If games are art if we truly believe that video games as a medium require the same type of creativity and originality that we would see during the Renaissance Era, then why do we try to run them like a traditional business? It was a question I continued to ask myself while reading Blood, Sweat, and Pixels. The author, Jason Schreier, takes us behind the curtain of video game development and it’s not pretty. In fact, nothing about making video games sounds fun, it honestly sounds more like a personal hell. Each chapter introduces us to a new game with some of the same issues – scope creep, schedule delays and a lack of what seems like any type of proper management at all. Crunching(think of it as extreme overtime) is the order of the day and when Jason pushed the developers to discuss these work conditions the response was ‘that’s just the way it is.’
Misconceptions of The Game Industry
I used to think that a company that asked its employees to work 80+ hour weeks was just a shitty company. They didn’t have the proper structure in place to actually create a video game with human work hours. Instead, I’ve come to realize that no one knows how to make a video game without killing the project team. There’s no amount of agile development, lean six management or whatever Harvard MBA theory that you can come up with to help a game studio create their game within reason. Part of the issue is that it’s hard to know if your idea is any good until you create it. You won’t know if your cover mechanic is trash until you actually play through it. And when you do find something that’s fun there is usually a chance that you’re going to want to add on to that experience. The development of the game begins to resemble an artist creating their next piece. This is usually the point where developers find joy in their work when they create that mechanic or environment that takes our breath away. The problem is the hell they endure to get to that moment.
It wasn’t unusual to read about the developers in the book suffering from depression, missing quality time with their families and even suffering from physical health issues. The desire to create is often at odds with the business of video games. If time is money, game developers are always broke. From the minute they decide to create a game their time balance is usually in the red. They must meet deadlines in order to get funding and pushing a game back, for whatever reason is usually frowned upon. It’s like every publisher and investor wants the next Mario, but no one is willing to wait or pay for it. And with that time deficit, the developers seem to always be in a state of panic. It’s like the meme with the dog drinking coffee in the burning building. Everything is fine until it isn’t. That time deficit, plus a game scope too ambitious for the deficit coupled with a lack of resources always means that something is going to have to give, and that’s the staff’s personal life.
Each of the games discussed in Blood, Sweat, and Pixels ends with the game becoming a success on some level. And usually, everyone is excited about the game that eventually left the studio. But, I often wondered how long that type of workload is sustainable. How many games can you crunch before you burn out? How many games will the industry be able to continue pushing out at this rate before the entire workforce just throws their hands in the air and quits? What Jason Scheirer was posing in his book was how long can the industry sustain its current operation before it folds? And is there a better way? With each way, I wondered the same question. Sad thing is, I never really came up with an answer.