Breaking In - Leland Dantzler
Making games is like exploring the wild with nothing but a healthy imagination and a knack for computer sciences to light the way. As we define the raw space of our new universe at Bungie, we rely on a thriving team of testers to find the pitfalls that lurk underfoot. New blood is always needed to show us where the dangers lie, which is how we come to know new faces like this one…
Who are you, and what do you do at Bungie?
My name is Leland Dantzler. I’m a tall, awkward, twenty-four year-old American male, and I’m a Matchmaking Tester at Bungie. While much of my job summary is shrouded by the murky mists of our dark phase, I can say that my job description includes matching real-life Bungie employees in passionate romances with other human beings. Actually, that’s a complete lie, and I can’t really tell you what I do at all. For now, let’s just assume I viciously break the amazing new things Bungie engineers create every single day. I do it out of love for you, not because I hate the engineers. In all seriousness, breaking anything Bungie engineers create is a tour de force of intense proportions. It is a daily struggle to prove my job is worth keeping.
As for how my work will affect our new cool thing, my everyday contribution ensures that the fun social experiences players will enjoy someday are flawless and smooth. The only good bug is a resolved and closed out bug, I often say (I don’t actually say that, but it sounds nice). If I do my job well, players will never know I was even here.
Sorry, man. The cat’s out of the bag. I don’t know if I told you, but I’m posting everything we say to each other on the Internet. So, we might as well get really personal! Tell us what you might be up to when you’re not trying to make our engineers cry.
First and foremost, spending time with my amazing wife. I’m lucky enough to be married to my best friend of 18 years now (though we’ve only been married for 2 of those years), and every day with her is an adventure.
I’m also an uber avid fan of gaming, mainly on my PC (Asus, represent!). I’ve lost an obscene amount of hours to Minecraft, Team Fortress 2, and I’ve recently picked up Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. My experiences in CS:GO consist almost entirely of my derriere being thrashed repeatedly my 12-year-olds, but I love playing it and other games with my best buds back in the South.
I also enjoy other small hobbies like music, TV shows (“Bowties are cool.”), snowboarding, and dramatic readings of my own journal entries from middle school.
Let’s say, for the sake of exploration, that one of those journal entries found your younger self musing about what you might be doing when you grew up. What profession would be have chosen for himself?
A professional gamer. MLG didn’t exist when I was young, but I knew I wanted to play with video games all day. My mom’s worst nightmare for my future has actually turned into a successful way of supporting my family while still loving my day-to-day work.
Immediately after I first touched Halo:CE on the original Xbox, I knew I wanted to work for this mysterious “Bungie.” Never before as a gamer had I felt so unleashed to explore and enjoy a universe designed specifically to draw the player into its secrets and intricacies. The idea of contributing to that amazing experience in the future gripped my mind and refused to let go. I spent the next ten years dreaming about working at Bungie until my awesome wife told me I should actually pursue my dreams instead of just daydreaming about them.
That’s, like, so romantic. Unfortunately, it takes more than a referral from one’s wife to make an impression at Bungie that leads to an interview loop under the hot lights of our interrogation chambers. Did you have an education that prepared you for life as a tester?
Believe it or not, I spent the first bit of my college career as an opera major (bass-baritone, and no, I won’t serenade you again, DeeJ).
What a letdown. Did you graduate with a music degree?
After two years of being hoarse, I switched my major to Psychology so I could validate my psychoanalyses of my best friends. I finished out my college experience as a Psych major and thoroughly enjoyed delving deep into the human psyche.
Surprisingly, both opera and psychology have been remarkably applicable to my everyday work. I’m a firm believer that no experience must be void of learnable tidbits. In opera, I learned that no amount of luck or hope would help me deliver a strong performance; only hours and hours of real, hard work would affect the outcome of my efforts. In Psychology, I learned how to isolate issues to their core causes and determine what solution would be best custom-tailored to resolve the broken behavior. I use this more than anything else I’ve learned when it comes to game bugs. If I see something broken, my scholastic knowledge and experiences enable me to highlight the issue, chisel away the distracting drivel, and quickly ascertain patterns of behavior the bug displays.
