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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

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?