In 2001, sales of video games in the United States surpassed Hollywood's annual box-office receipts for the first time (about $9 billion). Journalists Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby, authors of Smartbomb, take readers on a voyeuristic, enjoyable journey through the bizarre and fiscally fertile subculture of an industry exploding in popularity and relevance. With its colorful characters and tales of the failures and successes of so many innovators, this book is squarely aimed at mainstream readers rather than just folks who'd rather be finding Easter eggs in Halo 2. Through Smartbomb's lens, video games—still young and changing fast—are an ideal petri dish in which to examine the classic struggles of businesses making things up as they go along: landing funding, building and managing teams, and bringing products to market.
The people keep this story moving, starting with the earliest history of the industry. The profile of Nolan Bushnell, creator of the 1970s ur-game Pong, vividly shows that hard work in this business can pay off in equal doses of fame and fortune and burnout and bankruptcy. Meanwhile, where would video games be without pimply faced, antisocial coders and the Dungeons & Dragons-obsessed nerds who play their games?
Although the authors have plenty of fun at the nerds' expense, they also make it clear early on that video games are serious business. The book features rich, critical depictions of today's leading lights, and the luminaries fare worse than the nerds. Riding the fame of the Xbox, Microsoft's "cowboys," Seamus Blackley and J. Allard, are revealed as more hucksters than hackers. Allard, formerly a "pudgy programmer type," evolves under the glare of video-game fame into the kind of guy fond of "trash-talking zingers, frat-boy guffaws, and nuevoghetto hand gestures." You almost want to blush for him.
Smartbomb does have its lapses and blind spots. Most frustrating is that research for the book seems to have largely dropped off in 2003 (a brief epilogue summarizes the past two years of change in the industry). The authors also fall into techie hyperbole. Time after time, we hear how "everything in the world of video games changed, instantly and irrevocably, overnight." We got it. Despite these bugs, the writing is quick and informative, and the book is a smart read for those who want to learn from the people who keep gamers so entertained.
Read about other recommended books this month.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.