Category Archives: Game Development

Game Development and the Cost of Dreams

This post will likely be very dry, and at an extremely high view as it concerns the business of games as a commodity and how it pertains to employment, budgeting, and forecasting. Do not take me as an authority on this, rather an impassioned individual who has been burned by the lackluster business acumen of the game industry first hand. I will always defer to hard numbers which are not anecdotal on this subject.

The game industry is very much that, an industry, and an industry must profit. This is oft forgotten and overlooked because we enjoy it as an art, a sport, a social event, a tool, and a puzzle, so it comes as quite a shock when a studio shuts down. This post is not to defend any particular action, but rather to provide a little more detail to the overall financial situation of a game studio, with some topical anecdotal exploration in the conclusion.

Games are not made in a vacuum, but rather part of a larger studio budget. This budget includes the administrative staff, facilities and IT staff, HR staff, legal counsel, and the many other positions we take for granted that are part of any company. Their salaries and benefits, as well as the cost of the office space, utilities, hardware, software licenses, and more, are part of the base budget. Within that we have the game team(s), which has a similar structure but is comprised more so of the people you think of when it comes to game development.

The largest portion of any budget is the cost of the labor, and that is a factor of the local cost of living. Where your favorite game is made is a substantial factor in its profitability. The higher the cost of living, the tighter the margins, and even if a game is profitable, more work on that same scope is risky because of the location. I’ve written about this before with The Costs of Kickstarting in Expensive Cities and it still applies here, as many games are made in California, which is in general expensive.

An aside to that is the subject of outsourcing, as the reason outsourced labor is so much cheaper is typically due to cost of living differences, and in many cases, the outsource is located on the opposite side of the globe, Poland and India both being common locations, which is very convenient to tight deadlines as it allows for around the clock work on the project, though due to the difficulties of time zone differences, this labor is usually constrained to QA, art, and isolated engineering components that require little synchronization with the primary developer.

Already we are looking at a large amount of expenditures to overcome with sales of the game, but people won’t buy your game if they don’t know about it, and thus enters marketing. Marketing is never cheap, but always necessary. At a minimum, take the game’s budget, and allocate it all over again as a baseline for marketing, though it can easily go higher, say, four times as high for a large project like Call of Duty, or something akin to Blizzard’s partnership with Yum Brands. It isn’t cheap to get Soldier 76 on your large soda at Taco Bell, and the game is going to have to recoup that as well. Continue reading

For Beta Or For Worse: Black Ops 3 Multiplayer

I had months ago resigned myself to not playing the Black Ops 3 multiplayer beta. It came with the pre-order, and I’m leery of pre-ordering anything these days. Sure Black Ops 2 ran pretty well on PC, but it had a rough start with multi-core systems, and besides, I couldn’t predict how my life would be come the summer, or November.

Then I learned that the beta was actually open to owners of Black Ops 2, and just today, it became open to anyone. Go try it if you have an inkling of curiosity (that would be curiosity as measured in units of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien). I tried it, and am inherently an unreliable narrator as to the experience, seeing that my PC is just under the minimum requirements (a 6850 when a 6870 is the lowest level), but I played it on the Potato settings. Everything low or off, resolution set to almost half the native, and the frame rate capped at 30 FPS.

These substantial compromises resulted in a nearly playable experience, barring the frame drops which everyone seems to be having, at the cost of an aesthetic akin to Impressionist painting on the mixed medium of recycled cardboard and rejected plaster samples. But this is multiplayer, it’s about the combat.

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Games Are Better Without Consoles

The topic of consoles versus PCs is something which comes to mind for me rather often. I see the subject surface in strange little ways across a myriad of discussions, and once in a while in a big way. It is regularly debated in practically every place it can be, but it is always from the angle of the gamer, rather than the game. My issue with consoles isn’t one of value (though I do find them to not be a good value), but rather that when you develop for a console, it comes at the cost of the game. The hardware restraints, the common user setup, available input devices, and the garden wall structure all impose costs on the design and development itself. I don’t want console games on PC, I want the best games that can be designed and developed, and that won’t happen when a console is being considered.

