‘Blood, Sweat, and Pixels’ Brilliantly Lifts the Veil on the Difficulties of Making Video Games

The process for creating a work of art (or a piece of entertainment, if you prefer) differs for each person or group. But the undeniable truth is that reaching the end product is almost never not riddled by minor speed bumps and unforeseen potholes. Simply put, creating a piece of art, especially one that seeks the ever so precious commodity of mass consumption, is a complex, daunting task. It involves a painstaking number of hours, sacrifice, and unwavering dedication. Perhaps no where the stakes are as high as they are in the often secretive video game industry.

The creation of a video game, both blockbuster and smaller indie alike, takes the melding of many artistic pursuits — writing, animation, design, music, voice acting, sound effects — and converges them with the structure and demands of engineering and programming. The end result, no matter the process, must lead to one coherent product. And, quite often, the product must be finished in a constricted, seemingly impossible, timeframe in order to recoup massive production costs inherent with modern game making. The masses who play games — video games are the most popular entertainment form in the world — usually only see the game in its final or near final form. How do these games come together, though?

Well, that’s what the soon-to-be-released book from Jason Schreier tackles. Blood, Sweat, and Pixels tells the backstories of how 10 video game projects succeeded and/or floundered. Schreier is one of the most revered games journalists working today. He currently serves as the news editor for the popular game blog Kotaku. He regularly gets scoops before anyone else in the business. If there was anyone in games journalism fit to write this book, it would be Schreier.

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels is an eclectic look at 10 very different games — Pillars of Eternity, Uncharted 4, Stardew Valley, Diablo III, Halo Wars, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Shovel Knight, Destiny, The Witcher 3, and the ill-fated Star Wars 1313. These stories take place all over the world, but they have a common thread — video games are hard to make. Really hard to make, in fact. Sadly, the theme that prevails in this brilliant collection of reporting is that all too often, the people who make games practice an unhealthy habit of working themselves into the ground in the months, and sometimes years, leading up to the launch of a shiny new game.

In the video game industry, this practice is commonly referred to as “crunch.” What’s most illuminating about Blood, Sweat, and Pixels is that this dubious practice is pervasive across the industry. Employees putting in 100 hour work weeks, sleeping at the office to knock out commute times, and sacrificing time with their families and friends in order to push out a video game on schedule.

Quite often, as told in each chapter, video games morph drastically from conception to launch, go through supremely different iterations, and as a result, significant chunks of work from crunching often don’t even appear in the final product. Writers know that what makes it into the final draft of a novel is typically wholly different than that messy first draft forever tucked in the bottom desk drawer. Yet, with video games, the practice of scrapping huge helpings of work means flushing large sums of money down the toilet. Sure, you could say that all of the failures that it took to get to the finished game is merely par for the course; still, in a medium that requires so many moving pieces — pieces that are frequently moving in opposite directions — setbacks can feel crushing.

Almost every game featured in this book became both a critical and commercial success. That’s what makes the stories about their development so interesting. We learn how Bungie emerged from the shadow of Halo while iterating on what would become Destiny, and how Blizzard turned Diablo III from a middling disappointment to a true star. We witness the turmoil inside Naughty Dog as they created one of the most visually impressive games to date, Uncharted 4. We discover the years long dedication one man took to create Stardew Valley, and the startling beginnings of Yacht Club Games and its founders who gambled it all on creating the next Super Mario in Shovel Knight.

Schreier sets each scene with admirable prowess, giving the reader just enough information to feel the weight of each story. For anyone who has ever wondered how some of the most successful games are made, this book is a real eye-opener.

Even though the book is targeted at gamers, any creative person who knows what it feels like to struggle and persevere for his or her art will find something to latch onto here. While the book exposes what many who cover games have already known to some extent — that a sizable portion of the industry feels compelled to work too hard — there’s more here than just that.

At its heart, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels is an ode to the people who put every fiber of their being into making memorable experiences for gamers all over the world. As someone who writes about games for the majority of his living, I can tell you that the foundation of the industry, as it stands today, isn’t built to change its practices any time soon. Consumer interest, expectations, and the perfectionism of many of those who get into game design suggests that crunch is here to stay.

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels will make you appreciate the art of making video games more, and will fill you with awe for the people who make them. Every chapter is as fascinating as the last, and you’ll be sad when it’s over.

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Steven Petite

About Steven Petite

Steven Petite received his Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from Cleveland State University and is currently pursuing a Masters in Publishing Studies at Southeastern Louisiana University. His journalism has appeared in Playboy, Huffington Post, Crixeo, Ranker, New York Game Critics Circle, and others. His fiction has appeared in Cigale Literary Magazine. He can be reached at stevenpetite@gmail.com.