Book Review: Blood, Sweat, and Pixels

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made by Jason Schreier is a compilation of vignettes about the development of ten different video games. Many of the games are RPGs, and most of them are produced by large studios. Despite the many different accounts, there is a real lack of diversity in the stories. Almost all of the stories deal with the same themes: crunch (working large amounts of overtime to ship a game), overcoming mismanagement from above, and reworking stories/gameplay that are found in development to be lackluster. The stories can therefore seem repetitive, despite being generally well written with a great degree of access to the original developers. The vignettes are too short to let the reader dive into the finer aspects of each game’s development, and it is hard to feel connected to the many introduced characters.

Although many of the ten stories feel repetitive, there are a few gems that stand out. The story of Eric Barone developing Stardew Valley by himself over five years was perhaps the most interesting, and is almost worth picking up the book for alone. It deserved more than just one chapter. Because it focused on just one person, it was able to better weave together the game and the personal story. Which really highlights the problem with the book as a whole: it tries to cover too many stories, and therefore ends up giving every story too little space. Schreier seems to have had excellent access to the developers, but this access was squandered by being so scattered.

Another strong chapter in the book is on the development of The Witcher 3. Schreier covered the interesting corporate history of developer CD Projekt, who’s unique foundation and Polish roots made for some less humdrum reading than many of the other large studio stories. The story of Yacht Club Games and Shovel Knight was the lone other indie chapter beyond Stardew Valley. Like Stardew Valley it was one of the more interesting chapters because it had fewer characters to keep track of. The book would have been better if it were ten chapters on five games, instead of ten chapters on ten games.

There is also a distinct lack of focus on overcoming technical hurdles and the software development/programming that goes into making games. The book focuses a lot more on game design and creative decisions, rather than technical work. Aspiring game programmers may come away disappointed. And by leaving this huge aspect of game development largely out of the book (there are some chapters that mention it, but without any level of detail), I feel the author did not fully represent the development process. On the other hand, not getting too technical probably made the book more appealing to a broad audience.

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels is an ambitious book that falls short of its lofty goal. It is probably best read piecemeal, picking and choosing the stories that interest you most. However, the author deserves credit for taking on such a challenging task, getting real access to the pertinent parties, and giving the reader an inside look at game development despite some poor editorial/structural decisions.

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