Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: A book review

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels book review Jason Schreier Kotaku

Films have been including ‘how it’s made’ featurettes in DVD releases for years. Books, poem, and comics are self-explanatory, and significantly less interesting to watch being made. And recording sessions are embedded enough in the public consciousness that they, too, are inherently comprehensible, even if you don’t know the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys.’

Video games, however, are a different breed. Many gamers–even passionate ones–simply don’t know how games are made, what processes are involved, the time frame needed, or the required building blocks to make a good game. This is true in part because games are a new medium, but also significantly due to the complexity and difficulty of making modern games.

Jason Schreier’s book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels is a fantastic insight into the niche, secretive, complicated world of how games are crafted. It is the perfect book for those who are interested in how games are made, and because of Schreier’s focus on narrative and excellent ability to distill more obtuse concepts into easy-to-understand chunks of information, it’s perfect for game veterans or n00bs alike.

Though the book isn’t an argument, it has a core thesis that intertwines the composite parts of the book together, and that thesis is this: modern video games are incredibly difficult to make.

I had drinks with a developer who’d just shipped a new game. He looked exhausted…Some of them slept in the office so they wouldn’t have to waste time commuting, because every hour spent in the car was an hour not spent fixing bugs. Up until the day they had to submit a final build, many of them doubted they’d be able to release the game at all.

“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.”

Rather than sctructure the book around how a game in general is made, Schreier focuses on something more specific (and more accessible): the story of how individual games were made. Each chapter features a different game. The choice of games covers everything from small indie titles like Stardew Valley to some of the largest RPGs ever made (so far) like Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher 3. The book features 10 chapters in all.

Again, Schreier’s dedication to a strong narrative is impeccable. Each chapter is an individual story, and Schreier does a great job of outlining who is developing the game, why they are making the game they are making, what problems they encounter along the way, and how they decided to tackle those challenges.

Ciri from the Witcher 3 wild hunt

The book is extremely engaging, and I finished it very quickly. I had played four of the ten games included, and while I was naturally more interested in the stories of games I had completed (and, in my case, really loved), the stories of games I had not played were equally vivid and engrossing.

Schreier highlights a few issues repeatedly throughout the book, as they are natural to a game’s development. First is the dichotomy between funding and freedom. While a game like Pillars of Eternity has no publisher to answer to, self-funding represents its own set of challenges on the creative process. On the other hand, as it the case with Destiny, virtually unlimited funding can be constrained by the demands of the publisher.

The second thing that is highlighted is the prevalence of crunch time. In the gaming industry, crunch time is a period of extended hours that occurs before specific milestones, or in order to complete or add something special to the game. Its status is contested within the industry, as some see it as a necessary evil in order to produce great games, while others see it as a result of poor producing and management. Regardless, each of these games go through some manner of crunch time, and how it is utilized is a part of each chapter.

Third, Schreier highlights the oft-hidden world of conflict between developers about where a game should go or even what game is important to make. Video games are made by real people, and creative differences can arise even under the best, least stressful circumstances, let alone the pressure cooker that is game development. These creative and professional arguments can make or break a game, and their coverage in the case of Uncharted 4, Destiny, and Halo Wars is a core part of their story.

iron bull dragon age inquisition western approach

There are more than these three issues that recur, and it is this pattern that represents the book’s biggest flaw, though it is certainly not a fatal one. In the case of seven of the 10 chapters, the chapters follow the basic beat of A) here’s why and what game developer is making B) here’s the conflicts and problems the developer overcame C) here’s what the game did well and the story of how it succeeded.

That’s because those seven games–Pillars of Eternity, Uncharted 4, Stardew Valley, Halo Wars, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Shovel Knight, and The Witcher 3–were critical and commercial successes. There are obviously different specifics, but the same beat happens because of the types of games they are: successes. Sure, those games exist, and their stories are important.

But the most interesting stories are why games don’t succeed, and the book’s three strongest chapters–on Diablo III, Destiny, and Star Wars 1313–focus on the varying failures that manifested themselves in the game (or in the case of Star Wars 1313, how the game ceased to exist). How Destiny shipped as a shell of what it was intended to be despite being given years and millions of dollars to percolate is fascinating; how Diablo III managed to turn a complete 180 degrees from angering its install base is fascinating; how Star Wars 1313 flopped so hard it didn’t come out is fascinating. These are the types of stories that I wish Schreier could have covered more in the book, and I was glad to see his coverage of Mass Effect: Andromeda, a troubled game where everyone just wondered ‘how did this happen’, on Kotaku.

concept art star wars 1313 scifi city

Concept art for Star Wars 1313

Still, I recognize that this particular criticism might be personal taste speaking, and I realize that it’s probably easier to get developers to talk about successes than failures. The book’s quality is still evident.

If you’re a gamer, a person who finds games fascinating, or just someone in search of a good new nonfiction book to read, I highly recommend Blood, Sweat, and Pixels. Not the least of which because the title includes an Oxford comma. Good on you, Jason; fight the good fight. Well, both of them: the Oxford comma one and the video game coverage one.

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