I was recently granted “early access” (aka an early review copy) to Jason Schreier’s second book, Press Reset (out today, May 11th).
For those of you not familiar with Jason Schreier, he has been reporting on the video game industry for over a decade. He was previously at Kotaku for eight years before moving over to Bloomberg to cover games and technology. He’s also a co-host on the podcast Triple Click — with former colleagues Kirk Hamilton and Maddy Myers. Schreier has covered some of the biggest stories in the gaming industry — most recently stories about crunch, layoffs and harassment and mistreatment in the games industry.
In his debut book Blood, Sweat & Pixels (2017) he focused on how video games are made and the problems they go through during development. Each chapter focused on one specific title and its development cycle. He covered everything from large-scale AAA games developed by huge studios to indie games created by just one person, he even featured some games that were never released.
Making video games is tough, whether you’re a small cog in a huge wheel or the single designer on a team of a handful of people. One day you can be working on what you think will be the next great FPS (first-person shooter) and the next day your studio can call it quits. Volatility in the games industry is a huge problem and one that Jason Schreier’s sophomore book focuses on, Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry.
While the chapters in this book cover instability in the gaming industry such as studio shutdowns, mass layoffs and game cancellations there are also many stories of redemption along the way. Through his many interviews with game developers for this book Jason was able to tell these tragic and horrid stories from the point of view of the people who went through it — some have even left video games entirely.
There are certain studios that are mentioned throughout multiple chapters. While a particular chapter may focus on one big studio shutdown in the middle of production, the next chapter sometimes featured the perspective of someone who passed through that studio and some others along their journey. Since Jason Schreier has been covering the industry for so long, he is also able to throw in details based on his reporting at the time.
Every game you’ve ever played has a story. It was surprising to hear the stories of how a few developers accidentally came together to create a game I loved, or even a game I may have heard of or seen on the digital storefronts (Steam, Epic Games Store, Nintendo eShop). Enter the Gungeon is one game mentioned in the book that I spent many hours with. It was just fun to hear the story of how this small team came together to make this game and teamed up with a publisher, Devolver.
The stories in Press Reset really got me thinking about how game developers at both large and small companies all work as if they’re on some secret reality show. One day you’re designing the next million dollar game and the next day you can be laid off (for no reason at all). In fact, your whole team could be laid off, the big bosses can halt production and scrap the game at any moment. Of course, there’s also the alternative where you can be working on an indie team with a few friends and it’s your job to not only make a game but to find the money to keep production going.
Another common theme in the book is how the executives at these companies are making all of the money, while the designers, writers, programmers, testers and developers are making much, much less. Sure, some game directors are making big bucks, but what I learned from this book is that most game devs are making just enough or a little more than what they need to get by.
Maybe it’s because there’s such a high demand to work in this industry and make games. Another common theme was workaholism, there was even a chapter titled “Workaholics.” Since everyone is trying to break into the games industry they feel they have to show their worth. There’s a high demand for jobs in the games industry, so once people make it they think if I don’t do the extra work they’ll find someone else who will. There’s a lot of mention of extra long hours at the office in this book. There are also some companies and studios trying to change that, especially after all of the reporting on crunch.
Just like in the film industry, most of the big studio executives and higher ups in the game industry are just looking for that next big cash cow. If a studio makes a brand new hit game, you better believe the suits are going to be pushing for a sequel (and possibly a whole ongoing series of games). There are stories of studios becoming mobile game studios, just for the money you can make off of in-game purchases.
A few chapters mention the story of former MLB pitcher Curt Schilling’s “World of Warcraft Killer” and his company 38 Studios. He actually called his game the WoW killer. If you go into any creative project with that sort of mentality you are destined to fail — and [Spoiler Alert!] his project did fail.
Hopefully, these stories will help the industry find better solutions to these problems. Many of the big studios that shutdown already know it’s going to happen. Instead of telling employees early on, they wait until the last day to tell them, “Ok, this studio is no more. Go home and see you never.” Which is definitely the wrong way to handle this. These people have lives too. They have families and expenses. The problem is that the executives only want to make decisions that will put more money into their pockets.
Towards the end of the book Jason also mentions a few new studios and companies that are trying new ways to create a successful business plan in gaming. There were many studios that shut down in the book after releasing a successful game, but they had no “next project” to work on.
I don’t know what the answer is to fixing the problems with the gaming industry, but one thing that helps is when people like Jason Schreier and other games journalists are talking about them. When people talk about problems the mentality can change from This is the way to Let’s fix this.
Press Reset is available in bookstores and online (Grand Central Publishing) as of today, May 11th, 2021.
*I was provided a complimentary copy of this book for review from Hachette Book Group.