Something a little different this week. Dan McNamee is renowned for his work on Alien Vs Predator which is arguably the greatest ever game to be released on the Atari Jaguar but what is equally as fascinating is the work he carried out in Atari’s QA section. Enjoy…
How exactly did you get the opportunity to enter the video game industry?
It was pure persistence. When I was around 10, my parents bought us one of the brand new Pong machines to hook up to our TV. My brother, sister and I wore it out playing it so much. We even took it on vacations with us. Later my brother bought a (Atari) 2600, and again we played it all the time. A few years later, I saw an advanced review of the 400 and 800 in Popular Science magazine, and I saved all the money I could from mowing lawns, and my allowance as well as taking over for one of my friends on his paper route until I had enough to pre-order a 400. From that point on, I knew that I wanted to work not only on games, but for Atari. I taught myself basic and assembler, and learned everything I could. I went to college for a CIS degree, literally taking every computer related class they offered. Once I graduated, I sent in my resume to Atari, and started pestering them until they hired me. They probably only hired me to stop me from bothering them.
Do you remember the first ever game you worked on?
Before I moved over to QA, I helped out on testing Slime World on the Lynx. They needed additional people to test out 8 player linked matches, and my manager was kind enough to let me take a few hours for a couple days to help out.
What exactly does the role of a video game tester involve? Can you run us through a typical day?
The main part of our work was to find defects in the games, and gather enough information on what was happening to enable the developers to narrow down where in the code the problem may be. We were allowed a lot of freedom, as well, however. We were allowed to make suggestions to improve the games, and were even allowed to eventually work on game design. There wasn’t really any such thing as a typical day. Sure, a lot of the time was spent on testing and reporting any problems we ran across, but there were other things that got mixed in as well. One of the things I did before I moved over to QA officially was Atari had an old EPROM burner that ran off a serial port, but there was no software to control it. I was asked to see what I could do with it and I eventually got a program working so we could burn the Jaguar and Lynx EPROMs on it (nice! – Ed). When I moved over to QA, I would handle a lot of the EPROMS, and eventually the CDs for testing and the masters for manufacturing. Everyone pretty much had additional duties in addition to testing.
As a game tester, I assume honesty is really important when discussing your views on different games. Have you ever been involved in any heated conversations between yourself and a programmer before?
There were certainly disagreements from time to time, but I don’t really remember anything major. All developers react differently to bug reports, and that holds true outside of games as well. Some developers take the information in stride, try to find the cause of the problem and carry on, but some do take the information as criticism and feel insulted by it. I’ve learned over the years to keep the language as neutral as possible and provide as much detail as possible so that they do not feel like they are being attacked. If the developer then has a problem with it, that is their problem, not yours.
You worked at Atari during an incredible time. How do you reflect back on your time working for this iconic company?
It really was a great time, and I really do miss it. It was a lot of long, hard hours at times, but we also had a lot of fun and great times. I do see people come down on the Tramiels, though not as much now as in the past, and it always makes me a little sad and often a bit angry. I never really knew Jack. I would see him around the building, but never wanted to disturb him. Same with Sam, though I did talk with him a few times. I talked with Gary fairly often and he was a really great guy. I worked with and talked with Leonard quite often, and he was great. He is one of the most intelligent people I know, and has a fantastic sharp wit. We would all have good times, the company picnics and Christmas parties. The occasional celebrity dropping by and going through the building to meet people. Concerts and more. As I said before, we worked hard, but the Tramiels also made sure we had time for fun as well. For the most part it was like an extended family in many ways. I would have loved it to go on forever.
To this day I feel if they hadn’t shut down, I would still be there. I really loved it that much.
I want to mention John Skruch and Tom Gillen as well. John was absolutely fantastic to work for, and he really cared about all of us. There was one time where I had gotten extremely ill. I’d come in to work in the morning fine, by about 10am I was starting to feel sick and by noon I was at the doctors. The next thing I knew, it was a couple days later and John was knocking on my apartment door with bags of groceries. He knew that I lived alone and wanted to make sure I was OK. I was amazed by that gesture by John. Tom Gillen was just an overall great guy. One of my favorite managers. I’d gotten to know both John and Tom before I moved into QA, and it was because of them I was able to make the move over to the department eventually.
How did the earlier days while working at Atari compare to the final days before the company eventually closed down?
To me it seems like things were a lot more focused towards the end of my time there. When I came on, Atari was in the process of buying the Federated stores, and things seemed to be a bit chaotic. Of course, this was my first office job out of college, and I wasn’t used to being in this kind of environment. Also I was in Tech Support, which in any company is always pretty chaotic. Maybe over time I just adjusted to it and what seemed chaotic was normal. Up until the end, at our level at least, there wasn’t really any indication that things were going to end. As a matter of fact, I was made associate producer on Rocky Horror Interactive, and they were preparing to send me over to the UK to work with Richard O’Brien for a couple weeks (legend! – Ed). I didn’t have a passport yet, and this was during the government shutdown here in the US due to budget problems. Atari paid a fair amount of money to put a rush on my passport application so I could go. The day of the layoffs, my passport arrived in the mail. They may have had a shutdown contingency plan in place, but I don’t really think that they had been planning on doing it at that time. If they had, I don’t think they would have been working on the plans to send me to the UK and spending the money towards it.
