They play all day and call it work

For relatively little pay, video-game testers do a big job

December 22, 2005|By KEVIN BRONSON | KEVIN BRONSON,LOS ANGELES TIMES

On the surface, Peter Chan is the envy of every kid who grabs a Scorpion Flail Whip and does battle with an Exterminator.

Chan plays video games. Most of the day, and sometimes night. For a living, and sometimes for fun. As a tester for Insomniac Games, he ate, lived and breathed the Sony PlayStation 2 game Ratchet: Deadlocked from February until its October launch.

But lest children set aside their algebra homework with the idea that when they grow up their PlayStations can become their workstations, the boyish 27-year-old offers this perspective:

"If I were a kid, I'd think, `Hey, this sounds easy - you get paid to play a game.' Then you realize, `Oh. I get paid to play one game. For eight months.'"

That's what Insomniac's quality assurance, or QA, staff of 22 did, sending Ratchet and other heroes into the "DreadZone" to combat the forces of an evil media magnate named Gleeman Vox who thrusts his kidnap victims into roles as contestants in insidious reality TV shows.

The complex game, the latest installment in the popular Ratchet & Clank series that Insomniac developed for Sony Computer Entertainment, can be played by single or multiple players on a console, or by multiple players or squads online.

The company's QA team detected 22,000 bugs in Ratchet: Deadlocked over nine months of production - a blip on the screen when you consider the game contains more than 3 million lines of computer code.

Testers are widely considered the industry's last line of defense. In an arena where fervent consumers dissect every aspect of a game in online forums and where statistical rankings seem to carry the weight of presidential approval ratings, shipping out glitchy product is like turning an Obliterator on yourself.

"The games seem to get bigger and bigger every year, and they have more scope," says Doug Finch, Insomniac's 34-year-old quality-assurance manager. "You look for people with some kind of standards and good common sense."

Ambition doesn't hurt, either. Quality-assurance departments have been characterized as the mailrooms of the gaming industry. "It's a good way to learn all the aspects of the industry because you have to communicate with artists, designers, programmers, everybody," says Finch, who, like Chan, started his career at Interplay. "There are a lot of places where QA is looked down upon, but that's not here."

Indeed, from talking to Chan it's hard to imagine anybody is looked down upon at Insomniac, which employs 155 in a fifth-floor office near Burbank, Calif.'s Bob Hope Airport. It's a space partitioned by large cubicles, many decorated with action figures, posters and sundry props from the netherworlds that gaming offers as an escape. Scooters stand at the ready. A well-stocked employee kitchen beckons. And the company's founder and CEO, Ted Price, who knows everybody by his first name, is liable to stop by anytime and shoot the breeze.

"I might be burned out if I worked somewhere else," Chan says, "but not here."

Chan makes $10 an hour plus overtime (but with no benefits, because testers are classified as temporary employees) and is a bit older than many of his QA colleagues, whose average age is 25. He remained undaunted in the face of 60-hour workweeks leading up to the release of Deadlocked; his specialty was the online version of the game.

"If I were testing the single-player version, I might get jaded," he says, explaining that having multiple foes appeals to his intense competitiveness and fascination with statistics. "Sometimes I jump on at lunch to play against people."

He smiles almost apologetically. "Yes, sadly, I play all day at work and then I go home and play some more," he says.

It's probably not what Chan had in mind when he attended the University of Southern California. He graduated in 2001 with a degree in business but then got a short-lived QA job at Interplay. After trying his hand in the business world, he decided his hands were happier on a game controller.

"I realized that was not what I wanted to do, that I'd really rather do video games," he says, acknowledging that his career path was not universally embraced. "My parents are not too thrilled, but I'm really happy now. I have this glow."

On Deadlocked, he spent hours looking for "anything that might cause a crash - show-stopper bugs."

Chan says a good testing requires "thinking outside of the box. You have to go out of the way to look for things out of the ordinary. Some [gamers] like to explore different things, and as a tester you have to think differently."

And while he aspires to get into project management, the job, for now, satisfies his inner child - and outer grown-up. The paychecks might be modest, but the camaraderie and the small perks like a comfy workplace and a company softball team are satisfying.

He smiles when he remembers the collective exhilaration when Deadlocked finally shipped. The Insomniacs celebrated with a release party - a bowling outing.

"Hey," Chan says, "I really love bowling."

Kevin Bronson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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