I Freelanced On Halo 4. It's Time For Gaming's Contractors To Strike.

My name is Nathan (RC) Peters. In March 2011, I was hired on as a contract Quality Assurance tester to work at Certain Affinity studios in Austin, Texas. I worked on the multiplayer portion of Halo 4. Here is an inside look at the reality of being a contract worker within a video game company, and why you should never accept a job as a contractor.

Prior to this job, I had only one other QA job, and that was for Activision in Santa Monica, California. I found the job on Craigslist, applied, and was called in for an interview. At that time I was much younger, and desperate for a job. Plus, who wouldn’t want to play video games for money? After a week of training I was assigned to a team, and ended up working QA for the PC title Quake Wars: Enemy Territory.

After that project was done, I left the industry and transitioned into the music business. I did quite well. I was a producer, sound designer, and composer. I ended up having a song in Tiger Woods 2004, signed a 64-song deal with MTV Studios, and composed music from home on various indie projects which netted me IMDB.com credits.

In 2009, I moved back home to Austin, Texas where I unsuccessfully ran a small music agency. The business was abundant, and I was successful in booking some good talent, and even got a couple artists onto Pandora radio. However, the return-on-investment (ROI) was not there. I sunk a big chunk of my earnings from music royalties into the company, and within a year had made nothing back. On top of that, I got a divorce.

At that time I was much younger, and desperate for a job. Plus, who wouldn’t want to play video games for money?

In late 2010, I closed shop on my business, sold off every bit of music equipment I had, and sold off all of my possessions, except for my Xbox 360. I moved in with my sister and decided I needed to start over. With all of my free time, I managed to pick up Battlefield 3 on release (I was already playing Bad Company 2, and played the BF3 Beta to level cap). I would play it about eight hours a day, and eventually saw that I was ranked 3338 on the Xbox leaderboards. I then made the decision to try and get back into the gaming industry.

Now, at this time I had no degree to speak of (as of this writing I am an undergraduate at the Art Institute of Austin, majoring in a BS of Audio Production) so I knew I probably had to start back at the bottom of the ladder. I felt that, if I could get my foot in the door, within a year, whatever studio that hired me would realise that I would be quite an asset for their audio team.

I applied everywhere. I used indeed.com to filter out job postings. I must have submitted 50+ resumes. After five months and roughly six interviews (all conducted on the phone either with an HR rep within the studio or with a representative from a temp agency) I nailed an in-person interview at Certain Affinity.

I had done my research and knew that Max (the studio head) came from Bungie and the original Halo 2 Multiplayer world. They had also worked on Call of Duty: Black Ops, and so I was getting very excited. When I showed up for my interview, I sat in the lobby, extremely over-dressed and nervous as I was staring at a life-sized Master Chief statue who was protecting me in the lobby with his dual-wielding SMGs.

The interview was casual and even fun. I remember being asked if I had identified any bugs in recent AAA titles. In fact, I had. In Skyrim, I wanted to change my Xbox button configuration so the sprint mirrored that of most first-person shooters. In doing so, I noticed that if you equipped a torch, and used the new button to sprint -- by clicking the right thumbstick -- you could sprint indefinitely, without losing stamina, and even after the torch ran out. They laughed, and my future QA manager even said, “Well that is probably how they exploit those speed runs!”

I got hired. The Halo 4 multiplayer QA team consisted of 10 males, ranging in age from 22 all the way to my age, which was 32 at the time. My QA manager was young, maybe mid-twenties. (Although I never asked.) Every single one, with the exception of my manager, was a contractor. I was the noob of the team and got assigned two maps: one was near Alpha complete, getting ready for E3, and the other was still in block-out phase. Readers will know these maps as Adrift and Meltdown (whose name I personally suggested) but at the time they were called Warehouse and Canyon.

My first couple of months there was an absolute dream come true. Certain Affinity is a smaller studio -- at the time there were about 62 employees. Everyone sat on the same level, including Max, and the layout was like a call centre. It had a great kitchen, gourmet coffee and lots of snacks. We got lunches on numerous occasions. The atmosphere was killer, laid back and super friendly.

Some readers may be thinking, “Well what is the problem here? This sounds awesome!” ...Truth be told, it was like being Jon Snow or Theon Greyjoy under the Stark roof.

