Friday, 18 June 2010

The Tester: Series 2

I'm wondering if anyone watched the Playstation Network TV exclusive called The Tester. I didn't. Instead I watched a recap of the series while priming this blog post. And even that was too much.

                   (L-R) Nathan Drake, Sisqo, Smellen, Wallflower, Lunchbox, Mohammed Jihad, Out Of Place,
                     Middle Class Boy who likes Yanni, Amateur Magician, The 'Brainy' One, Maths Homework

The show was basically as bastardized version of Big Brother, only with a gamer focus. Each contestant had to perform weekly tasks where a panel of celebrity guest judges would decide who had performed best and send one contestant home, whittling them away until only 1 remained. I should point out that 'celebrity guest judges' should be taken in it's loosest possible sense seeing as one week the celebrity judge was the Director of Product Development for Sony Europe... I love games and all, I truly do, but if you told me I was going to meet a celebrity and then rolled out an Assistant Art Director, I'd punch your fucking face in while crying in disappointment.

Of course, this contest attracted the usual mix of attention-seeking desperates and inexplicably self-assured asshats.  

And what was the star prize for the winner of this epic competition? A JOB AT SONY BEING A GAMES TESTER! Woooooooooooo! Yaaaa....wait....what?

A fucking job as a QA tester? That's a minimum wage job in the UK. Why not have a show called 'I'm a McDonalds Employee, Get Me Out Of Here'?

And Sony took the opportunity to announce a second series at E3. Great news, I'm sure, for the dozens of fans of the first series.

Now you might ask yourself why I'm reacting like this, and you can bet your ass I'm going to tell you.

See folks, I was a QA tester for about 6 months back in 2004.

It was for a major games studio but I did sign a contract saying I wouldn't discuss my time there and I don't want to get sued so let's just call this company Emectronic Farts.

Whenever I saw the job listing, I thought to myself 'Wow, a job where you get to play computer games all day aaaaaand you get paid for it! Fuck me, I was born to do this.'

I was wrong.

I should have known it was going to suck from the day of the 'interview'. There were about 30 of us in total who came along to the EF headquarters, which aren't in Chertsey, Surrey. An amazing, open plan, glass building, with it's own artificial lake, replete with fish and ducks plus a video games library/shop for employees. It also possessed it's own canteen with highly trained chefs cooking fresh food everyday for exceptionally reasonable prices. Needless to say, I was in love.

Anyways, the 30 of us who were there for the interview were herded into a conference room and told we would have to undergo an aptitude test to ensure we were suitable for the job. Righto, on with the test, a fairly basic assessment on numeracy and attention to detail, completed in about 15 minutes. The answer papers were taken away by the HR lady, Emma (more on her later) to be marked, and all 30 of us were treated to an introductory video showing how awesome it was to work for EA...er...EF and all the perks we could expect. Afterwards, I think we were all blown away and really psyched for our new jobs. That's when Emma came back into the room and called out 18 names (mine not among them) and asked them to follow her. We watched as she led them back down the stairs to the front doors and waved good bye to them.

They had failed the test.

That should have set off alarm bells immediately. If EF were prepared to treat job applicants, people whose experience would forever colour their opinion of the company, with such disdain, how would they treat us, their new employees? At the time, I remained oblivious. Emma came back and told us to come back on Monday morning for our first shift.

So, I showed up first thing on Monday morning, clean-shaven, with deoderant on. I wondered what the soup of the day in the restaurant was. I never found out.

You see, the headquarters is where all the design, development and marketing took place. The QA took place in a small, cramped, red brick building about half a mile away. It was there that Emma led us. Needless to say there was some disappointment, but hey, we got to play games for money!

Hmmm, not so much.

The fault for this misapprehension falls entirely at my own feet. I was a much younger man and didn't truly realise the number of possible faults an average game could have, or the detail that had to be explored to get it ready for public release.

Before I move on, I just want to mention Emma, the HR lady, one more time. I remember telling her that I had changed my address, something they needed to have on record so I could get paid. She asked me to jot the new address down on a Post-It note and give it to her next time she was in the office and she would file it away, which I dutifully did. When she came into the office for my details, I realised she had a truly unique filing system. Her handbag was filled with literally hundreds of crumpled-up Post It notes, plus one lighter and twenty Marlboro Menthol. Still, I got paid two weeks later, so it must have worked.

The first game I tested was a PSP racing game, Burnout Legends. The system was that at the start of each day you would surrender your  mobile phone and take a numbered build that was registered against your name and after two hours you would sign that same build back in, and have a 15 minute break, 30 minutes halfway through. The reason you would have to sign out a build was to ensure that no employee stole a test copy of the game and leaked it. That was fair enough. The ban on mobile phones was a bit harder to explain. Were they worried people would take a photo and release unofficial screenshots? Record the soundtrack on their phone? Fuck, I don't know but that shit was strict!

