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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 April, 2003, 09:23 GMT 10:23 UK
Gamers play for a living
By Mark Ward
BBC News online technology correspondent

Screenshot from Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar Games
Games like Vice City let you write your own destiny

For any serious computer gamer it is a little piece of heaven.

A long comfy sofa opposite a 56" plasma screen that can be hooked up to the Playstation 2, Xbox or GameCube consoles sitting in front of it.

Shelves on one side of the room hold a couple of hundred games for both consoles and PCs. Reclining on the same shelves are all the gamepads, joysticks and peripherals you could ever want.

Dotted around the room are high-spec networked PCs loaded up with some of the most popular titles of the moment.

Game on

But this was no bachelor pad nor a stand at a trade show. Instead, it is the offices of technology firm StarTek which pays gamers to play and to help others do the same.

Hartlepool-based StarTek employs fanatical gamers to do computer support on behalf of leading computer game studios such as Acclaim, Take 2 and NovaLogic.

Steve Durbin, General Manager of StarTek Europe, said more and more games studios were using outside firms to answer queries and help with technical problems.

"Games companies are concerned about reducing costs so they can pump available cash into games," he said. "They do not make their money answering queries from Joe Bloggs who has got stuck on VietCong."

Black Hawk Down screenshot, Novalogic
Game worlds are getting bigger all the time

Staffing the phones on behalf of the games companies are a selection of Teeside's finest gamers.

All the employees have passed a technical test that plumbs their knowledge of the intricacies of Windows as well as more arcane subjects such as DOS commands.

"You need to have a good and genuine interest in playing games," said Marek Las, StarTek's support staff trainer, "but you also need a sound understanding of computers to do support."

Create your game

Staff keep up to date by getting hold of titles they will be supporting a month or so before release. They also help polish the finish product by feeding back the problems they find when playing pre-release titles.

Mr Las said employees also get training in "soft skills" to help them deal with members of the public that do not share their intimate knowledge of hardware and software.

They are taught questioning techniques to help them get to the root of a caller's problem and have a database of bugs and issues they can consult when searching for a solution.

If the query stumps the front line support, StarTek can call on the resources of its keenest gamers to solve the problem.

Delta Force screenshot, Novalogic
Many games are about strategy and stealth

Often this involves recreating the glitch using similar hardware and software, hence the room full of PCs, peripherals and software.

Computers running Windows generated most problems for players, said Mr Las, as there were so many different ways to configure a desktop or home computer.

The increasing sophistication of computer games brought its own problems too, he said.

Many games, such as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, are open-ended. Unlike older titles they have no single path that will take a player through every possible encounter.

Instead, players create their own experience which can make it tricky for StarTek's support staff to find out just what is causing the problem. But they are more than happy to log the hours playing and root out the glitch.

He said StarTek was used by many games makers because now so many titles had a shelf life longer than ever thanks to multi-player gaming and the appearance of tools that let fans create their own levels.

The growth of gaming means that the phone lines offering help or hints are rarely entirely quiet though the most popular playing times are around 6pm at night and during school holidays.

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