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EA: The Human Story [Nov. 10th, 2004|12:01 am]
My significant other works for Electronic Arts, and I'm what you might call a disgruntled spouse.

EA's bright and shiny new corporate trademark is "Challenge Everything." Where this applies is not exactly clear. Churning out one licensed football game after another doesn't sound like challenging much of anything to me; it sounds like a money farm. To any EA executive that happens to read this, I have a good challenge for you: how about safe and sane labor practices for the people on whose backs you walk for your millions?

I am retaining some anonymity here because I have no illusions about what the consequences would be for my family if I was explicit. However, I also feel no impetus to shy away from sharing our story, because I know that it is too common to stick out among those of the thousands of engineers, artists, and designers that EA employs.

Our adventures with Electronic Arts began less than a year ago. The small game studio that my partner worked for collapsed as a result of foul play on the part of a big publisher -- another common story. Electronic Arts offered a job, the salary was right and the benefits were good, so my SO took it. I remember that they asked him in one of the interviews: "how do you feel about working long hours?" It's just a part of the game industry -- few studios can avoid a crunch as deadlines loom, so we thought nothing of it. When asked for specifics about what "working long hours" meant, the interviewers coughed and glossed on to the next question; now we know why.

Within weeks production had accelerated into a 'mild' crunch: eight hours six days a week. Not bad. Months remained until any real crunch would start, and the team was told that this "pre-crunch" was to prevent a big crunch toward the end; at this point any other need for a crunch seemed unlikely, as the project was dead on schedule. I don't know how many of the developers bought EA's explanation for the extended hours; we were new and naive so we did. The producers even set a deadline; they gave a specific date for the end of the crunch, which was still months away from the title's shipping date, so it seemed safe. That date came and went. And went, and went. When the next news came it was not about a reprieve; it was another acceleration: twelve hours six days a week, 9am to 10pm.

Weeks passed. Again the producers had given a termination date on this crunch that again they failed. Throughout this period the project remained on schedule. The long hours started to take its toll on the team; people grew irritable and some started to get ill. People dropped out in droves for a couple of days at a time, but then the team seemed to reach equilibrium again and they plowed ahead. The managers stopped even talking about a day when the hours would go back to normal.

Now, it seems, is the "real" crunch, the one that the producers of this title so wisely prepared their team for by running them into the ground ahead of time. The current mandatory hours are 9am to 10pm -- seven days a week -- with the occasional Saturday evening off for good behavior (at 6:30pm). This averages out to an eighty-five hour work week. Complaints that these once more extended hours combined with the team's existing fatigue would result in a greater number of mistakes made and an even greater amount of wasted energy were ignored.

The stress is taking its toll. After a certain number of hours spent working the eyes start to lose focus; after a certain number of weeks with only one day off fatigue starts to accrue and accumulate exponentially. There is a reason why there are two days in a weekend -- bad things happen to one's physical, emotional, and mental health if these days are cut short. The team is rapidly beginning to introduce as many flaws as they are removing.

And the kicker: for the honor of this treatment EA salaried employees receive a) no overtime; b) no compensation time! ('comp' time is the equalization of time off for overtime -- any hours spent during a crunch accrue into days off after the product has shipped); c) no additional sick or vacation leave. The time just goes away. Additionally, EA recently announced that, although in the past they have offered essentially a type of comp time in the form of a few weeks off at the end of a project, they no longer wish to do this, and employees shouldn't expect it. Further, since the production of various games is scattered, there was a concern on the part of the employees that developers would leave one crunch only to join another. EA's response was that they would attempt to minimize this, but would make no guarantees. This is unthinkable; they are pushing the team to individual physical health limits, and literally giving them nothing for it. Comp time is a staple in this industry, but EA as a corporation wishes to "minimize" this reprieve. One would think that the proper way to minimize comp time is to avoid crunch, but this brutal crunch has been on for months, and nary a whisper about any compensation leave, nor indeed of any end of this treatment.

This crunch also differs from crunch time in a smaller studio in that it was not an emergency effort to save a project from failure. Every step of the way, the project remained on schedule. Crunching neither accelerated this nor slowed it down; its effect on the actual product was not measurable. The extended hours were deliberate and planned; the management knew what they were doing as they did it. The love of my life comes home late at night complaining of a headache that will not go away and a chronically upset stomach, and my happy supportive smile is running out.

