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E for Everyone, Except Me

By Shamus
on Monday Jun 14, 2010
Filed under:
Video Games



This article by Themis CEO Alexander Macris (publisher of the Escapist) encapsulates almost everything I’ve been trying to say about this industry for the last six years. The reality of development costs is painful and I don’t see any way around it.

The numbers in the article are ballpark figures, but they jive with assumptions I’ve been working with:

All game developers, and even most gamers, are aware that it costs more to create a videogame for the latest generation of consoles than it took for prior generations. But how much more? While hard data is hard to come by, a variety of estimates are available on the web that support the following approximations:

* 1994: 4th generation premium videogames cost $200,000 to develop and retailed for $60-$80
* 1999: 5th generation premium videogames cost $1,000,000 to develop and retailed for $40-$60
* 2004: 6th generation premium videogames cost $5,000,000 to develop and retailed for $40-$60
* 2009: 7th generation premium videogames cost $25,000,000 to develop and retailed for $60-$80

And then later he breaks those numbers down for us:

* 1994: 4th gen videogames had to sell to 16,000 customers to break even
* 1999: 5th gen videogames had to sell to 80,000 customers to break even
* 2004: 6th gen videogames had to sell to 400,000 customers to break even
* 2009: 7th gen videogames had to sell to 2,000,000 customers to break even

Do read the whole thing for the full context.

Usually when we talk about how games are getting bigger and dumber (don’t even get me started on this year’s E3) we comfort ourselves with talk about how indie games will save us. But even if an indie is willing to step back to 1994 level technology* we’re still looking at games that take $200,000 to produce, and that kind of scratch is hard to come by and easy to lose. If you handed me $200k right now I sure as heck wouldn’t risk it all on game development.

* You wouldn’t actually want to go back to 1994 tech, or the game would actually be harder to develop and would have trouble running on current-gen computers. But you would need to go back to 1994 presentation styles of 2D or isometric views. As soon as you move to 3D you’re animating polygons and dealing with lighting and camera movements and you’ve basically jumped up to the $1 million price point.

$200k might sound like a lot, but when you think about having just three people spend two years on a game, that works out to each person grossing just $33,000 yearly. Once you pay taxes and buy health insurance, you’re not doing much better than minimum wage. And minimum wage people at least have a guarantee that they’ll get paid for their work. In game development there’s always the chance that the thing won’t sell and you’ll have wasted your time and treasure. Oh, and the minimum wage worker is a lot less likely to be hauling around an albatross of student debt.

So even if you did have $200k (which again, is a crapload of money in my book) the best you could do is pay a small team very poorly in order to have a chance at making a game that will be ignored by the press and could end up making almost nothing.

So we can get fun puzzle games like World of Goo. And we can get $50 million popcorn games like God of War. But there isn’t really a viable path for the stuff in between. Which is why we’re not seeing deep, niche games like the original X-Com, Starflight, or Elite. (Yes, we have Dwarf Fortress, but that’s a rare exception and I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of indies going down that road.)

Comments (115)

  1. krellen says:

    Grognards unite!

    I’m perfectly willing to accept a little less on the graphic front to get the gameplay awesome I’d prefer. But I’m really not sure how to pass that message along to the publishers.

  2. DrinkingWithSkeletons says:

    One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is the availability of board-game style games. There are plenty out there, but they all seem to be strategic in nature (think Carcassone & Catan; I’m even willing to put tower defense games into this category). I’m a little surprised that there hasn’t been a blossoming of board-game-like video games in other genres, particularly RPGs. Easy-to-learn rules, a nice dose of randomness, and charm over tech should be making this type of game an obvious middle ground between simple, casual games and more in-depth fare.

  3. DIre Predictions says:

    So basically the games industry is doomed to collapse on itself because its to scared to make niche products and alienating their core audience? by riding the bleeding edge and causing production prices to sore they have to make games faster blander and more appealing to casual and lightweight gamers. A few stronger pulishers and developers survive, the other developers will make two games at most before shutting their doors.

    And we the consumers see our hobby take its last wobbly steps towards the edge of that cliff. Should we cry out? beg it to stop? No.

  4. randy says:

    Sorry, but wasting $25 mill doing an empty Call of Duty “me too” clone is just ridiculous. Activision and all those idiots wasting money deserve to go bust. Sadly, it looks like everyone buys these and forget about the real gems out there.

    • Primogenitor says:

      I would like to see some data on who the actual buyers are. A lot of people I know don’t buy the $25m games and buy the more niche, cheaper, older games (Neverwinter Nights for example).

      It would be interesting to compare ho the industry thinks the buyers are (within first 2-week profit window) with who the industry thinks the pirates are. I suspect they are very similar.

  5. Someone says:

    Interesting, I was just pondering the ramifications of everincreasing development prices when I came across this.

    Indeed, the prices have been increasing rapidly and they arent showing any signs of slowing down. The publishers have been very twitchy and dodgy over the last decade. We all remember the seemingly endless DRM debacles, the introduction of episodic gaming, DLC’s both “first day” and later, episodic gaming, attempts to milk the multiplayer, to strangle the used games market, to bind the wild PC market by one publisher with various online distribution platforms and various other shenainigans. Its easy to think the publishers do that because they are stupid and greedy and want to make enough banknotes to fill a massive pool with hookers or something. But they have to deal with constantly increasing demand of technology and graphics, PR and publicity swelling the budget. On top of that you have the economic crisis and the impending peak oil crisis and things arent looking very bright.

    No wonder nobody wants to take risks, we get a constant stream of blandness, old IP necromancy, overexagerated hype, dogpiling on the MMO market…

    The situation calls for new buisness models.

    Among other things, that really makes me wonder if making good story is worth it. I mean, what if the publishers are right, what if for each one of us hardcore story and gameworld likers there are ten shooter fans who just want to shoot people in the face with a shotgun. What if the consumer IS mostly dumb? Sure a good story might enchance an average shooter but maybe people want Bruckheimer instead of Shakespear? What if a well written story with clear character motivations, interesting game world and all that other stuff that makes us story nerds feel all warm and fuzzy will go straight over the head of your average consumer, while a dynamic blockbusteresque plot, preferably involving radical Islamic organisations in the middle east or something equally topical, a bunch of action movie cliches and explosions will offer all the needed excitement?

    It obviously requires hard data like sales figures and social surveys to back that sort of claim. But think of Bioware for example. They had the sex controversy in Mass Effect, they tried to sway the action crowd. What if they did it not to swim in money but merely to make ends meet? Just how grim the situation is?

    Somewhat related to the issue a bit of recent news:
    Russian government allocated ten million bucks to game developers to “make patriotic games to improve the image of the country in the eyes of youth and blah blah blah”. Its interesting to see what (if anything) will come out of it, especially if it really costs 25 million to make just one game.

    • M. says:

      Among other things, that really makes me wonder if making good story is worth it.

      Story is by far the cheapest part of a game. The amount of the budget that would go to, say, a top-quality novelist or TV writer would not even fund a week of development on your average triple-A title. Any game which has a poor story, has a poor story because they couldn’t be bothered to get a good one — not because it was too expensive.

      preferably involving radical Islamic organisations in the middle east or something equally topical

      Please name, oh, let’s say, three triple-A titles with a plot that centers around “radical Islamic organizations in the middle east” (as opposed to just generic “terrorists” which are then shoved aside two levels in, in favor of yet another Cabal of Evil White Americans.)

      I realize this was just a throwaway remark, but it buries an assumption that has become universal despite its utter opposition to reality. I have to call it out.

      • Someone says:

        I myself wondered just how cheap a good story is. So if the developers arent shoving it aside due to monetary conserns, why are they doing it?

        As for “terrorists”, now that I think about it they are always represented by stereotypical gun-toting arabs, not linked to any radical organisation. Huh. My mistake.

  6. Jep jep says:

    Well as long as the industry is running after the latest technology, not much is going to change. Maybe in the future they’ll reach somekind of ultimate level in the technology where any improvement on quality would be next to meaningless. Then the technology would prolly eventually get cheaper when it wouldn’t be in a constant state of change, and thus make room for more ingenuity.

