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Jen JohnsonJen Johnson, Game Tester for Vivendi Universal Games
By Tate Blackmore So Jen, how long have you been working as a video game tester, oh excuse me, a quality assurance tester?

Jen Johnson: I've been a tester for two whole years now. Man, time sure flies when you're having fun! How did you react when you first got the call that you would be working full time playing video games?

Jen Johnson: That was one glorious day let me tell you. There I was, fresh out of college and new to the Los Angeles scene, working as a receptionist at a gym and scanning membership cards with a plastic laser to make ends meet as I pursued my artistic endeavors. I used to jokingly tell everyone I knew that I wanted to get paid to play video games, and that's an actual fact. Of course, I had no idea that job actually existed. So when a friend of mine informed me that Fox Interactive was looking for some female gamers to even out their test pool (this industry seems to attract more guys than girls) my jaw literally hit the floor. I knew I couldn't blow this. I had exactly one day to get my resume together, and I considered filling it with all of my gaming abilities (Skills: Proficient in Power Glove, Power Pad, Warp Zones, Boss Fights, can save the princess...). I had no idea what these guys would be looking for. But I had enthusiasm and an eye for detail, which is what got me the job. In early 2003, Vivendi Universal Games acquired the product portfolio of Fox Interactive, so now I work for VU Games, which has opened up a whole new world of game testing!

MPb: As you play the games from day to day, what specific things are you looking for?

JJ: My job is basically to make sure the games work correctly, but a big part of my day involves trying to break the code. You know, cooking up weird and creative ways to make the games crash and make the unexpected happen. It's also about observation; what looks wrong? I look to see if any textures are messed up or missing altogether, I check for map holes and problems or obstructions in the environments. I run into collision issues all the time—walking through trees and buildings is a common occurrence in the early stages. Sometimes the producers want feedback on game play functionality and controller configurations. After all, testers represent the gamers who buy our products. We have to think about what they will and won't like, and what they will and won't be able to figure out. The puzzles need to be somewhat intuitive. Sound effects are also pretty important. Are they missing? Are they correct? I personally like looking for words that are spelled wrong in menus or inventory screens. Drives me crazy! Towards the end of a project, we mainly look for crashes and showstoppers. If a door doesn't open or a key doesn't work and I'm stuck in a room with no other way to progress, that's a showstopper.

MPb: What's the best game you have ever worked on?

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JJ: No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in Harm's Way is the best game I ever worked on, hands down. The game is so great! The story is strong, the script is witty, and I love being stealthy! I would just get lost in the game while exploring the realistic environments, throwing bananas at my enemies in the game and making crazy stuff happen. And those hilarious mimes!! Testing the multiplayer campaigns was the most fun. There were nights where we would all have our desk phones on speaker and we'd be shouting orders at each other like, OK, I'm going to get off my snowmobile and lean to the left! Jen, you run over me with your snowmobile and then shoot me at the exact moment that Geoff revives me. Then throw a banana! I also loved testing Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the Xbox. It's the first game I worked on so it has a special place in my heart. I learned all the ropes while testing that game, and in addition, it's completely fun—a fantastic fighting/action/adventure game! I even got to demo it at E3 before its release. I got completely hooked on the television show during the project, and it's not the only game that got me hooked on a show. I'm a huge fan of Futurama now thanks to my time testing that game! The production team did such an amazing job with the story—it's just as hilarious as any TV episode, and the levels are purely entertaining.

MPb: I know that when I play Return to Castle Wolfenstein for several hours on end my eyes are blurry and dry and my heart beats a mile a minute for a few hours, keeping me awake all night. Do you find playing video games for 8 hours a day, everyday, stressful at times?

JJ: Let me put it to you this way. I knew when I started this job that I'd be playing video games every day. But what I didn't realize was that I'd be playing the same game every day for months at a time! It takes discipline. I will say I get kind of stressed when I find a great bug that I can't figure out how to reproduce. It's detective work, man. But the most stressed I get on the job is when a game is in its early, Pre-Alpha stages, where things aren't really finished yet and boss fights are next to impossible, since nothing has really been balanced out. Trying to play through a game that cannot be played through can be frustrating. And yes, playing for that many hours straight does sometimes get me feeling both blurry-eyed and zombie-like. Which is where Starbucks comes in.

MPb: What systems do you work on?

JJ: Xbox, Playstation 2 and PC games mostly. I also tested on the Gameboy Advance briefly. I personally haven't had the opportunity to test on the Gamecube yet.

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MPb: Before becoming a tester were you always into video games? If so, what did you play?

JJ: Oh yeah! We had Atari when I was a kid and I was addicted to Keystone Kapers and Frogger. I loved the original Nintendo; I got into the RPGs and adventure games, like Dragon Warrior and Zelda®. I liked those old story-driven mystery games too like Shadowgate and Deja-Vu. I had a subscription to Nintendo Power and I would often write to them for tips and help. They even reprinted one of my envelope drawings of Princess Zelda and Link. It appeared in the Player's Pulse section of issue #44! When Super NES came out I was all over Zelda: A Link to the Past and I still consider that to be my all time favorite game. But I also played games like Arcana and Legend of Gaia. When Santa Claus gave me a Playstation, I really dug Silent Hill and Wild Arms. I am also a huge fan of the MYST trilogy. Now that I play games for a living, I have yet to purchase an Xbox or PS2. I can't bring myself to do it. After work, the last thing I want to do when I get home is play more games.

MPb: Here's the clincher: Is playing video games for a living the dream job we all believe it to be?

JJ: Yes! Are you kidding?? Like any job, I still have to answer to my bosses and keep my feet off of the furniture, but I get to play games. Seriously, what could be better? The video game industry is just so fascinating and fun, and I feel ridiculously lucky to have had the opportunities I've had.

MPb: Aside from video games, what else do you like to do?

JJ: Watch movies, make people laugh, and pretty much eat as much candy as I possibly can. I also paint and take improv classes at the Groundlings. Oh yeah. And shop.

MPb: Out of all of the movies based on video games, which is your favorite? Let me re-phrase that. Is it possible to pick a good movie out of the likes of Super Mario Brothers and Mortal Kombat?

JJ: I liked Super Mario Brothers! Dennis Hopper is cool, even with a lizard tongue. But more recently, I think that Tomb Raider really tops them all. I can't wait to see the sequel.

MPb: In Super Mario Bros., were you able to kick the shell against the staircase in world 3.1 to get the ninety-nine lives?

JJ:I was the king of that cheat!! Ah, memories...

MPb: Finally, Millionaire or Playboy, which is better?

JJ:I'm gonna go with Millionaire. Cuz that's what I wanna be!

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All images property of Anthony Fulton. Article copyright 2003

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