As has been true for roughly the last decade, it’s almost impossible to make a major video game and hit the first announced release date. Time and time again, announced and anticipated games get pushed back months or years, or the development team just goes dark entirely. For fans eagerly awaiting release, this silence can be maddening and feel arbitrary.
Making a video game often involves a grueling process known in the industry as “crunch,” where designers and coders and producers spend all of their waking hours trying to get the game into a finished state, forgoing social lives, sleep, and emotional and physical well-being to do so. Video games, more than any other form of entertainment, are about marrying technical and creative ingenuity, and it can often be difficult to know where one ends and the other begins.
In Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, Kotaku reporter Jason Schreier tells the fascinating stories of ten of these games and their erratic development cycles, from crowdfunded successes like Shovel Knight to triple-A titles like the fourth Uncharted, to canceled what-ifs like Star Wars 1313. Schreier, who is one of the only industry reporters chronicling what actually happens inside development studies, sat down with Select All to talk about his book and why making a video game always becomes a Sisyphean task.
What do you want people to take away from the book?
The big takeaway is that making video games is really fucking hard! Which is something that I’d heard from everyone — everyone says it — but I don’t think I’d fully appreciated it or fully understood the depths of it until I started digging into this book. Just talking to people and hearing all of the common themes. One of the issues that I had while writing this book was to make sure that every chapter didn’t sound the same, because every game is like, “Oh, yeah, and then we had to delay it.” I thought maybe some of the games would be delayed, but it turns out that out of the ten games I picked for the book, all ten of them were delayed at various points. Seeing those challenges and seeing the patterns start to form made me really appreciate the ridiculousness that goes into game development. I’ve definitely had some people who read early copies of the book come up to me and be like, “You know, I am never going to work in game development after reading this book,” which is sad, but that’s the reality of it. It’s the type of thing that I hope more people will grasp after reading it, and they’ll be less inclined to jump on the Reddit thread and call game developers lazy.
One thing that’s interesting about it is that these companies aren’t really that open about what’s going on. So it’s tough from the outside, if developers aren’t going to tell anyone, it’s weird to expect people to be forgiving.
Yeah, it’s sad. That’s one of the things I’ve been railing against game companies for years about. That culture of secrecy that surrounds the video-game industry, which is just — nobody benefits from that. Developers can’t talk about their work. Even in this, I got a lot of access to people, and people were super candid, and I’m really appreciative to them for that. But for games like Star Wars 1313, a couple of them spoke on the record, but most of the people I spoke to for that chapter were speaking anonymously. A lot of these game stories just get lost in time because of NDAs. There are so many canceled games that people don’t know about, and so many stories people can’t tell because they’re restricted by this ridiculous culture of secrecy.
Where does that culture come from, and why do you think it persists?
I might be making this up, but I remember hearing that it came from the ’80s or ’90s mentality back in the early days of the video-game industry of companies being worried about secret-stealing. Companies had this dog-eat-dog, cutthroat mentality about it. There was a lot of cloning and malicious business practices. It might be a vestige of that; it might be that that sort of thing is still going.
Part of it is just inertia. “This is how it’s always been, so this is what we’re gonna keep doing, and we’re just not gonna talk.” It’s why it’s so refreshing to see indie developers who are open about that sort of thing. You see that a lot with the Shovel Knight guys, who were very open about their process not just for the book, but they’ve also had a blog, and they were doing tons of Kickstarter updates. There have been other developers that are super open.
I’m sure there are other reasons for the culture of secrecy, but it’s really stupid. Why would it matter to anybody if a game developer talks about a project that they worked on ten years ago that was canceled? It really bums me out to think about how many of those games have been lost to time.
For AAA stuff, it takes so long to spin those wheels that the idea that someone would clone it seems a little misplaced.
That is one reason I could see the logic behind being secretive. You don’t want to talk about a game when it could change drastically in a year. I understand the logic there, because gamers get really mad, as we saw with No Man’s Sky. On the flip side, if more companies just talked about things and gamers became more aware that things change all the time, there would be that level of knowledge and acceptance, and people would be less inclined to freak out when those changes happen. I’ve always been in favor of drastic transparency, radical transparency.
