Reading this book was a surprisingly personal experience for me. It covers the development of a wide selection of AAA and indie games–and, since I’ve developed two indie games, getting a glimpse of the pros initially felt like a window into very different world. But it’s a fascinating reminder that, no matter what level you’re working at, games are basically just hundreds of hours of monotony and fumbling in the dark. They’re huge, complex, and it’s almost like they “want” to be broken. Human error interferes at every level; that polished final product emerges only slowly from chaos, and is never everything you dreamed it would be.
The chapter about Eric Barone, the developer of Stardew Valley, especially resonated with me, as he spent something like five years tinkering with his game in isolation. I lived very similarly to this in my early 20s, when I was making The Pale City; it’s a very peculiar, insular life, one that even a background as a novelist had barely prepared me for. Between March and June this year, I briefly went back to game development to make “Home: A Quarantine Story,” a short adventure game/interactive novel about a young woman stuck at home during the early days of COVID-19. Every day, life took on a very familiar rhythm: wake up; work on the game, pausing only to cook, exercise, and work remotely; then, at the end of the day, relax for an hour or two, and do it again.
Even that short game took hundreds of hours over just a few months–and professionals put in hours like this for years, often doing dozens of hours without being paid! I had always assumed that, in big studios, things ran more smoothly–but in many ways it seems much tougher than working on a small project by yourself. I especially appreciate the author’s descriptions of how the developers feel after the project is done. Many seem deflated rather than ecstatic, awkwardly making brief returns to normal life before the next crunch begins… though, as the games covered are largely successful, most of the stories at least have happy endings. This definitely isn’t the case for thousands of games that get buried beneath Steam’s algorithms every day, and it’s incredible to think of how much work was required to make the thousands (millions?) of games on there already.
The other inescapable question of this book is: is it worth it? I’m very unsure whether I plan to continue making games, and after reading this book, I’m surprised that many of these developers keep at it, especially when they have to contend with shareholders, changing leadership, the fickleness of the market, etc. But, whenever I do start playing again, this book has given me a much better appreciation of the sheer difficulty of bringing one of these things into the world, at any level.