Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to hear a video game developer has closed its doors, and the reasons for closures are multifaceted. It’s never the case that a bunch of lazy people phoned in bad games and ran 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 the individual people affected by them. It is a sobering read to be sure, painting a portrait of extreme volatility and (rightful) paranoia in the video game industry. Yet Press Reset is also an addicting read, as I discovered for this review, and it can dramatically expand 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 begins with Warren Spector and tracks his career from Origin Systems and Ultima Underworld through to developing System Shock 3 with Tencent funding. It’s a shrewd way to start things off, in that Spector’s repeated hardships illustrate how much adversity even a revered and instantly recognizable game designer faces in the industry.
A sampling 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 Curt Schilling’s infamous 38 Studios. Coincidentally or not, the closure of 2K’s Irrational Games, the developer of BioShock, becomes a linchpin of the book’s narrative, with so much heartbreak and also so many opportunities spinning out from it. Irrational’s closure was especially remarkable because it was an intensely successful studio that was dismantled largely just because its star designer Ken Levine decided he didn’t want to lead a huge studio anymore. It is a case where even success and talent could not keep a studio open.
The book is full of situations where circumstances beyond the control of individual developers lead to studio closure. 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 job will last continues. Alternatively, some developers follow their passion, team up, and use their savings to start an indie studio — where financial life and death may depend upon how their first game performs. An overwhelming takeaway of 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 developed BioShock 2 and then essentially had development of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified thrust upon it by 2K, a game that literally no one, including the developers, wanted. After The Bureau sold poorly, 2K shuttered 2K Marin while actively hiding the closure from the public, in turn hindering laid-off 2K Marin developers’ ability 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, fair compensation packages. In turn, Schreier himself strives to present a complete picture of everyone and everything he discusses, never making blanket judgements about publishers or trying to vilify individuals. He presents all situations in an even-handed manner, even when discussing the controversial Curt Schilling, who apparently could be a warm and charming leader at times; of course, that didn’t mean much for 38 Studios employees in the end, who were abruptly terminated without severance. (The story of 38 Studios could definitely be a book by itself.)
Press Reset is a balanced and ultimately hopeful examination
In general, Press Reset chugs along at a breezy, digestible pace that made me want to keep reading “just a few more pages.” It reads very much like Schreier’s previous, excellent book, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, albeit a little more depressing on occasion. My only quite minor complaint is that the book juggles a lot of people’s names, and it becomes easy to mix a couple people up here and there. In fact, just three pages from the end of the book, Schreier is still introducing new names. It’s not a big deal though.
Press Reset concludes with various examples of studios and people that might offer solutions to the extreme volatility currently present in the industry, like programming outsourcing studio Disbelief and completely remote developer Moon Studios, though it also discusses why some of these solutions may not work on a large scale. It additionally upholds unionization as an imperfect but useful means for game developers to have a modicum more control over their fate. Schreier doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but he provides some hopeful and compelling starting points that warrant further discussion — and that’s necessary for a book that’s so fixated with “ruin and recovery.”
So the verdict is this: If you want to develop a more nuanced and empathetic understanding of what it’s like to survive in the video game industry (even on its publishing side), Press Reset is well worth the read. It’s also just really entertaining.
Press Reset releases on May 11. A review copy of Press Reset was provided by the publisher.