Carolyn VanEseltine is a web QA tester at Harmonix. When not searching for ways to break the website, she often spends time searching for the Amulet of Yendor, dancing to the beat of dj TAKA, or marrying evil Sims to good Sims.
My internal email (sent to every single person at Harmonix, thanks to the magic of Mail Merge) started:
“Good afternoon! I hope this email finds you well. I am in the process of updating the playtest department's internal database. Below, I have included a copy of your vital playtest statistics. Could you please take a moment to review this information for accuracy?”
You might be able to tell by the tone that I was recently hired. (These days, I’d try to sound at least a little bit human.) But I was fairly new, a bit spooked, and worried I’d offend someone, especially because I was gamerly and geeky and hadn’t quite registered that lots of the people around me were as well.(1)
You see, before an outside playtester ever sees something cool like a Rock Band Rickenbacker or three-part harmony, people at Harmonix spend a lot of time kicking it around the studio to find out if it works, if it’s fun, how to improve it, and so on. Everyone in Harmonix is listed in the playtest files so that the playtest department knows a bit about their critical background. (For example, someone who has taught bass professionally may feel differently about a bass part than someone who has never picked up a real bass, but both of their opinions matter.)
One of these vital playtest statistics reads:
(where 0 - no gaming, 1 - once a month, 2 - a couple times a month, 3 - once a week, 4 - a couple times a week, 5 - daily basis)
So, with a tremor of trepidation, I sent out my email, and I waited for responses.
I laughed when I saw the first gamer rating of “6!” come back. I laughed harder when I realized it wasn’t the only one. Not everyone at Harmonix is that devoted -- but of the 314 responses to my survey, over 50 people turned in a gamer rating of 5 (or higher).
Harmonix is full of gamers. Not all HMXers are playing all of the time, but almost all HMXers play some of the time, and some HMXers play all of the time. (Apparently, some HMXers even have time machines so that they can play more than all of the time.)
What games do Harmonixers play? That varies wildly from person to person and from season to season. In the interests of a pseudoscientific approach, I present you with:
The Top Games Listed Most Frequently By Harmonix Employees When Asked What Games They Were Currently Playing (2)
Eighth Place (a three-way tie!)
Ghostbusters, by Atari
We ain’t afraid of no ghosts.
Left 4 Dead, by Valve Software
“...because zombies are the best!” - Estevan ‘Milo’ Martinez, Web QA Tester
Team Fortress 2, by Valve Software
“I'm runnin' circles around ya!” - Brian Crombie, IT Support Assistant
Seventh Place (a two-way tie!)
LittleBigPlanet, by Sony Computer Entertainment
"...because sack people are adorable!" - Milo Martinez, Web QA
Prototype, by Activision
There’s nothing like shapeshifting your way through the world... unless it’s shapeshifting your way through the world and shouting in jubilation as you make most of it explode.
Street Fighter IV, by Capcom
“Some of us Harmonixers have been in a friendly Street Fighter IV war with some of the people from Turbine. I'm not going to say who is winning... but when cheese puffs and pizza are present, everyone wins.” - Chris Canfield, Playtest Analyst
Sims 3, by Electronic Arts
According to Designer Grace Williams, she plays “Guild Wars because I hate myself and Sims 3 because I like to take my hate out on tiny pretend people.”
The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, by Lucasfilm Games
QA Tester Tom Brown notes, “I'm almost afraid to admit I've never played this gem.” This marvelously funny adventure game delighted audiences back in 1990. Now that it’s been rereleased with contemporary graphics and new music, we’re discovering the joys of Guybrush Thriftweed... er, Threepwood... all over again.
Third Place (a two-way tie!)
Rock Band 2, by MTV Games
I don’t distribute bonuses. I didn’t bribe anyone to say this. The truth is, many Harmonixers want to rock and roll all day and all of every night. This is particularly impressive because Rock Band 2 is tied with -
Peggle, by PopCap Games
“Oh yeah. Just like everyone else here, I've been playing Peggle on my iPhone....” - Tom Brown, QA Tester
If you haven’t met Peggle yet, it’s a simple, easy-to-learn casual game in which you bounce balls around colored pegs to clear a screen. It’s fun, easy, portable, and addictive. Very addictive. Frighteningly addictive. Which Peggle Master is coming up next in my game, anyway...? Wait, I have to finish this article first!
Battlefield: 1943, by Electronic Arts
Our internal newsgroups are used for a wide variety of purposes, such as discussing potential features for top-secret projects, spreading the latest crazy YouTube video, and advertising upcoming Oxytocin shows. They’ve also been used to coordinate rounds of Battlefield: 1943. Apparently, at least one IT representative gets a huge kick out of pitching dynamite at developers.
And in first place, the game more Harmonixers are playing than any other game (drum roll, please...)
Fallout 3, by Bethesda Softworks
There are probably people at Harmonix who don’t recognize Vault Boy. Somewhere. Whether it’s the story, the setting, the character customization system, or simply the thrill of shooting your way through the wasteland with Dogmeat at your heels, there’s a crazy appeal to this retro-futuristic creation. (Because I’ve barely started this game myself, I’ve been known to interrupt people at lunch with my frantic pleas for “no spoilers, no spoilers!”)
Those are the most popular games right now at Harmonix - but that list hardly covers everything. Over a hundred and twenty-five games were on the “currently playing” list! Here are a few more less-frequently named games that still attract devotion around the studio.
“My big giant guilty pleasure... is a Wii game called Bonsai Barber – you give haircuts to little tree and plant creatures. Once you get the hang of the basics, the game makes you do all sorts of crazy stuff like upside down in the dark haircuts.” - HMXThrasher, Community Moderator
“I put Treasure World in my DS and go ride my bike around town. It's spectacular fun to rack up Wi-Fi connections.” - Jim Toepel, QC Manager: Hardware
"I'm also one of many Puzzle Pirates... (One of the few MMORPGs not made by Turbine). I traded in my much loved but legitimate furniture stall for a life of piracy, carousing, skellie hunting, and general problem-causing." - Chris Canfield, Playtest Analyst
“I play Mario 64 DS in one to three star sittings until I have all the stars. Then, I immediately start over.” - Mike Georgeson, Artist
“This changes almost hourly, but between 3 and 4 PM today, GMT, I'm playing Evil Genius and Cooking Mama. Heaven help us all if these two team up.” - Nathaniel Read, QA Tester
So, tell us... what are you playing right now? Do you have any hidden gems for us to check out? We’d love to hear from you! Leave your suggestions in the comments or on the forums.
1) It seems like time for a brief digression. How did I ever wind up working for Harmonix without realizing that I was surrounded by gamerly, geeky types? Most of my prior employment had been in relatively strict office environments, where I liked my coworkers but often felt a bit out of step. (Ask me about my plush Cthulhu geek detection method someday.) Harmonix seemed too good to be true.
2) Yes, this headline could have been shorter, but wasn’t it more fun this way? (3)
3) Like many other people who write for Harmonix (4), I think footnotes are LOTS of fun.