“Blood, sweat and pixels”: what is Jason Schreier’s book about

    imageJason Schreier is known primarily as an editor at Kotaku , one of the most popular sites dedicated to the video game industry and culture, as well as the author of publications in Wired, The New York Times, Edge, Paste and The Onion News Network .

    “Blood, sweat and pixels. The reverse side of the video game industry ”is the name of the Russian-language edition (2018) of his first (and so far the only) book Blood, Sweat, and Triumphant, Turbulent Stories , published in 2017. The
    book consists of ten stories. about developing games that have become or could become commercially successful hits.

    Under the cut - a review retelling of the book Schreier.

    General description of the book

    All the stories included in the book are combined with the difficulties encountered by the development team and their heroic overcoming. In fact, the book is an excellent collection of (anti) crisis management cases. Each of the 10 cases is an independent story with its own unique “catastrophe”, partly told on behalf of the direct participants of the teams that Schreier interviewed in 2015–2017.

    All the projects from the book are well-known among video game lovers: these are The Witcher 3, Destiny, Diablo III, Shovel Knight, Stardew Valley and other real hits.

    Noteworthy is the position of the author himself.. The book has practically no conclusions, no recommendations and instructions. Even the summaries at the end of the chapters are not edifying. It seems that Schreier is less inclined to teach anyone. The only thing the book teaches is that the development of cool games is an arrogant challenge for its creators, no matter how experienced and successful they are considered.. The trouble can come from everywhere: from the field of personal life, from technical problems, from an investor or publisher, from uncoordinated work of employees or difficulties in mastering software, etc., etc. Whether you can win in this game depends, in general, only on you, on your willingness to be creative, to be a stubborn or flexible leader, on your ability to sacrifice everything you have for the success of the product. Schreier is not ready to give any other advice to the reader. But his book is truly an inspiring and interesting reading for any developer.

    Why is the game so hard to do?

    In the preface, Schreier discusses why the story of the creation of video games is the story of “blood and sweat,” and highlights several reasons.

    • games are interactive, unlike, for example, cartoons, and this greatly complicates their creation
    • technologies, including graphics processing, are constantly changing - and this technology change takes place directly during the development cycle. Therefore, “the creation of a game resembles the construction of a building during an earthquake. Or trying to control the train while someone is running right in front of you laying the rails. ”
    • Game development involves the use of a wide variety of tools, from standard (Photoshop or Maya) to unique ones.
    • Difficult to plan the development of the game and predict the future demand for it.

    But despite all the difficulties, the creators of games feel real delight from their work at the intersection of art and technology and cannot imagine that they can do something else.

    1. "Pillars of Eternity"

    As I have already noted, each case has its own “main problem” and its own methods of dealing with it. The first story in the book is about one of the key problems of game projects: the search for funding .

    The hero of this story is the studio Obsidian and its leader Fergus Urquhart. When in March 2012, Microsoft closed their Stormlands project (a failed exclusive RPG for the Xbox One), the studio, which was already not spoiled with money, was threatened with closure.

    Half of the employees (26 people) had to be fired. From the developments of Stormlands a new project was made, which Urquhart tried to sell to almost all major publishers. But, alas, all attempts failed.

    The solution was proposed by two veterans of the studio Sawyer and Brenneke: inspired by the success of other projects, they decided to launch a fundraiser on Kickstarter. At first, Urquhart did not believe in this option, but there simply was no other.

    As a project, they decided to make the “good old” isometric RPG. It took several months to conceptualize and create presentations for the site. An additional guarantee of the studio’s survival was a contract to create an “Armored Warfare” game for Russian Mail.Ru.
    Finally, in September 2012, a fundraising campaign began. A day later, the $ 1.1 million needed to start the project had already been raised, and the entire game project attracted almost $ 4 million to Kickstarter.

    In just six months, thanks to Armored Warfare and Project Eternity, the fall in Obsidian gave way to take-off. The company was no longer on the verge of collapse. And its employees finally felt free to do what they wanted, and not what the publisher wanted from them.

    Now the main thing was to optimally distribute the collected funds and own resources, which, not without difficulties, but it turned out.

    The biggest problem was the plot of “Project Eternity”, which was written much more slowly than the team expected. To solve this issue, a novelist who had no experience in the creation of video games was brought in to help the staff writer of the studio.

    In December 2013, a teaser-trailer for the game came out, which received a positive reaction from the public, but the development was very hard, and already at the closed presentation of the game as part of E3 2014, the project team received a lot of critical feedback from sponsors from Kickstarter. As a result, the whole 2014 year the studio worked in the middle of now, making the maximum possible.

