Reset Press Review | Explore extreme volatility, paranoia and hope in the games industry
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to hear a video game developer close its doors and the reasons for these closures are multiple. It is never the case that a bunch of lazy people have called bad games and have run out of money. The reality is much more frustrating and unfair, and in his new book, Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry, Jason Schreier examines the shutdowns of game developers big and small, and what happened to those affected. It’s sobering read that paints a picture of the extreme volatility and (legitimate) paranoia in the video game industry. Again Press Reset is also a addictive read on, as I found out for this review, and it can dramatically broaden your perspective of the games industry.
Job security is antithetical to video game development
Schreier examines a good variety of game developers and studios in the book. He starts with Warren Spector and follows his career from Origin Systems and Ultima Underworld until development System shock 3 with Tencent funding. It’s a nifty way to start things off, as Spector’s repeated struggles illustrate just how much even a revered and instantly recognizable game designer faces in the industry.
A sample of other studios featured in Press Reset includes The Molasses Flood, Chump Squad, various 2K studios, EA’s Visceral Games, Mythic Entertainment, Big Huge Games and the famous 38 Curt Schilling studios. Coincidentally or not, the shutdown of Irrational Games from 2K, the developer of BioShock, becomes a linchpin of the book’s narrative, with so much sorrow and also so many opportunities that flow from it. The shutdown of Irrational was particularly notable because it was a hugely successful studio that was dismantled in large part simply because its star designer Ken Levine decided he no longer wanted to run a huge studio. This is a case where even success and talent couldn’t keep a studio open.
The book is full of situations where circumstances beyond the control of individual developers lead to the studio shutting down. Many of these developers then uproot their entire lives to move to a new city (or country) to work for a new game studio, where the paranoid cycle of wondering how long this the work will last continuous. Alternatively, some developers follow their passion, team up, and use their savings to set up an independent studio – where financial life and death can depend on the performance of their first game. Press Reset is that volatility is the norm in video game development and that job security is mostly a dream.
Perhaps one of the most tragic sections of Press Reset is the story of 2K Marin. The studio has grown BioShock 2 and then basically had the development of The Office: XCOM Declassified pushed on by 2K, a game that no one, including the developers, literally wanted. After Office sold poorly, 2K shut down the 2K Marin stream while actively hiding the shutdown from the public, hampering the ability of licensed 2K Marin developers to attract attention and find new work.
Fortunately, most of the game publishers cited in the book are described as handling studio closures with empathy and, often, with fair compensation. In turn, Schreier himself strives to present a full picture of everyone and everything he talks about, never passing general judgment on publishers or trying to slander individuals. He presents all situations impartially, even when discussing the controversial Curt Schilling, who could apparently be a warm and charming leader at times; of course, that didn’t mean much to 38 Studios employees at the end of the day, who were abruptly fired without severance pay. (The story of 38 Studios could certainly be a book in itself.)
Press Reset is a balanced and ultimately hopeful review
In general, Press Reset advances at a light, digestible pace that made me want to keep reading “just a few more pages”. It looks a lot like Schreier’s excellent previous book, Blood, sweat and pixels, although a little more depressing on occasion. My only minor complaint is that the book juggles the names of a lot of people, and it becomes easy to mix a few people here and there. In fact, just three pages from the end of the book, Schreier is again the introduction of new names. It’s not a big deal though.
Press Reset ends with various examples of studios and people who may offer solutions to the extreme volatility currently present in the industry, such as outsourcing programming to studio Disbelief and completely remote developer Moon Studios, albeit it also explains why some of these solutions may do not work on a large scale. He also supports unionization as an imperfect but useful way for game developers to have minimal control over their destiny. Schreier doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but he provides encouraging and compelling starting points that deserve further discussion – and that’s necessary for a book that’s so obsessed with “ruin and salvage.”
So the verdict is this: if you want to develop a more nuanced and empathetic understanding of what it is like to to survive in the video game industry (even on the publishing side), Press Reset well worth reading. It is also very entertaining.
Press Reset releases May 11. A revision copy of Press Reset was provided by the publisher.