Kotaku news editor Jason Schreier's new book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels offers an in-depth look behind the scenes at how games are made -- from pre-production all the way through to release.
It dives into the development of 10 major games, including several triple AAA titles (Witcher III, Uncharted 4, Destiny), two that were Kickstarter-funded (Pillars of Eternity and Shovel Knight), one that was cancelled (Star Wars 1313), and one breakout indie hit (Stardew Valley).
The book is about game development, warts and all, presented largely through the words and actions of developers, and as such it's a fascinating window into the minds and processes of many of the industry's most interesting people and studios. And while it was written for a general audience, it's full of lessons and insights that every developer could benefit from reading.
We chatted to Schreier about the themes and stories and got his permission to pull out five insightful quotes about game development. Each of these shows a different way in which game devs grapple with the challenges of their craft and try to make decisions that lead to the best possible games.
“Your life’s passion sometimes isn’t in line with your life’s love,” Neil Druckmann, the codirector of Uncharted 4, said. “And sometimes those things are in conflict. In games, especially, a lot of people enter the game industry because of how much they love this medium, and, for us, how much we feel like we could push it and dedicate our lives to it to a large degree. But at times, if you’re not careful, it can become destructive to your personal life. So there was a lot of really personal experience to draw from.”
Druckmann touches on so much of game development culture here in describing his and the rest of the dev team's relationship to the conflict in the heart of protagonist Nathan Drake, who begins Uncharted 4 as an ordinary civilian — just a guy who lives a quiet life with his wife, but who misses the all-consuming lifestyle and extreme danger of his treasure-hunting past.
"Nearly every chapter contains stories of prolonged and unhealthy crunch, sometimes engaged in willingly, and the heavy tolls it takes."
In working on the Uncharted and Last of Us games, Schreier reports, the developers crunched hard — often staying at the office until 2 or 3am, to the great detriment to their mental and physical well-being — in pursuit of perfection. And it's hardly the only instance of crunch you'll read about. Nearly every chapter contains stories of prolonged and unhealthy crunch, sometimes engaged in willingly, and the heavy tolls it takes.
More than a summation of the Uncharted series' protagonist, Druckmann's quote reveals a problem at the core of modern game development: How do you follow your dreams and embrace your passions without destroying your relationships?
"It sums up the one of the main themes of the book, which is that a lot of people are just like killing themselves for this art," Schreier tells me. "I mean, that's how games are made. It's a lot of people just putting in brutal hours working their asses off. And I think that it's this idea of passion in the industry that leads a lot of game developers to work these really tough hours."
TAKEAWAY: It's important to find a balance between pursuing your passion(s) and maintaining your relationships so that you can have a life outside of games, lest you risk letting one — or the other — destroy you.
Playtesting on an early build of Dragon Age: Inquisition revealed that the combat system was in shambles. But rather than make sudden overhauls or throw it out and start again, Schreier reports that lead encounter designer Daniel Kading got approval to grab the whole development team once a week for an hour of combat playtesting sessions. For these sessions, he and a group of other designers devised a set of encounters and post-playtest surveys that would help them pinpoint the problems.
When surveys came back during the first week of Kading’s experiment, the average rating was a dismal 1.2 (out of 10). Somehow, that was comforting to the Inquisition gameplay team.
“Morale took an astonishing turn for the better that very week,” Kading said. “It’s not that we could recognize the problems. It was that we weren’t shirking from them.”
The experiment worked. Every week they tweaked the combat systems based on playtest feedback, and every week the rating improved. After four weeks, when the experiment ended, the average rating from the surveys was 8.8.
TAKEAWAY: When part of a game isn't coming together, it can do wonders for both team morale (and the game itself) to not only recognize that you have a problem, but also turn your full attention to fixing it.
“We wanted to get an idea of the scope first: How many POIs feels good, how much is too much?” said Miles Tost, a level designer. “We’d just place them on the level. And then we would take the barely functioning horse and ride in between them and actually measure the time it would take, and then we would go, all right, so every minute we have a POI or whatever. We would even reference other games, like Red Dead Redemption or Skyrim, check how they did it, and then we wanted to figure out, all right, does this feel good for us, do we need it denser, or vary from that.”
There are two secrets to a good open-world game: a density of places and quests and stuff that's appropriate to the player's movement speed and other core mechanics, as described in the Miles Tost quote above, and a set of memorable quests (as described below). In designing The Witcher III, CD Projekt took care to get both just right — they playtested to find the balance between an empty world and one so dense that you can barely take a step without tripping over a new place of interest, and they made a rule: no boring quests.
