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Ambitious Game Testers Play Their Way to the Top

* Fueled by their passion for video games, these young men spend their days and nights looking for glitches.

March 29, 2001|KAREN JONES | karen@kjnyc.com

What 12-year-old wouldn't think Chane Hollander has the best job in the world?

Hollander, 23, spends his days hunched over a screen in a cavernous basement room dubbed The Pit. Sometimes for as long as 20 hours a day, he plays video games before they are sold.

As a tester at LucasArts Entertainment, the interactive arm of George Lucas' empire, Hollander looks for bugs, those nasty glitches embedded in all software that can bring a computer or video game system to its knees.

Thousands of young men get their start in the video game business as testers.

They are the bottom rung of the video game food chain. But, like the nut that feeds the squirrel that feeds the hawk, they are indispensable.

Hollander and his colleagues recently finished testing LucasArts' new Sony PlayStation 2 game "Star Wars Starfighter," a process that took nearly five months.

Although average players may finish "Starfighter" in 50 to 100 hours, testers logged 10,000 hours on the action game.

All of this in The Pit--a nickname earned because it resembles a rectangular trench surrounded by a waist-high walkway.

The testers area splits into two main sections--a crowded room filled with workstations and a recreation room that includes Foosball, Ping-Pong and well-worn couches.

"We work here, eat here, play here and sleep here, so you've got to believe totally in what you are doing," Hollander said. "I spend more time here than with my family and loved ones."

Like Hollander, most of those in The Pit are passionate about video games and want to move up in the industry.

Chris Susen has a degree in accounting. He gave up the corporate world--and took a cut in pay--to learn the game industry.

The 23-year-old is a "Star Wars" fan, so the job has other rewards. But he eventually plans on securing a place on the business side once he pays his dues.

That's not just wishful thinking.

Quality assurance manager Dan Pettit, 30, began as a tester six years ago and now runs the department. "We're the recruiting ground for the development teams," he said, adding that 26 former testers are now upstairs in LucasArts development and design teams.

Huge Moore, at 32 the oldest member of the team, previously produced several games that weren't released and decided to take a break as a tester.

Testers find the bugs, but it's the programmers who fix them, which can lead to some frustration. "Without test, the games would fail, yet test can't make them succeed," Moore said. "If it's flawed, we can't fix it. That's a weird position to be in."

As the lead tester on "Starfighter," John Drake, 30, was responsible for managing the database that came to be known as the Bible of the test. Here all bugs were recorded and coded for priority status and then referred to the programming team, where they were fixed.

Five years of testing have taken their toll on his wrists and have limited his abilities as a musician, so he plans to move further into the creative side of the business.

Only Roger Romero, 30, a tester for six months, doesn't appear obsessed by the business. He confides that he is happy just to pay his bills while pursuing his goal of being an inventor of mechanical designs.

On the wall surrounding The Pit hangs a poster of every LucasArts game. Many testers, like Hollander, say they believe they are in on the ground floor of the next big entertainment medium.

"When the movies business started, people could be directors and producers without schooling," Hollander said.

"It was all gut instinct. I want to see my own ideas and creative tastes grow in this new industry. Five years from now, people will have to have degrees to come here to work as testers. That will, in essence, make us the teachers."

*

Karen Jones is a freelance writer specializing in children's interactive media.

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