No one works in the game industry unless they love what they do. No one on that team is interested in producing an inferior product. My heart bleeds for this team precisely BECAUSE they are brilliant, talented individuals out to create something great. They are and were more than willing to work hard for the success of the title. But that good will has only been met with abuse. Amazingly, Electronic Arts was listed #91 on Fortune magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For" in 2003.

EA's attitude toward this -- which is actually a part of company policy, it now appears -- has been (in an anonymous quotation that I've heard repeated by multiple managers), "If they don't like it, they can work someplace else." Put up or shut up and leave: this is the core of EA's Human Resources policy. The concept of ethics or compassion or even intelligence with regard to getting the most out of one's workforce never enters the equation: if they don't want to sacrifice their lives and their health and their talent so that a multibillion dollar corporation can continue its Godzilla-stomp through the game industry, they can work someplace else.

But can they?

The EA Mambo, paired with other giants such as Vivendi, Sony, and Microsoft, is rapidly either crushing or absorbing the vast majority of the business in game development. A few standalone studios that made their fortunes in previous eras -- Blizzard, Bioware, and Id come to mind -- manage to still survive, but 2004 saw the collapse of dozens of small game studios, no longer able to acquire contracts in the face of rapid and massive consolidation of game publishing companies. This is an epidemic hardly unfamiliar to anyone working in the industry. Though, of course, it is always the option of talent to go outside the industry, perhaps venturing into the booming commercial software development arena. (Read my tired attempt at sarcasm.)

To put some of this in perspective, I myself consider some figures. If EA truly believes that it needs to push its employees this hard -- I actually believe that they don't, and that it is a skewed operations perspective alone that results in the severity of their crunching, coupled with a certain expected amount of the inefficiency involved in running an enterprise as large as theirs -- the solution therefore should be to hire more engineers, or artists, or designers, as the case may be. Never should it be an option to punish one's workforce with ninety hour weeks; in any other industry the company in question would find itself sued out of business so fast its stock wouldn't even have time to tank. In its first weekend, Madden 2005 grossed $65 million. EA's annual revenue is approximately $2.5 billion. This company is not strapped for cash; their labor practices are inexcusable.

The interesting thing about this is an assumption that most of the employees seem to be operating under. Whenever the subject of hours come up, inevitably, it seems, someone mentions 'exemption'. They refer to a California law that supposedly exempts businesses from having to pay overtime to certain 'specialty' employees, including software programmers. This is Senate Bill 88. However, Senate Bill 88 specifically does not apply to the entertainment industry -- television, motion picture, and theater industries are specifically mentioned. Further, even in software, there is a pay minimum on the exemption: those exempt must be paid at least $90,000 annually. I can assure you that the majority of EA employees are in fact not in this pay bracket; ergo, these practices are not only unethical, they are illegal.

I look at our situation and I ask 'us': why do you stay? And the answer is that in all likelihood we won't; and in all likelihood if we had known that this would be the result of working for EA, we would have stayed far away in the first place. But all along the way there were deceptions, there were promises, there were assurances -- there was a big fancy office building with an expensive fish tank -- all of which in the end look like an elaborate scheme to keep a crop of employees on the project just long enough to get it shipped. And then if they need to, they hire in a new batch, fresh and ready to hear more promises that will not be kept; EA's turnover rate in engineering is approximately 50%. This is how EA works. So now we know, now we can move on, right? That seems to be what happens to everyone else. But it's not enough. Because in the end, regardless of what happens with our particular situation, this kind of "business" isn't right, and people need to know about it, which is why I write this today.

If I could get EA CEO Larry Probst on the phone, there are a few things I would ask him. "What's your salary?" would be merely a point of curiosity. The main thing I want to know is, Larry: you do realize what you're doing to your people, right? And you do realize that they ARE people, with physical limits, emotional lives, and families, right? Voices and talents and senses of humor and all that? That when you keep our husbands and wives and children in the office for ninety hours a week, sending them home exhausted and numb and frustrated with their lives, it's not just them you're hurting, but everyone around them, everyone who loves them? When you make your profit calculations and your cost analyses, you know that a great measure of that cost is being paid in raw human dignity, right?