Additionally, understanding a Rogerian approach to therapy allows me to better interact with peers, and Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” reminds me that I’m a useless tester when unfed and unrested.
It’s usually our user researchers who wax so philosophically. Were you delving into people’s minds before you were delving into our code?
One year ago, I was living in a tiny college town in rural Tennessee working as a part-time foster parent and GameStop employee. Last December, I decided that I would turn my dream of someday working at Bungie into a real goal with deadlines and legitimate measurements of success. Backed by a supportive wife, family, and friends, I began doggedly pursuing a job at Bungie via any (sane) means possible. We moved 2,600 miles from Tennessee to Bellevue, WA…without a job or home waiting for us. Gracious friends took us in while I interviewed for a game tester position at Microsoft Game Studios. I worked harder than I ever have before at that job, attempting to soak up everything possible.
After three months at Microsoft Games, I applied to Bungie, survived the interview process, and received a contract position. Once at Bungie, I worked even harder and converted to a full-time project employee a couple months later.
My ability to be effective as a tester at Bungie is simply the ability of working hard over a long period of time at what most would see as trivial positions (GameStop Advisor, college student, substitute foster parent). There’s no magical secret recipe to working at Bungie; getting a job here simply means you wanted the job badly enough to work harder than everyone else.
It also means that you have some measure of skill that’s crucial to our success. How did you convince us of this?
I was unceasingly persistent in my pursuit of a job at Bungie. My wife and I moved those 2,500 miles just so I could have a chance at a career with Bungie. I contacted multiple test leads, I annoyed DeeJ, and I showed up to the Bungie meet-ups at PAX. Most of all, I was passionate about Bungie and their style of game development.
You didn’t annoy me. I admire aggressive networkers. Aside from crashing our rally points at PAX, how did you express your passion for Bungie?
Additionally, I was active in the Bungie community. I organized LAN parties for Halo throughout high school and college. I was one of the early moderators at ForgeHub.com and created the first ever Best of Forge annual custom map competition there. I was also active on Bungie.net.
Most importantly, though, I was professional and spent a lot of time researching, learning, and applying myself to testing practices and knowledge. Love and passion for Bungie is useless if not backed up by an indomitable desire to work hard.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Before the hard work, however, is a job interview that represents a bigger hurdle than most people will ever face in their career. What was the hardest part of that experience for you?
Not giving everyone hugs. I’d dreamed about that interview for over ten years, and finally living out my dreams was driving me mad with excitement. Oh, and the questions asked by my interviewers were also really, really hard and thought-provoking. Tester interviews are a joust of thought patterns. It’s not necessarily your solution that is as important as the path you took to get there. So, if you want to interview at Bungie, do your homework. This is the big leagues, and it’s incredibly obvious when someone is or is not prepared.
Now that you’ve been called up to the show, what’s the best thing about being on our team?
Working alongside studio heroes I’ve respected for a decade. Additionally, seeing the daily formation of a game so amazing it will set industry standards.
Man, you really are a fan. We’ll see how long that joyful glow lasts, once you’ve had to work a crunch cycle or two. Aside from trying to keep your cool around your heroes, what’s it like to spend a day on the development floor?
I arrive earlier than I’m supposed to because I really like Bungie. I cower in fear at Jerome’s formidable musculature as I enter the front door, give a slight bow of respect to giant Master Chief statue, and then head up the stairs to Willy Wonka’s Factory - that’s what I like to call the brightly lit entranceway to the main floor. My manager sees me and lambasts me for staying late and coming in early, then tells me everything is broken and that I should get to work (lovingly, of course).
Once I stuff my pockets full of candy and snacks and Gatorade, I head to my desk and begin my daily workflow. The next sixteen hours are often a blur, but somewhere in that timeframe I test things, break things, eat things, collapse, am resuscitated, and then test more things. My manager comes by and repeatedly tells me to go home (I pretend not to hear him).
Lastly, I am physically removed from the studio. I trudge home dejectedly, looking forward to the next day of hard, fun work. My wife shakes her head in slight disapproval that I’ve arrived home at 1am, then we watch some Doctor Who or Sherlock (sometimes both).
