Book Review: Blood, Sweat, and Pixels

The process of making video games is fraught with problems. For gamers who have played pretty much any major release over the past few console generations, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Games get released with previously advertised features missing. There are bugs ranging from annoying to save-breaking. And it feels like every game gets delayed at least once. Why can’t the people who make games deliver the product they promised, get it right the first time, and do it on time? Jason Schreier’s new book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels explains that there’s no easy answer to any of these questions while expressing one simple fact: games are harder to make than you can possibly imagine.

Drawing from over 100 interviews, the book covers the development story of 10 different games ranging from big to small, shooter to strategy. Each tale focuses on the inner workings of a particular team or studio, usually covering the process of creating a game from start to finish. No matter what kind of games you’re interested in, there’s probably a story here that you will find fascinating. From the epic blockbuster action of Uncharted 4 to the somber and relaxing farming simulator Stardew Valley, Schreier provides just the right perspective on each situation. While the problems of Sony’s prestigious game studio with a staff of hundreds might not seem comparable with a those of a lone neophyte developing out of his apartment, each one carries weight in its own way.

Despite the often vast differences among the games presented and the stories behind them, there is at least one element that connects them all: crunch. This dreaded industry term for protracted long hours and late nights is almost universally considered one of the biggest problems in game development. But even when handling this reviled aspect of the job, Schreier doesn’t use the book as an indictment or an opportunity to hop on a soapbox. Instead, he steps aside and lets the people and circumstances speak for themselves, allowing each tale to unfold naturally.

Schreier’s effort to highlight the human element of games is what makes the book really shine. Not a breath is wasted on frustum culling or ray tracing while there are tales to be told of a writer’s desperate last-ditch attempt to explain the convoluted story he’s been working on or a programmer’s feeling of being backstabbed by craven corporate accounting practices. Despite the drama inherent to these harrowing situations, the writing never comes off as exaggerated or salacious. The book conveys grounded people with feelings and motivations, not caricatures. Every detail, every quote exists to serve the larger and more important narrative, and you won’t find any tabloid gossip in these pages.

Flying in the face of the laughable level of secrecy in the games industry, Schreier, with thorough and honest reporting, delivers some heretofore unknown details behind the development of games like Destiny and the ill-fated Star Wars 1313. Though some of the details here are gleaned from previous work published on Kotaku and elsewhere, the book is far from a retread of old information. There’s more than enough new material here on any single game alone, and all ten essays together contain a wealth of information sure to satisfy any industry onlookers.

Perhaps the most interesting detail present here that’s often left out of mainstream game reporting is the tenuous relationship between developers and publishers. Almost every story presented offers some element of this, and in each case, it shines through as revelatory. By my reading, most of the questions asked by gamers about what went wrong with any particular game can be answered somewhere in this miasma of expectations and realities. At the end of each story I was left wanting more of those details, and could easily read an entire book on just that element of making games.

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels is an easy recommendation for any fan of games who craves more insight into how their favorite sandboxes are crafted. Written clearly and confidently by Jason Schreier, the book is something that can be comprehended and appreciated even by casual observers or complete outsiders. And the stories presented in this volume will mean something special to anyone who’s poured their heart and soul into a creative work. Best of all? No day one patches or game-breaking bugs to worry about here.