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 cakewalk—nothing 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, Florida—just 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.
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 dreary—punch 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 money—the 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 iMacs—it’s $1299, not “around $2000.” My profound apologies to the Apple contingent.