Numlock Sunday: Jason Schreier on his new book, Press Reset
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to Jason Schreier, author of the new book Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Games Industry, a brand new book from the author of Blood, Sweat and Pixels detailing the complicated working conditions in a magnificently lucrative but thoroughly demanding video game business.
The book is a look at the people and workers who create video games, the working conditions they’re stuck in, and the reasons why the game business is just so brutal for the devoted creatives who make it possible. It’s a great read.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
You are the author of Press Reset, which is a look into the game industry and how it's developed into a big business that doesn't always work out very well for workers. You've written another book in this space before. What was the inspiration behind Press Reset?
My first book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels was a book about how games are made and it answers the question, why are games so hard to make? I told 10 different stories about a different game and its creation. This book will go on to do something a little bit different and ask the question that is more along the lines of: why is it so hard to sustain a career in the video game industry? Why is it so hard to stay at the same job, to be healthy and happy and satisfied, to not have to move around the country or in the world every single time every few years for the gigs?
I took a similar sort of anthology approach, where I wanted to tell a few different stories, but rather than just focus on the games this book is more about the people. I found some people and followed their career paths and told the stories of various game studios shutting down and what it meant for those people and how those people recovered from it. Ruin and recovery in the video game industry is the subtitle of Press Reset and all together I think it tells a story of volatility and a lack of sustainability in the games industry.
It's a really magnificent book, it takes you through a lot of specific case studies, in a way that are really, really enjoyable. You describe this state of being as almost permanent gig work, even if it looks like a permanent job where studios will really can an entire team even after a successful game. Why does this happen? What are some of the motivations within the industry?
I think that a lot of these game companies sell the illusion that they're hiring people for long-term careers or something other than gigs, but in practice, it doesn't really work out that way. What's kind of bizarre about the games industry is that it is making tons and tons of money, $180 billion last year, yet it just doesn't seem to be able to save careers and keep people employed and keep people stable. God, even the biggest publicly traded companies are laying people off and shutting down studios all the time. There are a lot of reasons that studios shut down.
Trying to tackle the why of it is tough to do in this thing. A studio could shut down for any number of reasons. There's the obvious, like it makes a bad game or the game flops and so they run out of money, but there's also other examples, some of them I cover in the book, of successful studios also shutting down, studios that make highly, critically acclaimed games like BioShock Infinite. Irrational Studios, the company behind that, shut down about a year after releasing that game. There's also reasons why that might happen.
I think what's most stunning to me is that no matter where you are in the games industry, chances are you've been through a layoff or a studio shut down. One of the stats that I include in the book is that when a bunch of game developers were surveyed, your average game developer has worked for like 2.2 employers over five years. It's very much an industry where you are not sticking with one company long-term. Certainly some of those are by choice, a lot of them are, but just anecdotally you talk to your average game developer and chances are, they're going to have a layoff story or shutdown story. It just seems to be this epidemic problem.
You had really wonderful conversations with some great people, and in one of them basically Warren Spector was like, "Listen, there's four things that can happen to a game studio, one is they get acquired, one is they go out of business, one is they just persevere like Valve, and one is they go public, which never happens." And, basically, he just kind of iterated through each of the endings. You wrote a book about some incredibly successful people, but I am not really finding a lot of happy endings in here.
I think there are some happy endings. Some people who went indie and got to set the terms of their own success even if it didn't necessarily lead to like the zillionaires all around. It just could be a lot more gratifying and satisfying and rewarding for people. Towards the end of the book, actually, when you finish, you can see I tried to explore some solutions for some of these problems, which I think there are. I think that there are a few different ways to tackle the volatility problem in gaming.
One of them being to unionize, which is something that is unique about the video game industry in comparison to something like Hollywood. I think that is the safest and the easiest comparison, Hollywood. A lot of that industry is based on gig workers and people dancing between film sets as they switched jobs, but the biggest difference is that those people are part of unions, which guarantee them certain things, certain protections or benefits that people in games really lack. That's one big thing that I think could be a solution for some of these problems, and it'll ultimately be the happy ending that you're looking for.
The thing that you really illustrate quite early on is the scale of this is, if anything, underestimated. The allusion to Hollywood is correct, but Fortnite we just learned made $9 billion and no Hollywood movie has ever made $9 billion. The scope of this truly is a huge business.
Yeah, it's hard to comprehend. When you look at companies — like Activision is a good example — they are making money hand over fist. They're just, every single quarter it seems like they have a new leap in revenue, but they're still laying people off every two years, like this February and March Activision laid off dozens of people. Granted, a lot of those people were in their live events division and the live events obviously had been hit hard by the pandemic, but this is also a company that's paying $30 million, $40 million bonuses to its chief executive officer. A lot of people were wondering, "Well, where's all that money going?" and the answer, as it often is, is shareholders and executives.
Do you have any particular favorite story from the book? I really enjoyed lots of it and some of the recurring characters, even if it's just like Ken Levine, is there any kind of story in particular that you really enjoyed reporting out?
