“Blood, Sweat and Pixels”, or its much longer full title “Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made”, is a book that covers the development of 10 different video games; each chapter featuring a different game. The overall content of the book is lifting the veil behind game development at different scales (solo-dev, small team and high end AAA) to show how grueling game development is. Jason Schreier has stated that he wanted to answer the age old question: Why is it so damn hard to make video games?
Each chapter of “Blood, Sweat and Pixels” covers a different game’s development. Like mentioned above, there are 10 in total:
- Stardew Valley by Eric Barone
- Diablo III by Blizzard Entertainment
- Destiny by Bungie
- The Witcher 3 by CD Projekt Red
- Halo Wars by Ensemble Studios
- Pillars of Eternity by Obsidian Entertainment
- Dragon Age: Inquisition by Bioware
- Shovel Knight by Yacht Club Games
- Uncharted 4 by Naughty Dog
- Star Wars 1313 by Lucasarts
Since each chapter is a self-contained story of a game’s development, there isn’t an overarching story or narrative to tie one chapter to another. Reading the list of games above, it ranges from solo projects over the course of 5 years (Stardew Valley) to a game that put an entire country on the gamedev map (The Witcher 3). There are games that never saw the light of day (Star Wars 1313) and games that remain black marks on their respective franchises (Dragon Age: Inquisition).
The stories are told by the developers at each studio. Some studios have multiple voices while others may have only one or two. The voices are generally the most senior developers on the projects; for example the Uncharted 4 chapter is told by Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann.
That being said, some chapters come off as completely authentic while others come off as borderline marketing martial for the studio or lead developers. I am not accusing Jason Schreier or the developers of those chapters of romanticizing the truth, but as a critical reader and experienced developer, that is the impression I got after reading certain chapters and will be the focal point of Why You Should/Shouldn’t Read It.
Why You Should Read It
The best chapters in “Blood, Sweat and Pixels” are the ones about smaller teams because they come off as both personal and authentic. These chapters really feel like a glimpse into their respective game’s development, both the positives and negatives, as well as the emotional roller coaster that is game development.
Eric Barone’s Stardew Valley chapter is my favorite chapter in the entire book. It covers apathy, depression, impostor syndrome, feature creep and everything else that comes with developing an homage to a childhood favorite over nearly 5 years as an isolated solo developer. I really appreciated the book diving into how this impacted his relationship with his significant other and their parents. Imagine your spouse working for 5 years to support you while you toil away at your dream game that could ultimately be a financial failure; the strength of their relationship is something special. The final piece was the, somewhat, unexpected success that followed after Stardew Valley’s release. How does someone go from unemployed lone-wolf developer to multi-millionaire seemingly overnight? Very interesting insight into the mind of solo development and the sacrifices that come from that lifestyle.
Yacht Club Games’s chapter on Shovel Knight was also a very interesting read. How the team was formed, breaking off from WayForward, and another story of a future indie success struggling to find direction for their homage to childhood favorites. Also, although Shovel Knight was a runaway success, it became handcuffs for YCG in the form of Kickstarter promises that were made, forcing the developer to create unpaid DLC for years after Shovel Knight’s release.
Other standouts are the ill-fated Star Wars 1313, a game that everyone was looking forward to after an impressive E3 trailer but then was, to the public’s view, abruptly canceled. The much criticized Dragon Age: Inquisition and what led Bioware to “let down” Dragon Age fans with a smaller scale game. This chapter was a great view into how technology and launch windows, possibly forced upon studios by a powerful publisher, can dictate scope and quality. The culture at Ensemble Studios and how splitting studio efforts and developing a game for another studio’s IP can break even the strongest culture. Obsidian Entertainment’s chapter on developing a Kickstarter success story on a tiny budget and almost bankrupting the studio in the process. The hubris of Bungie in gaining its independence and the lessons learned from Destiny’s complete overhaul mid-development.
There are real insights in these chapters on managing projects and what roadblocks keep even the most well intentioned studio from succeeding either creatively or financially. If you work on a solo project, small project, Kickstarter backed project or at a studio underneath a mega-publisher, these chapters really provide insights into what challenges you could face, what to expect from success and what will result from failure. As someone who has worked at small, medium and large studios, I feel like these chapters were written with limited filters and read as very authentic.
Why You Shouldn’t Read It
The worst chapters in “Blood, Sweat and Pixels” are ones that don’t come off as genuine, come off as opaque or come off as marketing martial for the leads involved. I am not accusing the author or developers featured in those chapters of any of these, but this is my honest take away.
CD Projekt Red’s chapter on The Witcher 3 is not bad, but I felt it was lacking true insight in how a small, mildly successful studio in Poland that was spun off of a game imports business could become a world wide Juggernaut in games. Going from 2011’s The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, whose fans in North America were limited to the hardcore western RPG audience, to the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt which won an insane amount of awards, put CD Projekt Red and Poland on the mainstream gamer map, and sold tens of millions of copies, I feel like there is so much more insight into that transformation that CD Projekt Red could have provided.
The Blizzard Entertainment chapter comes off as unauthentic. Diablo 3 had very deliberate designs in both the paid marketplace and how higher end item stats and drops worked. I wasn’t satisfied in their explanation on how those designs came to be and why Diablo 3 doesn’t stand next to its predecessors in terms of impact on the game industry.
The Naughty Dog chapter reads like marketing material for the two lead directors on Uncharted 4. It quickly brushes over the (allegedly) forced removal of Amy Hennig, the Director and Writer of Uncharter 1, 2 and 3, by Naught Dog leadership, including Neil Druckmann who then went on to install himself as the director of Uncharted 4. Then the chapter acts like our two reluctant directors are heroes that must save Naughty Dog and only they are talented enough to do it. It reads like, “Oh no, Amy’s gone and now Uncharted 4 has no one that can direct it. We just shipped The Last of Us and want a break from development but now we must step up to save Naughty Dog because no one else is capable but us”. The narrative arc feels too much like some hero’s journey where as other chapters read as transparent accounting of mistakes, struggles and sacrefices.
Again, these are the impressions I got from these chapters comparing them to other chapters featured in the book.
I would say the target audiences of “Blood, Sweat and Pixels” are people thinking about entering game development or younger developers who have just entered the industry. This is absolutely not to say even the most grizzled game industry vet or someone that has no interest in developing games at all can’t find true value in the book.
Additionally, I would say the book works best if you have some understanding of the differences between studios featured in the chapters. The nuances about the corporate pressures that were on Ensemble Studios or Bioware, are wildly different than the live or die situation Yacht Club Games or Obsidian Entertainment faced.
If you are looking to find hard skills like development tricks, game design process or studio operation breakdowns, you will be disappointed. This book is about the narrative of each game’s development and their ultimate success or failure. If you are looking for an answer to Jason Schreier’s north star question, Why is it so damn hard to make video games?, this book does an amazing job breaking down the answer on multiple levels.