This article is offered under the Creative Commons deed. Please feel free to redistribute/link.

From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-28 12:57 pm (UTC)


I found this article very interesting, particularly because I was an employee at EA for seven months and based upon my experiences, I can verify that all of the information described in this article is true.

The unfortunate thing is that nobody, and I mean nobody, talks about the testing teams that are assisting the development teams produce the best quality product for the customer that is possible, given the time constraints that everybody on a project confronts. For example, on the FIFA franchise, there are roughly 30 or 40 testers working with the development team to isolate every possible issue that a customer might confront while using the product.

The development teams work extremely long hours, but simultaneously, the testing teams work equivalent hours, and receive a ridiculously small amount of money in exchange for their labour time. Its so small, that nobody can possibly earn a living working as a tester at Electronic Arts. Of course, everybody in the company operates on the assumption that the testers are high school graduates with very little education and thus, constitute unskilled labour and should not earn more than $10 Canadian an hour for their efforts. At least, thats the only rationale explanation for the pay scale associated with the job and the fact these employees are kept on contract with no benefits. Yes, thats correct, absolutely no benefits. However, upon closer inspection of the quality assurance department at Electronic Arts, one would find many people with university degrees in business, computer science, architecture, and economics. Alot of these people got into the gaming industry because they truly love video games, but how many of them can possibly remain in the industry that they love when they work 7 days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day, for 3 or 4 months straight at a time, for $10 Canadian an hour ($15 for overtime). They can't.

As a result, Electronic Arts loses highly skilled workers that want to work in the industry because they can earn much better salaries and receive much more respect in different sectors of the economy.

I would also like to add that for all those people that complain on the message boards about all of the bugs in the games released by Electronic Arts, and immediately assume that the testers messed it up, think again. Every single bug, and I do mean every single bug that you find in your game when you buy it and install it on your machine at home, has in all probability, already been found by the testing team, logged in an internal database and discussed with the development teams. Everybody is exhausted, the time constraints are unmanageable and decisions are made to ship known bugs. Bottom line. End of story. Its as simple as that.

All I can say is good luck to those that remain at EA. Good luck to those that remain in the video game industry. I hope its better at other companies. I choose to exercise the flexibility of my university education and pursue work in another sector of the economy. I doubt that I will play video games again.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-28 09:37 pm (UTC)

Re: Testers

I'm in development, but have also been a tester. Sorry to disagree with you, but as important as the work is (and make no mistake - it is tremendously important) it is reasonably compensated.

By no stretch of the imagination is game testing "highly skilled." You can grab anyone off the street and in less than a day get them productively testing any software product. It takes no education.

I would also disagree that "every single bug" is always found by Test. I'm not faulting their efforts - they try hard, and find what they can - but it's possibly to take ANY software product, game or otherwise, off the shelf and find defects in it that the testing team didn't find. To believe otherwise is incredibly naive.

Test is not Fun. I know that from experience.

If you have a university education, you (or anyone else in Test) can get a more skilled job outside of Test that pays benefits...but don't try to tell anyone that testing is worth more money or more benefits than it merits.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-29 12:51 pm (UTC)

Re: Testers

I noticed your response and I will not dispute your comments. I think they are very valid. However, consider this. If the company employs testers with a variety of different backgrounds and talents, in other words, workers with a significant degree of human capital invested in them, does it not make sense from a business perspective to develop that human capital in productive ways, rather than working the testers for extremely long hours, with very little pay and no benefits and watching them leave the company after one or two contracts?

I dont really know. I guess I didn't work there long enough, but my overall impression was that the perception within quality assurance was that moving out of testing into another area of the company was extremely difficult, particularly because a stigma seemed to have developed with respect to the department.

