Book review: Blood, Sweat and Pixels

Blood, Sweat and Pixels by Jason Schreier.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

Making games sounds fun, right? Like, you get to hang out in cool offices and make things that are fun to play that people love? Sounds great.

It’s not, and that’s not just because the gaming audience is equally likely to lob death threats into your inbox as praise: it’s because the way games are made is fundamentally fuuuuucked.

At least this guy can go home at night.

If you wanted to distil Jason Schreier’s collection of stories about the creation of a variety of games (from a long-awaited Diablo sequel, to a tiny homage to simulated farming, to a never-released Star Wars game) you could pretty much just use this, from the introduction:

“Sounds like a miracle that this game was even made,” I said. “Oh, Jason,” he said. “It’s a miracle that any game is made.”

The book is basically a look at the same story happening across various-sized developers: the way deadlines and the crunch – extended hours, often for months, supplanting all other parts of the employees’ lives – that leads up to them destroys human resources and results in games released in a far from optimum state.

This is something that occurs across most areas of the gaming industry. Sucking it up and accepting low pay and shit conditions is considered par for the course: it’s a gig where the difficulty is often replaced by enthusiastic success when a game hits. But it’s an industry where there’s a meat-grinder approach to its human components. Much as print media was able to do in the last century, game companies can require employees to put up with terrible workloads because hey, if you don’t want to do it there’s always someone else who will.

Schreier’s writing is clear and sets the scene well. There’s no rumour here: everything is confirmed by at least two people, and the author did a lot of foot slogging to bring the records to the reader. One is left with a feeling of sympathy for the hapless workers in the stories, hamstrung either by feature creep or publisher fuckery, or plain old overcommitment and underresourcing. It’s the sort of story that should be read by gamers in order to understand the human cost of their gaming experiences, as it might even encourage some to become less truculent when an enormous game is delayed.

(Perhaps a vain hope, but hey.)

The book doesn’t exactly hang together, however. The overwhelming thesis is that this shit is bad, but the pieces kind of work in isolation. There’s not a lot unifying them, other than the fact that these conditions permeate all manner of studios. I would’ve liked to have seen more analysis of why, or of thoughts on how things may change. It’s a quick read, and provoked questions on my part, but I wish there’d been a bit more discussion of the issues at hand rather than just a recounting of tales of woe.

To be honest, while I enjoyed this book, I still felt it paled in comparison to what I believe is the ur-piece on crunch and mismanagement, Andrew McMillen’s piece on the laboured development of L.A. Noire. Schreier’s book is good, but I preferred McMillen’s writing. Is it stylistic? Perhaps. But I felt that the stories of Blood, Sweat and Pixels could’ve had a bit more bodily fluid wrung out of them.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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