Note: This is a revised version of an email I had sent to my Quality Assurance (QA) team while working at THQ in 2010. I was a Sr. Manager in Phoenix, Arizona at the time, and these were meant to be a regular, ongoing series about my experiences in the industry. Although I only managed to get a few of these written, I’m happy to be bringing them back to life here at GHG.
A question I receive on a regular basis is, “How did you get your start?”
This can be a tough question to answer, especially when people ask it in the context of why I managed QA at a publisher instead of working as a Producer or at a game development studio. As with most things in life, it was not planned this way, and there were many decisions — both good and bad — that factored into and affected my career path. Before I actually began working in this industry — and even several years into it — I really did believe my future was in game design.
But first, I have to rewind to the beginning, circa 1980, when my love of all things videogames started. I was fascinated by arcade games, and clearly remember “playing” Asteroids for the first time. I utterly failed at it, since my still-developing brain had trouble understanding the concept of button controls instead of a joystick. I’m sure it would still intimidate me if I ran into it today!
It didn’t matter, though. Games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong had already sealed the deal, and it was in 1982 when my dad bought the family an Atari 2600, a console whose success Atari was never able to duplicate. It’s popular to hate on 2600 games like Pac-Man and E.T., but I liked them. Did I know they were poorly made games? Sure, but by the same token, playing the bad games made me appreciate the great ones like Yar’s Revenge, Space Invaders, and River Raid.
Several years later in 1984, our first computer arrived: The Apple //e. I remember my dad saying it would be a good educational and home business tool, but let’s face it, it was all about the games and programming in BASIC and assembly! A very fond memory of the time was the plethora of magazines and books chock-full of programs, and I remember transcribing nearly all of them and saving them on disk. They were also ridden with syntax and logic errors, so this taught me how to troubleshoot code before the days of more advanced debuggers and compilers. While it annoyed me when programs wouldn’t work correctly the first time, I was later thankful since they helped me improve at general problem solving and how to improvise and create my own code.
I loved game design at an early age as well. Around 1986, my best friend and I worked on a prototype design for Archon III in our spare time. We were huge fans of Archon and Archon II: Adept, and I’m not sure what our naive minds were thinking, but we actually thought that if we submitted this to Electronic Arts (EA), we would somehow get jobs working for them creating this game ourselves!
Imagine our disappointment after having spent months working on graphics, gameplay, stories, and maps, and not even receive so much as a thank you letter? We were crushed, but it taught us to keep idealistic wishes in check with reality.
In the end, it was still a fun experience, and coincidentally, we used one of EA’s own programs at the time, Adventure Construction Set, to create the sprites and map layouts for our design. It was extremely time-consuming, but this gave us a deep appreciation for the work artists and animators put into all the games we loved to play.
Besides the Archon series, Interplay’s The Bard’s Tale was a huge influence on me, and I still remember the day I loaded it up for the very first time. I had borrowed it from my neighbor across the street after having played some street football after school, and even on the Apple //e, with its 280×192 resolution and 7 colors, I was blown away. The graphics and animation had a unique style I had never seen before, and the battles were fast, fun, and descriptive. A desire to work on games like this for a living began to materialize in my head once again.
I remember reading an article in an old magazine (I believe it was K Power), which described the rubber band gun battles that Richard Garriott, better known as Lord British, would have with his team while working on the Ultima games. It sounded like such a fun place to work, and it would turn out that this fun spirit in the industry was actually quite accurate.
Fast-forward to 1995. My love for all things Interplay was still going strong, and that summer, my friend who worked there asked if I wanted “a cool job playing games”, wording that I know makes QA professionals twitch uncontrollably.
Unsurprisingly, though, I took the job.
I spent my first day there testing a final version of Castles II for the Mac. I had no idea what I was doing, there was no such thing as training, I was staring at printouts full of abbreviations like NF, PF, and NB, and I was surrounded by strangers. I almost quit after my first day.
I always thought back on that when I saw new Testers quit before they were through their first week. I wondered if they did so because they felt the same way I did?
Anyway, I stuck with it, and after a few weeks, everything clicked. However, I quickly learned the difference between what I played and liked as a consumer and what I was required to test. Just because I really liked Descent and Virtual Pool didn’t mean that I’d be assigned to games like that all the time. Early on, I tested a CD-ROM musical documentary and a sluggish Myst-like adventure game, both of which sat on buggy middleware. Needless to say, this didn’t exactly align with my plans to work on the next Bard’s Tale!
So that’s what initially got my foot in the door: lots of passion for gaming, a little bit of luck in terms of timing, and an open mind.