It just seemed to me that the pool of human capital available to the company in the quality assurance department was not being tapped to the maximum extent possible and it would seem reasonable to conclude that this could be detrimental to the overall health of the company in the long term. I say this because in fact, I am an economist, even though I was working for EA in testing and I did a significant amount of research on workplace organization and labor market flexibility while I was doing graduate work, primarily in the health care sector, and while I was doing my research it seemed like a similar problem was affecting other institutions in the economy. For example, part-time work, low wages and contract employment in the health care sector encouraging human capital to migrate to other countries. Is it not reasonable to suggest that if there are people in quality assurance that the company could develop in the best interests of the company, only to see those people leave after 1 or 2 contracts, doesnt it stand to reason that the company loses and might be compromising their competitive advantage in relation to other companies?

It also seemed to me that productivity levels fell quite drastically after a certain number of hours were worked in the week and this was no doubt due to exhaustion. For whatever reason, I think people felt compelled to work the overtime hours in order to make more money, and one has to wonder, from an economic perspective, if quality and productivity in testing would be improved if the base hourly wage was increased and the amount of overtime reduced significantly. I am not sure. I have not studied the problem thoroughly and I can only assume that the executives have analyzed this problem in depth. My hypothesis would be that the company might incur cost savings and boost productivity by reducing the overtime, bumping up the hourly wage, and providing the testers with some benefits in order to maintain company loyalty.

I agree and disagree with your comment about testers being unskilled labor. I agree that the company can take a person off the street and train them to test within a week or two. However, I wonder if this is the whole story. One has to think that by reducing turnover, particularly amongst the testers that perform the best, the company will incur extra benefits in the sense that a stable workforce will develop stronger relationships with the development teams, which could only be beneficial in the sense that it might stimulate some useful communication and the provision of useful ideas to the development teams. I dont know. You are in development and I'll let you make the call on that because you have more information than I do. And one has to think that if this is the case, then the best way to reduce turnover might be to implement the workplace changes that I've suggested.

I think its a tough call, especially because I didnt have access to alot of information to construct a sound analysis of the department and how it interacts with the other departments in the company. But I would suggest that the validity of my hypotheses is certainly a possibility and should they prove correct, might suggest that workplace changes could be beneficial to the long term bottom line. Just some thoughts.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 08:47 am (UTC)

Re: Testers

Well...I'm not disputing that Test gets needlessly overworked at game companies, EA included. This is Bad and as I noted, I know from personal experience that it also sucks and reduces productivity. It's hard to test anything when you're half asleep.

Test is definitely less of an inroad to other parts of the company than it used to be, although that pendulum is starting to swing back the other way. There are efforts going on to make Test more of a career and less of a temp job, at least for some segment of the force that can handle it. This means, for at least that segment, higher wages and a portion of Test that suffers less from perpetual turnover.

However, some (I would suggest the majority, in my experience) of Test look at it as a temp job themselves - which makes it unwise to invest much in them. Others (myself included, when I was doing it) are only in it to get in and do something else instead...typically those are also the best and most dedicated testers but they are not always suited for other positions. So, you can put a lot of effort, training, pay, etc. into keeping those people satisfied but all they really want is to not do it any more and you get turnover anyway.

I would also contend that the hours are not the only thing that burns out testers. The work itself often varies between boring, frustrating, and infuriating.

As far as losing people to other companies, the changes underway in Test that I referred to would seem to make that less likely. The only game company that comes to mind that has a more professional and developmental view of Test is Microsoft...and they're not exactly Mother Theresa either.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-29 02:28 pm (UTC)

Re: Testers

Heh, there are some interesting, and illuminating, themes in this post.

First, the entire theme of testers being a low skill job. That may be the case at EA, but it's because they've chosen it to be that way. You look for "low skill" testers and you will find them. You get what you pay for.

One gets the sense that there's also a well entrenched caste system at EA. There's definitely a sense that testers are second class citizens. I'll say, for my part, that if I were given a choice between a top flight developer and a top flight tester, I'd have to stop and think for a while. I can make do with average developers, but a top flight QA analyst is worth their weight in gold. I think EA's attitude in this regard is self-defeating.

I'm also a little amused at the implied rebuke that testers don't find all the bugs. Who the hell put the bugs there in the first place? EA sounds like a shop where the coders have forgotten that QA is essentially cleaning up their mess.

I bet the developers and testers don't even sit on the same floor at EA facilities? Right? And people wonder why there's a quality issue.