One of the cool things we did at CA were playtests. A lot of playtests! For nine months I literally played Halo 4 every day for money. We would grab the newest build and go into a closed room with 16 Xboxes and play various modes, checking code and, most importantly, monitoring host and client frames per second.

These playtests would always be a mixture of QA, developers, coders, producers and artists. It was not uncommon to see Max hang out and observe or even play.

Most of the sessions were fun, but there was also a nasty air of "nerd-dickdom" competitiveness. Controllers were slammed; F bombs were dropped; homosexual slurs were tossed about (and I know for a fact we had some gay workers in the studio). So yeah, it was grown-up nerds making a video game.

At this point in the article, some readers may be thinking, “Well what is the problem here? This sounds awesome!” Truth be told, it wasn’t, and it was because I was a contractor. It was like being Jon Snow or Theon Greyjoy under the Stark roof. Yes, people may talk to you, or relatively like you, but you are not accepted. The smiles, and jests and "bottle talk" always seemed phony, and the reason was because I was temp -- in fact, my whole department was.

One of the reasons I took this job was because they sold me on the fact that, if I did well, and showed promise, that it would be a real possibility to get hired on full-time. I sure as hell did not accept it for the whopping pay rate of $US11 an hour. So being older and a bit more experienced in the work world, I took the job by the horns and ran with it. I did everything I could to stand out. I asked a ton of questions about code, the debug, the game modes, everything. I talked to all the producers and developers and level designers I could to ensure we were on the same page and also so they would know my name.

Once, I worked an entire weekend on a voluntary basis. Halo 4 primary developer 343 wanted to cut our signature mode: Dominion. At that time, it was broken as hell and really unbalanced. The concept was outstanding, but there were a crap load of balancing issues. 343 was always tinkering with kits and available weapons, so the devs were having a hard time balancing ordnance drops.

We worked all weekend while coders would cook up frankenbuilds, and even Max stayed for the majority of the sessions. After long playtests he would take us in the kitchen and personally ask everyone in the group their thoughts. I felt like I was a part of something special.

They will work you to death and they will promise you potential, but it is for nothing. You will never truly be a part of anything. It is time to seriously consider unionising or organising a major strike.

Towards the end, things started to fall apart. It was not all of Certain Affinity’s fault. 343 was changing things on a daily basis. It was a very frustrating experience from what I observed, and we even lost our super designer Charlie, who was one of the original guys at Infinity Ward. Charlie was awesome, a hippy genius with just a pinch of ego. But he was approachable and I commend him for his patience, because that guy would ask for and receive an overwhelming amount of good and bad criticism on some of his proposed modes.

Management was a joke at CA. I was shifting tasks on a daily basis. One day I was helping another contractor with audio stuff (hoping this would grant me my in with the company), the next I was doing a collision pass on my map which I had already done two times in hope of cramming a few more bugs into our bug-tracking software JIRA so our "numbers" were up. Our contractor team leads were really no help either.

In the end, I put my two week notice in, just about two weeks before Halo 4 was released. At this point we were already bugging DLC maps, I was assigned to what is now known as "Skyline" (another one that was my suggestion). At the time of my announcement, I had given up. Post Halo 4, I wanted some type of assurance. Who wouldn’t? I asked for a one-dollar raise, and never heard anything back. In fact, instead of learning in person, I had to call my temp agency, who then called Certain Affinity, who then called me back to say that CA denied it.

Editor's Note: We reached out to Certain Affinity to get their side of the story. They sent over the following statement, from director of talent & culture Susan Bollinger: "Thank you for reaching out to us. We can confirm that Mr. Peters was a QA tester here, contracted through a 3rd party agency. Obviously what he had to say is of concern. We are sorry to hear that he feels he did not have a positive experience, as we have established our policies and practices to create the best possible working environment for everyone, contractors and otherwise."

We were supposed to have employee evaluations with our manager as well as a producer, and that never happened. The only team meetings we ever had were ones to berate us about using Gchat in ‘non-professional’ ways. And to remind us that we were contractors and should be honored to even have this job. I stopped going in, and would show up whenever. Eventually they just terminated my contract before my official two weeks expired. I knew it was coming and didn’t care.