I don't want to pick a favorite because they're all kind of my favorites, but I think one of the things that I found really interesting while reporting this book is that I knew some of the broad strokes of some of these stories. You mentioned Ken Levine, and I knew the basics of what happened with Irrational Games. I knew they released their game and shut down, yada, yada, yada, that is the gist of it. But hearing some of the details was really fascinating to me. Hearing people's personal stories was really interesting to me. You don't get a lot of opportunities to read that sort of thing when this stuff is happening. When Irrational shut down in 2014, there were a lot of headlines that were like, "Hey, Irrational just shut down!"
There were stories about looking back at what happened at BioShock and looking back at its legacy and that sort of thing. But there wasn't a lot of, "Here are these people who were affected by this and here is their journey." And that's one of the things that I tried to capture in this book. I hope and think it will resonate with people, even if they think they know the basics of what happened to these stories or even if they don't care, even if they don't know this industry super well and they've never heard of Irrational Games. I think just reading the human stories as well will hopefully be appealing to a lot of people.
I liked how you also were able to kind of get some of a global perspective on some of this. You cover somebody who went from working in the American games industry to going to Sweden, where the salary was lower, but the benefits and the security were pretty substantial.
All of the companies covered are in the U.S., and that was mostly by choice, part of it is just logistically it's easier for me to get ahold of people and talk to people who are in the U.S. But also it's the U.S. that really lacks protection for workers, as opposed to, you mentioned Sweden, Sweden has really strong labor laws and unions, and it's not the type of place where you have to worry about your health benefits. After you lose your job, you really are guaranteed health benefits. You can just go to the doctor and pay a small fee to get whatever you need. It is not the type of place where you're like, "Oh my God, I'm going to have to pay thousands a month now," in addition to not having a salary. That alone is such a change. It's so sad to see how America treats its workers in general, and the lack of labor protections for workers here, and how that has affected a lot of industries, but especially gaming. Just imagining an American video game industry that has more protection for people and has more of a social safety net for people, I think we'd see so much more creativity and so many more like entrepreneurial projects and risky games and stuff that just can't exist these days because everyone is so on edge and everything is so high risk.
It's interesting to hear about stories like the guy who went to Sweden and found a place where he doesn't have to worry about, I believe it was in his words "getting hit by a bus," ruining his life because it makes him bankrupt. I think he said in America, "Everyone is just one bus accident away from going bankrupt," which is so depressing and accurate. I think that looking at something like Sweden, there's a contrast in between the countries. There are a lot of other countries where there are worker protections that just make you realize how bad we have it here.
In our defense, you don't see Curt Schilling being able to open up a random video game shingle in Sweden, right?
That's true. Maybe that feels like another pro for Sweden actually. That gets that one on the positive list. The free market capitalists of the world who would argue that the entrepreneurial spirit could not exist in a place like Sweden, but I don't know.
I wonder how many people in the games industry, for example, because that's what we're talking about and that's what I cover. I wonder how many people have not left their jobs to start new companies and do entrepreneurial things because they can't afford to pay for health insurance and how many new startups and indie studios and creative things and just the entrepreneurial spirit and how much of that would exist if people didn't have to worry about their fricking health benefits.
Gaming's had a huge Kickstarter revival, but Kickstarter doesn't have health insurance, you know?
Yeah. And as we've seen a lot of the gaming Kickstarters, most of them in fact end up having to take out money from other places, in addition to Kickstarter, because even if he raised a couple of million dollars on Kickstarter, that's just not enough to pay for a staff of a few people and also their benefits and everything else you need to make a game. It's not an ideal atmosphere and I think having of something like unions. Unions wouldn't fix the problem of America's social safety net, even when we may be getting into broader territory than games, but having unions at game companies would certainly give workers more of a voice, allow them a seat at the table for some of these high level conversations and protect them in ways that we just haven't seen in the games industry in North America before.
The Curt Schilling story is a perfect example. This is something I bring up in the book, essentially they just ran out of money and one day told all of its workers they weren't getting paid anymore. And if they had a union, I think that they certainly could have gotten a contract where severance was mandatory, no matter what. Maybe the studio, instead of just running to the last possible minute and blowing all their funds, maybe they could have sat down a couple months earlier and given everybody severance and not screwed over hundreds of people. That fundamentally is the kind of takeaway of this book: that workers in the games industry lack these basic protections.
It's a really great read. Do you want to tell folks where they can find it?
Press Reset, people can find it anywhere books are sold, physically bought. An audio book is also available wherever you get your audio books. I think people will enjoy it. Hopefully it resonates. And I think it's a bleak, but optimistic book. I would say a bleak but hopeful book. And I think it'll inform and entertain people. If people are interested in hearing me talk games, they could check out the Triple Click podcast, which is a weekly podcast about all things video games with my colleagues, Kirk Hamilton and Maddy Myers.
Bleak, but optimistic. Like BioShock Infinite.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.