I feel the need to speak my mind. At the extremely advanced age of thirty-seven, I want to share the benefit of my experience even if I worry none of the kids (and by “kids” I mean “early twenties,” ya whippernappers) will listen. Still, I must say these things, and then I can die happy when death from “washed up and no longer aware of what’s cool in gaming” hits me at forty.
Listen, children. Jobs in the videogames industry are … jobs. They’re hard work. And boy, can they suck. Although I know people in several fields, I will speak specifically on the realms in which I have the most experience and understanding: quality assurance and game reviews.
I’ll address the obvious plusses first. Yes, I know that E3 is amazing (you should have seen it Back In The Day a decade ago, when people still thought Duke Nukem Forever was going to be amazing – I still have a picture of myself with the Duke Nukem look-alike booth bohunk) and Nintendo was trying to make a Pikachu big enough to create a noticeable gravitational pull into their acres of booth space. GDC was also interesting, more of a meeting of the minds of highly creative and somewhat subversive people than a drunken media-fest. They were good times; that’s all true. Traveling when I worked in videogaming was much more fun than when I traveled for any other job.
There’s also the sex appeal of telling people of your profession at parties. Around the Raleigh-Durham area, you’ll find people saying they work in pharmaceuticals, or technology that I’m sure my everyday life depends on, but I sure as heck don’t know what it is or how to pronounce it. When you say that you work in videogames, everyone gets quiet and looks at you like you got the Golden Ticket and all they have are ten pounds of extra chocolate weight, and Monday when you go to Willy Wonka’s factory, they’re starting their all-celery diet. (Or they look at you as if you’re a teenaged slacker and ask to see your fake ID, but that’s a subject to be discussed at a different time.)
Ten years ago, I worked at Red Storm Entertainment, specifically with marketing and the web, but since I was a gamer, QA allowed me to work with them on the beta tests and in-house testing. I was also the connection to our fan community through the web and our forums, so I helped get our QA people in touch with the fans to do the beta tests. Watching them work made me realize I never want to get into their jobs, ever.
Let’s look at what QA actually does. QA stands for quality assurance. They assure the games have enough quality to go out the door. So they test the game. This means two things (everyone realizes the first but rarely considers the second): 1) They play games all day. 2) They play broken games all day. 2a) They play broken games all day trying to find out what circumstances led up to break the game. 2b) They log, track, and figure out how the game breaks, then take it back to the team.
No one wants to play with a broken toy. That’s just not fun. No one wants to play a game in order to find a bug – we usually play games while avoiding bugs. Also, if you’re not into endlessly repetitive activities, QA can make you insane.
Then there’s organizing beta tests. Videogame fans see beta tests as a sneak peek at a game, while they’re expected to play it till it breaks and then send bug reports as well. The QA lead I spent most of my time with at Red Storm was very strict with her beta tests. No matter your skill/qualifications, if you failed to apply correctly for the test, you didn’t get in; her reasoning was that if you couldn’t follow simple instructions in the application, you wouldn’t be able to follow the instructions on how to test the game. She handled the hordes of gamers well, but I watched the stacks and stacks of data she printed out in order to keep track of every report; it was organizational hell to go through all the bug reports and track them all and determine what was a real bug (“game crashes when I do X,”) and what was a waste of time (“you really should put in rappelling”).
There are also the interpersonal challenges of being in QA. You’re a vital part of the team. You’re needed to make sure that the game doesn’t ship with horrible bugs. Back before DLC, your word could make or break a console game, as there were no bug fixes to be had after launch. That sounds like you’d be respected by your colleagues, right?
Sadly, the face of the QA lead is a dreadful sight, because you almost never give good news. While you are there to make sure the game is made better, the engineers and artists just see you as the bearer of bad news. Why can’t you tell them that the game is perfect, ready to ship, and by the way, here’s a pony? QA almost never brings ponies to the design teams.
