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The Trenches: A darker look at the industry we love

Video game tester.  Three words that I’m certain many gamers had wistfully considered some time over the years.  For those of us who were raised with fond memories of trouncing games going back two decades, the ability to go to work and play games for a living sounds like a dream come true.  I don’t think a lot of us really considered what that would really mean.  The tedium involved.  The long hours, the low pay, the thankless monotony of it all.

The Trenches, a relatively new comic by three well-known titans of the web comic world, is a look at a side of the industry you don’t get to see very often.  Largely because it’s the side that we’re not supposed to notice is there at all.  Kind of like how you’re not supposed to notice who has been making all those sweet tennis shoes at the mall.

There are three reasons to visit the Trenches regularly.  One, it is the brainchild of Mike Krahulik, and Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade fame and Scott Kurtz of PvP renown (I’ve been meaning to review PVP for a while, but hell, that comic’s archive is all kinds of intimidating) and those guys know how to craft comics like its their job. Two, visiting the comic will give you an opportunity to follow the misadventures of Issac, a desperate young man who manages to make his way into employ of a developer just in time for the final game crunch.

The last, and arguably the most compelling, is to read stories from actual testers and developers in the tales from the trenches archive.  I’ll get to that in a moment.

The trenches is a comic about video games and the people who make them.  Issac, along with a cast of sundry others who essentially live and work with him in the trenches, is set on a project to release a new MMO by the name of Lawstar.  The game is based around an old 80s cartoon that was, to put it simply, shit.

From the insane and bossy project lead Q to the functionally incompetent Credenza, Issac’s life is soon consumed by Lawstar, and in just how many bugs the development team refuses to fix.  Reading back over that, it really doesn’t sound like a comic that is accessible to everyone, but the comic does all this with enough of a gag-a-day format that you’ll get a chuckle out of it, even if you don’t fully grasp the world Issac lives in.  There aren’t a whole lot of updates to The Trenches just yet (which thankfully made plowing through the archive easier than reading through PvP or Penny Arcade. 10+ years for both of them, yikes) so it’s pretty easy to catch up.

Personally, my favorite part of The Trenches is the stories they host in the “tales from the trenches” section.  These stories, which are submitted by actual testers, are very enlightening about what being a tester really means.  Sure, testing video games for a living sounds like a blast, but when you’re growing up and looking to turn a passion into a career, it never occurs to you that game testing is a hideously thankless job.

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For example, lets say you find a bug that occurs in MLB 2K7 (confession:  I had to do a Google search to determine that yes, this is a game.  Good lord why am I using a sports game for this analogy?).  This bug only occurs when you are playing as the…  uh…  Cardinals against the….  Penguins Pirates (oh my God this is all falling apart) in the Superbowl   Stanley Cup World Series in the seventh inning, but only when the score is 12 to 11.  When you throw a foul shot fastball as Jeff Weaver, but then hit the batter in the left knee with it instead.  Doing this will cause the game to crash and delete all your saves.  In order to confirm this is a real problem, you need to play the game from scratch over and over again to create those exact same conditions to verify there is a problem.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are some positive stories about the industry in there too, but they are largely eclipsed by the negative.  There are horror stories about 80 hour weeks during crunch time, bug reports that come back with “working as intended” and “the testers are all monkeys mashing controllers together,” and testers receiving vague promises of permanent positions and pay raises only to receive layoffs the moment the game ships.

These are people who come to work day after day to do something so horribly tedious just to make sure that game is flawless on release.  The thanks they get is often unemployment, or worse still, the knowledge that the developer didn’t bother to read or fix the bugs they submitted.

One story I read in the trenches archive detailed a tester’s discovery of a game ending bug that not only crashed the console, but it rendered the system entirely unplayable forever.  When he said the bug would take months to fix, in light of a release date at the end of the week, he got fired for his trouble.

The tales don’t say what games the testers worked on, because apparently some pretty draconian non-disclosure agreements have to be signed in this industry.  But to me it is terrifying to know that the game in question shipped with a bug so catastrophic, it will render your console unplayable.  What console is it?!  I don’t even know.

But they keep coming back, with no motivation except the ability to work in a field they love.  I’d give them medals if I could.  What they do is something that have no patience for.  It gives you a bit more appreciation for those toiling away in the thankless annals of the industry, and makes the eight years it takes for Blizzard to release a new Diablo game seem a bit more reasonable.

In my opinion, those stories are essential reading for anyone who has ever complained about bugs in the game they shipped.  Know where you’re coming from before you lodge a complaint to the people who found that bug, tested it to death, and then watched in horror as the game shipped without it being addressed.  It’s tough in the trenches.

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