I, Migrant IT Worker, Part 3
I go where the games development is
So far along my Fool's Journey through games development I’d held three different gigs, all at the same company. By 2004 I was no longer a Company Man. The Company had seen to it. I would have to look elsewhere for gainful employment. Or any employment, really.
But I managed to get away with a resume for the first time in my life. I now had what adults call experience. In between mostly starving and being mostly sober - both financially informed decisions as experience isn't terribly nourishing - I set about memorializing my previous job duties via the written word. I agonized over the best delivery mechanism to communicate my daily duties. I debated the merits of bullet lists with myself. I wondered at what literary lingerie to drape my slender, entry level frame with.
Once I figured I had a workable bill of goods in hand, I pimped myself about various e-mail addresses, hoping for lonely hirers with low standards and large headcounts. After countless silent rejections and at least one interview so embarrassing the memory seared itself into my trauma glands, I landed a spot as a contractor in a hybrid role at a place called Microsoft Game Studios. The pay came at $18 hourly in return for what we call ad hoc testing with a mix of user feedback.
At the time I had no idea what ad hoc testing was but I was fairly confident I could do it. I wagered I’d just sort of feel it out. My empty stomach assured me I could do anything they asked. Nothing provides a jolt of confidence in oneself like hunger. User feedback I could handle in any event. Most attempts to shut me up are futile, with or without pay. I’m great at funerals.
Despite the good news on the job front, or perhaps because of it, I found myself back with my future ex-wife. I no longer recall why or how this troglodyte was appealing, but she must have been. I’m unable to explain the situation otherwise. So while I was busy killing it in the office, I seemed intent on slaying myself at home and moved back in with the horrible harpy in the Greenwood area of Seattle.
Affairs of the heart are inexplicable.
I wasn't just hired on for ad hoc testing - whatever that was - or as a willing subject of experimentation for user researchers. After a few months I’d be expected to help create a new team responsible for certification testing games in-house. My experience and expertise with Xbox certification compliance let me slide into that gig crotch first. A bit like being a rock star, but less siphylitic water slide and more career track.
I didn't know one could be considered valuable, to be honest. Not by an employer. So far as I could tell employers fired you when they needed someone to blame after incompetently setting a Lexus ablaze. Or fire you because their girlfriend wants a promotion. She got my old job, by the way. She was welcome to it. She fabricated a story to get it, after all. She was my old boss's problem now and I wondered at how long it would take her to begin considering crafting her next promotion.
I gave the poor bastard about a year. I hear he made it three. Live by the sword, etc.
The group of Microsoft Game Studios I ended up at was a sort of corral of warm bodies who could be trusted to follow instructions. These folks were a shared resource group; available when you need a barrage of testing against an area of your game. There wasn't a lot of experience in the lab, but no lack of enthusiasm. All the teams had military designations for some reason. There was Infantry, Cavalry, etc and so on. My team was called Black Ops. Not my choice. I would have chosen Team Disrupt or something equally awesome as a name.
The studio was developing four games then, I think. Forza, Halo 2, Fable, and Kameo. I ended up with at least a thumb in each of them.
Building a team, rather than joining one, was interesting. I got my first look at the hiring process from the other side of the table and managed to make a few good personnel decisions amid the bad. One dude we hired ended up being both intensely competent and a good friend over the years. I’d end up working - and drinking - with him several times. He always managed to provide a unique take on situations; insane or otherwise, the man is a genuine human and I always liked that about him.
My Black Ops team got setup and we hit the ground running. Our work consisted of sitting around waiting for developers to toss us some meat in the form of a game they were making. Once that happened, we ensured they were on the right track when it came time to submit to my old boss and hhorrible time bomb of a girlfriend. Our role saved developers time and money, as Microsoft required all games on Xbox to be submitted for certification testing while also charging for the enforced privilege. If you failed certification you had to submit, and pay, again. We made sure our games passed the first time. The release tracks were greased with the sweat of our brows and the hungover certainty of expertise.
I got a taste for game development here. At my previous gig I’d see the same title a few times at different milestones of its lifecycle. Here I saw games evolve in real time over months. It was immensely educational. And fun. I liked Halo 2 better with dual wielded swords, personally. They removed them after user research indicated that nerd from Black Ops killed everyone with them and he weeps to see there are none left to conquer.
At least that’s how I remember it.
Despite work going so well, I remained vigilant for any opportunity to violate myself at home. So around this time I proposed to my ex-wife.
We got married a year later. Weddings are awkward when you're their target. You're nervous because there are fifty people there looking at you most the time. But you're supposed to feel nervous because you made a decision to tie a rock around your waist and there’s no way out now. You ad hoc. You get through the socially obligated tradition with no setbacks. And then you fly to Hawaii.
None of that is important, other than as a marker aligning with my next hunt for work. By this time, I was becoming more and more interested in getting closer to the source. Up until now, I had been responsible mostly for certification testing; both at the platform (Xbox) and developer (Bungie, for example) sides. But now I wanted more. Like a starving, street rat. I wanted to hold the ladle. I had ambitions.
So, I left my comfortable gig and took up with the team developing Too Human. This game seemed exciting, what with its references to Friedrich Nietzsche in the title. Alas, it was not. Exciting, I mean. It was definitely a philosophical affair. Just not a fun one.
I worked this game - responsible for test planning regarding Stats, Equipment, Items, and Combat - for exactly 365 days. Most of the time we sat around waiting for builds, but the rest of the time we created test passes and handed them over to my colleagues on the Infantry team. Or we got lost in the building's warren of halls. It has a six way intersection at some point. I shared a tiny office with a hilarious lady who hated cheese. She handled test planning for Cinematics and UI and also hated bread.
Too Human itself wouldn't be released for a few years. There were a variety of unsexy reasons for this. The developer was suing another developer for sabotage, for instance. But most importantly they never could make it fun. It was planned as a trilogy, but no one liked the first one so it died on the vine. I read rough drafts of a script for three games. I even have a Too Human Trilogy poster from early marketing. Advertising something that never was. Plans that go to dust once they run up against reality and an extremely critical user base.
The 365 days of employment was not accidental. It was the result of a policy Microsoft applied to contractors. No contractor could work at Microsoft for 366 days. They were let go on the 365th. After 100 days, that same contractor could come back or take another role at the company for 365 days. At that point, their corporate sentence kicked in for another 100 days.
They did this for all contractors, so I didn't feel (too) much like a second class citizen in their corporate games utopia. Half the culture at these jobs revolves around those 100 days. Plans get made around them. Tens of thousands of migrant IT workers arranged their lives around this policy, myself included. Supposedly, it was the result of a lawsuit the company had lost regarding failure to shell out benefits. I never did look into that.
But it did mean I was unemployed again. I looked around, but ultimately I was jobless for 100 days. I’d succeeded in getting closer to the source, but the sun ensured I flew no higher. At least for now. Fingers crossed for Too Human 2, all the same. I wager we’ll get it right around the time we get Half-Life 3.
Which is never.
I’d like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas, or a happy miscellaneous holiday of their choice. My family doesn't feature much in this little work biography, but they were always there. Rooting, supporting, and sighing at my misadventures. Without them, I most certainly would have died or entered politics. But I repeat myself.
If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy a collection of my humorous travel journals available for hundreds of pennies here.