Probably the single biggest thing that stands between the idea of making a great game and the reality of actually doing it is the cost.
Even with agile practices in place, games need a certain level of development before they start to show their potential. The game actions need to extend, the loops need to be in place, the dynamic needs to be coming together and the wins need to build toward something. It needs to develop an aesthetic voice and style, work on the user experience and finally have some level of testing. These things take time and money.
How much? It varies massively depending on what it is, but the bare minimum is $100,000. If you find yourself pitching well below that, it usually portends trouble.
Objects in the Mirror
Many people who develop, publish or invest in games live in a conceptual world. They read books and blogs about next generation development or project management techniques and read something into them that is not intended: They start to believe that development is totally flexible. Coming out of the world of AAA games in particular (where there are incredible levels of waste) it is common to take the idea of agile development too far and fall in love with the notion that a studio can pivot on a dime at no cost.
There is a gap between how development works conceptually and how it works in reality. While I am big fan of agile planning, you can convince yourself as much as you like that smaller feature sets and leaner editions of games will still be viable, swapping Planning Poker cards around until you go blind, but the reality is that a cut-down version of a game often feels dead.
The reason is that the effect of all the work in a game does not appear in a linear manner. Games have an x-factor because they are built on loops rather than functions, and this means that they rely on interdependent actions in balance. Break a loop and you don’t have half a loop. You have a function. This is not enough, and it makes game development considerably less elastic than software development. Like any chaotic system, the results often have to be playtested to see if they fit together, and that is often more a judgement of rhyme than reason.
Although they are developed in software using software methods, games are not software at all. Users relate to them differently. Immersion matters. Balance matters. Drawing people into the world of the game in a way that doesn’t break their attention every few seconds matters. Any successful game weaves a web of illusion around the player to engage them at more than just a rational level, and so they are more than the sum of their parts. Therein is thauma found.
It’s also why prototyping is crucial. Inelastic aspects of development including creating and balancing a game design, establishing an aesthetic, and playtesting are fundamental parts of the development process. While there is often much that can be done compared to the old days to alleviate their weight, they’re still real. Games, like all entertainment, are trying to capture magic in a bottle and sell it.
Objects in the mirror, so the sign says, are closer than they appear. In game development, objects on the screen are more complicated than they appear. The games you see are usually more expensive than the cheap Flash version that you saw on Miniclip, but you need to play them a little to realise why.
Avoid Bowfinger Syndrome
Some of my clients are surprised when I tell them that the development of Angry Birds cost $140k, and probably at least double that since, because they physically cannot see where the money has gone. To the untrained eye, Angry Birds appears the same as Camelot Smashalot, and the cost discrepancy confuses them. They can’t see the dead ends, the prototypes and the endless revisions that got Angry Birds to the point that it became brilliant. They lack perspective.
Developers often play up to this lack of perspective. There are many developers out there who promise the moon on a stick just to get a deal signed because they are in starving artist mode. There are others who have a wildly optimistic sense of their own ability, and even a few who are just shady.
Tiny teams rationalise that if they can skimp and save enough, they can make it to market and use their tiny project as a case to make a bigger one. Phrases like customer validation trip off their tongues and seem to make the case that even a miniscule investment might yield big things if everybody just works in an agile fashion.
It’s easy to look at outlier examples such as the early Facebook apps and think that those games are normal examples of where dedication can get you, but you’re failing to take account of context if you do that. Very early adopters in a brand new market can afford to get away with appalling levels of production because the market is so new that there are no expectations. Most games are not developed for brand new markets.
I don’t want to deflate your enthusiasm, and you certainly can do a lot with a little if you put your mind to it. I do, however, want to discourage you from thinking like Bowfinger.
In the movie, Steve Martin tells us that once you strip away all of the extraneous material in film production, every film actually costs $2,184 to make. His attempts to make a movie, and the hijinks that ensue, result in a pretty funny tale of plans going awry as he uses every trick he can to turn his very cheap movie into a big hit.
A lot of game projects are like that. Bowfinger syndrome is borne from thinking that all costs are flexible, and that the market’s expectations are likewise. The reality is that they are not.
Just as my earlier posts about needing four coders, 100 hours of gameplay, sweet spots of actions and so on indicated, there are fundamental things that all games need. If you don’t have them then you have most likely created a distraction that nobody will remember, and no amount of validation talk will save you. Metrics in that situation can only tell you that half a loop is not a loop.
There is nothing more frustrating than watching an underfunded project flail, change and become much less than it could be. The experience of seeing an initial design turn into a measly prototype, then revamping the design into something much stronger only to see that also fail to get to market are among the most depressing experiences of my career, and they are simply down to a lack of basic resources.
Rovio used $140k to make the first proper version of Angry Birds. Most Facebook games of note cost at least $200k to get off the ground and many of the more famous ones cost $1m. CityVille is not a $25k project which got lucky, it’s a $2-3m (at least) endeavour. Obviously those figures encompass a range, but $100k is not so hard to comprehend in those circumstances.
Below $100k you get into the $50k tier, and that’s a wilderness of half-finished, poor and knock-off games that never go anywhere. In certain very specific markets (such as interactive TV gaming) it can work. For some kinds of Flash gaming portals that survive on aggregating many cheap games, $50k is a huge budget in fact.
For everything else, it’s a land of high hopes and make-believe, and only rarely do the projects undertaken at that level ship. A $50k app will not be good, nor will a $50k Facebook game. $50k is game development Narnia, where the unrealistic, the shady and inexperienced rationalise their way into projects that simply do not have enough oxygen to survive.
Half a building is not a building, it’s a collection of foundations, plasterwork and half-completed wiring. Similarly, an under-funded game is not a game. It’s a collection of poorly implemented actions, non-functional loops and first-draft game art hacked together with barely any QA to speak of. Most of the time, $50k projects are doomed to failure because the end result will be like a building that has had one half tarped over with a sign saying ‘Don’t look here’.
Most games, even simple games, will cost more than $100k to make, and it takes courage to take that on board and budget accordingly. The easiest thing in the world to say to your boss or an investor is that you’ll cut the budget and revise scope, but if that takes you into $50k Narnia then it’s just a waste.
You need $100k, period.