Breaking In - John Harris
Oh, to work in the video games industry. It would be so awesome to put all those hours you spent playing shooters to good professional use. You would get paid to guzzle energy drinks and play video games all day. Truth be told, along with the notion that PAX is an accurate sampling of the Seattle climate, that’s one of the biggest myths in this business. Although, when you take into account the work he does, this guy does come pretty close to living the dream.
Who are you, and what do you do at Bungie?
JH: I’m John, and I’m a Multiplayer tester here at Bungie. This means I’m one of the guys in charge of testing the competitive portion of Destiny. I’m one part of an awesome team that makes sure all of our sweet new features and maps are working and looking like they should.
We haven’t spoken much about our competitive multiplayer. If you listen closely, you can hear millions of veterans from the gulches and arenas of Halo sitting up straighter in their chairs. When they get their hands on Destiny, where will they see the marks you’ve left?
JH: Hopefully, my contributions to the game will never be seen. Most of what I do is making sure that we don’t ship with any nagging exploits, ugly bugs, or general badness.
So, it’s your name that they’ll curse if people can walk through walls? Are you sure you want me to publish this to the blog? That could be a total nightmare.
JH: BRING IT ON. I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for this job. I can take the heat.
You’re a brave one. Just to be on the safe side, I’ll give you an assumed name, like ‘John Harris’ or something. Let’s see if we can humanize you with some personal details – give our readers an emotional reason to spare your life in a worst-case scenario. What do you do for fun?
JH: You name it. If it’s summer, most likely I’m golfing somewhere. If it’s winter, most likely I’m skiing somewhere. If I’m not doing those, I’m probably playing some kind of shooter, or sitting at a car show somewhere, or rooting for the Seahawks, or the Mariners, or I’m riding ATVs somewhere, or hanging out with my friends back home, or something. I like a lot of things.
Liking a lot of things provide a real challenge when it comes time to choose a career path. How did you narrow your interests down to just one thing?
JH: When I was younger, I wanted to be a Billionaire, so I would be able to play counter strike all day long, and not worry about anything else. Turns out you can’t make a billion dollars doing that.
So you found another path to being a “pro gamer” of a different sort? What steps did you take to landing a seat on the mezzanine outside of our playtest lab?
JH: I have a background in computer science and web design. I didn’t graduate from college (I started my first contract at Bungie a couple years out of high school), but I learned enough to stick around here for a while.
A student of the world, or at least of Bungie University, eh? What did you learn during those couple of years after high-school that prepared you to be a test pilot in our prototype?
JH: Out of high school I worked retail for a couple years, and I hold a real estate license for Washington State. Those experiences prepared me for working here, because I knew I didn’t want to do either of those things for any sort of extended period of time.
After that, I started a contract on Halo 3, and worked on every following Bungie title up until Reach. I also worked on Halo: Anniversary and Halo 4 at 343. During that time, I was a co-lead for the Forearm Test Team that did a ton of content and multiplayer testing for those titles. Eventually, I left 343 for an opportunity back at Bungie, and I’ve been here ever since.
You are living evidence of the fact that the games industry can be like a small neighborhood. How did you first join the community?
JH: My first interview was with Paul Gradwohl, who (I later learned) was looking for someone with experience with MLG, exploits, and knowledge of competitive Halo for his test team. I had a pretty strong background in competitive gaming in general, which I think is one thing that stood out in my initial interview.
What makes the grass on this side of the fence green enough to come back after a visit to the other side?
JH: I get to work with the people that brought one of the most influential things in my life to me. It’s surreal when I really think about it.
Think about it in terms of just one day. While the sun rises and sets on our multiplayer application, what happens to you?
JH: My days typically start around 10:00 AM, when I get in and look at the latest build. I run some tests with other teams to ensure that we have a stable build that designers, artists, and engineers can play every day. We’re looking for bugs that would prevent a perfect playtest from happening – anything from crashes, to exploits, to environment issues in the maps. Once we identify issues, we summarize them in an email that gets sent out to the design team.
Later in the day, our team is also in charge of setting up the playtest lab. This includes organizing machines, throwing away empty Red Bull cans and Cheetos bags, and making sure that we’re able to run the build in a uniform fashion on all of our machines. We also take notes, feedback, and general feelings about the days build, and report it back to the designers so they can iterate on anything they want to change for the next day’s playtest.In the time between these two things, we also run several build verification tests on the multiplayer portion of our game in other development branches. This ensures that our area will be somewhat stable when we go through our crazy integration process.Additionally, I act as the shift lead for our team, which means I’m in charge of overseeing the wall of stuff that I just typed out.
So, who’s drinking all that Red Bull?
JH: ME!!! I’VE SAVED EVERY SINGLE TAB FROM EVERY RED BULL I’VE DRANK SINCE REACH. IT’S CURRENTLY FILLING AN ENTIRE BEER STEIN THAT SITS ON MY DESK. I’D GUESS IT’S AROUND 600 TABS. MY HEART IS STARTING TO HURT A LITTLE FROM ALL OF THE SHAKING.
Okay. So, that’s a lot of energy. What challenges do you tackle when you are hyper-fueled to that degree?
JH: We’re constantly swimming in a sea (or more like a flash flood) of bugs. It can be tough to keep track of everything that affects our area of the game, and make sure that everyone is on the same page with them.
Every denizen of the multiplayer grid has a favorite war story. What is your favorite moment of triumph on our development team?
JH: It’s tough to pick just one. I found some pretty severe exploits in Halo 3 and Reach that I’m pretty proud of. Other than that, Joey Gibbs once said death follows me wherever I go. So I guess that’s an accomplishment.
He was, we will assume, talking about playtest. We’ll stick with the metaphor, though, and I’ll ask you how you strive to become a more efficient killer of bugs.
JH: Asking questions and paying attention. Everyone that works here is insanely talented, and has a wealth of knowledge in their respective areas. The more I can learn from everyone else, the better I will be at what I do.
What recommendations would you make to people who want to work in this industry?
JH: If it’s something you want to do, you should dive in headfirst. I doubt you’ll regret it later.
John makes that jump sound easy, but we know better. His advice, however, is still valid: When opportunity knocks, you open the door. You might even take him quite literally and dive through it. There are many doors that lead to Bungie, or to making games in the small neighborhood where we make our home. To experience the stories of other people who have crossed that threshold, spend some time in the Breaking In archive.