The Difficulties of Adapting to New Video Game Technology

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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How has video game technology changed over the years? How do game developers navigate these changes?

These days, the best video games look so realistic that they could easily be mistaken for a movie. This is thanks to the always-evolving video game technology that developers are forced to keep up with every year.

Let’s look at how developers adapt to new technological advancements in the video game industry.

Hardware and Software Change Constantly

A major challenge that video game developers have to tackle is ever-evolving video game technology. As Jason Schreier says in Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, computers get more powerful every year, allowing for bigger games with better graphics. Consumers expect their games to keep up with that constantly changing technology.

(Shortform note: To provide some context for just how much technology has progressed, the original Super Mario Bros. game (released in 1985) had a total file size of 40 KB. In contrast, Super Mario Odyssey (released in 2017) had a file size of around 5.6 GB, which is 140,000 times as large. Even that’s small by modern standards—many modern games take up well over 100 GB. The fact that modern gaming systems are able to store and process all that data speaks to the technological advancements of the last 40 years.) 

Also, game developers must constantly learn how to use new tools and find new ways to adapt existing technology. Remember that games generally take years to create, meaning the hardware and software developers use at the start of the development cycle may not be what they’re using at the end of that cycle.

Why Are Modern Games So Glitchy? 

As games become more complex, this experimental, improvisational approach to game development creates more and more bugs in the code. Finding and fixing them all is impossible, especially as hardware and software continue to improve, so developers tend to only fix the ones most likely to cause serious problems. 

For example, Super Mario 64 was one of the first games for the Nintendo 64 and—despite being widely hailed as one of the best games ever made—it contains a high number of bugs and glitches. These range from minor graphical problems that weren’t worth fixing to game-breaking glitches that, because they were rare and hard to trigger, went unnoticed until many years later. 

Case Study: Dragon Age: Inquisition

To illustrate the challenges that come from changing technology, Schreier discusses the software difficulties that developers at BioWare faced while creating Dragon Age: Inquisition. This is a fantasy game in which the player controls a party of four characters on a quest to seal a mysterious portal that’s allowing monsters into the world. Inquisition is the third title in the Dragon Age series, following Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2

To understand the challenges Dragon Age’s developers faced, it’s helpful to first understand what a “game engine” is. In this context, an engine is like a skeleton for the game—it includes basic features such as physics, graphical rendering, and the save and load functions. Game engines save a lot of time by allowing developers to build off of that preexisting design instead of creating each new game from scratch.

The game engines used for previous Dragon Age games had become outdated, and they couldn’t render the kind of graphical effects the developers wanted. Therefore, BioWare decided to create Dragon Age: Inquisition using the then-top-of-the-line Frostbite game engine. 

However, Frostbite was originally designed for first-person shooters; a completely different genre of game. As a result, developers had to program custom tools to enable even basic functions in Dragon Age, like swinging a sword instead of shooting a gun.

(Shortform note: The problems with Frostbite didn’t end with Dragon Age: Inquisition. Several other BioWare titles made around the same time also used Frostbite and experienced similar difficulties. Many gamers blamed Frostbite for the bugs and other problems those games tended to have upon release. Some also tried to put the blame on BioWare’s parent company, Electronic Arts, for forcing their game studios to use the Frostbite engine—although project managers have since come forward to say that isn’t true and using Frostbite was their own decision.)

Even after all of that extra work, the engine was unreliable, glitchy, and prone to crashing, costing developers even more time and labor. To make matters worse, the Frostbite engine got frequent updates, and each update required the Dragon Age team to manually move all of their code from the old version to the new one.

(Shortform note: This example of Dragon Age: Inquisition illustrates the importance of having not just a powerful game engine but also the right game engine for what you’re trying to make. While engines like Frostbite are designed for specific types of games, others—for instance, Unreal Engine—are much more flexible, according to some experts. In fact, many games from major studios across a variety of genres were made using Unreal Engine 4. Unfortunately for the Dragon Age team, they worked on this game before Unreal Engine 4 existed, and the previous version was outdated.)

Due to these issues, Dragon Age: Inquisition was delayed by over a year. Even so, developers were still adding and testing basic features just months before its November 2014 release. This strained development cycle resulted in months of mandatory overtime for developers to get the game ready in time.

(Shortform note: According to BioWare’s former executive producer, the studio knew there would be a significant delay to Dragon Age: Inquisition because of the challenges of working with the Frostbite engine, but they agreed to the timetable set by Electronic Arts anyway. The reasoning behind that decision is unclear. Another problem the studio faced was the ambitious scope of the in-game world; even with a year’s delay and developers working around the clock, Inquisition simply didn’t have enough content to fill it, which led to a world that some describe as empty and dull.) 

Schreier adds that this story, at least, has a happy ending. Despite the numerous challenges during development, Dragon Age: Inquisition was a hit—it blew away the sales numbers from the previous two games, and it received excellent reviews from game critics. 

(Shortform note: Dragon Age: Inquisition was so popular that it became prominent in Google searches featuring the word “inquisition.” As a result, the Russell Crowe movie The Pope’s Exorcist accidentally used the symbol of Dragon Age’s Inquisition in place of the symbol of the real-world Spanish Inquisition.) 

The Difficulties of Adapting to New Video Game Technology

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Jason Schreier's "Blood, Sweat, and Pixels" at Shortform.

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

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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