Review: Blood, Sweat and Pixels

Computer Science 101 is a pretty popular class nowadays. Most of the initial rush of interest is likely due to hype and the elevation of tech in popular culture, but many who wade into the field thinking it’s a shortcut to a glamourous career find themselves overwhelmed with the actual coursework. I remember in the early 2000s, 700 people enrolled in the introductory freshmen CS classes at Cal, and by graduation the seniors numbered in the high double digits (i.e., less than 100) every year.

My motivations for studying computer science started stereotypically: being a teenage guy who grew up with video games, I wanted to make a career out of making them. By the time I became ready to enter the workforce, however, I had learned just how merciless the gaming industry treated its employees1, corroborated by stories like the infamous EA Spouse confessional.

13 years later, Blood, Sweat & Pixels further chronicles all the game development madness.

Blood, Sweat & Pixels tells its stories of developing a handful of AAA blockbuster—plus two indie—video games in the past decade. The title alludes to their commerical success, but each game’s journey to its finished product took ungodly amounts of time and effort. There seem to be a common set of issues that come up during the development cycle: massive pressure to deliver; last-minute changes to the scope and designs; overhauling major systems on short notices. It then lays out the unsatisfying, unsavory solutions: extended crunch times; launch delays; post-launch patches which deprive devs of their deserved rest.

It’s tempting to blame this solely on poor project management, and there’s some evidence to suggest that since game companies aren’t exactly model employers, they’re perfectly content with continuing a broken development process as long as the end-product delivers profits. The business model—perhaps overly reliant on big hits—incentivizes epic pushes towards critical product launches, but in contrast to more mature industries, there are no unions in place to fight against unsustainable hours and below-average pay. Plenty of young gamers want to turn their hobby into careers, and the industry has learned to exploit their time and talents to drive profit. 

If there’s one positive note in the book, it’s that even as many of its interview subjects burn out, the unbearable amount of work that drove these people to quit their jobs did not completely sour them on gaming altogether. Games are very hard to make, and it says something about the power of the medium, that those who want nothing to do with their creation are still enamored with its output2. Blood, Sweat & Pixels is a series of stories about the sacrifices developers make, a reminder of all the hard work that goes into our unique medium.

  1. One of my other options was to get into computer graphics at nearby Pixar, but I found out that they didn’t do much better either.

  2. Contrast that with Facebook games; I was genuinely curious about some of the early forays into social gaming, but recycled gameplay mechanics with uninspired game designs on burned me out pretty quickly.

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