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.
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