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Basic Game Budgeting for NEWBS: Part One

You may or may not have paid much attention in that "Economics" Class they shoved at you in high school, or that "How to Budget for Incoming Students" class they offered incoming Frosh at the university. This is how I start a game budget when I need one.

So you have your design doc all put together.  You’ve successfully pulled off a work exchange with that artist you met at GDC to get some slick concept art in play, and you really, truly believe you’ve got something that will pique the interest of a publisher. 

You package it all together into a single, iridescent jewel of a pitch document, make a hundred or so phone calls and find a producer who thinks you’re worth a look-see.

“Go ahead and send over what you have, concept art, design doc, make sure you include a budget for that too.”

Thankful that A. The producer wants to see the product of your blood, sweat and tears, and B. You didn’t start stuttering out of sheer excitement, you finish your questions (and you’d darned well better have questions) and you hang up the phone.

WAIT!  Did he just ask you for a budget?  Isn’t that their job?  Figuring out how much this thing will cost to make?

Nope.  That ball is all in your court, baby.  You know how to budget, you do it for school, you do it for your household finances.  Granted, budgeting for your apartment is one thing, you have bills in hand, you know what comes in, what goes out (usually).  So when designing a budget for a game, that’s sort of the same place you want to start.

Where does one begin?  Where do you pull all those numbers from?  How do you figure out what figure to present that won’t reveal you as a total newb?

First of all.  Take a deep breath.  Budgeting is a PROCESS, that means as long as you stay organized and fill in the blanks you are going to get a good idea of what you need to account for.  Sure, there is a “high-end” form of budgeting, where you know all the nuances and ins and outs of where the money goes, but that just takes time and experience.

First of all, you need to keep in mind there are different ways to structure a budget.  There is a difference between budgeting a GAME and budgeting to run a STUDIO.    They go hand-in hand if you are planning to build a proper 3rd party development house. 

If you are pitching something to be taken in-house by an existing studio, then you’re looking at dealing with just the game budget.  I find it’s good to think in terms of both, it gives you a clearer cross-picture, and if you *are* thinking of setting up shop on your own long-term, it will help you suss out how many projects you’ll have to juggle to keep your boat afloat.

So, first things first.  Do your research.  What type of title are you pitching?  Next-gen FPS?  Puzzler?  iPhone app of the future?  Don’t think about how much you might make just yet.  This is just a cold and hard look at what has to be paid out in the first place.  Take a look, how long do these kinds of games take to develop. 

You can look online, check out developers blogs, read the Gamasutra postmortems, if you know anyone, ask around.  Googling can often find hints buried in developer blogs that you might otherwise miss out on (you can’t read *everything* all the time).  As a rough idea, your average FPS, IF you pay up to license the engine AND start with a nearly locked design document AND a team that has worked together in the past so they can hit the ground at a run, can be executed (and not I say “executed” because you will simply be making the design doc, no feature creep or brilliant flashes of insight allowed)  in about 3 years (AAA “pushing the envelope” games can take 5+ years)

5 years seems to be the outer end of patience, however, if you are working with a new and untested IP.  You will have to check up on your own genre, MMO’s, mobile or web titles, RPG’s all have their own standard timelines that will work for budgeting purposes. (note: We are talking about developing a basic budget here, one you can expand on or trim back depending on what you’re working with, so yours will likely be different once you get it all down on paper).

So back to our basic framework.  Let’s work with a 1yr budget (just to keep it simple).

Month:                    01      02      03      04      05      06      07      08      09      10      11      12  

Now, who do you need on your team?  Well, the most basic setup has a Producer, a Lead Artist and a Lead Programmer.  Yes, yes, CABAL, SCRUM, whatever development style you find yourself using, you are going to need at least one person who stands on the outside, who can handle all the paper, make sure everyone gets the resources they need when they need them, maintain control of the assets as they get completed, all the nitty gritty elements that hold the project together. 

You could have a Producer/Designer or a Producer/Programmer, but in my experience a producer’s job is a full-time gig, it can be very hard to multitask it and do it efficiently.  In addition, we are putting this together to create a proper budget, not to hamstring your project with a shortfall of cash from the get-go, so make sure you put all the people you might need into the budget at first, you can always trim them out later if you have to.

So figure out who you need and what they’re going to cost you.  You can check out job postings, or Gamasutra’s annual “Game Developers Salary Survey” to get an idea of what the going rate is for each position.  Divide that annual number by 12 and you’ll get what you will need to pay out on a monthly basis. (I’m showing only 6mo below so it will all fit on the page J

Month:                      01         02           03         04         05          06      

Producer:               5400     5400      5400      5400     5400       5400

L. Progrm               8333     8333      8333      8333     8333       8333

L. Artist                 5000     5000      5000      5000     5000       5000

Total:                  18,733  18,733   18,733   18,733   18,733   18,733

Now, these are going to be *average* numbers, you may find great talent (if you haven’t lined it up already) that will work for less (or more).

So already you’re looking at a big-a** scary looking negative number.  Well, get over it.  Remember this is just your monthly *cost*, to balance it you’re going to be having money coming in, either from a publisher or an investor. 

Knowing these numbers will help you negotiate your milestones and will help you keep you from agreeing to a sum that is dangerously less than you need to build this game.
End of Part One.

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