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Living the Dream: The Nightmare That is QA Testing

Editor’s note: all games featured in the included images are unrelated to the writer’s experiences 

For three years, I “lived the dream.” I was paid to test video games for a third-party company. At first, it did seem like a dream. What would end up happening over the next three years would be the beginning of a nightmare.

It was the best of times.

It was the worst of times.

It changed how I look at games, and nearly killed all the joy I used to take from them.

ACUnity face

I was assigned night shift, (The night time is the right time!) which was 4PM to midnight. My first task was to attempt to break a truly awful third-person shooter MMO. (Names will not be used for legal reasons.) It didn’t take long. Starting an instanced deathmatch on the construction site map would cause all players to drop through the floor, provided they were standing on the floor of the map and not in the building somewhere. They wanted $15 a month for this, plus $50 to buy the disc, and somehow got a major big box store to plaster ads everywhere in it. Needless to say, the bug was quickly resolved, but it shouldn’t have made it to us in the first place, since the devs played this abominable shitpile with us. We would relieve stress by singling out one of them and griefing them until they either kicked us or logged out. That’s #1 on “John’s List of Things He Cannot Do in QA”: Must not grief developers. While fun, it will get the entire department reprimanded. So will nicknaming the game “Crash Central” (Not the name we used, but ‘Crash’ was part of it) and letting that slip in an email to said developers. Oops. Running around in-game in a diaper with the name “$GAMENAME Dev” is also frowned upon.

Two weeks of those shenanigans passed, and I was dumped onto a different project. At least I could make some fun out of the shooter MMO. Not so here. I was dropped into what I would come to know as my own personal Hell: Facebook games. There are no words for the soul-annihilating despair that comes from realizing you’re getting paid $8 an hour to “play” these “games.” They’re always such primitive shit, too. I remember games on my TI-83+ with more depth than most of these, and at least they didn’t beg me for money every half hour.

dungeon keeper

I begged to be transferred off or given a quick death after a week. Three weeks later, I was finally given sweet release. I was to be testing graphics card drivers in Linux. This didn’t involve actually playing any games, though. This was just old-fashioned breaking things. Also, I got to play around with cards that didn’t technically exist yet. The manager of the project was a bit anal and would frequently refuse to answer questions, instead directing questions to a wiki that was woefully incomplete and so out of date that I’m pretty sure it was written when the Voodoo 2 was still a thing. It’s also difficult to check when the machine you would use to search the wiki is the same machine you broke via testing. On the bright side, I got to watch cartoons for a whole day and call it work. That lasted for about two weeks.

Eventually, I got put “in charge” (There are not enough air quotes in the universe to cover that term) of a sub-project of the Facebook project. I call it “Hole Simulator.” It was me and one other guy sitting around for 8-12 hours a day, 5 days a week, clicking to dig holes. Of course, this had all of the hallmarks of a Facebook game: Limited energy, pay real money to get more, pay real money for items to “personalize your character” (read: hats) and so on. This was my life for a year and a half, and I was the only original member of the team when the wheels finally came off. There weren’t very many entertaining bugs to speak of, given that the game’s entertainment value was somehow less than zero. The entertainment value of the bugs in Hole Simulator was in their sheer longevity. Bugs from the alpha stage would persist well into the post-launch game. That’s probably why the wheels fell off.

holes

The people I met there are still some of the best friends I’ve ever had. Others made me wonder just how expensive a roll of carpet, a shovel, and a bag of lime would really cost me, and if a body would fit in the trunk of an old sports car. But I guess that’s the same as it is with nearly every job. The nature of QA testing seems to amplify these traits, however. The good ones became bros for life, the bad ones got the entire department conspiring to, at the very least, ruin their day.

After the wheels fell off, I got out of “QA”, and moved to “Compatibility”. Same shit, different name, honestly. A bit more focused on the hardware side of things, but the goal remained the same: break shit. The method of breakage is the only thing that changed. The good news is that theoretically, I’d be back on “real” games again. Games by development studios you’ve heard of and probably like. Games that sold multiple millions.

The deal with compatibility is as follows: Launch the game with a set of hardware. Get the performance data out of it, change the hardware, and see if anything changes outside of what’s expected. “What’s expected” being higher framerates with more powerful hardware, and so on. The bonus here was that we typically got promotional junk for free from the devs and sometimes a copy of the game just for working on it. The downside is that work is sparse to say the least. I’d go between days or weeks without work at a time. Sometimes we’d be called in to fill in for a project that went down a person due to illness or quitting (usually quitting) until they could find a replacement.

fallout-new-vegas-glitches

I got put on a co-op RPG once. It had just come out of compat and in a rare move had stuck around for actual QA. This involved several completion runs per week. It also contains my two favorite bug stories to tell. There were three characters to choose from: A human, an elf, and a dwarf. This story focuses solely on the dwarf. The dwarf gains an explosive shot about half-way through the game. Decent Area of Effect damage, but high cost and long reload time. Both of the drawbacks get reduced as you level the skill. This particular game allowed New Game+, which would move you up a difficulty level, of which there were five. During the third or fourth run, the damage scaling for the explosive shot got knocked out of sync with everything else and would increase exponentially. This results in the dwarf becoming something akin to a god and made the other two characters redundant. To get an idea of just how out of whack this was, damage was being dealt in scientific notation. The final boss died in three hits, and that’s only because he was scripted to do things at three parts of his lifebar. Now, the average gamer would assume this would be a priority, as the balance is completely ruined by this bug. They’d be wrong. This was labeled “Won’t Fix”, and as of this writing, is still in the game. There are posts on it in the game’s Steam forum right now.

Let’s take a look at a bug that literally brought the office to a screeching halt for some contrast. There’s a scene where a man is dying in his bed while his servant girl washes… something on a washboard behind him. The way the camera pans around during this scene, the washboard and bucket are completely obscured by the bed and all you can see is the bobbing of the servant girl’s head. Yes, that’s right. We were all laughing like 12-year-olds when we found it and submitted it as a joke. Someone higher up the chain actually said these words: “We can’t launch like this.” and shut everything down until it was fixed and we were given a new build. That’s how QA nearly ruined my love of gaming. That peek behind the curtain is oh so tempting, but it grants forbidden knowledge, the kind that can never be forgotten. You see things you wish you could unsee, and do things for money you really wish you could undo. A 23 hour shift did happen once. The game certainly became more interesting, but audio/visual hallucinations will make even the guy that smells his own farts interesting.

In short, never go into QA if you can help it, if you want to continue to enjoy gaming.

About John Howard

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  • Noctah

    Nice read.

  • ArsCortica

    As someone who works as a QA volunteer for an indie game, I can feel your game. In my particular case, I have the enormous advantage of only having the “job” if I feel like it, but even so, seeing bugs that you reported two versions earlier simply pop up again can be painful.

    To be fair thought , I’m a bit surprised – do they actually playtest the garbage they call Faceook games? What for? I would assume most players get a brain aneurysm or fall into a comatose state long before they could encounter a bug.

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