Performance

The dedicated hardware of a console was for a very long time, the advantage of a console. Where PC gamers had to run a game on top of an operating system, consoles were comparably leaner, and the game had more resources at their disposal. The trick there was the different architectures between the consoles, so even if a developer had the freedom to release on the leading platforms, they rarely had the fiscal freedom to do so. Consoles were faster, but inflexible, and PCs were growing in both strength and selective standardization.

quake_n64

With the Xbox 360 and PS3 we saw more defined operating systems, and thus some actual overhead to the games, while at the same time PCs were immensely powerful. Sure the 360 and PS3 had some muscle behind them on launch, but that muscle was fixed. Over time, developers learned the systems and the games looked better and better. Competition naturally set in, and more of that processing power went toward the environments and effects. Games streamlined toward gated stories as we see in things like The Last of Us, where it is easy to control what a player can currently possibly see. As expectations of detail levels increased, larger and more open (in terms of choices and exploration) environments decreased. With the fixed hardware, the two could not coincide. Meanwhile on PCs, you simply need to raise the minimum specs some, or advise the user disable a more costly effect. The design wasn’t encumbered. When a game is being ported to PC from console, I expect more limited environments, and being forced down certain areas with no ability to backtrack. Continue reading

The Costs of Kickstarting Games in Expensive Cities

Recently Tim Schafer tweeted a little bit about the cost of his Kickstarted project which he raised over $3 million dollars for. Some were critical of the fact that this yielded only one episode of the game. Schafer gave a quick run down which you can read below:

There is nothing wrong with Tim’s math, and in fact it lines up with other industries that labor is typically the largest cost to an enterprise.

Kickstarting has its share of controversy, you are investing in something without an explicit return for that investment should it succeed. Yes, there are rewards and the product – but not equity for example. Still, it has its value and has certainly changed the scene. The question then becomes one of, when is it responsible as an independent developer to source from the public? Continue reading

Games Can Do Better, and Should Aim for That

When are games going to improve? I mean no offense, and I don’t want to pick on any particular title or franchise, but that sentiment was inspired while watching TotalBiscuit’s video on Watch_Dogs. You can see it below, I only watched the first half.

It is a generally pretty game, though a bit hazy. But frankly, I look at it and see GTA with a cheat mod. You walk around in third person, you take cars on a whim, drive them, abandon them, get in third person gun fights – and as a twist you can command random items to explode, raise, lower, or change the traffic lights. GTA with a cheat mod. I know I am over simplifying, and I trust/hope the story has more to bring than that, but the game world acts as undeveloped as they did well over a decade ago.

Steal someone’s car? Other drivers keep on about their business. Drift into someone’s lane? Once again, not their problem. Drive through a city park? People within 10 yards will react, the rest casually wander. Driving down a side walk? People react only when you get near them. Obviously following someone? They only change behavior if it is part of a mission. Crash a boat into a river bank next to people? No big deal. Abandon said boat climbing up over railings? Still not a concern. Then break into someone’s car and drive off in it? No one cares.

Imagine an action or adventure movie. Spiderman 2 comes to mind, the train scene with Doctor Octopus. Now imagine if the inhabitants of that train remained idle in their seats, so long as Spiderman and Doctor Octopus weren’t within 10 yards of them. It would be bizarre. Aren’t those people actors? Act scared! The train is in danger! Your life is at risk! Yet in games, people are just roaming props until you get near them.

I appreciate that this is a hurdle, it is a challenge and a difficulty. But it is also the setting you have chosen. Watch_Dogs takes place in a city, a place renowned for the high population and of that population interacting. It is not simply skyscrapers.

I can pretend for a while, I can ignore the fourth wall and try to just play, but when so little progress has been made, when you still fail to simulate the basics of your setting, well, that is a principal failure. If you can’t manage it, make something different. See my post Indie Devs Seeking Asylum about choosing themes and settings matching that which you can pull off. Make games for their strong suits, and stop treating human characters like mobile fire hydrants.

Indie Devs Seeking Asylum

From time to time I encounter complaints about the setting of video games, particularly horror ones. There is a general lamentation of them taking place in abandoned/old/dilapidated hospitals/prisons/asylums/houses. Getting burnt out on a setting is very understandable, being uninterested in one is also well within reason, but periodically I see the claim that the use of such things has to do with our society’s perception of the unwell/criminal/mentally ill/aristocratic past, et cetera and so on. Often it is suggested that these games are an indication of who we are as a society (ignoring the culture and geographical location of the development team).

I posit a different perspective: money. Horror games work best when simple, which means few mitigating elements, and when exploiting basic fears. Being alone meets both of those requirements from a design and tech standpoint. Horror games are very commonly developed by smaller independent teams, such as Amnesia, or Eyes, which was developed by Paulina Pabis. When there are fewer hands and a smaller budget, reusable or versatile content goes a very long way. A single set of textures, a couple of meshes, some sounds, and a good lighting effect go a very long way toward the goal of the game design.