    Finally, in March 2015, “Pillars of Eternity” came out. In addition to the copies for Kickstarter, 700,000 copies were sold in the first year.
    “The great thing about this project was that everyone was passionate about it,” admitted Justin Bell (Obsidian). “It all happened because of the Stormlands story.” After that terrible situation, Obsidian was revived literally from the ashes. And everyone was ready to jump out of their skin, just to do something special, even if only by their own will. ”
    For just under $ 6 million, Obsidian made one of the best RPGs of 2015 - a game that could win several awards and protect the independent future of Obsidian. The company has escaped disaster.

    2. "Uncharted 4"

    If the center of the first story was the question of crowdfunding, then the main topic of the chapter on “Uncharted 4” is the balance between personal life and developer’s professional activities . Naughty Dog, the studio developer of this game, has a twofold reputation in the gaming industry: on the one hand, it is the “best of the best” studios, on the other - a place of frantic overload for employees.

    The development of Uncharted 4 faced the problem of changing headliners and restarting the concept. The project was led by two “co-director” leaders, Neil Drakmann and Bruce Streley, who, despite all the difficulties, managed to organize effective interaction among themselves and entice employees by creating a culture of make-up within the company. She allowed to mobilize all forces for emergency work and bring the product to release.

    At the end of "Uncharted 4" Nathan and Elena, almost dying in Libertalia, but after some miracle escaped, they realize that they do not need too many adventures. Maybe there is an opportunity to find a balance between work and personal life? According to Elena, she just bought the company in which Nathan works, and wants to go on a trip with him, though without the ultimate risk to life. From now on, they will hunt artifacts in more legal ways. “It won't be easy, you know,” says Nathan. Before answering, Elena looks at him for half a second: "Nothing, it's worth it."

    3. "Stardew Valley"

    The story of the creation of “Stardew Valley” is the story of “one soldier in the field”. Eric Baron created this game alone, without teammates and teams, focusing on the once popular game Harvest Moon. From the initial idea of ​​making a game for a developer's portfolio in order to get a job, the project turned into a business that completely absorbed Baron for several years. Every day he worked on the game for 8-15 hours, existing at the expense of the money that his girlfriend, Ember, earned, and later - at the expense of part-time work by the doorman at the cinema and laboratory assistant.

    Eric's main problem was planning. He was inconsistent in development (after all, there were no managers and publishers over him), he did not define the release dates and constantly postpone the expected release date of the game in order to improve something. Even when the game received approval on Steam Greenlight and it already had a crowd of fans, Eric went back to it and reworked the sprites, redrawing portraits and rewriting the code. Both financial and moral status was very unstable.

    “There were moments when I was depressed and just thought: what am I doing? - Baron told. - I have a degree in computer science, and I work at the lowest paid work in the cinema. People ask me: are you doing anything else? And I answer: yes, I am doing a video game. And, speaking of this, I feel awkward. They probably thought: oh, this guy is a loser! ”
    As a result, in early 2016, Baron announced the release of the game, connecting to the solution of marketing and legal issues of the publisher Chucklefish. The game received a great response and became one of the most popular games on Twitch. At this stage, another difficulty for the Baron was the correction of errors: after all, he did not have a team of testers and he himself caught all the errors, documented and corrected them.

    After the release, Stardew Valley took off to the very top of the bestseller list and sold tens of thousands of copies per day. Erik hoped that the game could be successful, but the final numbers exceeded all his expectations, which at the same time made him happy and frightened. Success brought with it the stress, the thought of making the game even better.

    4. "Diablo III"

    This story is about a major project that seemed doomed after the release, but still managed not only to survive, but also to gain universal acceptance .

    Immediately after the release of “Diablo III”, players faced its fundamental flaws: not only were the game servers constantly overloaded (the famous “error 37”), the complexity of the game also increased too quickly, magic items were rarely dropped, and getting trophies revolved around "Auction", which for most players simply devalued the achievements. Many quite seriously believed that "Diablo III" is doomed .

    Josh Moskeyre was assigned to deal with these issues. Josh took advantage of the fact that the Blizzard management let the installation work on updates and release free patches indefinitely. He forced the developers to reconsider their attitude towards the release as a finished product, which ultimately led to the release of a large-scale addition called “Reaper of Souls” - with new characters, storyline and gameplay elements. In addition, under the influence of Moscaney was closed gaming auction. All this brought back a huge interest of the audience to the game and made Diablo III an almost perfect game.

