It’s not until two-thirds of the way through Significant Zero, his memoir of working in the videogame industry, that Walt Williams finally invokes the dreaded five-letter word: crunch. The term describes the moment when “game developer” ceases being a 9-5 job, and morphs into a haze of constant overtime, nights and weekends lost to endless coding, troubleshooting, and tweaking in order to ship a game on time. The emotional toll crunch takes on workers and their families is universally derided, but it’s hard to find a story of game development that doesn’t fall into this trap.
Williams loved it. “Crunch isn’t a pandemic or a death march,” he writes. “It’s not even exclusive to the games industry. If anything, crunch is a natural occurrence brought on by the creative process.” By this point in the narrative, he’s has established himself to be enough of an eccentric that he willingly throws his entire life overboard for a project, but his screed in praise of crunch still feels like an echo of hustle-harder startup culture. The valor of cashing in your twentysomething singlehood for a creative gamble, in his eyes, outweighs its drawbacks.
Another recently released book provides a parallel journey to Williams’—more than one of them, in fact. Jason Schreier’s Blood, Sweat, and Pixels illuminates the process of video game development but from a more detached seat: His book collects the development history of 10 games from the last decade, from massive hits like Destiny and The Witcher 3 to the niche success of indies like Shovel Knight and Stardew Valley. Taken in tandem, the two books provide a rare, comprehensive portrayal of the stresses and strains of game creation.
Crunch in Schreier’s book isn’t so warmly embraced. For Eric Barone, who singlehandedly created farming simulation title Stardew Valley, solo game development provided little more than exhaustion. “He had no coworkers with whom to bounce around ideas, nobody to meet for lunch,” writes Schreier, an editor at games site Kotaku. “In exchange for complete creative control, he had to embrace solitude.”
In recent years, a good chunk of video game journalism seeks out failure, preferring to chronicle the fall of a development studio rather than simply parroting promotional tidbits handed out by game publicists. This is Blood, Sweat, and Pixels’ model: by holding the miserable bits up to the light, Schreier creates a compellingly warts-and-all portrait of a profession that so many who grew up playing games idolized.
Coming from the game-publishing side of the industry, Williams offers less insight to the development process itself; his book functions almost as a defense of his own side of the creation process. Publishers often are where fans—and even developers—direct their ire, whether for swapping development teams, shoehorning illogical ideas into the game, or stripping a game’s content for eventual for pay downloadable content. Significant Zero offers the other side of the argument. As Williams works with game developers, he sees games that might be on the wrong path, or a feature that doesn’t work as intended, and now it’s his problem to make sure it gets resolved. This is often where egos clash—it’s the game equivalent of a film director getting notes from the studio brass—and Williams, by his own admission, occasionally takes on too much of a creative role when pulling back would be a better move.
That knowledge helps inform the tensest parts of Schreier’s book. In chapters detailing the troubled development of Halo Wars and Dragon Age: Inquisition, developers Ensemble and Bioware (respectively) wrestle with their publishers’ constantly shifting demands. Especially in Ensemble’s case: Halo Wars started off as an original idea until publisher Microsoft forces the dev studio into making a real-time strategy game in the Halo universe, even Bungie—original creators of the Halo games—chafed at seeing their IP in another developer’s hands. (Schreier downplays the tension in the Halo Wars chapter, but it re-appears later in the book, during a chapter focusing on Destiny.)
Significant Zero closes by focusing on the creation of Spec Ops: The Line, a military shooter that tried its best to fight against the tropes and mindlessness of many first-person shooters. While critics praised the game for its subversive quality, it never became a financial success; the stumble doesn’t change Williams’ pride in the end result of years of hard work. Schreier finds a similar note in the tale of Star Wars 1313, which Disney cancelled after acquiring LucasArts despite early critical and fan reaction. The decision to end on notes of failure rather than long-fought successes is ultimately what lifts both books out of the for-gamers-only category; they offer insight into not only game development, but any creative field. After all, when six months of work can be undone in a single meeting—and sometimes is—there’s no such thing as esoteric.