    The thing is, the older generations of games would need some special marketing and exposition to make them more known to the masses, so that there could even be any reasonable market (That is if you’re rather into making business) for “gameplay over graphics” style of games. They’re like old cars at this point; only old geezers and people who take the hobby seriously are interested in them. I’d say there are quite a few games that would deserve at least to be recognized more publicly for their achievements in design etc.

    • midget0nstilts says:

      That’s a pretty good analogy! I mean, hell, I feel like an old-timer when discussing games, and it always boils down to “they just don’t make them like they used to”. When you’re looking to your early teens as the “good old days”, you know something’s wrong.

      Fortunately, I’ve had some luck with visual novels. The technology is essentially the same it was 10 years ago. I know it’s cold comfort for most of us, but at least it’s something.

      • Mari says:

        Actually looking back on your teens (early or otherwise) as “the good old days” is pretty much par for the course of human history. Ask any resident of a nursing home about the good old days before these newfangled video games and such then get comfy for a very long and nostalgic trip down memory lane.

        And as with classic cars, classic video games will always be a niche product. Someday we might see gEEzEr (note the play on E3)cons where old people like us get together to celebrate the great old games of our youth, much like classic car rallies. But don’t hold your breath for technology to level out and allow us all to recapture our misspent youth in the current mainstream.

        • midget0nstilts says:

          Yeah, I’ve pretty much thrown my hands up and given up an hopes for the old way of making games.

          But! There are some good indie games out there. And not all of them are puzzle games. There’s the visual novels as I mentioned, but you’ve also got RPGs, a handful of shooters, a heaping helping of Roguelikes… something for everyone. Some of the best games I’ve played, I’ve played lately, and for free.

        • midget0nstilts says:

          Er… I should mention, I’m in my early 20s. That’s why it seems weird!

  7. Kjetil says:

    And this is why gamers should stop being such graphics whores.

    I mean, the majority of these costs come from graphics, non? If we stopped rewarding graphics so highly we would make an opportunity for everyone else to compete,

    • Garden Ninja says:

      Graphics are a big part of it, but not the whole problem. Shamus wrote a pretty good breakdown in his Escapist article about a FFVII remake.

      To paraphrase: There is the graphics engine itself, but on top of that, environment have to be 3D, and viewable from all angles. Then you need voice acting, with lip syncing that isn’t complete crap, and decent animations. Then you probably need a physics engine (I don’t think Shamus mentioned that, probably because an RPG is less likely to need it). That’s just the stuff that the player sees. There’s a lot of stuff that has to happen on the backend, before that is presented to the player. And they all have dependencies, that make parallel development basically impossible (See top page 3 of that Escapist article).

      It’s easy to say they should just skip some of that stuff, but let’s face it: any game that skips or half-asses any of it would get beat up in the the reviews. In fact, they already do, with very few exceptions (and the ones I can think of are due to genre conventions only). Reviewers are part of the problem.

  8. Vegedus says:

    I’m not nearly as old as you guys, and not that nostalgic either, but dammit, I want my turn-based games back!

    Of course, I have refuge in my first love: Japanese games. It’s not that they aren’t subject to the exact same trend, it’s that they have an entirely different definition of ‘niche’. Almost opposite, in fact.

  9. Complaints that games are appealing too much to the “common folk” probably are the same old-fart complaints every genre has seen.

    Complaints that games are dumbing down might initially seem like the same thing (since accusations of dumbing it down are also always part of the old fogey complaints), but unlike most media we have objective evidence that gaming really is getting dumber. After a link on the gaming reddit, I recently set myself up with Planescape: Torment in a way that it can run at a decent resolution, and with a variety of user fixes. Now, I’m trying to avoid using a FAQ to get through it, but I have looked at it some.

    Compare the Planescape: Torment (1999!) FAQ with, say, the Oblivion FAQ. The Oblivion FAQ has a lot of quests, but they’re mostly “do this, do that, say this to this person, say that to the other, then kill this person”. A few branches, but only rarely. The engine itself gives you some freedom, mostly of the “kill or sneak past the mook” variety, but really not much. Compare with the entry for even a single P:T quest. “If you do this, this will happen, unless you said this to the other guy a while ago, then kill this person, or tell them the truth, or lie to them, in which case you may get sent over here, or…” and on it can go for quite a while.

    Admittedly, using P:T here is going straight for the jugular; you can list the similarly complicated games almost on one hand (Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2, Fallout 1 and 2, …), but there is an objective case to be made that things are getting dumbed down and it’s not just old fogeys complaining. And it’s not hard to feel the genre of “rich interactive story world” got strangled in the cradle by 3D, which is why my list is so short. How many more such games could we have had, if they didn’t all have to be 3D?

    (Ultima 9 died death by 3D, too. Trying to jam a full Ultima into 3D strangled the entire project.)

    • Mari says:

      Objective evidence or not, it IS still part of the same old complaint. Listen to “current” music of the 17th century and then compare to “current” music today. Watch movies of the 40s and 50s then compare to today. Heck, read a newspaper article or book from the last century and then compare to today. You’ll find objective evidence that all genres have been “dumbed down.”

      • Kacky Snorgle says:

        Hmmm…. Did the public in the ’40s have to work harder to read ’40s books than the public today has to work to read today’s books? Or is it only today’s public that has to work hard to read ’40s books, simply because the language and allusions aren’t current any more?

        In other words, I’m not sure whether things have been dumbed down, or whether they’ve just plain changed, so that you now have to be educated about the past in order to appreciate older works the way everyone once could.

        We don’t, in 2010, consider it evidence of superior education if someone knows the language and culture and other “common knowledge” of 2010. But in 2080, such knowledge will probably be uncommon….

        • Soylent Dave says:

          Language in newspapers has definitely (and deliberately) been dumbed down in order to appeal at a broader market.

          A similar trend has occurred in book publishing – books haven’t been ‘dumbed down’, but publishers became willing to produce material aimed at a broader market (i.e. using language (and content) accessible to more people).

          This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s opening up entertainment to more and more people. And you’ll (almost) always find that the highbrow stuff still exists – but, just like in the ‘good old days’ when the proletariat didn’t have anything at all to read/listen to etc. – only a minority of people are interested.

          It only seems like it’s being drowned out by the lowbrow stuff, because there’s more of the latter – but it’s (usually) not being replaced.

      • I know where to find music that would make Mozart weep with the complexity in it. I read fiction denser and more complicated than anything written in the 1800s, and it’s hardly considered noteworthy since there’s a lot of it. Television has gotten noticeably faster and more interesting since even the 1980s; I tried to watch MacGuyver a couple years back, a show I used to wait for every week, and I couldn’t stand it, it was so slow! IMHO, American movies have stagnated in complexity for reasons I could go into at some boring length, but movies from several other traditions are continuing to advance. Comics have gone from Peanuts to Gunnerkrigg Court or your choice of rich, complicated storyline in a webcomic, you have hundreds to choose from. (Escaping from the newspapers have freed them like no other medium I can think of.) I’m not generally prone to old-fogeyism.

        I don’t know where to buy a game comparable to Fallout 2 or Planescape: Torment in narrative or state-space complexity. I don’t know where to download a recent one. Dwarf Fortress is probably the closest, but not exactly what I’m talking about. It has the semblance of a story, but no real narrative arc. (I’m not saying that’s bad, just that it isn’t what we’re talking about.)

        • Peter H. Coffin says:

          The mention of movies is very valid; Hollywood’s on a similar treadmill and faces similar challenges to get off of it.