“I called them ‘FedEx quests’—the quests that are just fetch quests,” said lead quest designer Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz. “Someone says bring me the cup, or ten bear skins or whatever. You bring that stuff to them and that’s it. There’s no twist, no nothing. . . . Every quest, no matter how small it should be, should have something memorable in it, some little twist, something you might remember it by. Something unexpected happening.”
TAKEAWAY: The most important elements in a great open-world game, beyond the internal consistency and compelling mechanics central to all great games, are a just-right places-of-interest density and unique, memorable quests. Actual world size is largely irrelevant.
“The biggest differentiator between a studio that creates a really high-quality game and a studio that doesn’t isn’t the quality of the team,” said one person who worked on Destiny. “It’s their dev tools. If you can take fifty shots on goal, and you’re a pretty shitty hockey player, and I can only take three shots on goal and I’m Wayne fucking Gretzky, you’re probably going to do better. That’s what tools are. It’s how fast can you iterate, how stable are they, how robust are they, how easy is it as a nontechnical artist to move a thing.”
The developers Schreier interviewed for his book kept bringing up issues with their dev tools as the cause of delays, late nights, and inefficiencies, which underscores just how much of an under-appreciated choke point tools are in game making. Schreier likens the bad tools experience to a writer having to wait 10 minutes for every word they type to appear on screen, but it's not just the time and efficiency cost of bad or incomplete, ever-changing tools that's a problem.
Your tools can force bad design and technical decisions, as a big chunk of the Dragon Age: Inquisition chapter explores — in short, BioWare had major tools and pipeline issues for months on end as they transitioned from their outdated, obsolete in-house Eclipse engine to fellow EA studio DICE's Frostbite, which was designed for shooters and had to undergo significant refactoring and expansion in parallel to Inquisition development.
And even when tools are good, actually learning how to use them can also wreak havoc on scheduling, as Pillars of Eternity art director Rob Nesler said elsewhere in the book: "It takes time, months or years to become so good at something that when someone says, ‘How long will it take you to do something?’ you can say, ‘It takes me this long.’"
TAKEAWAY: Your choice of dev tools may be the most important decision you'll make, especially in a complex or big-budget game, and if you need to switch to different tools or create new ones it's best to give your team a big buffer in the scheduling for inefficiency problems.
Obsidian's huge Pillars of Eternity Kickstarter success has lots of great positive lessons about the potential of crowdfunding given the right pitch from the right people at the right time, but it's also a cautionary tale of the dangers of crowdfunding promises — and especially stretch goals. The team thought Eternity could have two major cities, rather than just the one that their initial Kickstarter pitch promised, so they decided to add a stretch goal: if funding passed $3.5 million, they'd add a second city. They later came to regret this:
After the developers had gone through the convoluted process of designing and modeling Defiance Bay’s various districts, the thought of building a second city was making them all queasy.
“Everybody said, ‘I wish we hadn’t done that,’” said Feargus Urquhart, CEO and president of Obsidian. “Ultimately it was not necessary.”
“Even more districts of the one big city probably would’ve been easier,” said Josh Sawyer, game director of Pillars of Eternity. “And pacingwise, you go through all of Defiance Bay, then you do a bunch of wilderness areas and here’s another city. It’s like, ‘Dude, this is act three, please get me the fuck out of here.’”
Still, they’d made the commitment. The second city had to be there, and so they built Twin Elms, knowing that if they didn’t deliver on every feature they’d promised in the Kickstarter, fans would feel betrayed.
TAKEAWAY: Good scoping early on is always important, but you need to be especially careful not to get over-ambitious when do a crowdfunding pitch — otherwise you could end up stuck fulfilling promises for features or extra areas that nobody wants.
"The reaction I've gotten from a lot of game developers is, 'Oh hey, it's not just me,'" says Schreier of games industry reactions so far to his book. "And I think a lot of game developers will see a lot of familiar experiences. Maybe unfortunately get a little PTSD, but also like trigger some maybe unpleasant memories — and hopefully some pleasant memories too."
Crucially, the book also offers a nuanced, in-depth take on how crunch culture has become embedded in so much of the industry. "I think one of my goals for this book was not only to convince people — or I guess spread the message to people — who don't realize how much work goes into game development, but also to try to figure out why crunch happens so often and why it feels like an inevitability to so many game developers," Schreier explains.
The bottom line is that game development is hard. And while we now have many standardized processes and terms across the industry, we also have much left unstandardized — Blood, Sweat, and Pixels makes note of inconsistencies between studios in the terms used to describe level outlines used for prototypes, for instance — and there's a huge amount of reinventing the wheel at every studio. But insights such as these from top developers provide a chance to learn and grow, not only from the wisdom they offer about how to do things right but also the lessons inherent in their mistakes — which are rarely laid out quite like this, for all to bear.