The Bug Hunter, Always at Play

As crunch time approaches, Timothy McCracken tests Sid Meier's Railroads for the game firm Firaxis. He's the company's
As crunch time approaches, Timothy McCracken tests Sid Meier's Railroads for the game firm Firaxis. He's the company's "chief deficiency officer." (By Mike Musgrove -- The Washington Post)
By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, September 28, 2006

Timothy McCracken, an amiable guy who works for Firaxis Games in Hunt Valley, Md., has what is either a gamer's dream job or the classic "be careful what you wish for" sort of gig.

He's a bug hunter. All day long, he plays computer games that are under development, constantly on the prowl for glitches. His business card identifies him as the company's "chief deficiency inspector."

Is it fun? Yes. Well, yes, sort of. It's also a bit maddening.

"Imagine playing the first level of Mario nonstop for four hours," he told me during a visit to Firaxis this week. "You have to jump on that block 400 times to see if it breaks on 401."

McCracken doesn't play a game so much as he works through every possible scenario that a player might try. When he's done, he'll do the same thing on a computer with a slightly different configuration. And so on.

In the company's podcast, McCracken has, jokingl y, compared the job to the scene in "A Clockwork Orange" where the main character is strapped to a chair with his eyes forced open and made to watch an endless stream of movies.

This week is crunch week for the company as it tries to kick out its latest title, a simulation game called Sid Meier's Railroads, in time for the holiday season.

That's when most games are sold, especially the family-friendly sort of titles that Firaxis specializes in.

Railroads is scheduled to be on retail shelves in mid-October. But to reach stores in time, the company needs to have the game finished in the next few days.

The pressure is on.

It's just a fact of life that all games and other software have bugs. It's McCracken's responsibility to limit those bugs to as few as possible and hope that the remaining glitches will be the ones that few people ever experience or notice. Some game companies have spotty reputations for putting out buggy titles; Firaxis doesn't.

During the course of testing and polishing the railroad simulator over the past year, the team has identified about 1,800 bugs. The three-person Firaxis team also had the help of 150 fans who got early versions of the game and submitted their feedback. In one early bug, trains would take off and launch into space. In another, smoke blew backwards.

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