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The Bug Hunter, Always at Play

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.

Bug hunting and killing is a process that continues until just before a master disk containing the final code is printed and shipped to the manufacturer. As the programmers fix software problems, a new internal release of the game is posted on the company's servers nearly every hour.

Cool. But for a measure of added stress, there's this: Fixing one bug sometimes creates a new one. Late Sunday night, the game was running perfectly. Monday morning, McCracken came in and the game was crashing in multiplayer mode. Somebody put in a fix that, evidently, broke something somewhere else.

McCracken expects to pull an all-nighter tonight in search of bugs. It sounds brutal, but he's been through this before and is prepared: There's a dorm fridge with snacks by his feet, a folded-up futon behind his chair.

The job of finding problems, as it turns out, doesn't make you popular inside a game company. Colleagues have been known to close their office doors and shutters when McCracken comes around. They know he's there because he's found a glitch that needs to be addressed. Tempers flare. Toy weapons -- toys and video games are everywhere at Firaxis -- have been brandished.

It goes with the territory, he shrugs.

"We make the programmers' life a living hell," he said. "We're destroying their baby. Our goal is to be the worst critic they ever had." If the bug testers had their way and spent the time to make it perfect, a game might not ever get released, he admits.

The office where McCracken and his bug-testing team works -- better known as "The Pit" -- is littered with games and computer equipment. Over in a corner, a few computer systems are running the Railroads game 24 hours a day -- if there is a crash or if the automated programs notice any strange behavior, the bug guys and the game's programming team both get an e-mail alert.

There's no view of the outside world here, naturally.

On the wall behind McCracken are pictures of Joseph Campbell and J.R.R. Tolkien, and Brendan Perry of the band Dead Can Dance, that he put up to personalize the area. Halloween decorations are everywhere. Once Railroads is out the door, McCracken wants to convert this work space into a haunted house for Firaxis employees' kids. The theme for the haunted house will be loosely based on the popular computer game World of Warcraft.

The day I spent with McCracken, he was wearing shorts and a pirate-themed T-shirt from a goth festival, his hair tied back in a long ponytail. The guy, once an English major at Towson State University, clearly loves his job, though he hopes to eventually get out of "quality assurance," as this career path is called, and into game design.

It could happen, especially at this company. Even though the industry is starting to see an influx of recent college grads armed with video-game-design degrees, "QA" is still a traditional entry point into the business. That's how both the president and the head producer at Firaxis started their careers.

In any case, McCracken is looking forward to next month. Not because it'll be a break from this hectic crunch time but because that's when the games and systems come out that he and his fellow bug testers are looking forward to playing on their own: Neverwinter Nights, Bully, Guitar Hero 2, among others.

"We don't have lives," he said.

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