        • Falcon says:

          Here you are hitting on the crux of the issue. You have managed to find counters to the ‘dumbing down’ of our culture. Where do you find them? Well off the beaten paths. I’m a huge music nerd (I will resist the urge to go all music snob, but yeah I’m one of them) and have found music which definitively does not conform to any dumbing down trend, but it is also very niche. I’ve chosen to enrich myself in the culture, and have found a great deal of value there. What I lose in flashy production, concert pyrotechnics, and music videos I gain in musical composition. By searching out the internet radio, chat rooms, message boards,etc. I’ve been able to enjoy music in a way that mainstream cannot provide. That’s the trick though, it took alot of work and investment for me. Was it worth it? For me a resounding yes. The average consumer though… well most people simply don’t care

          The same applies to video games. The average consumer is ‘dumb’, not necessarily in the sense of intelligence (though X-box live voice chat is a strong argument they are), but in the sense they simply are not invested enough to educate themselves on your deep, complex games. Most people simply want to blow stuff up, listen to a catchy hook, or escape into a shallow fantasy. Unfortunately the average consumer is a fickle thing, with the attention span of a lemming. To entice these consumers they require even more flashy shiny things, which cost more to make, which necessitates a shallower experience, which pushes innovation farther underground, which makes fewer people take the time to search deeper, which exasperates this entire trend.

          The one benefit all such mediums have in the underground is that the more focused mainstream becomes, the more niche, and ultimately more passionate the creators tend to be about their art.

      • Old_Phart says:

        Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I think there’s always been a fairly consistent ratio of the production of crap to quality in human art, theatre, literature, film, and (Ebert’s opinions aside) gaming.

        What happens is that, over time, the crap gets deservedly forgotten, and the quality gets remembered. So, looking back, we see the gems of quality and overlook all the other tripe that was contemporary to it.

        While the time-period when Planescape:Torment was released is already fondly remembered by many as “the golden age” of PC gaming, I think that if you looked at the volume of ALL games released during that period, there was plenty of forgotten crap, too.

        The signal-to-noise ratio of quality:crap may fluctuate a bit, but I think there is always quality being produced — unfortunately, it often takes time for it to be found. In fact, quality art is often ignored, berated, and fails commercially when it is first produced, and is only appreciated after time adds perspective. So, I think there may be an element of this in modern gaming, too.

        Or, as I said — maybe it’s just wishful thinking…

        • Garden Ninja says:

          I think it’s a bit of both. Remember Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crap. There was crap in the 90s and there is crap now. We’ve just forgotten about most of the crap from the 90s.

          But I don’t think that’s the whole picture. Look at the good stuff from the 90s compared to the good stuff now. Maybe it’s colored by my current tastes (I played mostly PC games in the late 90s/early 00s, and mostly console now), but the old stuff was, on the whole, deeper than current stuff. BioShock is awesome, but when it came out, there were numerous complaints about it being “dumbed down” compared to System Shock 2 (which I haven’t played yet, so I can’t speak personally). SS2 was essentially an RPG with shooter combat, and BioShock is mostly a shooter, so maybe that’s an unfair comparison.

      • Zak McKracken says:

        I don’t think that’s true
        Listen to 60s Rock’n’Roll, you’ll find lots of phrases like “Ramalama-Dingdong” and so on. Listen to what the average guy on the street was listening to in 1830, it won’t be heady stuff. It will be full of exactly the same stuff as pop music today, maybe a little less obvious allegories to sex, but only maybe.
        The reason why many think nowadays music is dumber than it was is that from those golden days mostly the prominent pieces have survived. Classic orchestral music was only for noble people, and the less impressive Rock’n’Roll experiments have been mercifully forgotten in favour of … oh no, that song is still on the radio … so why are you complaining about today’s music?

  10. Factoid says:

    I feel an exceptional lack of pity for game publishers who have difficulty turning a profit when their game grossed $120 million dollars and they only got $25 million back.

    They’ve let an unsustainable business model continue for too long. You can’t let 80% of your gross be consumed by other entities and expect to stay in business very long.

    If your retailer partners are going to command 40% of your gross revenues then they should be contributing as investors to the product. This is how the movie industry works. Nobody finances a film like Avatar all by themselves. The studio puts up a chunk, the domestic distributor puts up a chunk, the international distributor puts up a chunk, etc…

    The light at the end of the tunnel for niche games is digital distribution. You add that 40% back into the mix and you can sell to a whole lot less people and still turn a profit. Problem is that Microsoft and Sony both take ridiculous cuts of digital sales on consoles, even higher than they charge for licensing fees for retail games. That needs to change.

    There aren’t a lot of indie game publishers out there. Most indies seem to be self-published…but if there were a company out there that wanted to put just 8 or 9 million into a game they could get games which are almost indistinguishable from high end games yet only need a couple hundred thousand copies sold to break even.

    • Peter H. Coffin says:

      Spending 80% of your revenues making that revenue is pretty par for Really Big Blue Tech Companies, the largest of which could be hardly said to be “unable to expect to be in business long”.

  11. Jack says:

    “But even if an indie is willing to step back to 1994 level technology* we're still looking at games that take $200,000 to produce”

    Really? As you said, they aren’t actually developing on 1994 tech, so is it really fair to estimate the same development cost?

    • Kdansky says:

      Probably not. Pac-Man took a team of ten people a year (according to wikipedia), and I am pretty sure I could write it in a couple weeks, using modern technology such as Flash. So it might be a bit cheaper.

      But compare recent titles such as Aquaria or World of Goo which have about that development costs (1-2 years, 2-3 people) of 200’000$ and are technologically not far ahead of the 1994 top titles (Super Metroid, Warcraft, Theme Park, Sonic 3). But then again, those were not your average 1994 games, but rather all time classics even.

      • krellen says:

        I wrote Pac-Man in my high school programming class. The only long part was a day-long compile to calculate ghost paths on the maze. This was back in 1992.

      • Shamus says:

        It’s true that you could make Pac-Man very quickly today, but remember that a key part of the game has been done for you: The gameplay. You already have a working template a fun and interesting mechanics and a solid presentation aesthetic. (Power pellets, Pac-Man corners faster than ghosts, ghosts have different movement logic, etc.) Coming up with new gameplay and testing it out to see what works and what’s fun will take time.

        I guess by saying “1994 graphics” we’re saying you can basically hand-wave the graphics expense and focus solely on how long it would take you to cook up winning gameplay. I suppose that depends a LOT on the individual and the kind of game they’re making.

    • Shamus says:

      I think so. You’re going to have a hard time making a deep game (like the classics I mentioned) using less than three people for two years. Even assuming the graphics are so cheap that they eat up only minimal time, the gameplay itself will take time to develop.

      • Look at the original Starflight, a fairly deep game, and the development history it had, way back when. Thousands of hours of development time.

      • Ragnar says:

        What do you count as a deep game? Do Spiderweb’s games count? He makes deep games with lots of story and a huge world. He usually spends about a year for each game.

        • Adeon says:

          Yeah, I loved the Avernum series. Up until Avernum 4 when they re-did the gameplay. The successfully carried me over from Exile to Avernum but the change to the core mechanics in Avernum 4 (especially the change from having separate town and world maps) lost me. It just didn’t feel like Avernum anymore so I couldn’t get interested.

          That being said, I’m looking forward to their next game (Avadon).

  12. Cliffski says:

    There is definite room for something inbetween puzzle games and the triple A titles. I know this because I’ve been making games that fit that description for over ten years.
    Gratuitous Space Battles is basically a ‘one man plus some contractors’ effort. It certainly cost me less than $100k,let alone $200k, and it’s profitable.

    I agree not many people who are doing solo or small indie games are aiming outside the puzzle genre. I think people get lured in by stories about how much money iphone and casual games make, and assume they have to do that to be succesful as indies.
    This just isn’t true.
    I should probably keep my head down and shut up, but you can certainly make profitable niche indie games for the PC these days.
    It’s just flipping hard work :D

    • Kdansky says:

      Hah! I bought that just yesterday :P

    • Factoid says:

      Are you including your own time in those calculations though? Most solo developers don’t.

      If you could be making $100/hour at a freelance night programming job but spend a year making a game instead your game really cost you $100/hr plus whatever you paid your contractors plus your other out-of-pocket expenditures.