Another aspect is baggage, and this is where the contemporary cultural anthropoludologists (its fun to make up words) come close to being correct. Few people know anything about these places with any real expertise. They have limited expectations and this frees up the designer considerably in what they can do with the space. Look at the level design of Call of Duty or Half-Life, then look at the level design of Quake or Portal. The former take place in settings we have particular expectations of, the latter in ones with fewer trappings. The result is designer expression. If you want a particular user experience in a Quake map, you make it. If you want that in a Call of Duty or Half-Life map, well, you’re going to need to find some reason for it to happen with this space which the users are going to be familiar with. Quickly you result in convoluted, bordering deus ex machina, configurations, or boring levels. These are results that demolish the mood being built by a horror game.

With fewer (not lowered) expectations, a minimal entry fee for believable content, these settings are a great angle for independent developers, in the same way that “retro” graphics are. There is more economy than égalitaire about the setting of these games.

The Devil is in the Delay

On March 28th, Joystiq posted a brief news article where they discussed Diablo 3 with Jay Wilson, the Game Director for its development as well as much of the time post release. The main piece of information is his statement that both the real money and gold auction houses “really hurt” the game. A statement many people would agree with, and many people had echoed through the past leading up to the release, and afterwards.

It isn’t news that the auction houses hurt the game, but it is news that a historically vocal defender of the game would concede such a major point against it within a year of its release. This combined with Wyatt Cheng’s admission that co-op is not the dominant mode, leaves Diablo 3 with only the pillar of piracy fears to stand upon for its troublesome implementations and mechanics.

The heavens did not tremble upon Diablo’s return, the gamers did, and their points are being slowly conceded by the developers, once it is out of their hands.

Battlefield 4 is Ugly

I really don’t get why people think this looks so nice, at any given moment 20% of the screen is hidden by an over the top post-processing effect. The world surfaces have low resolution textures that turn things into a blurry Nintendo 64 mess whenever the character gets close and the surfaces themselves are of low complexity. Yeah the cloth physics are present, but in a very standard way. The water seems to have trouble with its reflections at the edges, and uses general noise to give the impression of texture where it doesn’t match. Frankly, I see better water in most every other game, and have since Morrowind.

Every scene appears to be lit with a single point light (the sun) casting a single shadowmap, the shadowmap is still a markedly lower resolution texture than the environment it is casting upon, it has frequent errors of positioning, and the world as a whole is minlit so anything that isn’t in the sunlight itself looks drab and flat. Characters within shadow appear to have ambient occlusion, but it is confused as to where they are in the scene, so they randomly have auras of ink blots rather than subtle shading. The “destruction” appears to be the same, pre-segmented and only for set pieces. It looks like yet another world of heightmaps, a nice skybox, and imported meshes with triggers applied to them. It doesn’t feel unified, and it doesn’t look unified.

Is this next gen? It looks like a previous one. It looks like a more scripted S.T.A.L.K.E.R., or a more outdoor Metro 2033. The Metro: Last Light trailer, the actual user footage of Crysis 3 on PC, and everything we’ve seen from Unreal Engine 4 looks better than this. The worlds seem much more composed, the lighting more robust. Honestly, I would overlook most of the issues I brought up above, if people wouldn’t stop singing the praises of something that is already behind as being advanced. It isn’t a step forward, it is a lateral shuffle. Visuals are supposed to be the shallow side of games, can’t we at least do better on that?

Hail to the King, Long Live the Duke

Duke Nukem Forever (DNF) was a long awaited game by many including myself. It was also a major disappointment to everyone who played it, with the highest praise I ever saw being a comment about the executable itself being stable. It has been slagged, slandered, and slapped in numerous languages, and much of it is deserved, however I would like to illustrate that not only are these complaints not wholly correct, but that their rear-view prognostications, “If only they had” scenarios, were also doomed. Their own suggestions in many cases would have resulted in an equally bad game.

Duke Nukem is raucous, crass, ludicrous, sexist (but not misogynistic), over the top, simplistic, juvenile, and unreserved. He is not deep or complex, and if he were we wouldn’t enjoy him nearly as much. Duke’s depth comes from our steering of him, we act out within his skin (and muscles). In Duke Nukem 3D (Duke3D) he is a cartoony figure in a comparatively realistic world, he has fame for his world-saving antics, but he is the exception and his behavior is tolerated in the immediately appreciable wake of his results: the world persisting. More specifically, he doesn’t talk all of the time, and though possibly an artifact of the technology of 1995 and 1996, it meant you didn’t get tired of him. Continue reading