Blood, Sweat, and Pixels

March 31, 2022 · 11 mins read By Jason Schreier


  • Every video game that gets released is a miracle.
  • Lots of moving pieces: the complexity of software development + the film industry combined.
  • Crunch is part of the culture and the expectations. Every single story had crunch, and no one has figured out how to avoid it.
  • Studio/publisher deals and relationships are much like Startup/VC.

Pair with:

Detailed summary:

1. Pillars of eternity

On the difficulties to fund a game. Obsidian had to lay off many employees and didn’t have the money to fund their vision. As a last resort, they tried crowdfunding, when this was still early and unproven. This resulted in one of the largest gaming kickstarters, and they released the game and a sequel (also crowdfunded).

Differences between kickstarter and publisher: less financial pressure, but more pressure to be transparent with the fans, and harder to roll back decisions after they are public (like the second city in PoE, which made the game worse but had to be included because it was promised).

2. Uncharted 4

Tumultuous development. Story had to be reworked almost from scratch, lead producer left in the middle of the project. New leads came from The Last Of Us and decided it was going to be the last Uncharted game. Naughty Dog’s style is to perfect every little detail, which makes project scopes huge.

Delayed multiple times, a lot of crunch and burnouts towards the end. The result is beautiful.

”Nobody’s job was simply to manage the schedule or coordinate people’s work, the role a producer would fill at other companies. Instead, everyone at Naughty Dog was expected to manage him- or herself.”

3. Stardew Valley

One-person team, 5 year work. Inspired by Harvest moon. On the challenges of making a game by yourself (isolation, burnout, priority management). The creator was supported financially by his girlfriend for most of the development time (then became a millionaire). On the pressure after releasing a successful game: need to do better, etc…

After the game release he met with the creator of Harvest moon, which is awesome and surreal.

4. Diablo III

“People don’t remember Diablo II, they remember Lord Of Destruction: Diablo II after it was patched”

How developing Diablo III was only the beginning. The launch didn’t go well, and a lot of the game concepts (even core) had to be reworked after player feedback. The extension (Reaper of souls) was much better received by fans, and is hopefully what players will remember.

Finishing a game then continuing the development/crunch led to many burnouts.

5. Halo Wars

Ensemble Studios (Age of empires) were globally tired of making RTS games and wanted to do something else. They couldn’t manage to do it: they would start an Age game and a new game prototype at the same time, then the Age game falls behind and the second team gets reined in to help.

They launched 3 projects: a console RTS, an MMO, and a Diablo clone.

Developing a console RTS was a challenge because it was never done before, so they had to figure out the controls.

Microsoft (their mother company) then made them make the console RTS a Halo game to have a safer IP. The studio had to scrap a lot of the lore and rework it. They also needed approval from Bungee for many decisions now.

Internally people were tired of making RTS games so not many people wanted to work on Halo Wars, even though it was the only green-lit game. This made Halo understaffed.

Then Diablo got cancelled, and people went to work on the (still non-green-lit) MMO, which now was a Halo MMO without Microsoft knowing. Then the MMO got cancelled and they announced that the studio was closing after Halo Wars.

They spent the last months finishing the game, which was received well.

“One of the biggest problems with long game development is, when you playtest the game for too long, you invent problems and you add layers to the game that don’t need to be added.”

6. Dragon age: Inquisition

Bioware was developing each new game with a different engine. They decided to unify their games and use the Frostbite engine, developed in-house by EA for FPS games for the new Dragon Age game.

Frostbite was not adapted at all for RPGs and made development very difficult, as most of the capabilities were not there. The developers had to fork the engine then incorporate updates themselves.

The previous Dragon Age game (II) was a rushed failure, and this put the pressure on the team to make a good, expansive game to compensate for that. It led to some scope creep.

EA made them support the older generation of consoles, which led to more constraints than necessary when developing the game.

They had to crunch during the last months, and the game had a lot of filler content and needed polish because of the lack of time. But they succeeded and the game was a success.

7. Shovel knight

A group of friends and colleagues quit their job to make their own game, a tribute to the NES era:

“What Velasco and his friends really wanted was a game that felt like what people remembered about NES games, rose-colored glasses and all.”

Some decisions they could make because they were a small company:

  • No one in charge, all decisions are by consensus
  • Trust and knowledge builds so that designs and specs don’t need to be very detailed.

They started a kickstarter. It wasn’t a success story but it did okay, especially after they went to PAX, then after they reached out to popular streamers.

Having a limited amount of money means a hard deadline, which means crunch:

“The thing we sacrificed for that was ourselves. We knew we’d have to be working weekends. We knew we’d have to be working multiple-hour days. Time is a thing that you just give to the game.”

Even with that, they ran out of money and had to spend 4 months without salaries.

The game came out and was a success. But they still had to deliver the things they promised during the kickstarter. And for free.

“That’s been our biggest mistake, for good and for bad: we promised a lot of game”

3 years later and still working on the content, they decided to make the DLC paid.

8. Destiny

Bungee wanted to have independence from Microsoft and Halo. They got it, and started looking into their next game.

A lot of pressure after the success of Halo. They wanted to do something different (some people were tired of Halo games), but as they iterated on the new game, it looked more and more like Halo: the artists only knew how to do Sci fi. The programmers specialized in FPS.

“Jaime Griesemer began to realize that, as hard as he had tried to resist the Halo gravity well, they’d all been sucked in. Worse, he realized that most of the studio was just fine with that.”

This made many devs quit.

They pitched investors, and Activision decided to finance it, with a predetermined calendar:

“Activision expected the studio to release Destiny 1 in the fall of 2013, with an expansion called Comet following a year later. The next year would be Destiny 2, then Comet 2, and so on.”

Problems during development:

  • There was no company-wide vision for where the game should go, because the company grew too fast.
  • Bad development tools.
  • Tense relationship with Activision

Then it turned out that the story was bad and it was rewritten from scratch, at a point where a lot of the lines were already recorded.

The came came out to average reviews. Morale sunk, and after hearing Blizzard’s employees talk about Diablo III, Bungee decided to use a DLC to fix their mistakes and win the fans back. The DLC launched to positive reviews.

But there was still a lot to do, Destiny 2, etc…

9. The Witcher 3

Ambitious project by a Polish company, which wanted to prove that European companies could make games too.

They got the rights for cheap because the book author didn’t have an interest in video games.

They wanted to have a massive game with no filler content, and well written quests (each quest had to have at least a twist) that had complex moral choices.

“I don’t think there is a single quest in The Witcher 3 which was written once, accepted, and then recorded,” Szamałek said. “Everything was rewritten dozens of times”

Because of the ambition and perfectionism of the team, they had to crunch a lot (all of 2014), and delay the game multiple times.

On release, the game was universally lauded.

10. Star wars 1313

Game by LucasArts, the game division of Lucas films. This section goes a little bit into how it was working at Lucas, where one man had so much say in the company.

Star Wars 1313 was an ambitious game in the Star Wars universe, highly anticipated by players and press. It didn’t survive Lucas’ aquisition by Disney, which didn’t have games in its strategy. The developers then tried to find someone else to invest in their game but to no avail, and the game never got released.