      If your game only makes $130,000 and you spent 1000 hours programming it you actually lost $70,000

      Not that there is anything wrong with that. If it’s something you do in your spare time for fun, that’s great. It’s definitely 30,000 you didn’t have in your pocket before, but the opportunity cost is definitely something to consider. And many people consider is a leisure activity, so there’s a value that can be assigned to that.

      Other people aren’t interested in assigning values to things and just want to make and play games as long as they’re not out-of-pocket on the deal. That’s totally awesome. Many great games have come from that avenue.

    • Someone says:

      To be fair, GSB feels sort of like a puzzle game.

      • MintSkittle says:

        GSB is a puzzle game of sorts. You need to design your fleet to counter the opponent fleet without overrunning your budget or pilot cap. Some scenarios also limit the use of certain weapons or ship types.

    • Shamus says:

      Okay, GSB looks very interesting. Grabbing the demo now.

      • Jonathan says:

        Me too.
        **update** fail…. Does not run upon install, giving an error message. Tried redownloading from the main site instead of mirror, same issue. Windows XP. Big long error message when I ask for technical details.

        Will try to watch this thread if there’s a common fix.

        • Jonathan says:

          Resized screen rez to the next one up from 800×600 and it’s up.
          After seeing a couple of the videos I think I’m going to want to buy this, and then show it off at the next LAN party.

      • ps238principal says:

        I think you’ll enjoy it. I haven’t played it in a while, so I might have to fire it up again.

        I wouldn’t mind an unending screen saver of infinite ships just blasting the cookies out of each other until I moved the mouse.

    • Andy_Panthro says:

      We certainly appreciate it though!

      I got GSB a while back (plus Order and Tribe expansions) and enjoyed it a lot (considering getting the swarm).

      One thing that impressed me most was the graphics, which are just the sort of style I like.

      Now you’ve given a clue to the general costing, how many copies have you sold? Would you say you’d made enough to finance a future project? (I’m assuming here that you put some of your profits into producing your next games and expansions)

      • Kdansky says:

        Yeah, it has awesome graphics. I’m not extremely thrilled on the strategy aspect, it feels a smidge too simple to me (took me a couple hours to figure out a build that absolutely crushes even the Expert challenges), and I dislike the complete disregard for http://www.projectrho.com/rocket/index.html
        Being able to actually command your ships during battle or a campaign would have been great, but obviously impossible at the same budget.

        • Zukhramm says:

          Not being able to do anything during battles is what I like about the game. There are to me two fun things in a strategy game:

          1. Building stuff
          2. Seeing stuff destroy other stuff

          All this managing and moving of units and constructing additional pylons just detracts from those two.

      • Cliffski says:

        Hi, lots of replies. Eeek.
        I take the point about having to calculate in my time. I should clarify that positech is a full time gig for me, and has been for many years now.
        I’m not sure if its easy to get $100/hour for 40/hours a week, which is $4k a week, or roughly $190k a year.
        In the UK, a senior games coder doesnt earn that if they work full time.
        All I can say is given the time GSB took, the money I made from it (after contractors expenses etc) is more than I would have earned if I was still working at Lionhead for that same period.
        And that makes it a vast success to me, because I also get to be lead game designer and work from home.
        The downside is obviously that nothing is guaranteed, and I need to have enough of a safety margin to pay my bills in the year or so it will take me to make my next game.
        But on the whole, I have found making indie strategy games to be viable as a realistic alternative to being a seniro (not elad) coder in the triple A industry.

        The reason most people do not do it, is possibly not money, but variety of skillsets. I enjoy business and marketing. Most coders I know hate and dread that. And that can pretty much seal your fate. For an indie, trading some l33t c++ skills for business skills is vital.

    • Rosseloh says:

      That looks amazing, downloading the demo now. After watching the original Star Wars trilogy again recently, this is just the sort of game I need.

  13. Greg B. says:

    I certainly hope that this will begin to alleviate itself as the economy gets better. MovieBob over at the Escapist had something similar to say about Hollywood last week in his post “Games that should NOT be made into movies”. Basically, Hollywood is much too afraid to be creative, go outside the box, create something original, and have it flop than to make a remake/reboot/sequel and have it flop. At least then they could say, “Well, it did really well the first time around. I thought it would be better this time.”

    I think the game industry is in the same boat. They would rather make games that they KNOW will sell since the last forty-two iterations did well. “This time it will be… in space… with zombies!” And then we have the shovelware the Wii is so good at producing. “Look how many copies of Wii Sports sold! Its a 1:1 console:software ratio. That must mean that EVERYONE likes sport compilations.”

    I just want more people to take risks, both in creating games and buying them. There are sleeper titles everywhere you look. Remember, the economy won’t get better by itself. You have to be willing to put money into it as well. And when you hear of a developer taking a risk to put out a game because enough people asked for it, TRY IT OUT! *cough* M-rated Wii titles *cough*

  14. WarlockofOz says:

    There’s still a niche for professionally developed 2D games – Plants vs Zombies has sold an absolute truckload. I’m surprised PopCap doesn’t have more competition.

  15. g says:

    Speaking of the wii, that is “the way out”. I lookup how many copies Wii sport sold and I can’t believe it… And graphic wise they’re 94 tech (well maybe 96).

    As much as we hardcore folk would wish for a deep game, with a huge gameworld and hours of well written dialog with cutting edge dialog the reality is nintendo can spit out something far cheaper and sell it to a vastly larger client base than “hardcore gamers”. And there won’t be any M-rated wii titles… instead sony and ms will engage in the fight for the larger market nintendo went for.

    I’m not even paying attention to e3* this year :/ it is / will be a bunch of lies.

    *save for the last guardian release date announcement.

  16. Anaris says:

    One thing I have to add here, no idea whether other people think about that too. But it isn’t always just about the graphics. For my part, I have tried a good number of smaller or even indie games in the last year. I don’t mind them trying to spend less on the “flashy” parts of the game.. but most indie developers seem to mistake that as an excuse to create a convulted, ugly and annoyingly hard to deal with interface. Menus here and there flying all over the screen, loads of spreadsheets etc.

    I know some games rely on their complexity, but for me most of them are failing big time regarding accessibility.

  17. lazlo says:

    I wonder if there’s some room in the middle using a model of specialization and licensing of re-usable assets. It seems to me that there are basically four components to most games: you have the programming, the graphics, physics, AI, etc. engines. Then you have the actual artwork. Then you have voice acting. Then there’s the actual plot and story. The engines cost a buttload to develop, but are eminently re-usable. The art is also expensive, but somewhat reusable. If you make some of the art procedurally generated, it becomes more reusable. Story is what a lot of the triple A titles are missing, so if you start with that, and can license an engine and good artwork on a per-unit-sold basis, then I would think you would be able to generate some really good games on a minuscule budget, and all you’d be really missing is voice acting. yes, that’s a big gap, but a strong advance in believable text-to-speech could be game changing (so to speak).

    As and example, one of my favorite games is NWN. Part of the reason that it rocked was the mod community, which generated several very good, completely playable full games. And they did it without getting paid a dime. I don’t see why you couldn’t do the same thing today with the Source engine, or the procedural landscape generators used for Fuel, or any of the new engines, and then let people make their own games. It didn’t generate a market for NWN because BioWare prohibited people from selling their mods. I don’t know, but I suspect that current game developers are shy of doing this today, because the indie games created, while still generating revenue for them, would still be competing with their own triple A titles. But I don’t see why it couldn’t happen sometime soon (or maybe it already is, and I just don’t know about it.)

    • Michael says:

      Part of the reason could be the liability issues. There’s a bunch of mods for NWN and NWN2 that recreate older games in part or in full, including Pool of Radiance and (I think) Icewind Dale.

      For that matter The Witcher started as a NWN mod (IIRC).

      Now, if they were being sold, this could have resulted in a huge liability nightmare.

  18. mewse says:

    I’m not entirely sure what’s meant by “Premium” in this article. But setting that word aside, I’ll confirm that the costs listed in this post are not far off from reality. Or at least, they’re in the right order of magnitude.

