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For game testers, it's not all about fun

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Industry Standard

(IDG) -- Curtis Creamer doesn't remember who discovered it, but suddenly everybody was using the big gun.

It was early last year, and eight game testers, including the 34-year-old Creamer, were putting the air-war game "Crimson Skies" through its paces. Before long, they all figured out that when you paired the highest-caliber gun with the biggest bomber -- and flew it upside down -- you could blow away everything in sight. The testers called the game's developers into the room at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash. "All you have to do is take this plane, load it with the 50-caliber, fly close to the ground and you're just killing everybody!" Creamer yelled.

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When "Crimson Skies" hit the market in March 2000, the big gun's aim was much less accurate.

Most testers, including Creamer, a former toy-store manager, go into the business because they love games. But it's not all play: Game testing is a full-time job that requires showing up on time at the office every morning. The pay ranges from $20,000 for an entry-level temp to $50,000 for an established tester, and the average tester's career lasts about five years. (Many testers move from company to company, and some go on to become game developers.) Being a crack player isn't a job requirement. The tester's role is far more technical.

Before a game ships, it's not uncommon for testers to catch as many as 15,000 bugs. These range from the purely aesthetic (a patch of pixels appears as the wrong texture on a particular tree), to the dire (the game freezes when the player reaches the fourth level). To find them all, testers must perform every function that could possibly occur in a particular game -- methodically, for months at a time.

Creamer is now leading a team of five testers on "Halo," a multiplayer shoot-'em-up for Microsoft's Xbox console. It's one of several games being developed in-house, and weeks ago Creamer's team created a written overview of its various elements, assigning a tester to each of them. One tester, for example, is responsible for the game's multiplayer aspect, making sure that different types of controllers, or joysticks, perform the same way in the console's plug-in slots.

Bugs are logged into a database and assigned a rating of importance. The game developers then work their way through the database, attending to the most important fixes first.

Word of "Halo"'s graphics -- one report in a London paper calls them "mind blowing" -- has sparked an unusual level of anticipation in the gaming world. And telling an aficionado that you're testing Halo tends to elicit awe. "Their eyes get big," says one tester. The testing room has the feel of a rowdy college dorm, but the work is grueling, and it's even tougher for Halo.

"There is certainly more pressure," admits Creamer. No bug can slip through the cracks.



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