What's also funny is that the organizational disfunctions at EA almost certainly contribute to the current working environment. It doesn't have to be the way it is there. But, cut a few corners, treat testers as disposable grunts, allow developers to think their job is code (as opposed to tested, working code), and you start to see this happen. I suspect a lot of the crunch time you see is rework and dealing with quality issues.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-29 07:34 pm (UTC)

Re: Testers

Thanks for the comments about my post. I was only there for 7 months, as I said, but I would agree that the impression one receives is that there is a well entrenched caste system in place within the company.
I think the degree of interaction between the developers and the testers is dependent on the franchise. One does get the impression that the caste system may act to inhibit the development of potential talent within the company. I think that its a shame, particularly because I met some very intelligent people working in quality assurance that eventually left the company because they recognized that if they stayed they would find it very difficult to develop their skills, and in all likelihood they would find themselves working long hours, for very little money and in the end, not really getting anywhere with their own personal development.

It seems to me that the company wins if it uses the quality assurance department as a viable talent pool, however, its difficult to envision how such a strategy could be implemented.

I would also make one additional comment about the suggestion that the job is low skilled. I think that even though one does not have to go to school in order to learn how to be a tester, in order to do the job well the company does need to find people that pay careful attention to detail, possess strong communication skills and can work effectively in teams. I think it is unlikely that anybody off the street can do the job, because in fact, if that were true then I think it would be unlikely that the hiring process would be so rigorous, which it is for a job that apparently requires no skills. Furthermore, testing is very similar to any other type of job. The longer a tester is there, the more efficient he becomes, the better he is at spotting problems, but also anticipating where potential problems might develop and as time goes on, a tester starts to recognize that when fixes are applied to specific areas of the game, specific errors can be introduced into other areas of the game. Its an interesting learning process because even if the worker does not know how to code, after a sufficiently long enough time testing, the worker can start to anticipate how the code might work thus improving productivity and efficiency.

I would also add that the development teams might want to consider tapping the quality assurance department for more concept ideas. I say this because, in effect, the quality assurance department might be interpreted as one giant internal focus group as well and it stands to reason that given the quantity of time the testers spend on the game, in all likelihood they develop some interesting perspectives and ideas about the software that they are working with.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 09:00 am (UTC)

Re: Testers

I agree and disagree.

Yes, there is something of a ridiculous caste system...this seems to be common at all game companies.

Testers (at least some subteams of them) are often co-located with the development teams. If floor space were not an issue, this would be more common.

"I'm also a little amused at the implied rebuke that testers don't find all the bugs. Who the hell put the bugs there in the first place? EA sounds like a shop where the coders have forgotten that QA is essentially cleaning up their mess."

Now who's contributing to the adverserial climate? Test and Dev are a *team* working on making a clean product *together*. If you read what I wrote carefully, I don't fault Test for not finding everything...I have been a tester, and frankly with the complexity of just about all modern games, I don't think completely bug-free software is possible. That's all I am saying. I was simply disagreeing with one point that the original respondant made.

Your last paragraph is spot on, but EA *is* also starting to try to foster the attitude that code is not done until it's done and unit tested by the coder. From my experience and friends around the game industry, this is unfortunately still a fairly novel concept. If you are proposing that programmers should always be able to discover all the interactions between whatever part of the code they're working and all the code generated by the ten to fifty other programmers on a game, not to mention how it interacts with the work of all the content creation team, then you obviously not qualified to carry out this debate.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 02:33 pm (UTC)

Re: Testers

No, I'm not proposing that programmers should always be able to discover all the bugs. But, any plan (won't call it a project plan) where success depends on some magical integration of all of the products of this 10-50 developers is, how shall we put it, "sub-optimal". That's not a programmer failure, btw, but a project management failure.

