Few industries are as notorious for working their people to exhaustion and heartbreak as the video game industry. In his new non-fiction book, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, Kotaku writer and editor Jason Schreier explores the sometimes brutal behind the scenes turmoil that several high profile games went through before release.
Each chapter in this breezy read focuses on one game and one studio for twelve accounts total. For maximum variety Schreier takes aim at a wide variety of games and the circumstances behind them. Even though I haven’t played about half of the games he discusses I found each chapter to be a riveting read and something different than the chapters that came before.
In terms of games there is a little something for everyone here. In the big budget realm Schreier focusses on Naughty Dog and their brutal push to release Uncharted 4 on time after the departure of director Amy Hennig, Bioware’s struggle to overcome the disappointment of Dragon Age II in the development of Dragon Age: Inquisition, the panic that overcame Blizzard after the release of Diablo III, and the schizophrenic direction for Destiny as it threatened to tear Bungie apart, to name but a few. He gives similar treatment to the indies including Eric Barone, the one-man-army who programmed every single aspect of Stardew Valley, and the 5 men that made up Nautica Games and programmed Shovel Knight, risking everything to do so in the process.
In more than one case things got so bad behind the scenes for some of these games people quit. In the case of Ensemble and Halo Wars the development of the game destroyed the studio. Of all the stories though one of the most fascinating deals with the near mythical Star Wars 1313. This was the last game LucasArts would ever work on before the studio was unceremoniously shuttered after the Disney acquisition of George Lucas’ empire. Even more than the corporate interference that went in to Halo Wars and Destiny, Star Wars 1313 was interfered with so much the damn thing would have come out before the studio was closed down if the executives – coughGeorgeLucascough- had stopped giving new directives from on high every three months requiring complete overhaul of the game. This chapter, and the one on Ensemble, made me angry reading about these developers losing their livelihoods by the corporate executives and bean counters. It serves to remind that the love of money is the enemy of art.
Through all of these accounts, despite the pain these developers went through, the love for the industry is apparent in all of the stories. Schreier is given quite a bit of access from a number of people that were willing to go on the record about the drama that were going on behind the games. Unfortunately, in a few cases some high profile individuals declined to participate. I would have loved to hear from Amy Hennig but she and Naughty Dog both signed an Non Disclosure Agreement regarding her departure from the studio. In her place we are left with Neil Druckman and Bruce Straley, the Uncharted 4 co-directors, to fill in the gaps and they do so just fine.
The only complaint I really have is the book gets in to the inside baseball of the industry more than specific anecdotes about each game. For instance I was hoping for a bit more about how a game like Uncharted 4 is devised, from the puzzles to the layout of the combat areas but the book doesn’t get in to that. It really is about the struggles that the developers and artists were going through to bring their creation to life. And the title of the book perfectly sums up that struggle in every case.
Blood, Sweat, and Pixels is an entertaining account and must read for any gamer that wants to know how the sausage is made. The men and women behind these games are usually just as frustrated as you are with the game, the difference is you aren’t operating under a mandate to “ship the thing”. It may even give you pause before trashing that studio on Twitter the next time a much hyped game fails to deliver or requires a day-one 10Gb patch. Try to imagine that responsibility and then maybe think about cutting them some slack.
I know I will.