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Make Small Good

How many times do people bite off more than they can chew? It's a common behavior pattern, specifically in the business world. But so stupidly common in the game business world, it should be addressed more intelligently.

Passion is passion. We're here for a reason. We love games. And we all know that you can't stop people from working late, or on weekends, and that it can spur the creation of some amazing products. That 99% perspiration Edison spoke of (much to Tesla's chagrin in the end) counts for something. 

But beyond the EA Spouses of this world there is more to just recognizing when this work is pushed too far. There is the fundamental reason why it happens that way, and that reason is being ahead of the curve rather than behind it. Creating something ambitious without a demand in place, and doing so for as little expense and little time as possible.

The game business is not altogether unlike real estate, which I'm sure puts a very sour taste in people's mouths, but the bottom line truth is simple and can be expressed like this:

Spend less, profit more = success

In real estate, so the great Gene Hackman said in the Christopher Reeve Superman, "you need to buy for a little, and sell for a lot, right?" Not difficult to grasp, but this post is more than a rant, more than an observation. It is a means to assist with the creation of a thought process and a planning process that intelligently addresses how executives approach their development cycles, and in the end their profit margins.

Beyond that simple bottom line there are more factors, but one that is most common is this:

Cost, schedule = assumption 

Executives, producers, directors alike often make poor judgments about  how long something will take and how much it will cost, the two going hand in hand. The thought is that lower cost and tighter schedule mitigates risk. This leads to the following:

Estimated schedule + 50-80% = Real schedule

A very prominent and well known programmer who at the time was running a successful Shareware business told me "take how long you think a game is going to make and add seven months to it. That's how long it will really take". I think I've written about this before and have said he isn't far off. But think about it. How scary is it that schedules are always too short? What do you do about it? A related simple expression is also:

Estimated budget + 50-200% = Real budget 

So enough with what you mostly already know. The way to beat this is simple:

Make small good. 

Very much like a Jerry McGuire mission statement, I know. But man, is it true.

A very prominent and well known designer and studio director once told me an idea he had for a game that took place entirely in one building. Sheer genius. Create a wealth of interactivity in just one area. Given that a good bulk of the budget of games goes towards engineering and art assets, just think of what could be saved from simply using less space?

Fortunately gameplay times are no longer averaging the 60+ hours they used to, this is a reality of the numbers that BioWare has quickly realized and is once again attempting to break with TORO (and they probably will, they have a knack for that). But that is an exception. Overall those hours are averaging 20-30 for a AAA adventure game / FPS / RPG single player, and sessions are getting smaller even for MMOs, hence the clever move by Sony to release Free Realms to a more casual market.

Small game ideas are everywhere but they aren't exploited enough in every project. Every project can take a lesson from Braid, or half the games on Kongregate or even Facebook games. That doesn't mean to say jump in and make Facebook games because it's a growing sector. It means play them and recognize what makes them work, and apply it to your FPS a bit. Play older games and jot down mechanics and things that limited them yet made them effective and compelling.

Concentrating on dramatic expression as in Heavy Rain will continue to grow, but just imagine using ONLY 5 minutes of cinematics for an entire game and making those 5 minutes worthy of a dozen Oscars?

Another point to those with their hands on budgets is to do the research. You can't make a 2 million dollar AAA FPS or RPG to compete with the likes of Bioshock and Half Life. You can't even make a 5 million dollar one. Get real. Change your plan and look at a different way of competing with less. 

All of this leads back to NOT making bigger and grander. Smaller, and better. Just give it a try. You might surprise yourself.

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