    Diablo III clearly demonstrated that even one of the most advanced and talented gaming studios in the world, with virtually unlimited resources, can take years to put together a game properly. And even in the third game of the franchise there is still a very large number of parameters that can destroy everything. At the same time, even a game launched with serious flaws, in the presence of sufficient time for making corrections, perseverance and financial investments, can become something great.

    5. “Halo Wars”

    In 2004, Ensemble Studios , the developer of the well-known Age of Empires series, received an order from Microsoft to create a console RTS for the Halo series .
    The headliner for Halo Wars was Graham Devin, who had to combine his own work from previous projects, on the one hand, and the Halo universe created by Bungie , which reluctantly (especially at first) collaborated with newcomers and considered the future RTS “prostitution of the idea” .

    However, Devin managed to rebuild the prototype of his game under the world of Halo, discarding everything he had worked on earlier, and earned the trust and support of Bungie.

    Another big problem was that the studio team broke up into separate factions; at employeesthere was no common understanding in which direction the development should go. The design of the game is constantly changing. Microsoft threw on the project several experienced designers, including Dave Pottinger, who on many issues did not agree with Devin. And Devin wisely decided to cede to Pottinger, who made significant changes to the game.
    “When top designers fight, that's bad,” recalls Graham Devin. - We met, and I said: Dave, you are more important. I really like this story, and I’ll just do the writing of the story. ”
    But the main problem, as it turned out, was ahead: Microsoft decided to close the studio after the release of Halo Wars. And the internal cohesion of the studio was enough to bring the project to an optimal state in the conditions of the upcoming closing.

    Despite the imminent closure of the studio, everyone continued to come to work every day and continued to work in an emergency mode, doing everything possible to make Halo Wars as good as possible.
    “There were great days, and then there was a period of depression,” recalls Chris Rippy. - But we were proud, and we wanted to do everything perfectly. Everyone knew that this was a kind of studio heritage, and they wanted to do something that would show it from the best side. ”

    As a result, on February 26, 2009, Halo Wars was released and received accolades from leading critics. And the staff of the closed Ensemble Studios organized several new studios: Robot Entertainment ("Age of Empires Online"), Bonfire, Boss Fight Entertainment.

    6. “Dragon Age: Inquisition”

    The new ambitious project of BioWare Studio was designed to rehabilitate the low reputation in 2012 of the publisher EA (Electronic Arts). And the main problem faced by the development of the third part of Dragon Age was the work of the Frostbite game engine , which replaced the Eclipse, which was outdated by that time.

    It turned out that Frostbite, with all the advantages, was intended, first of all, for shooters, so creating new content in it was an incredibly difficult thing: even the simplest tasks were solved “incredibly painful.”
    “At some point, screenwriter Patrick Wicks finished the scene with several characters and put it into the game. He then passed it to one of the BioWare executives for standard quality checks. Turning on the game, testers found that only the main character can speak. ”
    As a result, the launch of the game scheduled for 2013 had to be postponed for at least a year. BioWare feared abrupt actions by EA, which had high hopes for the game. However, EA still allowed to delay the release of the game.

    The growth of the staff of the studio (and the deterioration of communication between different teams), an uninteresting, illogical plot and a boring battle system have become other serious problems. The work was clearly more than one year, but BioWare no longer had the opportunity to delay the output, so the whole 2014 year the studio worked in an emergency mode. The last 6 weeks before the start, developers were engaged in the optimization and elimination of bugs (there were about 99,000 of them found).

    On November 18, 2014, BioWare released Dragon Age: Inquisition, despite many problems with Frostbite. Inquisition almost immediately became a bestseller, in just a few weeks, surpassing EA's sales expectations.

    7. “Shovel Knight”

    The story of indie platformer “Shovel Knight” is a story of enthusiasm and self-confidence . Despite the ambitious desire of the three authors of the game to create a “next Mario”, their project went unnoticed for a long time on Kickstarter and could not raise the claimed $ 75,000.
    The main event that helped attract attention was a spectacular demonstration of the demo version of the game at PAX, and later - videos on YouTube. "In a few short days, the Knight turned from an obscure point on the radar into one of the most anticipated games of the year," a reporter from the video game site Destructoid wrote during the show.

