Blood, Sweat, and Pixels is a book that every gamer should read
I think it would be fair to assume that most adult gamers (and maybe even a few younger fans of gaming) know the basic process of how a game, be it a small-time indie darling or a major AAA release, is made.
Terms and concepts like preproduction, storyboarding, motion capture, and even the dreaded “crunch” (the process of working long extra hours, oftentimes unpaid hours, to finish a game before its launch deadline) are likely terms you’ve heard before if you’ve explored the subject of game development to any degree.
If you also happen to be a frequent visitor of the gaming website Kotaku, you likely know that the site’s resident news editor, Jason Schreier, has quite a nose for investigative journalism, which makes the subject of his recently released book, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, somewhat unsurprising.
Within the book’s pages, Schreier takes the reader on a journey, a journey that shows how some of the most iconic (and, in some cases, infamous) games of this past generation were made. It’s a fascinating look into just how nuanced game development can be, and one which I highly recommend to all gamers out there, or to anyone who enjoys a good story.
Life Is Art
In total, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels covers the development of 10 different games, and the spread of games that Schreier manages to touch on is surprisingly broad. From indie endeavors that went on to become household names (Stardew Valley, Shovel Knight) to some of the biggest games on the modern market (Destiny, Dragon Age: Inquisition), Schreier takes readers behind the curtain and into the inner workings of the studios that made these games.
He reveals interesting little details and quirks that more casual fans might not know, such as how Stardew Valley was actually made by a single passionate fan who grew up with the Harvest Moon series, or how Shovel Knight developer Yacht Club games’ focus on tight-knit community requires all new potential hires to be interviewed by the entire studio at once (an undoubtedly intimidating process).
Schreier also naturally goes into excruciating detail about the various trials and tribulations each studio faced in the run-up to their game’s launch. Uncharted 4 fans probably know about the internal disagreements that led Amy Hennig to leave developer Naughty Dog, forcing development leads Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley to sort of co-lead the rest of the game’s development. But Schreier’s book shows just how tumultuous a time that was for Naughty Dog, which is ironic because, at the time, Straley and Druckmann wanted nothing more than to step away from the Uncharted franchise.
Blood, Sweat, and Pixels even manages to set up a few clear (albeit likely unintentional) hero and villain dynamics between certain studios. Fans of the sci-fi RTS Halo Wars may not know that now defunct development studio Ensemble originally wanted to create an entirely original sci-fi universe, but publisher Microsoft made it clear it wanted a Halo RTS, and at the time Halo was still under the purview of Bungie.
Of course, Microsoft just happened to forget to inform Bungie it was licensing the Halo franchise out to Ensemble, which made the lives of Ensemble’s team even more difficult since it had basically been forced to use an existing property, one which its current owner wasn’t too keen on sharing (it’s hard not to feel anger towards both Microsoft and Bungie when you read the Halo Wars chapter and see how much they both made things harder for Ensemble).
Funnily enough, those same hero/villain dynamics are also flipped around expertly later on in Schreier’s book when he writes about the creative spats between Bungie and Activision during the development of Destiny, spats which forced Bungie to reboot the entirety of the game’s story mid-development and which also explain why actor Peter Dinklage’s infamously uneven portrayal of the game’s friendly robot Ghost wound up the way it did (turns out Dinklage originally had much fewer lines of dialogue, but an 11th hour change to the script roughly quadrupled the amount of work he was expected to do).
While most of the game development stories Schreier chronicles have at least somewhat happy endings, he chooses to devote the final chapter of Blood, Sweat, and Pixels to the story of a game which was technically never released: Star Wars 1313. Again, both gamers and die-hard Star Wars fans (of which I am both) likely recognize the game’s title and know about how it was unceremoniously cancelled shortly after Disney purchased LucasArts (and the Star Wars brand along with it) in 2012.
It’s heartbreaking to read about the specific details behind Star Wars 1313’s cancellation, though, especially because the chapter confirms that the game wasn’t really cancelled because of its quality but more because of a perfect storm of bad circumstances (let’s just say you likely won’t be as big a fan of George Lucas and Disney after reading the chapter).
Journey of a Thousand Steps
The one big takeaway I got from Blood, Sweat, and Pixels is that game development is rarely a smooth process and it’s pretty much never an easy one. Not the most surprising statement, I know, but one which most casual fans likely don’t have a proper appreciation of, especially considering the amount of online hate and vitriol pretty much any game developer receives when its game fails to meet the expectations of the masses (and there’s just no pleasing the entirety of the internet).
I wouldn’t say the Schreier’s book would steer potential game developers away from the profession, but it does illuminate them to the various issues and pitfalls that they can face, no matter whether they’re indie or working for a major publisher.
If anything, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels at least proves that the individual development processes for many different games can make for one heck of a good story, though that’s usually because, as I mentioned before, said processes are often fraught with hardship, pain, and just a dash of drama.
Still, no matter how much you consider yourself to be invested in the gaming world and the journey of game development, I’d absolutely recommend Blood, Sweat and Pixels. At the very least, you’ll be entertained by the book’s well-constructed narratives, and you might even be inspired to play (or replay) some of the games covered in the book.
Sure, in some ways Schreier’s first book is a cautionary tale, but it’s also a testament to what a team of passionate game developers can make when they overcome adversity, be it internal, external, or both. That’s the shining example which I like to think is the heart of Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: if you have the drive to stick to your vision and overcome hardship, you can create virtually anything.