Who REALLY says your product is done? Not who you think

October 15, 2009

When I was at SEGA, I sat in a "release" meeting with my boss, the head of all of development and the QA manager.  I listened as the head of development lectured me on the strength of our titles and how we have set the bar very high and so we can't possibly release a title with bugs.

His Director of Development took over and pontificated on how he and his boss have years of experience and know when a game is ready for the market and would be happy to teach me these skills if I was willing to listen.

Who'd say no? I said something that sounded like: "Yeah sure, can you sign the release papers now?"

They both looked at the QA manager and with no further prompting said: "QA has signed off on it".  With that, the two big guys signed.  It was at that moment I realized, the ultimate judge of a titles worthiness for manufacturing had nothing to do with these two big wigs.

Make no mistake, I learned a TON from both of them and I highly respect them.  But they really had nothing to do with the release of my title.  Even the QA manager was really just reporting the results from the testers. These are the very same testers that we paid only 12 dollars an hour... we used to say: "Want to test a game?  Wait, are you breathing?  Yes?  OK, you're qualified". Now that was 1992, games are a lot more complicated but the attitude towards testers has not evolved.

"Want to test a game?  Wait, are you breathing?  Yes?  OK, you're qualified"
 I have two stories to relate to you about testers.

In 1992 I was the Producer on Evander Hollyfield Boxing on the Game Gear.  One of the features I really pressed for was multiplayer.  I really thought this was the killer part of the Game Gear and we didn't use it enough.  But, it did require a LOT of testing, so did a lot of other titles that released about the same time.

At one point I'm sitting in my cube and I noticed a lot of new faces in and around the test department.  They had opened the flood gates and were trying to get all of the titles tested.  I wandered into what was our main conference room to make sure they testers were really... testing.  Of course,  the new testers needed some pointers.  While I was helping them connect multiplayer,  I had the following exchange with one of them:

Me:  "Like boxing games?"

Tester: "Si"

Me: "Every play any boxing games before?"

Tester: "No"

Me:  "What were you doing yesterday?"

He turned to another tester and said a few words in Spanish and then did a pantomime that resembled digging, and said: "Ditch".

Yes, they had hired ditch diggers to test games.

Here's a bit of trivial: Evander Hollyfield Boxing was the first SEGA game, Game Gear or Genesis, that included a list of the testers in the documentation. I insisted, that was a lesson learned.

The second story is sad.  I worked for SSI for a short time, long story short, it wasn't a good fit both in project and management. Some of my lifelong friends that I made there were testers.  They were amazing,  They could find bugs like all other testers, but they were also history buffs.  They could tell you that the tank in "that game", has the wrong muzzle velocity for that era in winter.  I can't tell you to this day how they could even SEE that on screen.

I firmly believe that one of the downfalls of SSI was when they moved the company from their location in Sunnyvale, to be in the same building as all of Mindscape.  They didn't move the testers and that cost them years of experience that could not be easily replaced.  Those testers were the heart and soul, and I don't know if it was the ego of the manager, which I suspect given the poor managers, or the costs... but not moving the testers I believe was the steak to the heart of the company.

So if you take nothing else away from this post... VALUE YOUR TESTERS.

Your thoughts?

P.S.  OK, one more. In 4 years at SEGA I was asked hundreds of times if they were looking for game testers. I would always hand them my card and say: "Sure, go home... play a game you don't like, the same level over and over for 8 hours straight, then call me and I'll help you get a job".  I never got a call.
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