This article was written in hopes to inspire all would-be workers to not accept positions as contractors in the game industry. I am not simply speaking about Quality Assurance. We at CA had contract audio designers, coders, and level designers. A lot of the amazing concept artists were contractors as well. It is a flawed system, and it will get you nowhere. (I realise that this is a gross generalisation, but I am sticking to that statement.)

They will work you to death and they will promise you potential, but it is for nothing. You will never truly be a part of anything. It is time to seriously consider unionising or organising a major strike. The AAA titles for Christmas are in full swing right now, and I would personally love to see the jaws dropping at all the major studios if every single contractor attached to a title simply did not show up. I worked on the biggest title of 2012. I know the talent that is out there, and you know who you are, too. We are all too good to be treated like this. There is a right way, and a wrong way to conduct business, and underpaying overqualified designers and artists is just not right.

Are you in the gaming industry? Do you have an opinion about this? Sound off below.


Comments

    Something in a similar vein happened to me when I worked for a large retail company; I was capable, and promised the world. Then because Management was all out of touch, a wonderful future dissipated in mere moments.

    Money > Good People

    Last edited 01/06/13 10:34 am

    But you're a contractor... You only work for a set period of time or till a project is complete. If you signed on because they said if you did well you could go full time, but then they didn't well that's just the nature of business and they never actually promised you'd go full time, they just stated that you 'could'. I agree with you that underpaying overqualified people is unfair, but welcome to the world.

      I agree with you about this guy specifically, but I think he's right about the game developers growing a backbone in general. Game development really does seem to revolve around finding people with talent and then exploiting the fact they actually want to work in the field, and that they actually want to see the project completed and the game released, until they're no longer useful.
      If you can't keep the QA team on the payroll all year round that's fair enough, but it seems pretty common to just lie to them about how much work they're going to get right up until the day you fire them. When it happens the response is 'well, you should have known this was going to happen... so it was ok for them to flat out lie to you for three months'.

        I think he's right about the game developers growing a backbone in general.

        This, I see these articles from time to time where people complain that they didn't get a credit working on certain games, or they don't receive any royalties for the sale of games - well take a leaf out of the US TV industry. The reason a TV series creator gets paid every time an episode of their show (repeat or new) airs is due to the Writer's Guild. The reason actors get paid every time reruns of their show airs is due to the Actor's Guild.

        I'm not particularly a big fan of unions (In my line of work they are useless) but in a lot of situations they are good way of improving your pay and working conditions

      A lot of companies prefer to hire contractors to being with, with the option of taking them on full time if opportunity presents itself. A good company will not treat contractors differently to its internal employees, because they're there to be productive. A bad company, will of course do so. Usually there are internal talks etc about employment and opportunities are mentioned in employment meetings. Once the game was finished production, they would likely seek to keep the best of the best and let the rest go, that's usually how it works in various industries.

      If they had no intention of giving any of the contracted QA staff full time positions, but used that possibility as an incentive to sign on, then that would be unethical. If someone is looking for full time work, knowing the truth might cause them to look for work elsewhere.

      We don't know if this is what happened here, since it is only one former employee's account of the story (perhaps some of the other QA staff were offered jobs?). But I don't see any reason to defend employers who do exploit their contracted staff in this way.

    I would expect that once a product is shipped, they'd look to transition worthwhile contractors.

    Contractors who ask for a raise beyond their agreed contract TWO WEEKS before shipping, and then "stop showing up" are not worthwhile.

      If there's one thing I've learned... You've got to play it safe and do what the company wants; Especially if it's within a contract. So I agree, it was incredibly self-destructive in that situation to ask for a raise, and then basically walk out on the job.

      Bruised ego has nothing on a lost opportunity.

        Agreed. I didn't know exactly what to make of the story, then I got to that and thought 'Well, you kinda put the gun in your own mouth and pulled the trigger there?'

          Yeah, I want to kind of agree with this guy that the games industry can be pretty brutal at times, but then the overall tone of the article just makes me feel like he has no idea about reasonable expectations. It really sounds like the thoughts of somebody who is fresh out of school and getting their first dose of real life, and not an experienced 32 year old. Sorry Mr. Peters, I don't know you at all, I'm just going by what I read.

          Also, QA doesn't really compare to any other area in games, as it requires almost no qualifications. Whereas other fields (even though the competition is still fierce) you have a bit of leverage based on your experience and skill set.