You have helped playtest a huge array of Atari Jaguar games. Which games did you have the most fun working on and was there any games you never enjoyed playing?
Yes, I had at least some involvement with every game that came through. The first four games not so much, though I did do the EPROMs for them. You both love and hate all of the games. When they first come in, it is something fresh and different, and by the time it is gone, you’ve been on it at least a week longer than you want to be on it, and you never want to see it ever again. My favorite game is Tempest 2000 (Jeff will be happy – Ed), though I really didn’t get to work on that much, I got to mess around with a couple of early versions a bit, and a little play testing at the end. But for what I worked on the most, Alien vs Predator and Flip Out were my favorites. The QA department really made AvP. We got to design everything in the game, from the story line, to play mechanics, scoring, and level design. By the time Flip Out was done, I think the developers were getting ready to take out a hit on me. I kept finding new and creative ways to crash the game, but I was having so much fun with it, I couldn’t stop. My least favorite was probably Club Drive. We would have fun play testing it, especially multiplayer, but a huge part of testing that gave was slowly driving around and trying to find polygon holes, tears and pops. They had built a version that displayed coordinates and facing directions and we would have to slowly drive around all over all of the worlds and note the coordinates every time we saw something that looked odd.
You mentioned your work on Alien vs Predator. As the level designer, what did this actual role involve and how did you aim to tackle each level?
On the level design for AvP, we split up the work. I was actually lead tester on the project, but I had several things going on at the time, and Lance Lewis stepped up and took on a lot of the work. Because of that, I didn’t take the lead credit. I asked if they could make Lance and I co-leads on it, but that didn’t work out. Basically, with the engine Rebellion developed, we had a 64×64 grid for each level. Before we were able to do the level design, we developed our story line and worked through what the rough layout of the ship would be. From there, everyone claimed a level. I took the medical level and training maze. We all had sheets of graph paper and we drew out what we imagined the levels to look like and then sent them off to Rebellion. We would then have to go through the levels in the game and make sure they looked right, and make sure they were playable. There were several iterations with a few tweeks here and there, but our original designs were pretty much what were in the game. A bit of trivia here, when you play as an alien, the crunchy squishy sound when you “impregnate” a human is me taking a bite out of an apple (love it – Ed).
Alien vs Predator is often referred to as the Jaguar’s best title, do you agree with this and do you know if a sequel was ever in the pipeline?
Well, as I said above it was one of my favorites. I definitely think it is a favorite, and it was a system seller. I read a lot online from people that said they bought a Jaguar because of it. I’d heard they were working on a sequel, or possibly an expanded version, for the JagCD, but I don’t think it ever reached the prototype stage. I never mastered any CDs for it at least, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t tech demos that ran on Alpine systems. I just never saw any.
Were there any games on the Atari Jaguar or other consoles you game tested but were never released?
I did some play testing on Conan on the Jaguar. It was very early, and I believe the version they showed at CES or E3. It was pretty far off from being anything releasable. I also got a look at an early look at Arena Football and worked on Fat Bobby on the Lynx. I know the game was finished, but I don’t recall if it was ever released.
Did you continue working in the video game industry after your great work at Atari?
Unfortunately not. I did have a chance to go to Sony to work with Tom Gillen. Unfortunately, it was just a temporary position, and I just couldn’t take the risk on the job not going permanent. So I packed up and moved back to Iowa, where I grew up and started doing OS testing for a company called Microware. Some people may recognize them for OS9. Since then I have stayed in QA, but doing automated testing, both with commercial tools as well as writing custom test frameworks. I still think of getting back into games, and I have what I think could be a pretty interesting project. I just don’t have time to develop it unfortunately.
If you could travel back in time and work on any video game, which game would you have loved to be involved in?
That’s a tough one! I don’t know if there is a specific game, but more of a specific job. My goal when I started was to develop games. My original intent when I started at Atari was to eventually move on to the actual coding of games.
What projects are you currently working on?
For the last few years I have been working at a large bank creating automated tests for their internal mortgage system. I’m coding in C# and Java using Webdriver and SQL Server to perform integration and regression tests. I also have several years experience working with all of the major tools, Rational Robot, WinRunner, QTP/UFT, Load Runner, Silk Test, Silk Performer, etc. I’ve worked in almost every industry you can think of, medical, financial, entertainment, operating systems, even a couple stints at a brewery.
Er, I think you’d pass an interview for Arcade Attack then! It’s been fascinating hearing your stories Dan but we’ve just one more question before you go… If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?
Princess Peach. I wouldn’t lose her like Mario always does. 😃