A Thoughtful Look at a Volatile Industry
For all its popularity, the video game industry sure is misunderstood. In 2020, video games raked in an estimated $180 billion—more than Hollywood and North American sports combined. Yet as millions of players happily meet up in virtual worlds, there’s a much darker undercurrent powering many of these hit games. And that’s a history of workplace crunch, mass layoffs, and constant volatility.
In Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry, investigative journalist and Blood, Sweat, and Pixels author Jason Schreier tackles this history in ruthless detail. The book, due out May 11, 2021 via Grand Central Publishing, features first-person accounts from game developers affected by layoffs at Irrational Games (BioShock), 38 Studios (Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning), Visceral Games (Dead Space), and other high-profile studios.
Over nine chapters, Press Reset chronicles these developers—their careers, their successes, and their setbacks—and the studio closures that bind their stories together. Along the way, Schreier exposes many of the systemic issues behind these shutdowns, from resource mismanagement to corporate greed.
Press Reset poses some important questions: What comes next for these developers? For the industry at large? In his search for answers, Schreier returns to the same central thesis: The games industry is fundamentally broken, and in need of fixing.
The outlook may seem dreary, but Schreier threads the needle in a way that’s equal parts engaging and informative. It’s compelling literature, and a must-read for those with any care for the video game pastime.
The Reality of Game Development
In 2017’s Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, Schreier highlighted the myriad challenges game developers face when making popular video games. From absurd office politics to crippling technology issues, it’s a small miracle these games release at all—let alone are fun.
Four years removed, all of this still holds true. Games remain incredibly difficult to engineer, and development still revolves around a nasty culture of “crunch.” Rather than focus on the games themselves, however, Press Reset focuses on the people behind the games—and the studios that would eventually let these people go.
The opening chapter follows the career of Warren Spector, an industry veteran heralded for his work on Deus Ex and System Shock. Another details the faces behind Irrational Games, the now-defunct Boston studio responsible for BioShock and BioShock Infinite. The book even shines a light on people who aren’t game developers at all—like Curt Schilling, the legendary baseball pitcher who drove Rhode Island’s 38 Studios into the ground.
Each of these stories are distinct, taking place across various states or countries, often with completely different takeaways. The Schilling saga, for instance, tells a story of hubris, lavish company perks, and poor financing. The Irrational story, meanwhile, details the unchecked creative power of studio head Ken Levine—and the toxic culture he perpetuated as a result.
Picking Up the Pieces
However distinct, these chapters are always engaging thanks to Schreier’s snappy commentary and exacting research. While the studio stories would function well enough as standalone case studies, Schreier deftly flows from one to the next. The story of Irrational, for instance, smoothly segues into a chapter on its lesser-known sister studio, 2K Marin (BioShock 2).
Whenever the real-world protagonists of Press Reset face adversity, like a studio shutdown, Schreier provides a glimpse at what happens next. Sometimes, people pick up the pieces and start anew. Others, frustrated or burnt out, exit the industry entirely.
What’s more, personalities that feature prominently in one story tend to pop back up in another. Developers that got laid off may find work across the country, uprooting themselves and their families, only to get laid off again. Other developers may decide to join forces and form their own independent studio.
While these moments highlight the “buddy-buddy” feel of the games industry, they also serve to illustrate the constant volatility game developers face during their careers. In detailing these life-altering moments, Schreier takes aim at the system at large, from unrealistic goal-setting to stratospheric executive salaries. He leaves readers with several possible solutions for the way forward—like unionization—along with a powerful call to action to challenge the status quo.
Press Reset is a thought-provoking read, and a welcome follow-up to Jason Schreier’s debut title. Those familiar with Blood, Sweat, and Pixels or Schreier’s work at Kotaku and Bloomberg News will already be accustomed to his meticulous style, but even new readers should find the book’s material accessible and engaging.
The constant introduction of developer and studio names might put off those unfamiliar with the game industry—arguably the people who’d benefit most from reading this book. Thankfully, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels provides an excellent primer to the terminology of Press Reset, for those willing to do the prework (it’s a great read in its own right).
If you enjoy games on the regular, but have never thought much about what goes into the pixels you see on the screen, Press Reset deserves your attention. The games industry is only getting bigger, but until we come to terms with its darker side, it’ll continue to take an immeasurable toll on its most valuable assets: its people.