Yes, you play games all day. But you have to play them in a certain way. And they’re broken almost all the time. And your co-workers will dread your presence. For the record, I respect the hell out of QA people. I don’t have the patience or organizational skills for it, and their job is difficult and largely thankless. I’m just wanting to indicate that people think, “playing games all day” is the best job ever, when, like most jobs, it’s work, hard work, and often tedious work.
After I left Red Storm, I went into freelance writing, including game reviews. Now, I thought, this was going to be sexy. This was going to be the life, where I got my games for free and I got paid to play and write about them! They weren’t going to be broken either! (Unless their QA teams had quit in tears over their thankless, repetitive jobs.)
Here is where I found the ugly truth of paid game reviewing. Yes, you get games for free, and are paid to play and write about them. But you don’t get handed the World of Warcrafts and the Portals and the Rock Bands. The editor gets those. You’re likely offered games that you have never heard of, but you think, “Okay, I like sims, I guess I’ll try Fence Builder out.”
The absolute worst game I ever reviewed was Amazing Virtual Sea Monkeys. I grew up with ads for sea monkeys in the back of the comic books, where they showed the anthropomorphic royal family of little sea monkeys living in a little castle. The truth of the matter was that sea monkeys are brine shrimp that you can barely see and will likely die before they get big enough to do “tricks” like follow a light. So it seemed to me that a videogame could fill out the fantasy that the comic book promised – a little sim that could follow an aquatic family.
It was the most boring videogame in the history of the world. I’m not exaggerating. Real sea monkeys are more interesting; this game had your virtual sea monkeys floating aimlessly as oysters grew pearls in the corners of the screen. When the pearls got big enough, you could “encourage” (you can’t give them direct commands) your creatures to harvest the pearls to make you money so you can buy them food, toys, etc.
Now, if I’d been just a gamer, I could have played it for five minutes, cursed a blue streak for the waste of twenty bucks, and turned it off. But no, as a reviewer, I had to log the hours, see how the game played at different levels, see if the slog of begging your damn little digital shrimp to harvest pearls to the tune of plinky-plink earworm music ever actually paid off. (It didn’t.)
Then I thought I hit the jackpot by getting The Matrix Online. I loved the first movie on a religious level (saw it many times in the theater, back when income was high and number of children was zero), and was forgiving of the next two movies’ sins. I wanted to love this game. I tried to love this game. But it broke my heart with its sheer emptiness and lack of gameplay (see, designers, don’t brag about every room in the city being interactive if they all look the same and no one is in 80 percent of them). Again, I had to play this for hours to get a good feel of the sad, empty Matrix world. It was a very lonely time – especially as I knew my friends were playing WoW at the time. I felt like I was inside practicing the oboe while my friends were outside laughing and playing.
I got back into game reviewing later when I got invited to participate in a family friendly gaming site. I thought it was a good way to check out games for my daughter, but it happened again. Every month, the editor would send out the email that read, “Here’s what we have: I will take Rock Band, Guitar Hero, and all the Mario games.” So I was forced to answer, “Well, I guess I’ll take Sim Farm Hand with real-time stall-mucking action …”. Payment also came through site affiliate links, so you had very little incentive to give an honest review, because you’re unlikely to make money from saying that a game sucks, but the reader really should buy it!
I think the thing that upset me the most about working with videogames was that it made games unfun for me. Beta testing broken games, and then reviewing the picked-over dregs of new games, took hours of gaming time that left me quite unwilling to play an actually fun game when I was “off work.” Is it still the coolest job ever? Well, a cool industry, anyway. You’re less likely to encounter someone who thinks it’s weird that you play games, that’s for sure. And clearly I’m still involved with it whenever I can be. But too many go into the work with the starry-eyed dream that it’s going to be just like gaming at home on the couch, only your Cheetos are subsidized. It is still a job. And jobs can suck.
Mur Lafferty is the host of the podcast I Should Be Writing, and editor of Escape Pod magazine. She’s the author of Playing For Keeps, and is a proud slayer of the Broodmother in Dragon Age, which her daughter calls “the ugly guy with boobs.”