There’s a bit of a disconnect between how much games cost to make and how much gamers think they cost to make. Indie game with 2D art? Must be dirt cheap to make. Except when it’s not, as Skullgirls illustrates with its $1.7 million budget. And even that $1.7 million budget looks pretty small compared to the kind of development cost for your average retail game.
Here at Zeboyd Games, we tend to avoid the whole development cost budget by keeping things small and agile. Neither of us takes a set salary – instead, we just share the profits from our game sales. We both work at home so we don’t have to worry about office expenses. We outsource what we can’t do ourselves, namely music, but even there, we’ve been able to keep costs pretty low. Rather than spend years and a small fortune to make one huge game to begin with (like many indie studios do), we’ve slowly been scaling up the size & quality of our games – first Breath of Death VII (let’s make an 8-bit RPG), then Cthulhu Saves the World (let’s make an early 16-bit RPG), then Precipice of Darkness 3 (let’s make a mid-gen 16-bit RPG), and now with Precipice of Darkness 4 (let’s make a late-gen 16-bit RPG). And since we’ve been gaining experience & efficiency with each new game, most of the time our development time & expenses haven’t been going up with each new game despite improvements in quality and length. All in all, this system has worked out for us nicely.
Unfortunately, such a system only really works when you’ve got a very small team and everyone’s invested in making things work. When you start to get larger team sizes, then you start having to pay salaries & rent office space, and whatnot. In the case of Skullgirls, they had a large staff size for an indie team AND they outsourced a fair bit of work as well (music from a famous composer, in-between animation, voice acting, etc.). It’s easy to see how the expenses could rapidly add up.
I’ve heard that development along the scale of Skullgirls has become more and more difficult in this day and age and I definitely believe it. On the one hand, you have tiny indie teams who have great flexibility due to not having to answer to anyone and who don’t need a lot of sales in order to stay afloat. On the other hand, you have huge companies like EA that have incredible resources at their disposal which they can use to drown out the competition in a flood of marketing & high production values. Large indie games with budgets in the $1.5-$4 million range are awkwardly caught in the middle – they have to do MUCH better than a smaller indie team needs to thanks to the much higher development costs, but they don’t have the resources to compete toe-to-toe with the larger & more experienced companies.
That’s not to say that larger-than-traditional-indie-but-smaller-than-AAA development can’t work. If you can carve out a specific niche (like Arc System Works has with 2D fighting games) and cultivate a dedicated fanbase, it can work. However, it’s definitely not an easy route to take – most developers would be better off choosing a different path.