It was drilled into us early on that we were not playing games, we were testing them. And test I did. For Burnout Legends, here's a few things I can clearly remember doing, often mandated by the developers:

Driving the wrong way around the track.
Reversing the wrong way around the track.
Reversing the right way around the track.
Colliding with as many other cars as I could on purpose.
Avoiding all cars and objects as much as I could.
Sitting on the start line after the race began and doing nothing.
Repeatedly pausing and unpausing the game for five minutes until the AI won the race.
Grinding along the track barriers the whole way around the course to make sure you couldn't fall through.
Turning the soundtrack up, driving for a second, turning it down, driving for a second, turning it up etc. etc.

I did this for eight hours a day. For two months. So yeah, definitely not playing games. Strangely though, I enjoyed it. It was a geeky job and it attracted geeky types, and there was great banter. Our boss Ian was a South African guy with a very dry sense of humour. He told us that he had shot a man in the leg with a rifle because the man was being 'a dick'. He also had a wide selection of T-shirts, some of which were awesome pictures of like panthers or tigers or something, others were gleefully nerdy, saying things like 'Now we're out of alpha, things can only get beta.'

Sadly, this trend didn't continue for my next QA assignment. It was the one no-one wanted to work on but most people were assigned to because it was going to sell shit loads. It was the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire movie tie-in game.

I played that buggy motherfucker for eight hours a day for FOUR MONTHS. IT ONLY HAD 11 LEVELS! The early stages were mind numbingly frustrating because the AI hadn't been implemented, which was a problem because you needed Ron and Hermione to help you lift big old fucking rocks that were blocking your path. I remember early builds where you would partially levitate a boulder and that ginger bastard Ron would run underneath it and then the rock would promptly plummet back down to earth and crush him. Then Hermione would berate YOU for not concentrating hard enough. Yeah? Fuck you Hermione.

So yeah I did that shit for four fucking months. It also made me realise the fruitlessness of making games and why I think the younger generation is ultimately doomed.

Because the game was a movie tie-in, it came with certain stipulations, one of which being that it couldn't feature any on-screen death. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire feature someone dying? Is this death not integral to the future plot? No, no mustn't scare the kiddies, so Cedric Diggory getting an Avada Kedavra right up his hole happened off screen.

Not only that, but what would happen to the players character if they got hurt? Beans would come out of them. Bertie Botts Beans.

Now I don't know what is going to be more harmful to a child's development. Having their character die and letting them start again, or suggesting that if you drop a rock on a person, or burn them with fire, or hit them with a sharp object or kill them, beans will come out?

One other final little thing. EF liked to think of the QA environment as being a fun one, as opposed to the minimum wage tech sweatshop it actually was. To this end, they encouraged people to bring relevant artifacts to work to decorate the office with. For example, if you were testing a shooting game, you could bring in some action figures and decorate the workstations with them.

You could even dress up in the theme of your test game.

There was a guy I worked with, and I can't remember his name now, let's called him Stuart, and Stuart was one straight-up weird mofo.

The guy was 42 then, I think, and he lived with his parents. He was one of those people who you knew could understand the advanced maths behind the Laws of Thermal Dynamics, but probably also had a collection of reptiles and was obsessed with inventing a revolutionary new toaster. If I recall correctly he had developed some piece of software in the early 90s which had sold for big money and did the testing gig really just for something to do. Still, I wouldn't have trusted him to wire a plug.

When testing on Harry Potter began, I noticed a couple of guys wearing wizard hats while they worked, but these were cool wee emo kids and the wizard hat wearing was done in a very ironic kinda way.

Poor Stuart missed out on the 'ironic' part though.

One Thursday he came into work in a full fucking wizards outfit. A fucking blue velvet robe, with big old sleeves. A rope belt, a staff, a wand, a fucking fake beard, and a massive conical wizards hat. The motherfucker drove into work dressed as a wizard, and walked round the office like it weren't no thing. I saw him working controller in hand, dressed up as Gandalf, no sweat. Having a coffee and a smoke on his break, hanging out like Dumbledore, no big deal. English people are too polite, so no-one said a peep to him. I saw him at lunch time and asked him what the fuck he was doing. He didn't know what I was talking about. I pointed out the costume and he kinda said:

'This old thing? I just had it lying around.'
'What, you just had a plush velvet Gandalf suit with staff, wand and beard hanging up in your house and thought you'd give it a bash?'
'Yeah, why not?'

That's about the smartest answer I've ever been given to any question I've asked.

Anyway, I stopped working there towards the end of the Harry Potter project. I can't recall the circumstances of my departure, I just think I didn't go in one day.

But, if you watch the video below, skip to about 2:36 and under QA Testers, you'll see the mark I made on the world.


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