I can see we have a serious morale issue on our hands with you. Before you quit your job out of frustration, try to recall some of the nice things we do for our people. Is there anything that stands out in your mind?
Bungie treats its employees like royalty. I’ve never felt more respected and taken care of in my life (and I have a southern grandma, so that’s saying a lot). To list the perks of working for Bungie would result in carpal tunnel.
If I had to pick one, it would be how Bungie handles crunch. Reading about the game industry before I worked here, there was always a mild apprehension about this terrifying “crunch.” Tales of woe and sorrow from the trenches of Quality Assurance departments floated around in my mind, but Bungie whisked those away. My very first workday happened to fall on the first day of crunch. I did work 14 hours my first day, but I was also showered in endless ice cream sandwiches. Bungie also has specific start and end dates to crunch; overall, this attitude communicates immense respect to the employees and their respective families.
It would be a shame to take your passion for this creative process for granted. Over the course of all those long hours, what’s the one thing you’ve done that has made your hard work worth the energy you’ve poured into your job?
A few weeks after I’d started and after we’d gone through a long branch integration, Luke Timmins walked over to where I sat with my test lead and congratulated us on one of the smoothest integrations he’d seen. For those that don’t watch the Bungie ViDocs, Timmins is a bit of a programming god and someone I’ve always looked up to. Having an industry hero pat you on the back after working your tail off is an incredibly rewarding experience.
I also ate seven bags of Mike and Ikes from the candy cabinet once. That was cool, too.
Certainly a different kind of rush than a pat on the back from a “programming god.” Is a blinding sugar high enough to keep you exploring the bleeding edge of testing? Or do you have other plans to advance your craft?
I test everything, and I mean everything. I’m constantly analyzing the silliest things like how inefficient a microwave that doesn’t have a larger “Cook” button is, or how sidewalk pavement in Bellevue could be better shaped to increase safety when it’s slick from rain. If I ever stopped testing, I’d stop growing; that’s never an option.
I also keep up to date with other companies and their development cycles via gaming journalism sites like Joystiq and Gamasutra. Even /r/Games has applicable industry information if you dig a little. I like to think of game development (and especially testing) as a lifestyle that you don’t just pick up in the morning and drop off in the evening. Every single thing in life has the potential to further my understanding of how things work (and, therefore, how I can break them).
At this very moment, there are hordes of hopeful gamers out there who want to join you in that lifestyle. Here’s your chance to pay forward some of what you’ve learned since you arrived. What should they know if they want to hunt bugs?
First, move to a game development area. Contrary to what all the spammy ads about “testing from home” say, serious game development jobs require physical presence at a studio or publisher. So if you live in rural Tennessee (like I did), move to Washington State (or Texas, California, Montreal, etc.). If you’re serious about your goals, 3,000 miles and an unknown future are a small price to pay.
Second, take your dreams and turn them into serious goals. A dream is simply a desire without a deadline or parameters to measure success. Getting a job in the game development industry is not a mere happenstance. It means years of preparation and work, passionate pursuit of the job you seek, and willingness to put in long hours to achieve those goals.
Pop Quiz, hotshot. Experience, Work Ethic, or Talent? Rank them in order of importance to your role.
Work Ethic, period. In my opinion, Experience is naturally gained from working really hard and ought to come inherently with any position. Certain people definitely have more Talent in their respective areas of expertise, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen someone with a mind-blowing Work Ethic totally outstrip someone with Talent simply because they worked harder.
In Test, especially, Work Ethic is the ultimatum. Experience and Talent only mean so much when you’re starting in on your sixteenth straight work hour and you just found a new blocking bug.
We’ve blocked Leland from his mission to squash bugs for long enough. The time has come to return him to his relentless pursuit of his next glitch – as well as his next ice cream sandwich. If you dream of working in games, being a tester is a great way to ascend the rainbow staircase. It is, of course, not the only way. If you’ve become inspired to tackle this industry in the same manner that Leland has, many a course can be plotted in our Breaking In archive.