I would think that a simple measurement, such as the percentage of time spent on fixing problems in the code, would pretty clearly show the damage extended overtime can do. I wouldn't at all be surprised if some weeks saw a net negative contribution to the project plan. The developers at EA are going so fast, they're actually traveling backwards.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-04 06:40 am (UTC)

Re: Testers

We have reached agreement. :)

The good news is that the company IS starting to collect that kind of metrics at least for some teams...hopefully it'll change things.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-30 12:28 pm (UTC)

Re: Testers

not only do we get no health benefits, we get none of the other perks either (like cheap soda etc). we also have to go through crunch after crunch and have little to no job security. testers at certain studios are routinely let go because ea cannot afford to have them stay (even making as little as 8 an hour at some studios). testers get little to no respect, either.

plus, if this lawsuit is won, testers will again be left in the dark because we do get overtime pay.

i am a tester, have been for several years, and every day do what i can to make lives of fellow testers better. since i came to work at ea out rights have increased, our perks have increased and things are actually looking up. members of our management team recognize the injustice and are working to make it better. i do not know that other studios are as fortunate as we are and it isnt to say that any of these problems mentioned in your post or mine have been resolved completely, but the very fact that those in power are trying makes it a little easier to swallow.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-30 07:17 pm (UTC)

Re: Testers

I just wanted to respond to your comments in response to my initial post. I agree with you about the managers in the quality assurance department because I am assuming that when you refer to the management team you are referring to your superiors in quality assurance. My senior testers, team lead and project manager were top notch people that I really enjoyed working for. One has to think that some of the problems that are being discussed transcend their decision-making authority and should be addressed by higher levels of management outside of quality assurance, perhaps decision-making authority that is independent of quality assurance, production and development. Alot of the problems that we are discussing seem to be company wide problems, at least based on all the posts on this site, that probably require significant inter-departmental communication to address - between human resources, marketing, production, development and quality assurance.

Perhaps the company should consider hiring outside consultants that can evaluate the entire work process from an independent, impartial perspective in order to explore solutions. Sometimes when people are caught in the middle of a situation, and various factors including politics and time constraints are involved, objectivity is sacrificed. Hiring outside consultants to study some of the issues that have been raised could be useful to the company in the long run.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-30 12:37 pm (UTC)

Re: Testers

btw, testers find far more bugs than are fixed, its the developers and producers who chose not to fix them.

as for unskilled labor, it takes quite a bit of skill to do our job well, far more skill than it would take ot flip burgers, for example. the way our bugs are written, for example, must be accurate, susinct and aimed toward panic if we want to have a chance at them being fixed. the actual finding of the bugs is quite the art form as well, its not as easy and playing the game from A to B many times, there are all kinds of different things which testers try to get the game to break (some call them stupid tester tricks). not to mention that testers are also responsible for making sure that the game adheres to third party standards, which may seem foreign or easy to people who have never actually looked at them. at times, standards testing is akin to practicing law and prosecuting people using outdated, little known statutes.

being a tester is actually very hard work, plenty of people who thought it was just playing do not last a week or two. it is a fun job, heck many people spend many hours making sure the games we test are fun. the atmosphere is good, the people are great and the poor working conditions bring everyone together more as a team.

although i have only been a tester at ea, i hear they are not treated better at any other game company. to make matters more sticky, we spend years developing these veryh specialized skills that are not transferable to any other QA job. so, to be a really good video game tester doesnt even mean you will ever get any other manner of QA job.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 09:18 am (UTC)

Re: Testers

Yes, testers find more bugs than get fixed. That is a good point about part of the reason that any shipped product contains bugs. However, it's not the whole reason: I expand my statement that you can take any shipped product and find a defect that is both still in the product and NOT on its known-shippable list.

Having flipped burgers *and* having tested game software, I agree. Flipping burgers took about ten minutes to learn, and testing games effectively took maybe a week for the worst-case testers I worked with. I still disagree that Test is skilled work.

If you really think bugs must be written "aimed toward panic" then you are misjudging the function of Test, which is to find and report bugs. It is up to Production to decide which bugs are worth fixing based on various factors.

Of course bugs must be succinct and accurate, but a reasonable high school education will prepare you for that.

Partly valid point about standards testing...it's a pain...but it consists of looking at very specific items on a list, and doing a usually very simple test to see if your product is in compliance. I have looked at them, I have tested them, and I have fixed them, on multiple platforms.

Being a tester is VERY hard work. No doubt about that. So is digging ditches. Personally I didn't find a lot of the time I spent testing fun, if you do then my hat is off to you. I would humbly suggest that it wouldn't take poor working conditions to bring most test teams I've worked on and with together...they're generally a bunch of avid gamers who have tons in common with one another.
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