After two years I was forced to hand in my employee badge for Pandemic Studios, a broken man.
I was taking 4 vicodin a day to dull the pain of a herniated disc in my lower back. Wrist braces adorned both my arms to help control the repetitive stress injury induced by long days of playing Star Wars: Battlefront and typing. The herniated disc – acquired on a rare crunch time day off as I stood up from my couch at home – gave me a bit of a limp, and as I hobbled through the halls of Pandemic Studios you could hear the painkillers rattle in my pocket.
I was heartbroken. I was rejected. I could not fathom why I was let go from the team I had sacrificed so much for. In time, I would grow to understand the incredible gift I had been given in my two years of industry experience at Pandemic. But at the time I was too immature, too angry and too disillusioned to process my experiences clearly.
I was a student during my entire tenure at Pandemic and still had a few semesters left on my degree. I sat in class, unable to take notes without feeling a deep burn in my forearms and I seethed. I had no idea what I would do after I finished college. I could not imagine the physical pain a desk job would cause due to the herniated disk and RSI. I would be unable to do any job that involved standing up for long periods of time. My future looked hopeless.
“How can I make them pay?”
In the months following my layoff this thought popped up. A lot. It was a very soothing fantasy to imagine I could somehow extract my revenge upon Pandemic. Luckily I did not act upon this immature instinct, because my now 10 year career in the industry was built on the foundation of that first job.
I can certainly empathize with the tale of Nathan (RC) Peters and his time as a QA contractor on Halo 4. I worked at Pandemic Studios for two years. The first year I was an unpaid intern working 2-3 days a week and full time in the summer. The second year I was a paid tester, earning $10 an hour, working 3 days a week during school and 80-100 hours a week during the summer that coincided with Battlefront’s crunch. I was laid off as part of the natural team contraction after the game shipped. I walked away with a broken heart, repetitive stress injury in both arms, persistent pain in my lower back and legs and a Lead Tester credit on a massively successful Star Wars game.
Eight and a half years later the injuries have healed. My bruised ego has mended. I have worked for game developers big and small, have lectured on game design around the globe and have contributed to over 30 shipped games across every platform. I left EA and co-founded a game studio. Whether our title Enhanced Wars is or is not a success, as long as it is launched I will have accomplished a major life goal. I have a long career in videogames to look forward to.
Of course, I couldn’t see any of this when I handed over my employee badge. Or when I packed up my car, drove across the country and moved into my parent’s house in the suburbs. Or when the job working on websites with a childhood friend I moved home for collapsed. How could I see then that I would be able to make my game design dreams come true? As I stared into the void of an unknown future, fantasizing desperately about extracting revenge, all I could see was a pink slip.
I did not work at Certain Affinity. I did not work on Halo 4. I cannot speak to Mr. Peters’ personal experience. What I can do is share some things I’ve learned over the past 10 years that I wish I knew back when I was killing myself in the QA job that is the foundation of my career.
The first thing I wish I knew was EA Chief Creative Director Rich Hilleman’s “Shit in the bag” anecdote. You can hear it firsthand in this spectacular conversation and lecture between Rich and Warren Spector at about the hour and seven minute mark. I had the privilege of working for Rich and this frame of understanding the workplace is one of the most important lessons from my 4 years at EA.
In the talk, Rich explains what it’s really like for leaders on a game team to be in charge. “They have a bag of shit. You can’t smell it, you can’t see it, but it’s there. And I guarantee you they know it’s there. And for the most part, your relationship with them is defined by this bag. You’re either putting shit in the bag or you’re taking shit out of the bag.”
Rich goes on to explain that the secret to success on a game team is to make sure you are removing shit from your boss’s bag. Asking the lead designer to let you sit in on design meetings? That is putting shit in the bag. People are busy, crunch time is tense, and no one wants an unqualified QA guy wasting everyone’s time by “contributing” to a design session when he should be using that “down time” to perform unglamorous regression tests.
At Pandemic I was constantly trying to prove my worth, hoping for that moment when someone would “see my genius” and convince me to give up college and start working there full time. What I didn’t realize was that my enthusiastic attempts to impress were not helping. I spent a lot of time embarrassing myself without knowing, handing out a bunch of stinking turds to busy people with far too much shit in their bag to care about a lowly QA guy.
The second thing I wish I knew is that getting a job on a game team, especially an entry level job, is all about your portfolio of work. I thought I deserved a job on the level design team. Why? Because I worked 80+ hour weeks, hand shredded hundreds of discs, ordered and picked up team dinners, made sure new builds were waiting for people when they showed up in the morning and had some ideas for a tutorial level involving blowing up Ewoks.
The true path to that level design job I thought I deserved involved building levels. The tools of game design are cheap and plentiful. If I had any sense, I would have spent all my free time modding Dark Reign 2 (a Pandemic game) until I had a built and released a large number of multiplayer levels into the player community and had tangible proof of my ability to a) use Pandemic developed tools and b) make fun multiplayer maps that players responded to. Then, perhaps, I would have deserved that interview for an entry level design job that hundreds of others would line up for.
The period of my life after being laid off from Pandemic was one of my darkest (which alone, shows what a privileged life I have led overall and that I really shouldn’t be complaining about anything). I spent 2 years at Pandemic and am grateful every day to the many people who allowed me to be there despite all the stinky turds I’m sure I left in every corner of the office.
QA can be a shit job. QA is monotonous. QA is unglamorous. QA is thankless. But work is work; no one promised this would be easy. I owe my career to QA and the people and company who gave me that job. I only wish that back then, I had perspective instead of vicodin to help me ease the pain of one of life’s many inescapable setbacks.