Q: I'm a hopeless video game addict who'd love a career in the industry. Trouble is, I can't program worth a lick, and my résumé doesn't exactly scream out "executive material." My chief qualification is having logged several thousand hours playing Legend of Zelda. Are there entry-level gigs for blokes like me?
Contrary to your mom's admonishments that mastering PlayStation was a big, fat waste of your childhood, sheer gaming prowess may be enough to score you a halfway decent job. Game developers are eternally in need of quality-assurance (QA) testers to poke, prod, and criticize their creations before they hit Best Buy. QA testing isn't exactly a cakewalknothing sucks the fun out of a game quite like pummeling the exact same enemy for 11 days straight. But if your dream job is designing the next Resident Evil title, slaving away in a QA cubicle is a good place to start.
First, find a company that makes games, and be relentless. "Even if there's not a current opening, constantly call back," advises Jim Zielinski, a designer at Incredible Technologies, creator of Golden Tee Fore! "Enthusiasm is what people are looking for." Keep an eye peeled for job notices on gaming-company Web sites. Frat-boy favorite EA Sports, for example, hires 100 temporary testers every February to vet its latest football and NASCAR titles. If you're up for relocating to beautiful Maitland, Floridajust a stone's throw from Epcot Center!drop a résumé to Testers@Tiburon.com.
Another potential entrée is to get hired as a game-play counselor, a job typically one notch above "coffee machine" in the personnel hierarchy. Helping bratty nine-year-olds learn to use the Storm Bolt ability in WarCraft III may sound more like a punishment than a profession, but at least it'll get your foot in the door.
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Primo joystick talent won't guarantee your eventual promotion to the QA department, however. "You have to have really good communications skills, too," says Shellie Saunders, an ex-tester at Nintendo who now heads up the company's call center. "You have to be able to explain where you're getting stuck in a game, so the programmers can go back and make changes." A familiarity with databases also helps, as you'll be asked to jot down each and every bug you encounter, from screen-freezing doozies to minor quirks.
Once you've snagged a job, the routine's fairly drearypunch in, play a game until quitting time, repeat ad infinitum. You'll often be assigned one level to play again and again and again, until even your non-sexual dreams center on Lara Croft (or, depending on your tastes, Metal Gear's well-muscled Snake). As a game's ship date nears, you'll receive a dreaded "test plan" from the QA head. "These are incredibly tedious to follow," says Darren Johnson, a programmer at LucasArts. "It means shooting every wall with every weapon, using every item with every character, playing through a level as quickly as possible, playing through a level backwards . . . " Expect to put in upward of 50 hours per week, for piddling moneythe EA Sports job pays just $7 an hour with no benefits, but you do get a discount on Madden NFL.
Pay your dues for a few years, though, and advancement opportunities abound. Zielinski, an expert at the late 1980s coin-op Birdie King, got his start at Incredible as a QA tester. Now he's in charge of designing new environments for Golden Tee, a job whose recent perks included a trip down to Cajun country to soak up inspiration for the game's "Crawdad Swamp" course. And LucasArts' Johnson is one of several ex-QA testers now programming the company's Star Wars-inspired titles.
Not everyone gets kicked upstairs, of course, and chances are you'll tire of donning the same damn anti-gravity boots in Unreal Tournament 3 million times in a row. If the QA path leads nowhere, you could always try joining the much-hyped Cyberathlete Professional League (Cyberathlete.com). Just don't count on a lavish lifestyle, since the winning squad at the most recent championship earned a lousy $25,000. You're better off booking a Greyhound ticket to Maitland.
Apparently, hell hath no fury like a Mac fan wronged. Mr. Roboto was deluged with angry e-mails for misquoting the starting price for new iMacsit's $1299, not "around $2000." My profound apologies to the Apple contingent.
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