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Thursday, December 06, 2018

Review: Blood, Sweat and Pixels - The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made

Blood, Sweat and Pixels is Jason Schrieier's behind the scenes looks at various games that have made it in the news over the last 5 years. To some extent it suffers a large amount from survivor-ship bias: it studied 9 success stories and only 1 failure.

The theme across the book is the phenomenon of "crunch." That is, of working an insane amount of overtime to try to launch a game. Schreier implies that there's no way out of not working in crunch, but of course he's a journalist and taking a self-aggrandizing product manager's word for it in every case, some take what he says there with a grain of salt.

Many of the games are household names. For instance, Uncharted 4 and The Witcher 3 are both featured in the book. In Uncharted 4's case, it was clear that the directors suffered from burnout, having shifted from just finishing up The Last of Us right into production hell  on Uncharted 4, having ousted the previous director of the  project.

In particular, the Witcher 3's managers themselves undermined Schreier's thesis, admitting that they overdid the quests in the game and probably could have cut about 20% of the quests without hurting the game. (Indeed, I over-leveled on that game!)

The author does cover 2 indie games: Stardew Valley and Shovel Knight, neither of which I've played. In both cases, the developers were working for themselves rather than for an employer. Schreier pointed out that Stardew Valley's developer was a fresh graduate and didn't really know how to manage his time, basically moving on whenever he was bored, rather than when he was actually finished with the feature, so he was always 6 months away from finishing. But of course, he kept adding feature after feature to the game as well, only launching the game when he was sick of working on it.

Shovel Knight was a kickstarter project that was successful, but also suffered from the "stretch goals" launched during the kickstarter part being far more ambitious and costly than anticipated. I thought the coverage was good.

All in all, the entire book's worth reading (including the backstory about the LucasArts game that got canceled after Lucas sold everything lock stock and barrel to Disney, who had a poor history with video games and would rather outsource everything than maintain an in-house studio). All in all, it's quite entertaining, but the entire book reads like a series of short Kotaku articles rather than a coherent book. Nevertheless, it's worth your time and very easy to read. Recommended.

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