Feb 282013

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. ┬áIn 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.

 Posted by at 8:41 am

  6 Responses to “The Cost of Game Development”

  1. Michael, the reason they do hand drawn is because that makes the characters look, feel, and breathe completely different than a full on program made character. Through hand drawing, they can control how long a particular graphic lasts and how telling it can be so you can see a move incoming in 1 to 2 seconds. It also means the characters move in extremely unique ways. I own Skull Girls and watching the animations is delightful, to say the least. You can tell the developers really cared about giving their fans the full on fighting game service. I may think a bit more about this being an old school gamers who misses the cel shaded, and other interesting hand drawn art styles of older games. Really looking forward to High Def Zelda : Wind Waker due to this.

    As for the article….Large developer teams are one of the many things killing high price game play. There was actually a discussion about this on Destructoid.com, and one of the things discussed is how the bigger a development team gets, the more disconnect there is in the game. Basically when you get to AAA titles and their 400+ person development teams, people just aren’t impressed by most of their games nowadays. People are wondering why games need all these dlc packs coming out for all these AAA $60 games coming out, and people have realized that, unlike old school games, most of these AAA games have little replay value. Its why so many gamers will buy a game, beat it in a week, then sell it almost immediately. With 400+ people, probably the best thing I heard on Destructoid is you can liken it to a grape vine situation. You send orders of what to do from the heads of departments, but by the time you get through the grapevine, chances are something was lost. This also goes for heads of departments consulting each other.

    Basically, a small indie team, or teams of the sizes of games made in the 90’s, like around 30 people, seem to be the sweet spots towards longevity in a game. Even today small groups of 3 to 10 people are making some amazing games…games that can actually give AAA titles a run for their money. If this is the case, why aren’t people like EA making smaller games and aiming for profit from smaller, less risky titles?

    At the end of the day you have EA who is a giant publisher, who has a horrible reputation, and is loathed by almost as many people as those who like them. Indie teams, though, earn fans, and pretty much only fans. I don’t buy EA games anymore, haven’t even gotten around to playing Mass Effect 3 yet. I am tired of the big business side of games and how ugly it is thanks to the likes of EA, Activision, and Ubisoft, and a few others that escape me at the moment. Best thing that could happen is all 3 companies going down, and all their developer studios regaining their freedom, and learning that you don’t need to make a $50 million dollar game to be successful. The best games ever made cost less than 2 percent of that.

  2. There is a disconnect between gamer’s assumptions and real costs, but I think you post points out there is also a bit of blame on the development side for not working efficiently. You’ve leveraged your code base from each previous game in your next game. In 2013 is hand animating every frame of a fighting game (the bulk of the costs according to SkullGirls post) the best and only way? I know that’s how it was done 20 years ago but that’s not a reason to do it this way now.

    SkullGirls have raised the money needed, so there still is a market willing to pay for the costs as they are now, but my question is how sustainable is this? Resolutions and framerates demands will increase, and if you are hand drawing character frames costs are going to continue to explode.

    I make these statements as non-fan of fighting games (never got into them) and as a programmer (thus I always assume there is a better way and it is in code).

  3. The problem that the big AAA developers have is that they have hundreds or thousands of employees, that’s a lot of people who expect a regular paycheck. Even with fluctuation, these companies need the big sales (and DLCs) to keep afloat, so they need to invest big money to make sure they get the big sales – a spiral that just keeps going.

    I feel that there is a hole between Indie and AAA. If you’re 2 or 3 people willing to do Game Dev and work another (Part or Full Time) job to make money, there’s plenty of options. But if you want to build a team of say 10 or 15 people (Programmers, Artists, Sound People, Marketing/PR, a Finance guy), there seems to be no real option right now.

    A lot of this may be a problem with finding a Niche (I wonder how big e.g., Falcom is? Their Ys games seem to sell enough to keep them afloat) or a Marketplace (Microsoft is putting all their eggs in the AAA basket while Sony seems to be onto something with Playstation Plus and their C# stuff, I sincerely hope that the Vita takes off)

  4. With the large amounts of games being released each year perhaps consumers and gamers alike start to think it’s more and more easy to create. I think especially mobile and social games can have a cheap feeling.

  5. Regarding your comment about the difficulty of developing in the $1.5m – $4m range, do you think that that paradigm is going to change at all now that Kickstarter has proven that it is possible (with great difficulty and name recognition) to fund projects in that range? I’m thinking a long the lines of Double Fine Adventure, Project Eternity, Wasteland 2, Shadowrun Returns, etc. Obviously these are all projects spearheaded by veterans with fan-clout, but do you think that what you wrote applies to these projects as much as previous attempts at shipping a product made within that range?

  6. Yeah, it’s much smarter to start smaller. As an indie dev who bit off more than he should have been trying to chew, I can attest to how hard it is to try and get off the ground starting with a more ambitious project (albeit still a hybrid 16bit-style). I’m finally at a good pace with good, committed people, but organization and turnover was a nightmare for 2011/2012.

    We also work from home, operate under a profit-share agreement, and luckily I’m the composer, so I don’t have to outsource anything, but I also turn down opportunities at my paying job and took a half-time position to ensure that I’ve had the time to dedicate to the game. That decision alone has cost me 5 digits a year.

    So even budgets that seem small on paper are far more costly than it appears for the developers.

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