    In my own experience, the “break even” mark for most modern games (note: not necessarily “premium” games) is usually nearer to the 1,000,000 sales mark than the 2,000,000 quoted above. Depending, of course, on the game’s budget. But even so, you only need to check one of the game sales charts websites to realise just how few games are actually selling in those sorts of quantities these days; it’s why you see so many risk-adverse game designs that focus on duplicating recognisable patterns these days. (space marine FPSes, music games, etc)

    I’d estimate that right now, only about 10%-20% of the mainstream games out there sell enough copies to pay back their cost to produce.

    • Peter H. Coffin says:

      You may as well, these days, consider “premium” titles to be anything that has a marketing budget bigger than having a FaceBook page and sending out review copies. If you see it mentioned on G4 anywhere, it’s Premium.

  19. Kacky Snorgle says:

    Utterly off the topic, but it caught my attention: The image of $100 bills at the top of Shamus’s post is very unusual in that all of the bills have different serial numbers and many of them even have different signatures, which are correctly matched to the serials. Somebody actually obtained at least $1300 in cash in order to produce this image. That’s dedication! :)

    Normally, money images like this seem to be photoshopped from multiple copies of a scan of one bill, sometimes with a couple digits in the serial changed if somebody’s being very thorough….

  20. Blanko2 says:

    didnt read alla comments cuz im tired and there are many.

    would you consider thief3 a niche game? it was released pretty late in the 00s but it was a sequel from an earlier game. and i dont know how i would classify it. it just doesnt seem like a blockbuster game, to me.
    but maybe the production costs tell another story…
    i think that thief3 probably touches on everything i want in a game, there were almost no glitches (at least for me, just the climbing gloves were a bit messed up, and they admitted they were rushed with that) the graphics were good (and still are. if the game was just slightly improved it could probably stand up to some games released now.
    and also, they made a thief mod for doom3.
    anyways, im in danger of losing my train of thought:
    point is, thief 3 is about the level of game i can be satisfied with, and probably a lot of people, graphics-wise. would making a game of that scale now be so difficult?

  21. TehShrike says:

    Shamus (and everyone else interested in the things he talks about in this post [and others]) – you should read this: http://torrentfreak.com/director-sam-bozzo-on-bittorrent-and-the-movie-industry-100613/

    I found it to be insightful, and I think that a good amount of what he said (about the movie industry) can be applied to the video game industry.

    I’m very interested to hear what you think.

  22. MichaelG says:

    I haven’t subscribed, but the LOVE MMO was a one-man effort. The demo graphics have always looked interesting, not standard 3d at all.

    Anyone tried it?

    • froogger says:

      Yes, I played it when it was open beta. For a one-man effort it is amazing. No, strike that, the game is amazing, full stop. It runs a bit like Wyrm, or ATitD. You’re on your own in a strange world and build stuff to survive. The players shape the environment, although there are NPCs.

      The graphics are unusal, the icons odd, the only really familiar bearings in the world is light and gravity. It still makes sense, though. Definitely worth a spin!

  23. Andy_Panthro says:

    When you see figures like that, it makes all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about piracy really make sense.

    The publishers want to maximise profit by any means in order to keep their industry alive, and while in the past you may have got away with selling 300,000 copies and being happy with that, now it seems you need to get to the millions.

    It does feel almost like a crash is coming. We’re at the point where if the industry and economy was healthy, we should be seeing glimpses of the new Xbox720/PS4/Wii2 etc..(approx 5-6 years between console upgrades) Instead they seem to be looking to sell more peripherals and software than hardware (the hardware being the traditional loss-leader).

    The one part of the industry that is best placed to survive any crash would seem to be the PC though, so that calms my nerves a bit. With the rise of indie developers and a relatively open platform, PC gaming seems to me like it would be able to get through a slump more easily.

    • Tizzy says:

      It makes sense that back in the good old days, you would be very pleased when you could move 300,000 units, given that the number of households that you could reach was so small in the first place.

      Since then, gaming has been mainstreamed, but paradoxically, things are harder because more units need to be shifted. But also I imagine because there are so many gaming avenues these days, so many competing platforms and opportunities for *free* gaming (pure speculation on my part here, but it makes sense to me).

      Sure, not all these gaming experiences are the same, but that’s a distinction that’s mostly relevant to fairly dedicated gamers, i.e. a minority. Their opinion does not really matter when you need to sell millions of copies.

    • Blanko2 says:

      i havent even bought a next gen console yet ):

    • Kayle says:

      Publishers and developers have been wailing and gnashing about piracy nearly all my computing life (at this point, gah, more than 30 years…).

      Bill Gates complained about piracy of Micro-Soft BASIC for the MITS Altair back in 1976.

  24. TehShrike says:

    Oh, and E3… I’m *ridiculously excited* for any more news on Rock Band 3.

    I don’t care about anything else (except maybe that dance game that Harmonix is making for Natal/Kinect – I didn’t respect Natal, but I respect Harmonix a lot, so we’ll see).

  25. Nasikabatrachus says:

    I’ve lamented the Wii’s limited graphical capacity in the past, but now that I read this I suspect there might be some hidden genius deep in a Nintendo bunker who realized all of this while designing it and decided to hobble the Wii relative to the other platforms for precisely this reason.

    (don't even get me started on this year's E3)

    Please, do get started, Shamus. Eventually.

  26. Irridium says:

    From what I’ve seen, most of the problem lies with greed.

    Today a lot of companies don’t care about simply making a profit, or even a decent one. Rather they operate based on projected profits, and don’t count anything below a certain amount of projected growth as a success. Profits being computed by their nature after the expense of a project.

    What Publishers seem to be saying is that the sales for “X game” do not match their projections, so they are trying to claim this as a loss, when they have still made millions in profits. “OMG, we didn’t fill up TWO scrooge Mcduck money bins, and only got one, when we decided we should have two! Let’s consider this a loss!”.

    Typically trying to claim “losses” this way based on projections is done so a company can justify other actions they play on taking: like layoffs to avoid paying people. Companies oftentimes project high, use this warped logic, and then use it to justify actions they want to take down the pipe saying “we’ve been losing money for several quarters now” or whatever when they weren’t actually losing money by any rational definition, simply not making as many millions in profits as the fat cats at the top of the food chain might have liked.

    Honestly, Therumancer on the forums essentially summed up my thoughts on the matter very well.


  27. Steve C says:

    A studio could form where the studio has a big budget but instead of blowing it all on one title they could make a large number of small budget games. A $20M budget could make 20-100 niche games. If they focus on quality mechanics by looking at the “Old School” greatest titles I think it could be successful.

    The reason to make so many is to get the economies of scale necessary to compete against the big studios for the non-game stuff like marking, distribution, and administration. Lots of small games spreads out risk so that if a game flops it doesn’t doom the handful of people working on it. There’s also a hidden lotto ticket aspect. If just one game hits it Farmville big then the company will make tons of money. Though I’m not suggesting to copy Farmville gameplay. Just using it as an example of a low budget sleeper hit.

    The teenagers of 1994-1999 now have real jobs, families, a lower piracy rate and most importantly disposable income. How many of you would buy a game that was marketed as “Master of Magic style gameplay!” or “Forget Fallout 3, remember the old Fallout gameplay? Well if so you’ll like this game!”

    Claims like that would grab my interest and if they were more than just claims they’d grab my money too.

  28. Vladius says:

    Please get started on this year’s E3, particularly the “Xbox Kinect” portion. There’s just too much hilarity to not exploit it.

  29. (LK) says:

    I’d be willing to bet if the industry put some serious R&D into procedural technology, replacing more of the currently hand-made elements of their game worlds with entirely computer-generated ones, the savings in labor might help put a damper on this explosion in dev costs.

    It seems to me like nobody has done much more than dabble in procedural technology as if it were a novelty. Borderlands did it for their guns (and claimed to do it for their monsters in their ads, what bullshit that was), spore did it for planets and animations, Bethesda games use a licensed procedural vegetation system… but these systems seem like they’re more or less a footnote in the development methodology.

