returned I got fall-down drunk and passed out on my cold, abandoned bed, not giving a shit about anything or anyone. My e-mail was so full I just got another account. In essence, for those two months, I did not exist in the real world. And once I got back, it took over a week for everything to really go back to the way it was before I disappeared.

Once I got back to work, I found out that the game had been delayed. The famous lead designer apparently did not like the final product and wanted more work on it, so they needed some people to go back to SoCal. I politely declined.

I did recover, and I was perfectly fine after a week off. And to further clarify, this debacle was no one’s fault in my eyes. It was a product of impossible expectations. Things just … happen. Perhaps that’s the lesson to be learned, if anything should be learned at all. Sh*t happens, and everyone has to roll with it. You can have the best intentions, the finest crew, and the best equipment, and sh*t’s still gonna go south. The magic, you see, lies in surviving the twists, rolling with the punches, and bringing it all together.

Also, bring more porn than you think you need. Because you’re gonna need it.

[Editor’s note: If you’re in the industry, and want to tell your story or get something off your chest, then let Destructoid know. E-mail [email protected]]

About The Author
Robert Summa
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