Press Reset Book Review: The Creative Business Oxymoron

Press Reset is a nonfiction book documenting the closings of several different video game studios across the United States during the 2010s. It was written by video game journalist Jason Schreier and published by Grand Central Publishing in May 2021.

Another book review! If you remember my review of Jason Schreier’s Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, you’ll recall that I was impressed by Schreier’s work telling stories from behind the curtain of the video game industry. I was impressed by his thorough investigative journalism in an industry that we unfortunately still know very little about. While Blood, Sweat, and Pixels certainly had its sad moments, Press Reset is a significantly more depressing book just by the nature of its premise — each chapter talks about a different studio that had to close its doors, for one reason or another. Essentially, Press Reset is a laundry list of fundamental problems with the video games industry. However, by the last chapter, Schreier offers some solutions that have already begun springing up.

Jason Schreier during an interview with IGN Unfiltered.

Whenever a game studio begins creating a video game, they start walking across a tightrope. Hanging on the left side of the balancing stick, we have the creative team (usually the studio itself); and on their right side, we have the business team (usually the publisher). These two teams are diametrically opposed. The business team demands stability and growth. Well, mostly they demand growth. You can’t just make money, you have to make more money than you did before. 2021 must be more profitable than 2020. This quarter needs to be more profitable than the last quarter. The creative team, on the other hand, seek create an artistic statement. They want to make a quality piece of art, and that takes time, effort, and lots of money.

In order to walk across the tightrope properly, a video game studio needs to balance these two. If they put too much weight on one side, then the studio will fall off, and the game will get shut down.

Rich Briggs, producer of Dead Space, in an interview.

Press Reset is insightful not only because Schreier reveals the gritty details of EA corporates shutting down Visceral Studios (the team behind the cult classic Dead Space) for only making a few million dollars instead of several million; but also because of he includes the tragedy of 38 Studios, a company that squandered a massive pile of cash (being personally funded by a former MBA player) by not cutting costs. 38 Studios was supposed to be a shining example of what a creative team could do if they were actually given the keys to a AAA business. Unfortunately, they didn’t know how to manage that money, and they never released a single game before abruptly shutting down.

Ken Levine during an IGN interview.

Schreier is an astute author who recognizes the nuance of an industry where hundreds of people try to make exorbitantly expensive art. It’s more complicated than just “business bad, devs good.” No matter who is running the show, people can mismanage their studio and run it into the ground. In fact, sometimes the publisher is the good guy and pulls a game out of a nose dive. The hydra of “The Evils In the Video Game Industry” has many heads, and corporate greed is only one of them.

For one, game developers have some of the most mercurial job positions I’ve ever seen. Many of the devs that Schreier interviewed had to move across the country several times throughout their careers — some of them moved twice in the same year. After a studio closes, other publishers arrive at the scene and pick up developers they could use on their projects, only for that studio to close as well, and the cycle begins all over again.

Warren Spector in an interview with IGN.

Not even respected “auteurs” such as Warren Spector and Ken Levine are immune. Warren Spector was responsible for some monumental landmarks in gaming history, such as Deus Ex and System Shock. He’s the equivalent of an Alfred Hitchcock or Stephen Spielberg. And yet in the mid-2000s, he was without a publisher, traveling around giving pitches like he was a nobody. Disney brought him in and he made Epic Mickey, but once that project wrapped up, he was once again without a studio to call home.

He’s not the only one, either. We will talk about Hideo Kojima later on this summer, and he was another victim of a talented developer getting the boot from Konami, his employer of almost 30 years. In fact, it seems like veterans such as Shigeru Miyamoto remaining at their original studio and sharing their experience with newcomers are more the exception than the norm. If you’re a game developer, then sooner or later, you will get shut down, or you’ll be pushed to the point where you’ll feel you have no other option other than quitting. Once you leave, you can either uproot your entire life to go work in another state, leave the games industry altogether, or strike it out as an indie dev.

Forrest Dowling, former AAA developer, and lead designer of indie game The Flame in the Flood, in an interview.

And being an indie developer isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, either. Without the safety net of AAA funding, you have to pitch your idea to other people and pray they like you. You have to keep track of deadlines and schedules, you can’t just get help from another department, and you advertise your game entirely on your own. And you have to do all that while living on your life savings, without benefits, and without a backup plan if the game flops.

Schreier doesn’t hold any punches in describing the emotional and mental toll that making video games puts on developers. From a prestigious game director to a lowly game tester, everyone who works on a video game devotes ridiculous amounts of their life to moving a polished product out the door. In Schreier’s own words,

Ask any veteran video game developer their least favorite thing about the industry and you’ll probably get a different version of the same answer: It treats people poorly. It chews them up and then spits them back out, leaving nothing but gristle and bones behind.

Press Reset, pg. 263

As gloomy as it appears to work in the gaming industry, there are some promising trends beginning to occur. Some studios have begun working not by making their own games, but by working as “programmers for hire” for specific contract projects. Disbelief is one such studio. The slogan on their website is, “Shipping games is hard — you know it, we know it. Let us help.” They’ve worked on programming for AAA games such as Borderlands 3 and indie games such as Kine. They may not call any one game “theirs,” but it’s at least a steady job.

One positive aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic is that studios were forced to try working remotely, and for the most part, it worked. So if your studio in Boston shuts down and you find work for a studio in San Francisco, you don’t have to move you and your family across the country just to live. Indie dev Moon Studios, the creators of Ori and the Blind Forest, actually work this way already. And game unions, while they aren’t a panacea to every problem, are beginning to form, which could help developers push for better hours and wages.

For a book that talks a lot about business numbers and nerds sitting at computers all day, Schreier makes a compelling read. Even though each chapter is about a game studio tragically falling off the tightrope, the human stories and the elegant threads connecting one studio to another make it feel rather personal. I met many game developers in this book, and I want them all to succeed. I really hope that these trends will continue.

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