    Having collected more than $ 300,000 by the end of April 2013, the developers, however, faced a serious shortage of funds and time.. The main thing that allowed them to complete the work was the support from families and friends, as well as a sense of camaraderie and complete trust.
    “From the very beginning, friends made a non-standard decision - they will not have leaders. In practice, this meant that they spent a lot of time discussing small details. If one team member did not like the way the Knight’s hand moved at the time of the strike from the bottom up, everyone should have discussed it. “
    As a result, the public enthusiastically accepted the game, and by 2016 the studio sold over a million copies of the game. The Lopatin Knight didn’t gain the same wild popularity as Mario did in the 1990s, but nevertheless became an icon of indie games

    8. "Destiny"

    The story of the creation of "Destiny" - perhaps the most exciting (and voluminous) in the book.
    After completing work on Halo 3, in 2007, Bungie Studio gained independence from Microsoft and set out to create a new ambitious product - a new cultural milestone.
    “Bungie employees had to prove that after years of work under the leadership of Microsoft, they are able to do something even better on their own.”

    Concluding a 10-year contract with the publisher Activision, the studio increased the state and began work on the shooter "Destiny", but faced with a huge number of problems. One of the main things was the lack of a “single direction” in the company: it seemed to some developers that the new product should be similar to Halo, to others - to World of Warcraft, etc. Due to disagreements, many talented specialists left the studio, including one of the Destiny concept authors, Jamie Grizmer.
    “The company grew faster than the governance structure and leadership process,” said one developer. “Because of this, many departments were poorly managed and did not have a clear understanding of the leadership’s vision of the game.”
    In addition, there were problems with the alteration of the internal engine for the tasks Destiny, problems with voice acting and, most importantly, problems with the plot , which, in the opinion of the audience, represented a “complete mess”. In this situation, the creators took what seemed to be a suicidal decision: a few months before the release, they completely rewrote the whole plot .

    Released in September 2014, the game has collected many negative reviews. Belief in the authors returned the meeting with the very Josh Mosqueira from Blizzard. As in the case of Diablo III, The Taken King was released a year later - an addition to Destiny, with a new script, voice acting, dialogue, characters, which was universally recognized and saved the game.

    9. "The Witcher 3"

    At the center of the story of the third “Witcher” is the solution to an ambitious task: the creation of a game that would be more than any other game that existed at that time .
    “We were terrified of such proportions,” says Konrad Tomashkevich. - But everyone in the company wanted to create the best game ever. And we were led forward by the challenge - a huge game that is almost impossible to do. ” “According to some sources, the world of the third game should have turned out to be 30 times larger than that of the second.”
    CD Projekt Red was going to make a game, which should take at least 100 hours to complete. In order to make such a game (and make it as interesting as possible), the developers had to, in particular, think over and implement a huge number of quests in conditions when the game itself was not yet there, and the game mechanics were still almost incomprehensible. Due to the inclusion in the game of riding a horse, they had to significantly push the boundaries of an already large game world. The game designers were terrified that they would not have enough content.

    The release of the game was scheduled for 2014, but was constantly postponed - first until February, and then until May 2015.

    As a result, “the game turned out to be even bigger than anyone expected. Perhaps the studio’s stubborn fear of a lack of content more than compensated for its excess. ”

    10. “Star Wars 1313”

    Unlike all previous ones, the final chapter cannot be called a success story. The focus of Schreier is a promising project of the studio LucasArts (a subsidiary of LucasFilm), a game based on the Star Wars universe, to which a lot of tough specialists have joined. The game promised to be epoch-making, the trailer of the game at E3 was adopted more than enthusiastically, but ... First, George Lucas intervened in production, who ordered to make Bob Fett the main character, which led to a radical restructuring of the entire project. And then Disney, who bought all LucasFilm in 2012, after several months of uncertainty, closed the studio and canceled all the projects.
    “Games are closed all the time. For every game released there are dozens of abandoned concepts and prototypes that will never see the light. But in “Star Wars 1313” there was something completely unique, and so was considered not only by the fans, but also by the developers themselves. ”
    In the epilogue of the book, Schreier quotes Justin Bell from Obsidian:
    “Making games ... It attracts a certain type of personality, workaholics. To do this, you just need a certain type of person who is ready to give all his time to this occupation ... Avraly sucked. They can ruin your whole life. You are awakening from a trawl and: yes, I have children! I look at my children and think: wow, six months have passed, they have become very different people. And I was not near them. "
    “Developing a game ... is like being on the verge of chaos, where the number of moving parts makes predictability an impossible thing. But isn't that one of the reasons why we love games so much? And this is an amazing feeling when you pick up a gamepad and you know that now you have to experience something completely new? ”

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