    If some honest computer science research was done on pushing the limits of what procedural techniques can be used to automate you might even be able to shave time off of the development of art resources (terrain textures for example) and other labor-intensive components of a game.

    It’s exactly this kind of focus on procedural generation that makes an oddity like Dwarf Fortress possible. All Tarn Adams has to do is write the program, the game itself creates terrain, settings, history, and flavor. Creating such things by hand would vault the one-man show that is Dwarf Fortress right into typical budget (or at least man-hour) ranges for a 2D city-builder.

  30. swimon says:

    This is a huge problem, probably the game industries biggest(“the game industries” is that how you write it? It feels wrong). I thought for a while that the Wii would save us from it, which is what excited me about the Wii in the first place. Instead it has become a shovelware ghetto where it’s hard to find anything of quality, it’s reminiscent of the 1977 market crash really.

    There are a few hopes on the horizon though. I don’t know if they profited or anything but Zeno Clash was an indie game that had a lot of polish. Sure it wasn’t exactly a deep complex RPG and it didn’t build it’s own graphics engine or anything but it clearly shows what the indie market is capable of and it doesn’t seem all that far fetched that the same principles could be employed to make Arcanum 2 or whatever.

    AaAaAA!!!-A Reckless Disregard For Gravity and The Void are also pretty good examples. The Void especially is probably as niche as they get while still being gorgeous and a fairly long game.

    I don’t really know how these games work though, I mean Zeno Clash looks really expensive for an indie title but somehow the creators are still in business. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood what makes a game expensive or maybe these people took huge risks that very few are willing too, but maybe just maybe there’s a way to make profitable games in some sort of tier between EA and Popcap. If it does, that might be our salvation.

  31. SatansBestBuddy says:

    This is why we’re getting so many casual games at E3 this year; cause they’re easier and cheaper to develop, and have a good chance of making money.

  32. Jenx says:

    I’d like to throw in a “YOU did it!” comment in here. No not “you” as in Shamus or even “you” as in everyone who posted. But “you” as gamers in general.

    The way I see things, gaming is now more or less if not mainstream, than a generally acceptable hobby. It’s popular. It’s widespread. Which is why most of the games SUCK ASS and it’s all gamer’s fault!

    I’ve seen this happen a few times in lots of different subtexts, but it’s more or less the same. A relatively underground group says “aw man our hobby is so awesome, but it would be so much better if more people would enjoy it!” then their hobby or interest or whatever does end up being enjoyed by most people, which means companies HAVE to make generic and bland games so they’ll be sure they’ll manage to break even. They pander to the lowest common denominator, and those same people before are now going “aw man our hobby has gone to shit now when everyone’s playing it and they aren’t making any games for US!”

    So yeah. It’s not the industry’s fault. The industry is what you forced it to be. You wanted it to be come bigger. You wanted to make it, hell, an industry. It did. And now you’re screwed.

    You did it.

  33. Scipio says:

    It’s kind of strange really. I still like playing video games, and I have plenty of disposable income that I could spend on them, yet I almost never buy any new games. Most new games are not designed with my tastes in mind. Finding the few games out there that I’d like is simply too much hassle. Buying, installing, patching, and then getting over the learning curve just takes too long, especially when the end product frequently doesn’t catch my interest.

    • Daimbert says:

      I disagree with him. In some sense, he’s right … but not in the way he thinks he is.

      In a five year time span, you get the initial people who are chasing the new thing buying right away. And then you build up your software library and get the people who are later looking into getting a console, or who are looking to get a DVD player and a console, and so on and so forth. And that keeps console sales — hopefully — reasonable and drives software sales.

      That’s not happening for the next-gen consoles. On my blog, I ranted that I wouldn’t get a PS3 because there just aren’t enough games to make it worth my while to play and the PS3 doesn’t have backwards compatible games anymore, and so it isn’t worth the money to buy the console and then play the PS2 all the time. Later, I took a quick peek at gamefaqs that pretty much settled why I wouldn’t bet getting a PS3 any time soon:


      “On gamefaqs.com, there are 102 console-style RPGs listed for the PS2.

      There are 17 listed for the PS3, which includes released and under development.

      Okay, okay, a lot of those 102 might be Japan only or duplicate versions of the same thing, and the PS2″²s been around longer, but still … 17. Considering that some of the console-style RPGs that are out there I won't play or aren't really that sort, this is pretty bad.

      The Xbox 360 actually has more listed “” 23 “” although a lot of them are the same as those on the PS3.

      The Wii has 24.”

      While there’s a bit of an issue with the PS2 being out longer and some of those 102 being Japan-only, why would I get a PS3 to get my choice of … 17 console-style RPGs? In some sense, this is a reflection of the issue above that will lead to a crash: investing a lot of money into a smaller number of broad appeal games that bore people since they’re all the same and there are fewer of them.

      So I don’t think it’s that people get bored after 4 years without a new gimmick — the PS2 success and it even outselling the PS3 when the PS3 came out deny this — but it’s that you have to have things that people want to play or do. A new gimmick hides this because you can get new technology snobs having to have the latest gimmick, but you won’t sustain anything based on that alone.

  34. Winter says:

    Well now!

    Let’s talk about this a little more.

    There are some costs in game design that we can compress down from what they would cost 10-20 years ago.

    Graphics–although the expectation is to use better and better graphics, which becomes more and more expensive, if you’re targeting some graphical level from the past creating those resources will probably take less time/money than it did then. We have better tools, more powerful computers, etc.

    In addition to that, hardware is more powerful so less time needs to be spent optimizing them, etc. We have more than 16kb of ram and stuff these days!

    There’s also a lot of free/open projects out there that help you get a leg up. You don’t have to write your own audio software if you don’t want to, you don’t have to write your own 3d engine if you don’t want to (as shown by Torchlight), and so on. A lot of this stuff is available. So you can save some time like that

    How about programming abilities and stuff? Actual game content can be programmed in Lua or Ruby or the like, which is much more productive than whatever they were using in the ’90s–probably Assembly or C or something. Sure it requires more computer resources to use… but… since we’re not trying to use 100% of the computer that’s less crucial.

    In addition to that, there’s not quite so much optimization required.

    There are, of course, some things that can’t be compressed.

    The actual art design is still the same as it always was.

    The story is still the same.

    The game mechanics/etc are the same.

    That sort of thing.

    Even despite our lust for graphics, there are still games made in the ’90s that i think hold up today. Maybe not the early ’90s, but certainly in the mid-late.

    So i think there’s a range of games that could be being made, but that aren’t.

    Get a small team together, build your game, and hope it takes off.

    Let’s say someone gave me a million for game development–i don’t think anyone is going to, i know i wouldn’t, but hypothetically…

    I wouldn’t build one game for a million, i would build four $200,000 games.

    Actually i would try to run the Disgaea model, sort of. Disgaea is actually a bad example for a couple reasons, but whatever.

    Let’s say i’m trying to do a new game like Secret of Mana.

    Obviously you sell through Steam and at a price point of like $15. I don’t know what cut of that Valve takes–let’s say 30% because it makes calculations easier. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was more, but i would think it wouldn’t be as high as traditional retail.

    So if the price point is $15, the developer gets $10 of that and Valve’s cut is $5.

    So if i’m building four $200k games how would i do that? Well i wouldn’t just go for four $200k games, i’d start with a $50k game, then do a $100k game, then do a $200k game, then do a $250k game.

    Of course that only adds up to .8 million, so where’s the rest? The rest you spend at the start in the engine, getting the basic graphics worked out, getting the basic mechanics, etc. So really the first game has a $250k budget, but most of that has to be re-used and the actual game is going to be pretty small comparatively.

    Let’s say you spread the cost of the engine out over all four games for accounting purposes–you hope to recoup $75k for game one, $125k for two, etc.

