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Thursday, September 30, 2021

Review: Press Reset

 The subtitle of Press Reset is "Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry." I picked it up expecting light reading in the face of a Sylvia Plath biography, but unfortunately, the "Ruin" part of the book dominates the "Recovery" piece. The book essentially covers the shutdown of several well-known industry game studios, and the human cost of it. I've worked in game-industry adjacent companies in the past, to the extent that I've been loaned out to various game industry companies to help build games. My experiences talking to game industry cohorts closely reflects what you'll read about in this book: the game industry is rife with worker exploitation, uncertain outcomes, poor pay, and no share of success even if your game succeeds.

Now, there are several recent business model changes that have affected the game industry. The book outlines several of them, and is a good reminder of how fluid the industry is:

  • MMORPGs promised a lucrative subscription model. The problem is that there's only room for a couple of big MMORPGs, and it's difficult to break into it. (The book has a harrowing tale of 38 Studios shutting down suddenly, denying their workers their paychecks)
  • Indie games that are self-published provide a continuous stream of evergreen income rather than a single big hit that dissipates. That model, however, leaves all the risk to the authors, and is unable to sustain a big budget, high-fidelity game (it's the only "Recovery" story in the book, describing the team behind Enter the Gungeon)
  • Free-to-play (especially prevalent in mobile) theoretically provides a wide audience, but distorts game designs and especially is a poor mix with nostalgia reboots. The book describes Dungeon Keeper and  how it came to be so detested.
At the end of the book the author tries to propose ways to salvage the industry and prevent it from burning out so many employees. I view that as a lost cause: the entertainment industry in general has a line out the door of young people looking to make their mark and get famous, even if it doesn't make them rich. Without unionization (very  unlikely in the current environment), I doubt if any of the approaches described will be successful. That makes this book a useful cautionary tale for parents whose kids want to get into the game industry. Recommended.

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