I love behind-the-scenes looks at industries that we don’t often think about. Whether you’re buying a game in the store or downloading it from Steam, chances are you aren’t that knowledgeable about what the game development industry is actually like. Oh, you might have read some horror stories on Reddit, heard some of the gossip going back and forth on gaming blogs. Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made is about more than that, though. Jason Schreier digs deeper into the pressures and structures of the video game development industry. The question (which he never really gets to answer): is there is a less gruelling, less stressful way to create games and still be “successful”?
Schreier structures the book into 10 chapters, each one recounting the genesis of a specific video game. Each chapter also has a central lesson. In some chapters, he focuses on the internecine politics of the game dev studios and the publisher. In others, he examines how developer dynamics, the size of the teams involved, the pressure from fans, contribute to how smoothly a game is developed.
Chances are that if you play games you will have heard of some, if not most, of these titles, including Stardew Valley, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Diablo 3, and The Witcher 3. This book might be worth buying for the story behind one of these games—for all 10 stories, it feels like a steal. Although common threads run throughout every chapter—most notably the intense pressure to “crunch” near the end of the development schedule—Schreier makes sure that every game highlights specific and different ways in which the industry functions (or doesn’t function).
Likewise, although he frequently points to dysfunctional parts of game dev, he is also quick to celebrate the amazing parts of the industry too. Schreier shows a lot of respect for the work that devs put into a game. He is careful to include all members of game dev in this camp—not just the programmers, but the artists and writers and musicians and voice actors and others as well. More than anything, Schreier definitely underscores that (with some exceptions, like Stardew Valley and Shovel Knight), modern games are the result of intensely coordinated and talented teams of people bending their talents to a single, interactive experience.
In all of these ways, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels excels. The entire book is basically a series of narratives assembled from interviews Schreier has done with various people, some of whom are featured in the chapters. He is fairly transparent about when/how he got his information. Ultimately, though, the stories seem rather restricted to within the game dev industry itself. By this I mean, while he raises questions around, for example, the fairness of crunching, he never really looks beyond the game dev industry for opinions. It would have been nice to see him interview some sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, or other people who have studied this phenomenon or others. As it is, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels’ scope feels a little limited, a little too pixelated from zooming in too much.
This was a fun thing to read over the course of about two days, and I learned some interesting facts about some interesting games. Also, mad props to whoever put the Oxford comma into the title!