    That means you need to sell 7,500 copies of game one to “break even”, then 12,500 copies of game 3, then 22,500 copies of game three, then 27,500 copies of game four. Even if you get no crossover customers (more on that in a moment) you only need to sell 70k copies total with this model–slightly less than the $1m games had to sell in ’99.

    And if it turns out you have a hit on your hands? Roll (some of) that cash in and make the next game better.

    In addition to that, when you release the second game you can sell a bundle of the first plus second for $20. If you hit the 7.5k figure for game 1 anyone buying the bundle is just giving you free money. With game 2 you sell a $25 bundle for all three, then $30 for all four with the final one.

    Really, though, what you’re doing is selling a $60 game in four installments. Sure that’s a lot of money for, essentially, a 15 year old game… but… it’s in four easy payments so you can see if you like it, there’s a bundle if you want, etc. Maybe this is all a little wishful thinking and people aren’t really going to go for that kind of pricing structure, but if you have an actually good game to sell i think it’d be nice.

    If FFT were new today (not an old game being resold, but a new game) i would pay $30 (or even more) for it. I’d be hesitant (it honestly took me a while to try FFT because of the fans) but like with the actual FFT i’m sure i’d eventually go for it. It’s a very solid game, and there’s little out there like it.

    You can make it more palatable by letting people import their characters from the old game, having a coherent storyline, etc.

    In addition, with each game you develop and refine a sort of “institutional knowledge” about how to build the sort of game you’re building. Although games like FFT might look to have come out of nowhere, they’re really the result of long focus on a single type of game. (In the case of FFT the team did Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre–similar games–before that, and drew on the experience of both Square and other companies.) Because you can refine the game mechanics and so on, hopefully by the time you get to the fourth game it is very fun and tight.

    Now there are some issues–for instance, the engine needs to last you four games and/or you have to crank out like one game per year for four years or something. I think those are manageable. I think the biggest one is putting a team together and getting someone to trust you with their money…

    Anyway, i could ramble on but i think it’s possible to do good things right now. I think the “indie market” is just getting started, but hopefully in the future we see some really solid, classic games.

    • SonofMakuta says:

      Good post, good post.

      Shamus, I wouldn’t say that you *need* $200,000+ in order to simply make 3D. Lugaru, for example, is a 3D indie game and I doubt very much that that has a budget in the thousands. Heck, look at your own Procedural City. A small and dedicated team – or even one person – can do a surprising amount.

      What somebody said earlier about procedural art assets is an excellent idea, although the direction you really want to take in my opinion is good editing tools. Overgrowth, an upcoming indie title by the makers of the aforementioned Lugaru, is designed with a package of intuitive, accessible editor software so that people can mod it extremely easily.

      And don’t forget that you can always cheat by stylising. Indies do it all the time. I’ll be doing it when I make Fractal, an upcoming project of mine.

      • Winter says:

        Yeah, stylized graphics are helpful. Making a strong 3d engine is really effing hard if you’re trying to do “photorealism”, but if you’re willing to accept a less “realistic” graphical quality then the art becomes more important and the graphical technology less. 2d is one way to do that, cell shading another. Check out Jet Set Radio–on Dreamcast, no less–which is still a pretty good looking game despite being released in 2000. The video quality is a little iffy (it looks great on the DC with VGA adapter!) but you can get an idea of what i’m talking about.

    • Winter says:

      Not much more to add (i mean, i could add a lot more but that got quite long anyway) but as if on-queue, here comes a pretty classic looking 2d game.

      Since this is a cash-in (and Ubisoft related) i’m withholding judgment until i see the actual game in action–who knows, it could be awful. But it looks pretty great to me.

  35. Unconvention says:

    The games industry really does feel very much like the movie industry.

    A shrinking number of big studios are producing a smaller number of bigger budget titles each year. Their costs are ever bigger, so they are increasingly risk averse. They release sequals and rape old IP simply because they know it works. They conform to the formulas that have sold in the past because they know that works. If you’re spending $200m on making a film, then another $50m on marketing it, you better be sure a lot of people will be going to see it. And that means not caring about niche appeal, not caring about afficionados, but only caring about satisfying the lowest common denominators that will attract the largest number of movie-goers.

    I think the problem you have, Shamus, is that you’re just not the target market of the games industry, and nor are most of the people who read twentysided (and I totally include myself here). You’re the guy asking “Can Shia LaBeouf actually act?” when most people are saying “Transformers, awesome!”

    I’d guess that for everyone who independently asked themselves if the plot of Fallout 3 actually made any sense, there were ten who thrilled to the sight of a supermutant’s head popping off and flying twenty yards straight up.

  36. Felblood says:

    Okay, this is going to sound really weird, but hear me out. If you want to gain some insight into the future of gaming economics, you might want to look at the Hentai games industry.

    Well, you might want to read about the history of it anyway; I wouldn’t recommend actually looking at a Hentai game, unless you’re into that sort of thing.

    The H-Game industry has fallen on really hard times lately, and there are a number of articles floating around trying to explain what brought on this economic collapse. Rampant sequels and a fear of evolving gameplay were the first major symptoms, but that was followed by sacrificing the writing staff to get more money for graphics. Does this sound familiar to you?

    At the core of it, the H-Game industry has always been a niche thing, it reaches a smaller audience and thus has to be made on a tighter budget. That means that what’s happening to H-Games now will likely be happening to other genres in the near future. However, if we look at the symptoms, we could well diagnose the entire games industry with the same sickness that is killing H-Games.

    Illusion Software is the closest thing H-games has to a Tripple-A developer (Seriously, they are like a skeezier, Japanese Rockstar Games). However, a lot of their income comes from selling new copies of old games in overseas markets, where there was less penetration at launch. However, they’re hard on the rocks now, ever since Amazon pulled all their titles over the RapeLay scandal, and the few interested parties, that weren’t just pirating the games, generally are now.

    Needing to depend on only their most recent title to fund the next one likely means that keeping their reputation for high production values would mean gambling their existence on every game they produce; if a game flops, they’re standing in the unemployment line. If Illusion survives this, then the execs over at EA and Activision need to take a close look at how they did it, because they may need to do the same thing in the next couple of years.

  37. Hmmm . . . browsing through, a lot that could be said, has been. But there are still two points that strike me.

    1. It’s not clear this trend can continue. The 8th gen would presumably need 10,000,000 sales to make a profit, and I don’t see the customers multiplying that fast. If anything, the world economy is heading for a situation where the average consumer has less disposable income. So, what happens when the game companies start hitting 8th generation games?

    2. It’s true that a low-end game is still expensive to make for independent people, and you could end up out of pocket. But the market as a whole has grown. In a world where the big boys can pick up 2,000,000 paying customers, you only have to sell 1% as much to make a sizable profit–well, maybe 2%, because you’re probably going to need to price your game about half of what the high end costs. Still, with the internet the way it is, word of electronic mouth carries–not as well as big advertising dollars, no, but even a fraction as well can be more than good enough. There’s room for indie game success. A (low-end) indie game that sells 10% as well as a big title just made the developers nearly a million bucks over and above their investment.

    Whoops–my math was off. By a factor of 10. Fixed now . . . ends up not as compelling as I’d thought. 10% of the bigs is a lot harder to get than 1%.

  38. John says:

    Hi Shamus,

    I first thought about this after a post you did on graphics or physics engines(?). It amazes me that I have not heard this thought somewhere else or in the comments above. Maybe there is something I am missing in my inexperience with game development.

    It seems to me that game developers are all working on the same product at the same time and duplicating each others work, even within the same company.

    Let’s talk about an RPG.

    I thought, if we are talking about a physics engine for it, then there is no need for the company to build one, they should just buy one. There should be a company out there that writes physics engines, or even game engines, and other companies should just buy it off them. This defrays the cost between multiple games. Also if they use the same application programming interface (API) then it should be easy to upgrade to the next engine.

    There was a time when the physics engine was a big selling point but why worry about it now? Or if you do want to worry about it for a high end game, do you really need to worry about it for a game that is not all about the physics? Even if the game companies want to keep it in house they could still share it between games to share the cost.

