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Playing games all day long


Step back, amateur game-players, here come the professionals.

They are the test-team members of the Quality Assurance department of MicroProse Software in Hunt Valley. These 27 men and women spend their days playing video games on company time. But they don't merely play, their expertise lies in "breaking" the games -- outsmarting the computer programs they're playing against.

Their work has contributed to the development of some of the industry's most popular games: "Sid Meier's Colonization," "X-Com" and "X-Com II: Terror from the Deep," "Transfer Tycoon" and "Pacific Air War Gold" to name just a few.

Although the testers' main objective is to find bugs that, once activated, cause the game program to crash, other responsibilities range from critiquing the story line and verifying historical accuracy to approving of color schemes and graphics. They make sure the games are fun and match the designers' intentions. The length of the process varies, but most test projects take an average of 10 weeks to complete.

A typical testing method for Jim Hendry of Baltimore is to approach the game in as many different ways as possible. "You check to see if you can do the things you're supposed to be able to do, and then check to see if you can do things that you're not supposed to be able to do. You do things that programmers never anticipated and see what happens," he says, citing such examples as killing all your allies in a war game, and flying backward or through solid objects in a flying game.

"There was one [game] where you were supposed to take off from an aircraft carrier, and we would sit there before we'd take off and drop all the bombs just sitting on the aircraft carrier -- just to see what would happen.

"Of course all the planes blew up, but then the game would crash . . . and the programmer asked, 'Well, why are you dropping bombs when you haven't even taken off yet?!' We had just come back from lunch, we were feeling kind of punchy, and we decided to see what would happen," he says. "I do things the programmers aren't expecting."

At 28, Mr. Hendry is one of the oldest game-testers at MicroProse, a company co-founded 12 years ago by owner Sid Meier, who is 41 -- only 11 years beyond the average age of the 160 employees at the Hunt Valley office (there are two smaller offices in England and Japan). Mr. Hendry has been part of the Quality Assurance team for two years. "It's a good job to hang on to for a while," he says. "We'll spend 50 hours a week in here and then come in on weekends just for the fun of it."

The testers don't just work together, they play ball together, share meals together and spend time together outside the office. Mike Richardson, who came to MicroProse in February, says, "All companies will tell you that [the office] is supposed to be like a family, but here, it's really true."

In hiring testers, 22-year-old lead tester Jeff Dinger, who's been with MicroProse for 2 years, says the company looks for people who are "good at working in groups, good at improvising. . . . People with really good problem-solving skills are those that are doing really quite well here."

He adds, "[We look for people that] know their way around a machine, modems. Computer science is helpful when tracking down a bug."

Mr. Richardson, 23, of Randallstown, mostly has tested military games, but says he hopes to work on some flight-simulation games -- his undergraduate degree from Hampton University is in aeronautic design. He says many of the testers have specific areas of expertise that enable them to test games more thoroughly.

Mr. Richardson says, "Everyone here is really intelligent . . . the games get really sophisticated."

Both Mr. Richardson and Mr. Hendry say the hardest part of the testing process is near the end. "It's hard especially after somebody's been on it for two, three, four, five months. There are problems that you've gotten so used to seeing that after a while you don't even see them anymore," Mr. Hendry says.

This stagnation requires a fresh perspective. Enter 21-year-old Tammy Talbot.

Ms. Talbott, who lives in Monkton, came to MicroProse a year and a half ago after managing a software store. She tests games for user-friendliness and general playability.

Sometimes, Ms. Talbott says jokingly, it is hard to know where the game stops and reality begins. "I've had nightmares about the games," she says. "I've had airplanes chasing me through a field at night."

Mr. Richardson identifies. "You lie there at night thinking, 'How am I going to break the game tomorrow?' "

Breaking a game takes months of rigorous work, according to Pikesville native Dave Ginsburg, 28, the Quality Assurance department manager. He says the testers prepare 10- to 15-page reports on their approach to a game before they can begin testing it. They often spend more than 1,000 hours evaluating a single game.

Mr. Dinger says, "Even though it looks like going into QA is a dream job, it is a high-stress job at times."

Mr. Dinger, who lives in Edgewood, says the long hours are fine for some, but might be difficult for those with families. "The motto here is 'Rich and Single,' " he says, adding that Quality Assurance is the youngest department at MicroProse, with most of the testers either still in or just out of college. But he nor anyone else at the company would comment further on testers' pay range.

Michael Craighead, 45, MicroProse's director of Quality Assurance, agrees it's not all fun and games.

"Even though the terminology has been 'play-testing,' they are not actually playing," he says. "In fact, it is only at the really final stages of development [that the game is at all playable]."

But still, for the testers, the job is as fun as they come. "The level of acumen here is very, very high," says Mr. Craighead, who lives in Lutherville.

As with any other job though, in order for game-testing to really be fun, Mr. Dinger says, it also needs to be fulfilling. "You have to have a genuine interest in what you're doing. If you don't really love it, you won't last."

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