A couple chapters in the book recount developers running crowdfunding campaigns. How has Kickstarter changed game development?
More transparency, although that can be a bad thing when they’re failed projects and games that just disappear and go nowhere. The independence helps a lot. The two Kickstarter games in this book, Pillars of Eternity and Shovel Knight, probably would not have happened without Kickstarter. As far as giving game companies and developers a certain level of freedom to do stuff without someone hanging over their heads dictating, I think that is really cool and really beneficial. There are definitely horror stories, but I think ultimately it’s been more beneficial to video games than detrimental.
It seems more and more people are learning that you can’t just throw up any idea and expect to meet your fundraising goal.
People are more skeptical these days; I’m definitely more skeptical; we as an outlet [Kotaku] are more skeptical. We’ve been burned a lot by covering Kickstarters, and it makes us feel terrible when we cover one and three years pass, and it’s disappeared or canceled or they ran away with the money.
Or it’s just a bad game.
Or it’s Mighty No. 9! I remember when it was announced, I think I wrote a headline like, “The producer of Mega Man is making the fan’s dream Mega Man game,” which now, in retrospect, is an embarrassment. I mean, who could’ve known it would’ve turned out like this, but I think Kickstarter allows people — myself included — to buy into hype in a way that can be dangerous. When it works, it works.
Given that development is sort of a horror show, did anyone talk to you about workers’ rights or organizing or trying to shape up a lot of the rough edges of this process?
That’s definitely something worth talking about. It wasn’t what I was going for. I want to say “judgement-free,” but not exactly. More of like a “fly on the wall” look at how these games are made without being like, “These guys should unionize!” I wrote an editorial for the New York Times about crunch and it’s tied to the book release, about how crunch is just not worth it and it’s brutal. But I wanted to keep that separate from the book.
What is interesting to me is the nuance of it. I thought Neil Druckmann’s perspective was interesting. In the Uncharted 4 chapter, he talks about how, I’m paraphrasing, “If you don’t want to crunch, don’t try to make the Game of the Year.” I found that illustrative of Naughty Dog’s approach, but didn’t want to then add a second paragraph like, “Well, you know he shouldn’t have said this because …” I wanted to give him the space to show how they do things without injecting opinion or judgement.
It’s not as simple as “nobody should crunch.” It’s more complicated than that. I think the topic of workers’ rights in the game industry would be another book on its own, honestly.
It’s interesting because when people describe the crunch process — and maybe I’m imprinting on it a bit — it feels like Stockholm syndrome.
That’s the thing. Game developers, for the most part, don’t crunch because someone’s telling them to, they feel obligated to. “I could go home right now, but David over here is staying late to finish his bug, so I’m gonna stay and polish these designs.” It’s this culture of crunch that I think is very difficult to pull out of. If you’re the guy leaving at 7 or the girl leaving at 7, and your co-workers are all staying until 9 or 10, then you feel like an asshole and everyone glares at you. Part of it is like, “I know that if I don’t stay late tonight, this feature that I love is not going to be in the game.” It’s these little things that keep adding up. Even if the game industry organized, it seems impractical that people wouldn’t want to stay late and clock in those hours.
Have you shown the book to a lot of people in game development?
I’ve gotten a lot of reactions like, “Oh my god, this triggered my PTSD,” and “Oh my god, this is what it’s like.” It’s good to feel like it’s an accurate depiction.
Do you think it’ll make people more open to talking about this type of stuff?
I hope so. I think it’s beneficial for everyone. The selfish part of my brain wants people to stay secret so that I can be one of the only people getting developers to open up, but I think it’ll be more beneficial to everyone if more developers were talking. The ideal scenario would be that someone reads this and contacts me with their story.
I hope people come away from it learning something and feeling a new appreciation for how these things are made. I don’t think people should ever accept some of the bullshit that goes on in the industry just because it’s hard to make games. I think there’s a lot of stuff that should be called out. But I also hope reading it helps people appreciate the hard work that goes into even the bad games, even the games that are canceled. Hopefully, it makes people a little more sensile when giving their criticism, and less prone to just angry YouTube rants or nasty Reddit comments. If people are more civil about games, that’d make me super happy.