    This goes for all parts of the programming, artificial intelligence (AI), multiplayer interface, graphics engine etc. Having this developed by one company that specialises in it would make the code more robust and well tested as well. Once you buy the engine you just add any tweaks youself. eg gravity gun, walking up walls etc.

    This could go for a lot of the parts of the game development. eg Graphics: A graphics company that just produces up to date models for use. You don’t waste your time creating Nurse1, Dr2, OldHobo or NYPoliceOfficer, you just buy them and produce your own of the main characters. Motion capture: you don’t buy the equipment yourself, buy the ones you need, ‘man walking’, ‘man running’, ‘man jumping’ etc, then go to a studio to record the ones you don’t have yet.

    Maybe I am missing something but it seems like they are doing a lot more work than they need to be doing and someone needs to step up and create these companies. In particular because without focusing so much on the programming the games companies will be able to focus more on the gameplay…

    • Axle says:

      This is almost exactly what I’m thinking about this subject.
      Instead of producing a 25M$ game. Why not producing a 5M$ game, by using an existing engine, existing motion captures and much less voice acting (not every shopkeeper or quest giver needs a voice). You only need to place most of your efforts (and money) on level design and content.

      A medium budget game like this can be sold for 20-40$ instead of 50-60$ and will probavly be more profitable.

      What strengthens my thesis is that last weekend Oblivion was on sale in steam for 8$ and was on steams best selling chart way above newer and shinier titles. Which means that people are more willing to spend 8$ on a 3 years old game than 60$ on a new one (like Alpha protocol or Splinter cell:conviction).

  39. “But even if an indie is willing to step back to 1994 level technology* we're still looking at games that take $200,000 to produce…”

    This assumes that modern resources and/or technology haven’t reduced the development costs of 1994-era games.

    This seems to be the case, as there are one-man shops turning out such games which used to require a dozen-person team.

  40. Zak McKracken says:

    Let’s see if anyone reads that far …

    What would a game cost if a company recycled the graphics engine from the last project, recycled also some of the background models and so on, only adjusted the game mechanics in some aspects without rewriting any significant amount of code, but then completely rewrote the story, objective, inserted new characters, made just very few voice recordings, made very few cutscenes and called it a new game?

    Granted, the new characters and other models and animations would not be cheap, but I suppose if you’re a company who makes games it could be reasonable to code something like a character generator that will whip up new character models from a bunch of random numbers — many games have that as a feature for the protagonist — and probably you’d have some way to produce background scenery relatively quickly (think of FUEL), but not quite as tidy as maybe expected from a AAA title.
    The graphics would look as good as last year’s title, which is still much better then 1994, and hardware development means that will enable even more people to play the game than last year. Also it will automatically look better on average than it would have last year!
    The Gameplay could be completely different or just changed in some nuances, just as you like.

    Now imagine a company producing one Blockbuster Alien-Blasting title with some dialogue and making different derivatives from it: One RPG (story-heavy), one that looks like Thief, one that is tech-oriented with puzzles, one RPG (Character sheet, inventory, level-ups), one that is a weird mix of those and one conceptually completely unexpected …

    … how much would one of those mods cost to make?
    I remember Counterstrike being completely free, once you owned Half-Life. And I got Half-Life and never played it, just to play Conterstrike. *ducks away quickly*
    It appears to me that “developing a game costs this much money today” is kind of deliberate. It seems to suggest that in 15 years games will be so expensive to make that noone will be able to make one, so we won’t have any. The developer decides how much money they spend. And they probably do that by applying some semi-empiric correlation between investment and net profit, which probably has a maximum at what the current development costs are. But if everyone hovers around that same spot, it might just pay off to go somewhere else.

    • Kayle says:

      Reusing/licensing a game engine happens all the time–that’s practically half of what id Software’s business model was. Valve’s first games were built on the Quake engine. Usually the game engine gets modified and upgraded over time though.

      Here’s a basic Wikipedia article on game engines.

      • Zak McKracken says:

        I didn’t know the details, but knew that game engines are being re-used. The question is just: How much more could you re-use and still call it a new game? And how much would that new game cost?
        CS was free, so I figure it’d stand to reason to expect to be able to make other games that way with small investment.

        Only it’s not done as far as I know. So I must have gotten something wrong?
        Maybe I mis-estimate where the real costs come from?

  41. Smart says:

    I couldn’t read through every single comment, because there are so many! But since this is moderated, maybe someone will get something out of my response to this article:


    Most of that ridiculous development cost goes into paying 100+ employees (or at least, that’s a common figure to throw around, and also reasonable when you look at the credits of a AAA game) to work for the 2-3 years the game takes to develop. How much of that do you think goes to each employee? Don’t forget to consider marketing and distribution costs.

    And then there’s the tools. ZBrush and Photoshop for each artist? $600 and $700 a pop, respectively. 3DS Max or Maya? $3,500 a pop. Photoshop is easily replaced by GIMP, and 3DS Max or Maya by Blender. ZBrush is pretty exceptional, but hey, it’s the cheapest of the AAA bunch. And not absolutely vital. Most of what it can do can be done reasonably with Blender. But the AAA teams always go with whatever costs the most.

    Less than a year ago, UDK (the Unreal 3 engine) was several hundred thousand US$ to license per published title. Since November ’09 it’s free with some royalties as a percentage of profits made. Unity3D’s free version isn’t bad, and its pro version is around $2000. A8 is fairly cheap, with its pro version being around $900. That’s what I use. A8 takes no royalties, and I believe Unity3D’s the same situation.

    Here’s the deal: Modern tools make 1999 quality models quicker to make than ever. However, they make modern AAA-quality high-res normal-mapped displacement-mapped assets even more quickly (depending on your workflow, and modern art assets certainly do require more skill). While some of the increased cost goes into the quality of assets produced, I’d say most of it goes into the sheer volume.

    What about the actual shaders, to take advantage of these normal maps and what-not? I could write a deferred shading pipeline in A8 in a day or two. I have in the past. Normal-mapping, environment mapping, parallax mapping, HDRR, depth-of-field, sub-surface scattering, distortion effects, cascaded shadow mapping… give me a week. Again, I’m speaking form experience. The effects we see in games aren’t limited by costs of production, they’re limited by whether or not modern hardware can handle it at an interactive framerate.

    What else is there… animation? Mo-cap is over-rated and expensive. That’s not to say hand-animating isn’t difficult, but as long as you aren’t going for photo-real (the big guys haven’t done it yet, why should you?) hand-animated will be more than good enough. And with most animation tools (Blender included) having IK and various other groovy bits and pieces, it’s not that hard.

    Voice acting? Um… Nintendo still avoids voice-acting. Why do you need it? And who says your game needs a cast of more than a few, if you do want voice acting?

    Physics? PhysX is free for commercial and non-commercial use, and comes with Unity3D and A8. And Bullet is free awesomeness, and apparently it’s very robust. As well as the Newton Dynamics Engine.

    Soundtrack? Your game doesn’t need an orchestra. There are websites just for free-to-use sound effects.

    I’m not saying 10 people should get together and make a game bigger and better-looking than MGS4 or FFXIII. I’m saying that the games industry is very scalable. A huge part of development costs is the artists who need to produce gigs upon gigs of 3D assets, but the in-between games might only need 1-2 gigs of art assets, 6 hours of planned-out gameplay/story and some collectible incentives to sandbox it for a few more hours. What I’m saying is in response to this:

    “So we can get fun puzzle games like World of Goo. And we can get $50 million popcorn games like God of War. But there isn't really a viable path for the stuff in between.”

    The budget scales with the team size and the project size. The in-between is by all means viable. You don’t have to be making a 2D puzzler or a AAA 3D blockbuster to survive in this industry; it’s just easier that way.

    IMHO :)

    EDIT: Scrolled through and found Cliff had already asserted the viability of in-between games. And as someone who actually lives off his work (as opposed to being an aspiring devver doing freelance work for small teams whose games generally don’t see the light of day like myself), he can do a much better job backing up his claims :)

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