I’m going to talk about something different today. Recently, I finished reading Blood, Sweat and Pixels by Jason Schreier. It was something I’ve been wanting to read since it came out and it turned out my university actually had a copy of it. Considering that the writer is an editor at Kotaku, I expect the Typical Gamer to roll their eyes and snark about that “Shin Megami Tensei IV is the Dark Souls of Persona” article, but they should set that stupid bullshit aside and check out one of the most interesting books about games I’ve read.
Blood, Sweat and Pixels is a brutally honest look at the video game industry. There are triumphs in this book, but it isn’t 100% unwavering praise and cheer like a lot of video game related books I picked up from bundles on Storybundle. Every success story comes with human costs – and some of the stories in the book aren’t even success stories.
Each chapter of Blood, Sweat and Pixels focuses on the development of a single game, showcasing the many different experiences and setbacks of the industry, at times contrasting with each other. Many stories have studios struggling to meet the demands of publishers, while the story of Witcher 3 has a publisher trying to make it big as a developer. You read the story of Pillars of Eternity and how Obsidian easily found the Kickstarter funding to make their game, which is soon contrasted with Shovel Knight‘s story of how its developers struggled to get the word out to get enough funding for their game.
And “enough” is used loosely in this situation. Looking at the big success Shovel Knight is today, you never would have thought that the developers had to force themselves into working long hours to make the most of their funds, sometimes toeing the line of poverty. This is one of the stories of the book, stories of the human creators behind the games we love being screwed over because of financial reasons or because of decisions by bigwigs and publishers. Read on as the ambitious studio behind Halo Wars gets unceremoniously shut down, with its workers continuing to develop the game knowing that they won’t have jobs in the future; this is partly because of an office schism that led to wasted resources on projects that tried to escape Ensemble Studio’s hole of being the “RTS company.” Feel that the first Destiny’s story elements is a mess? Behold the miscommunications and mismanagement that led to that happening. And it all ends on the downer that is Star Wars 1313, Disney’s cruel ever-consuming noose tightening around LucasArts.
The one thing that connects all these stories together (besides being about games) is crunch, the dreaded practice of working long hours at the expense of health and personal life. Frequent stories about crunch have employees working their ass off to get games out on time or so they can have a big fancy demo ready for E3. Crunch not only exists to meet deadlines, but obligations, such is the case of Stardew Valley‘s creator, who forced himself to work long and hard to achieve perfectionism for the sake of satisfying his audience, leading to severe burnout. He, thankfully, had a loving family to fall back on during his time, but reading his chapter reminds me that not many developers have that same luxury.
Looking at recent big game industry news, nothing much has changed. Studios still crunch. Big wigs still screw people over. Passionate developers continue to be taken advantage of. A tidbit in the Halo Wars chapter mentions that Ensemble Studios crunched to get the first Age of Empires out, which leads one to wonder how long this has been going on for and if it’ll continue. It certainly has for Red Dead Redemption 2.
Speaking of which, fucking Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s just a walking plague of many of the problems described in this book. But what gets my blood boiling the most is a quote by Dan Houser, a founder of Rockstar, in a recent interview:
Sam and I talk about this a lot and it’s that games are still magical. It’s like they’re made by elves. You turn on the screen and it’s just this world that exists on TV. I think you gain something by not knowing how they’re made. As much as we might lose something in terms of people’s respect for what we do, their enjoyment of what we do is enhanced. Which is probably more important.Dan Houser, bastard man
Which is bullshit, but of course, it’s easy to dismiss the value of your employees when you’re the boss.
Reading Blood, Sweat and Pixels feels defiant in light of Dan Houser’s nonsense. It’s a book that reminds you that, no, elves don’t make this shit, people do and they often suffer to do so. I personally believe that this book should be an important cornerstone in gaming culture. It’s a reality check that people need, showing the side of games that the average consumer doesn’t typically see. It’s not perfect by any means, as the book isn’t representative of all experiences in making games, but compared to the general consumer knowledge about what goes on, it’s still valuable.