This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Blood, Sweat, and Pixels" by Jason Schreier. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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Is game development hard to work in? What are the unique challenges of being a video game developer?
Video games have evolved tremendously throughout the years, and it’s all thanks to the hard work of everyone on development teams. It’s not an easy job making video games, and Jason Schreier’s book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels explains why.
Here are the complications developers often come across when working on the interactivity of games.
Interactivity Creates Unique Challenges
Is game development hard? Schreier explains that video game development is a hugely challenging career for numerous reasons. Game development demands creativity, flexibility, and a near-fanatical devotion to your work to overcome the unique challenges of the video game industry.
(Shortform note: Video gaming has grown into an enormously popular pastime—it’s a $100 billion industry in the United States alone, and there are an estimated 3 billion gamers in the world today. There’s enormous market pressure for game studios to churn out new, high-quality video games, which helps to explain the lengths that developers go to while creating those games.)
The first major challenge that game developers face comes from the very nature of video games: They’re interactive. Because games are meant to be played, instead of just watched or listened to, there are a myriad of extra factors that developers have to consider while creating them.
First, Schreier explains, video gaming is a unique medium because it has to respond to player choices. Instead of telling a single, linear story like a book or a movie, developers have to create a world that constantly moves and changes based on what the player does. That means there are nearly unlimited possibilities that developers have to account for.
For example, say the player tries to talk to an in-game character. For starters, can they even interact with that character? If so, what does the character say? Can the player choose a response? What happens based on that response? This single interaction, which might represent just a few seconds of gameplay, creates numerous possible outcomes that developers have to program into the game.
(Shortform note: To give you an idea of just how much writing can go into a game to account for numerous possible outcomes, Todd Howard, director of game publisher Bethesda, has said that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has around 60,000 lines of dialogue. That’s just the words themselves, never mind the programming required to create those characters and make them speak. Furthermore, that’s not even Bethesda’s biggest game. Fallout 4 boasts nearly double that amount of dialogue with 110,000 lines, while their upcoming game Starfield reportedly has over 250,000 lines of dialogue.)
You Can’t Know if a Game Is Good Until You Play It
Schreier adds that, because video games are interactive, there are additional challenges in determining whether a game is “good”—challenges that, for example, authors and movie directors don’t face. Each of those challenges represents a large number of extra hurdles that developers have to overcome to make sure people enjoy playing their games.
First, since a player will control the game, developers have to make sure it’s user-friendly, which can be difficult to predict. For instance, the controls should be intuitive, or at least easy to learn. Anything the player needs to know at a glance, like their character’s health, must be on screen without cluttering the field of vision.
Second, Schreier explains that a good game needs to feel good: The game must respond to player input in satisfying ways. For example, there shouldn’t be a noticeable delay between entering a command and seeing the result onscreen; otherwise, the game will feel sluggish, like a car with poor handling. If there needs to be a delay, as is the case with attacks in fighting games that take time to power up and activate, that delay should be short and consistent. If a game features combat, attacks need to feel impactful—giving the sense that you’ve actually hit your opponent—which is usually accomplished through a combination of visual cues and sound effects.
Finally, a game generally needs to be challenging enough that it’s satisfying to beat, but not so challenging that it becomes frustrating. Finding the right balance is often difficult, especially for developers who know their game inside and out. These developers likely know gameplay tricks and strategies that the average player won’t, so they struggle to correctly predict how challenging the general public will find the game.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Blood, Sweat, and Pixels summary:
- A rare look into the harsh inner workings of the video game industry
- The four main challenges that video game developers face
- Why Star Wars 1313 never made it to the shelves