Press Reset expertly highlights the need for change in AAA studios

Posted on May 12, 2021

If you’ve got your finger on the pulse of the games industry, you’d know just how dangerous it can be for those who’ve found their careers in that field. The crunching of employees, particularly in larger studios, is more prevalent than ever. Instances of toxic work culture plague these studios, whether that’s the long documented history of Riot Games or the shockwave of poor ongoings at Ubisoft that was revealed last year. These are tragic stories that need to be reported on if we are to see change. In the middle of a lot of these reports over the years is games media journalist Jason Schreier, often the individual to break such stories. His latest book, Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry, highlights these stories to an engaging degree. What happens when promising studios close up shop? Or when beloved ones fall from grace? Schreier tells all in this book.

Job security and anxiety

Within the introductory chapter alone, Schreier elaborates on the anxiety surrounding job security within the AAA game industry. This brief chapter’s writing is palpable in showcasing the love and fear that can come from being a small fish in the big pond that is high budget game studios. Anecdotes are shared about times Schreier would be visiting studios and workers would tap him on the shoulder, eager to show him a portion of the game they were working on.

Then, on the next page, some cold 2017 stats from the IGDA are referenced. Roughly one thousand game workers were interviewed, with one question asking just how many employers they’d worked with in the industry over the past five years. That answer was rounded off to 2.2. For freelancers, the number was even higher, citing 3.6. Jason Schreier understands, as I’m sure a lot of us do, that game developers love their job, even if at times the role can feel unstable and constantly in flux. What these stats and this documented workaholic culture prove is that employees, unfortunately, are used to this.

“…highlighting the love and fear that can come from being the small fish in the big pond that is high budget game studios.”

This instability in the industry is just par for the course at this point. Schreier talks to many developers, a lot of whom have worked out their own contingency plan for when the studio they’re working for inevitably has layoffs, or even closes its doors. “I also no longer put more things on my desk than I can carry out in one bag,” states Sean McLaughlin, a games industry worker since 2006. Needless to say, they’ve seen a fair few layoffs. “When I first got in the industry, I would have the common toys and collectibles on my desk. Now my desk is barren and only has photos and a book or two in case I get laid off again.” 

These are quite confronting realities that are already presented to you in the opening pages of Press Reset alone. Jason Schreier spares no detail and expense in these quotes and accounts. What comes out of it is factual writing that’s covered so eloquently you actually feel for the workers. You’ll often feel like you’re there in the room with them when they suffer these hardships, be it lay-offs or business bigwigs taking control from lower-tiered staff.

Tense boardroom meetings, baffling executive decisions, and the ruin they can leave

Throughout the entirety of Press Reset, Jason Schreier paints a vivid picture of what it was like to experience first-hand some of gaming’s greatest controversies. Even though these stories were before my time in games media, I feel like I’m in the room as Schreier talks about the infamous story of the now-defunct 38 Studios. One of the only remaining artworks of its cancelled MMORPG ‘Copernicus‘ depicts a knight in shining armour, in front of a kingdom – knowing the full story, it feels a little on the nose.

This is a game that was developed by 38 Studios, a company run by ex-baseball pitcher Curt Schilling. As detailed in the book, Schilling soon became an industry bigwig, in control of the little kingdom that was his video game company. While the company appeared all glitz and glamour, promising a healthy work environment, in actuality the studio was hemorrhaging money.

This chapter is a real page-turner. Gradually you see an insight into the baffling executive decisions that were being made for their proposed ‘World of Warcraft killer.’ Meanwhile, lower-level staff were none the wiser, assuming all was moving smoothly on the surface.

So many of the other stories Jason pursues in Press Reset follow the same suit: tense situations that, when retold, feel as relevant as ever. We get a glimpse into the bizarre company bureaucracy that was going on between 2K Marin and 2K Australia in the early 2010s, and Warren Spector’s story on working with Disney for Epic Mickey. This one is detailed as it is raw and honest, not always painting him in the best light. In this, we learn of the boardroom meeting he had with seemingly disinterested Disney executives. Not feeling heard and tired of dealing with these more money-focused higher-ups, we’re told the story of the moment he pegs a remote at an employee in those meetings, narrowly missing them and breaking against a wall.

Picking up the pieces

It doesn’t take those super in the know to understand how these workers’ stories likely end. They either grow tired of the industry and leave entirely or they go indie. Anecdotally, that’s the reality in the gaming industry. A lot of companies can really chew you up and spit you out.

There are ways to make things better, sure. All throughout Press Reset, my inner monologue is screaming at the games industry to unionise. Jason Schreier too hones in on that point in the closing chapters. He also talks about the benefit of equal and fair contract work, regularly taking in hires each time a new project comes through. In some instances, this is really beneficial and a good alternative to the inevitable hiring and firing that comes by the end of a game’s dvelopment.

One thing is for certain: The AAA games space still to this day has some harrowing stories to tell and will continue to for some time. Change is needed. Press Reset is an excellent, engaging read that hones in on this point. Throughout its pages, you’ll feel heartbreak for the wronged workers, rightful anger at corporate bigwigs, and you too will be eager for change. For avid gamers curious as to more of the dastardly ongoings that can go on behind AAA studios’ shiny surface, I can’t think of a better read on the topic than Schreier’s Press Reset.