          Still, the debate about whether a Union would be a good thing for Games and VFX is one worth having, as I've seen way too many people get burnt out, at a rate which wouldn't be acceptable in any other industry. I don't know enough about the pros and cons to have a strong opinion about it honestly, but I'd really like to hear what other people think.

            Oh I agree, a union in the games and vfs industry would be a good idea, despite the negativity people give them, they do bring good to industries in terms of helping equalise payrates, holidays and such. The excessively brutal hours could be stopped as well (100+ hours in a week in some cases).

    That's a pretty "poor me" article.

    It's just a bitch fest. What was he expecting from contract work? It doesn't sound like a lot of money for a 32yr old but it's a entry level job that doesn't require much experience/study. Minimum wage is $7 in Texas he was making $11.

    I've done contract work at a place and the manager was a dickhead but I still showed up to work.

    Ok, I got to the end and didn't really get what the big deal was. I had a similar testing job at a local place last year, direct hire rather than any kind of job agency thing. It was only a small place, maybe a dozen or two people working there, and there were about half a dozen of us testers. $20 an hour to play games all day was pretty alright by me. No promises of any kind of progression though, and it was a good place to work. The boss was a top guy, built himself a woodfired pizza oven out the back of the place and on the last Friday of each month would give us the last half of the day off to just sit out the back, cook ourselves some pizza and chill out. Never got to do that myself since I was never there on a Friday, but still :P Then once the game was ready to ship, they obviously didn't need so many testers on since there was nothing to test so the team was cut back to just a couple of the guys, and I wasn't one of them. Obviously you can't keep paying a bunch of guys to sit around and do nothing for weeks on end until a new game comes around to work on. But yeah, no hard feelings there, and nothing to complain about with the whole experience.

    This is the lot of the contract worker, not just in the gaming industry but seemingly everywhere. I worked contracts back2back for roughly 3 years before landing the position i'm in currently. Every single employer would promise me that it was almost certain that, at the end of our 3 month contract, we would be given full time position. This never happens but of course knowing you're going to be back looking for work in a couple of weeks is hardly an incentive to work hard.

    Basically the brief of the story is: company promises an employee a future so that the employee will accept a lower wage reward. Does not deliver on promise. Quite a dishonest tactic.

    Yes, a union would be a good idea.

      No the guy says that he took the job at a low job because he HOPED that a permanent job would come out of it. The purpose of contact staff is to handle temporary peaks in workload, when that work isn't there any more they're no longer needed. It's not dishonest at all and this guy would have been aware when taking up the position.

        It does suck but if companies weren't able to do this then this guy likely never would have received the position/experience because it would be more economical to work your current staff longer. Too bad that work experience means next to nothing for this guy due to his poorly handled exit.

    And to remind us that we were contractors and should be honored to even have this job.

    Just want to remind everyone of this quote. As far as I'm concerned as soon as you hear that at any company you should start considering your options.

    Two things:

    "It is a flawed system, and it will get you nowhere." While it may be exploitative on some levels and a practice which needs to be cleaned up, I know more than a few bigwigs at major studios who started as playtesters and QA.

    And secondly

    "For nine months I literally played Halo 4 every day for money."

    The only way I'd play that for 9 months is if you paid me.

    Yeah, look. First up, you were a contractor. You know what that means? It means they pay you for a job and then you go.

    Second, that happens to all developers, contractors or otherwise. It happens to anyone in the industry who isn't throwing moneybags around. It happened to me and pretty much destroyed my life at the time.

    Third... you're a contractor.

    This is a pretty bad article to be honest. There are a lot of people who would kill to have a job at all, let alone a job at a game company. Some people would love to work but cannot find it, and here is this guy complaining about how his cushy job wasn't paid well enough. Although, I do have to say, that is a very crappy pay rate.

    The constant name dropping and reminders of how good the author is leads me to believe that ego had a big role. His was ignored and the company expected him just to do the job he was hired for (surprise, surprise) and now he's sulking.

    Probably not the smartest choice to quit 2 weeks before the game's release.. 9 months of work to leave on a bad note? Burning the referee bridge? 9 months of experience working on the biggest game of the year, with all you did, is a lot of firepower to add to your resume, to land you a full-time job next.

    Anyway..

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