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Review – Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry

If you have been paying attention to the business of making video games over the last decade, you know Jason Schreier. During his time at Kotaku and Bloomberg, he has consistently catalogued the vicissitudes of game development through a dense network of trusted inner sources. Schreier’s Blood, Sweat, and Pixels (2017) is the definitive text on how video games are produced during the early 21st Century. Or at least it was until the publication of a follow-up, Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry, in May 2021.

Where Blood, Sweat, and Pixels charted the logistics of game development, Press Reset asks what happens after those games have been released. The answer is rarely pleasant. Far from being rewarded with a restful period in which they might carefully plan out an ambitious new project, developers are often kicked to the curb or forced to work long hours on predatory content packages. In Press Reset, the author finally has the opportunity to fully explore the conditions that make these seemingly unsustainable practices so pervasive through a handful of fascinating case studies.

Some of these stories, like the sordid collapse of Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios, are well-known but receive a proper narrative treatment for the first time. Others, including the power struggles within Warren Spector’s Junction Point Studios during its ownership by Disney or the corporate mismanagement of 2K Marin, have only been rumored before their blow-by-blow coverage in this book; if you’ve ever wondered what happened to the notorious lost game Richmond, you’ll find out here. My personal favorite is the story of Dodge Roll rising from the ashes of Mythic Entertainment with 2016’s Enter the Gungeon.

In every case, Schreier is careful to interview and discuss figures at all levels of the studio hierarchy. These include auteurs like Ken Levine, the artists and programmers working to fulfill grand directorial visions, and even the often-overlooked publishers and financiers who have to keep a project from going off the rails. The book’s chronicle of Zach Mumbach, who began as a QA tester at Electronic Arts (EA) in the 1990s before rising to the level of producer on major series like Dead Space (2008-2013) and then moving on the indie scene after burning out amid the harsh working conditions of AAA game development, is a particular highlight. Even this smaller-scale setting is discussed in depth, lest readers get the wrong impression that independent studios are a stress-free reprieve from the risks commonly associated with multi-million dollar tentpole releases.

If I have any disappointments, they are confined entirely to scope. While Schreier avoids falling into the trap of focusing exclusively on the industry’s largest developers, Japanese studios are more or less entirely absent. European studios are also less explored than they were in Blood, Sweat, and Pixels. Still, it’s hard to complain about what’s not present when the available stories are covered with such detail, empathy, and even humor.

More than anything else, Press Reset is a call to action. The scandalous working conditions described in its nine chapters make clear why so many of the interviewees have retired and moved into more comfortable positions outside of the industry. Naturally, this provokes questions about what might have been: what might a Kingdoms of Amalur sequel look like if its passionate developers had been allowed to continue working rather than being unceremoniously fired? What ambitious visions might 2K Marin have produced if its staff was allowed to work on their own projects instead of being unhappily merged with their Australian counterparts? What might Warren Spector have done without the micromanagement of Disney executives at Junction Point? Press Reset successfully makes the case that without major changes to the industry, including unionization and better care for employees, players will forever experience a dim shadow of what might be possible in interactive entertainment.

Please note that a copy of Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry was provided by Grand Central Publishing.

The book is available to purchase in digital and hardcopy formats at all major retailers or directly from its publisher on May 11, 2021.