Developer's Dilemma

From Inside Technology

Developer's Dilemma

The Secret World of Videogame Creators

By Casey O'Donnell

An examination of work, the organization of work, and the market forces that surround it, through the lens of the collaborative practice of game development.





An examination of work, the organization of work, and the market forces that surround it, through the lens of the collaborative practice of game development.

Rank-and-file game developers bring videogames from concept to product, and yet their work is almost invisible, hidden behind the famous names of publishers, executives, or console manufacturers. In this book, Casey O'Donnell examines the creative collaborative practice of typical game developers. His investigation of why game developers work the way they do sheds light on our understanding of work, the organization of work, and the market forces that shape (and are shaped by) media industries. O'Donnell shows that the ability to play with the underlying systems—technical, conceptual, and social—is at the core of creative and collaborative practice, which is central to the New Economy. When access to underlying systems is undermined, so too is creative collaborative process.

Drawing on extensive fieldwork in game studios in the United States and India, O'Donnell stakes out new territory empirically, conceptually, and methodologically. Mimicking the structure of videogames, the book is divided into worlds, within which are levels; and each world ends with a boss fight, a “rant” about lessons learned and tools mastered. O'Donnell describes the process of videogame development from pre-production through production, considering such aspects as experimental systems, “socially mandatory” overtime, and the perpetual startup machine that exhausts young, initially enthusiastic workers. He links work practice to broader systems of publishing, manufacturing, and distribution; introduces the concept of a privileged “actor-intra-internetwork”; and describes patent and copyright enforcement by industry and the state.


$35.00 X ISBN: 9780262028196 352 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 18 b&w illus.


  • Through his ethnographic work across several organizations, O'Donnell takes us on a fascinating journey into the heart of game development. He offers important insights into the work practices and views of different members on typical production teams, all with an eye to how the technical side of the work interweaves with the social. This book will be valuable not only to game studies scholars, but also to those interested in digital production, labor, and socio-technical systems.

    T. L. Taylor

    Associate Professor of Comparative Media Studies/Writing, MIT; author of Raising the Stakes: E-Sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming

  • Developer's Dilemma presents a rare, rich look at the videogame industry. O'Donnell combines deep insider knowledge, years of fieldwork in the trenches of game development, and empathy for the hard work and risk-taking of the people he studied. With a critical scholarly lens on the unique dynamics of this industry, the result is a study of creativity and innovation in the new economy that is at once both playful and serious and useful for academics and practitioners alike.

    Gina Neff

    Associate Professor of Communication, University of Washington; author of Venture Labor: Work and the Burden of Risk in Innovative Industries

  • O'Donnell, a former game developer turned ethnographer, has written a penetrating yet playful account of game development's work processes, culture, and transnational reach. He deftly takes the reader through videogame development from inception to release, and his insights open a window into industry practices for sharing, secrecy, playfulness, and contention. The reader gains a rich understanding of work in an emerging media industry that is deeply rooted in play, creativity, and exhausting labor.

    Hector Postigo

    Associate Professor of Media Studies and Production, Temple University; author of The Digital Rights Movement: The Role of Technology in Subverting Digital Copyright

  • Videogame budgets today rival those of Hollywood blockbusters. But what is the reality of day-to-day work in this industry like? Constructed as a game about games, Developer's Dilemma is a fun-to-read treatise based upon Casey O'Donnell's many years of experience with the videogame industry in the United States and India. He strips away the glamour to get at the practices, inner thoughts, and rants of the artists, game designers, engineers, and managers he studies. He reveals a nuanced picture of work practices and struggles in the new digital economy. O'Donnell really cares, too—it is not all just a game, and the book ends with suggestions as to how the players in this industry could make it a whole lot better to work in.

    Trevor Pinch

    Goldwin Smith Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University