Blood, Sweat, and Pixels - Jason Schreier

Review :

"Oh, Jason," he said. "It's a miracle that any game is made."

Finally, a book that captures the complexity of game development that anyone can pick up and enjoy. Jason Schreier of Kotaku spent two years traveling around the world to score in depth interviews with the industry's most renowned gaming studios. Drawing from sources speaking both on and off the record, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels provides a rare glimpse into the pain and passion that go into bringing a modern video game to market. In ten absorbing chapters Schreier covers the downright grueling development process behind such hits as Blizzard's Diablo III, Naughty Dog's Uncharted 4, CD Projekt Red's The Witcher 3 and, of course, Bungie's Destiny.

Speaking of Destiny, it was Schreier's crucial 2015 exposé that laid the groundwork for this wonderful little book. (Portions of his chapter on Destiny are taken directly from that article.) As fans of the blockbuster series will remember, that Kotaku piece brought Destiny's murky origin story to light. Importantly, it provided the necessary background for understanding how the company that gave us Halo could have produced - at least at launch - such a lackluster title. Subpar development tools, a strained relationship with publisher Activision, and the complete reboot of the story (following the departure of lead writer Joe Staten) just one year from release had a lot to do with it. As a source tells Schreier, "A lot of the problems that came up in Destiny 1...are results of having an unwavering schedule and unwieldy tools."

What we learned then from Scheier's keen reporting, and what comes across as clear as day in his first book, is that making games is incredibly hard and almost impossibly demanding. Harder, perhaps, than any other creative medium. Thanks to their interactive nature and sheer potentiality, games are capable of delivering the boundless, memorable experiences we've come to love. But it's those same elements that make them such a chore to create, even for seasoned veterans.

One of the designers at Obsidian (of Fallout: New Vegas fame) he interviews puts it this way: "making games is sort of like shooting movies, if you had to build an entirely new camera every time you started." Indeed, the tools and technologies used to develop the latest games are constantly in flux, as is the creative vision of the producers and directors at the top. A change in either area can prove hugely disruptive to the overall process - a process that hinges on pushing a marketable product out the door by an agreed upon deadline. It's that constant give and take between concept and technology, between developer and publisher, that defines the medium.

Internal conflicts can also run a project off course. Artists and programmers might spend months, years even, sketching and coding characters, environments, quests, set pieces and combat mechanics, only to see it all thrown out as a result of higher-ups taking the game in an entirely different direction. When Naughty Dog replaced Uncharted 4's creative director Amy Hennig in 2014 - roughly two years into the game's development - the story was more or less scrapped. That meant that cut scenes, animation, and thousands of lines of recorded voicework on which the studio had already spent millions of dollars got the axe, too. For an artist emotionally invested in their work, this can be heartbreaking and demotivating.

In other cases, such as the abortive Star Wars 1313, a decision by the publisher can bring it all crashing down. As Scheier recounts in the closing chapter, LucasArts, formerly a subsidiary of Lucasfilm, began work on a new action-adventure Star Wars game in 2010. The game debuted at E3 in 2012 to wide critical acclaim. Shortly afterward, the company was acquired by Disney. By 2013, Disney had shuttered the studio, and canceled every one of its projects. For all the work the dedicated crew at LucasArts poured into their pet project, Star Wars 1313 was never meant to be.

Given the many technical hitches, logistical nightmares, corporate pressures, and unforeseen obstacles that threaten success, it's no small wonder that any games are shipped at all. As Schreier points out, there's hardly a game on the market today that doesn't run up against insane crunch periods and dramatic setbacks over the course of its development. Whether it's a small team working on a 2D side-scroller à la Yacht Club Games' Shovel Knight or a massive effort spread across hundreds of staff in the case of BioWare's Dragon Age, producing a quality game in today's highly competitive environment is by any measure a herculean effort.

Virtually every insider consulted for the book talks about how taxing the job can be on one's physical health and personal relationships. Burnout is common. And even with working around the clock for months on end - often sans overtime pay, as it's not required in the US - games rarely come out on time. Delays and cancellations are a feature, not a bug. To be sure, any successful career in game development is built on passion and an enthusiasm for creating unique playable spaces, but it's one that comes with significant costs that only the truly dedicated may be equipped to endure.

Closing Thoughts

Leave it to Jason Schreier to shatter any utopic notions about game development. Behind the glossy visuals and destructible environments we take for granted on screen lies a hellish landscape of Sisyphean creative challenges and brutal working hours. As the title suggests, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels constantly reminds us that game production is as much about self-sacrifice as it is about crafting quality interactive experiences. And if these breezy oral histories are any indication, it's a principle that holds true whether you're a bootstrapped indie developer beholden to Kickstarter donors or a lowly cog in the big-budget corporate machine.

Schreier is a most welcome guide, bringing more casual readers up to speed on esoteric conversations ranging from rendering paths and game engines to bug testing and content iteration times. It's a testament to his talents that the book never seems to flag, even when exploring games I didn't particularly care about. While I wish Schreier had ventured more deeply into the ethics of crunch culture, his penchant for meticulous, well researched investigative journalism is on full display here.

If you have even a passing interest in gaming be sure to pick this one up. I came away with a better understanding of the personal sacrifices and creative compromises that appear to go hand in hand with making video games, and a newfound perspective on increasingly commonplace monetization strategies like paid downloadable content (PDLC) and microtransaction (MTX) systems. Above all, it left me with a more profound appreciation for my most cherished hobby.

Note: This review is republished from my official website.


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