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A Curious Stage in Development

How have we gone from a single coder, musician and artist, to massive companies of hundreds of employees and the development time taking years, in some cases five or more. And more importantly, are we better off?

Games take a long time to make and cost a large amount of money, this fact is widely and generally known. But it wasn't always the case. Back in the 70s, 80s and early 90s, games could and were quite often turned around in a few months. They were also sometimes made entirely by a single person, working from their own homes. How have we gone from a single coder, musician and artist, to massive companies of hundreds of employees and the development time taking years, in some cases five or more. And more importantly, are we better off?

It's not that hard to immediately say "well of course we are, look at the games!", and I can't entirely disagree. I've been gaming since the early 80s and while I absolutely love those early offerings, there's no doubt in my mind gaming is better now than it has ever been. There's a constant stream of blockbuster titles and with todays digital distribution we are deluged with quirky interesting games daily. But having recently played through Alan Wake, and making my thoughts quite clear on that particular game (1, 2), it really does blow my mind to think that took around seven years to make (3). That's almost as long as I've been in my current job, and that feels like a lifetime. If my job was to create one piece of creative output for almost seven years and then see it be ripped to shreds or met with silent apathy on release, I'd have to strongly question what I've been doing with myself.

What are developers doing all that time then, and is it worth it? For me personally, in Alan Wake's case, sure it was. I did enjoy it regardless of my criticisms, but thankfully I had seven years worth of other games to play in the mean time, and I didn't have to pay all those years of salaries for the people creating it, nor do I require a return on my investment. It's a shame we have to talk in those terms, but that's the reality of the industry we are all involved in. Video games are big now, but are they too big?

I find this topic interesting, not least because the games industry is so brutal. If you're employed in the game industry it seems like you never know if you're going to still have a job from day to day. As I write this, Krome Studios have just effectively closed their Melbourne and Adelaide development offices and laid off a large number of staff in their Brisbane office (4). How is it fair to toil for so long and hard on something only to have the job security of an african rhino? Was that aspect different in the early days? Well, no. Stories of developers coming back from lunch to find their offices locked and guarded by security men was as much a part of life in the 80s as it was Infinity Ward's just this year. That particular aspect of the industry has never changed.

So what has changed? Well we know it takes much longer to make games and much more money to fund them. But is that a problem? Let's take for example a blockbuster franchise of today, Modern Warfare, and compare it to a blockbuster of the 80s, The Last Ninja. Everyone is familiar with the success of Modern Warfare, but The Last Ninja might need a bit of a history lesson. The first was released in 1987 on the Commodore 64 and is widely considered to be the best selling game on that platform (5), and ended up being converted to just about every other platform too. The Last Ninja had 3 full games released to Modern Warfare's 2, but that shouldn't skew the stats too far either way.

Development time of The Last Ninja 1 is hard to pin down, as producer Mark Cale has said it was in prep for around two years. Most of the art assets were already built by the time they found a programmer that could make the game, and that programmer coded and had it out the door in two months (6). The game went on to sell between 2 and 4 million copies (7). Last Ninja 2 was completed in six months and sold 5.5 million copies (8). Last Ninja 3 was again done in six months, but sold only 1.5 to 3 million (9). To approximate, you could say the games took three years to create in total and sold around 11 million.

In comparison, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was developed over two years and sold 13 million copies as of May 2009 (10). Modern Warfare 2 was another two years and sold 14 million as of March 16 2010 (11).

Effectively, Modern Warfare has outsold The Last Ninja series by 2.5 to 1. But now let's take into account the amount of people who worked on the two series of games. Modern Warfare had collectively around 325 people involved in the development (12, 13), The Last Ninja series just 16 (14). That's a ratio of 20 to 1.

That's a significant difference in numbers by anyone's figuring.

So why do games take so long and so much money to develop now? I spoke to Sean Edwards, Senior Games Designer at Krome Studios, who is currently busy finishing up their latest project Blade Kitten: "The reality is that making games is a very complex process requiring a lot of very highly specialised knowledge and skill. Specialised jobs often come at a high cost in senior positions and most game companies want to hire people with experience. With team sizes as large as 80 people and a 2 year development cycle, add in marketing costs often as much or more than the development costs, studio operating expenses, and you can see why its an expensive business."

"Consumers don't care about the cost of development, they expect the price of a game to be the same as the last generation. They also expect more content and more features to justify that shiny new console with all that power. Publishers have reacted to this though, with DLC and micro transactions to cover the extra costs. This has resulted in larger teams with bigger budgets and increasingly risk averse publishers who rely on sequels."

So, that clearly makes games expensive to produce, but what about the amount of time involved? It can't be normal that games can take five years or more? "Often someone in a high level position dreams big and then pitches that dream to someone with a lot of money within an unrealistic timeframe. Unless the person driving the design direction of the game can see how it is to be executed and coordinated through effective leadership and communication, then the project is very likely to experience hardship."

"The scope of a game is a very critical thing to get right early in pre production because it allows the producers to accurately plan the schedule and budget." "An overly ambitious idea that lacks a cohesive core feature set that isn't properly understood will cause redesigns and budget blowouts resulting in crunch or worse project cancellations. A better approach is to proof core gameplay features with a small experienced team early through rapid prototyping and identify what the game does and more importantly doesn't need."

But you'd hope the people in charge have it figured out; money vs time. These companies can't be flying blind, and for every loss there must be a gain. For every project who's scope and development time blows out, there must be those that hit the mark. There has to be inherent value otherwise the industry would collapse in on its own weight. Can this system possibly be sustainable? "My prediction for the big AAA budget games industry is consolidation with fewer companies and fewer games being made but with much larger budgets."

I guess we'll see.

Thanks to Sean for taking the time to speak to me in his busy schedule. Blade Kitten will be released on Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and PC in September 2010.


6) Retro Gamer issue 34 page 21
7) GamesTM Retro issue 1 page 41, Retro Gamer issue 34 page 22
8) Retro Gamer October 2005
9) Retro Gamer October 2005, Retro Gamer issue 34 page 23

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