By Benjy Boxer
I recently read a few books detailing critical moments in the gaming industry and discovered the very popular book, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Jason Schreier. Other books I’ve read recently are: Console Wars and Master’s of Doom. I’ll review those separately. The difference between the three books is that Console Wars and Master’s of Doom chronicle the stories of one group of people each; whereas, Schreier is able to approach, from a high-level, the development of 10 video games. As a famous journalist from Kotaku, he was able to get access to the development teams and learn the detailed stories about development that very few people hear about.
This Is The True Behind The Scenes Story
When you read the story about a game (or a startup, for that matter), you’re almost always reading about it just after it has become a tremendous success or a huge disaster. From those success stories, it may seem like the development of the game was always a sure thing and that the developers have the best job in the world. Schreier details the ups and downs of game development across 10 games ranging from solo indie development to one of Blizzard’s biggest releases. He shares underdog stories as well as how massive failures from some of the biggest development studios were possible. There’s also a great story about Diablo III’s recovery from the initial launch disaster.
Side Note — Startups Versus Game Development
On a side note, from these stories, I marvel at how any game gets developed and the similarities as well as differences between launching a game and starting a company. As a software company, we can launch new features continuously and always improve. With games, there’s this pivotal launch moment that defines the success of the game. With games, during most of the development, you’re getting minimal feedback. In a few of the games Schreier chronicles, I actually realized that the developers didn’t even know how the game would play until very late into development. In Witcher 3, they were testing the incredible amount of dialogue throughout the game with two grey characters and text at the bottom of the screen. Testing the quality of the dialogue and emotional response to the teasing and snark was nearly impossible with no facial expressions or human voices. With the additional complexity of moving goal posts on technology and game engines, I marveled at how any game could launch successfully. I feel like starting a company gives you far more room for iteration, flexibility, and improvement early on than game development.
Game Development Is Truly A Slog
The reality that this book paints about game development is that there may be glory at the end of the tunnel when you read your Metacritic scores, but the tunnel is very long and dark before you even have a hint of the light at the end.
But The Successes Are Incredibly Inspiring
I think my favorite story in the book is the one following the development of Stardew Valley. Eric Barone (the sole creator of the game) has an inspiring story that was just so fun to cheer for as I was reading about it. His passion for creating a game that could take the best of Harvest Moon and build upon it was amazing. A project that started as a way to prove his ability as a developer ended with unprecedented success after 5 years of immense pressure, determination, and perfectionism that you can feel when you play the game. The sacrifices he made and probably more importantly, that his girlfriend and eventual wife made, to get this indie classic developed were just insane. I also loved that Schreier added the anecdote of Barone’s dinner with the Yasuhiro Wada, the creator of Harvest Moon, as the icing on the cake of his success.
I Wish I Could Have Learned More
At times, I wished Schreier could dive deeper into the stories and explain more about what happened in the development of some of the most epic failures and successes of the last few years. Unfortunately, as an anthology of 10 games, he had to keep it pretty short for each game. It was a collection of long investigative articles rather than a cohesive story. This was really valuable for getting a picture of the different things that happen in game studios, but only allowed the reader to get a high-level glimpse into game development.
One thing I would love to challenge and hear if there’s a solution to is the relentless crunch times that Schreier refers to in each game. It seems the industry has accepted it as part of the challenge in making games, but it doesn’t sound quite healthy to me.
From the high-level view of game development, one thing is clear, the process is difficult, risky, and tests the patience of anyone in the industry. The only way to make your way through it is to have a true passion for the project and love the games you build.