Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Minimum Survival Skills in a Post-Gold Rush Game Development World

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 5, 2015

Can you spot the common thread(s)?

“Several different sources have indicated that the company has already used the majority of its funding, but not much has been created to show for it. The number most often received from people has indicated that, currently, the company has less than $8 million of what was raised from the crowdfunding efforts left [~ $90 million] – a number that several employees have stated is “common knowledge” within the company – although it is important to note that pledges are still being accepted for Star Citizen through the RSI website” – Star Citizen Employees Speak Out on Project Woes (The Escapist)

“Even though we received much more money from our Kickstarter than we, or anybody anticipated, that didn’t stop me from getting excited and designing a game so big that it would need even more money” – Tim Schaffer on Broken Age‘s cost overruns in 2013

“Since its release Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has sold 3 million units globally but compared to its budget, it’s got a ways to go before it likely breaks even let alone makes a profit.” – Forbes

“One of the last tweets from Curt Schilling before his game studios, Big Huge Games and 38 Studios, collapsed talked up sales of their first title, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. ‘Reckoning, 38 Studios first game, has outperformed EA’s projections by selling 1.2mm copies in its first 90 days,’ he said. While those are impressive figures, they were not enough to keep the studio afloat. At a press conference, Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee said that the game was a failure and that it would need to sell over 3 million copies ‘just to break even.’ ” – Shacknews

“Despite raising over $526,000 ($26,000 more than the campaign required) the developer [of Clang] has apparently run out of money and there’s no game in sight.” – Another Kickstarter Project Runs Out of Money, Blames Everyone Else, Kitguru

“Now developer Florian Frankenberger, who joined the team only months ago, has admitted that the game isn’t selling as well as hoping, and that development has now been abandoned.” (on Early Access title Towns) – Gamasutra

Yogventures exceeded its goal of $250,000 and brought in $567,665 in May 2012. Since then the project has been approved on Steam Greenlight, with regular updates on the game’s in-progress alpha and beta being sent out to backers and posted on Steam through August of last year. But updates suddenly ground to a halt, and now it’s come to light that the game has been canceled and disowned by its partners” – Polygon


DukeNukemForeverI could bring up some more games that actually (eventually) shipped, like Duke Nukem Forever, Strike Commander, and Daikatana. Or many, many more that had to pull the plug at some point down the road, although the reasons for canceled games are rarely revealed except in this new age of crowdfunded semi-transparency. I could keep going, but I don’t really need to, do I?

You could note that each of the games were relatively big-budget compared to others of their tier, be they indie or AAA. It’s true that sometimes having a much larger budget (or fewer limitations) than expected can cause people to get really sloppy. But that’s just a small part of the story.

Mainly, it’s about budgets. It’s about developing within an allotted budget, and of course making sure that expected sales justify the budget. Inexperienced indie developers and AAA vets alike screw this up. While it may be more understandable for the newbies, for the AAA vets, it is often more of a case of them being used to dealing with a publisher when they are behind schedule (and by definition, over budget) to get more money. In a crowdfunded world, getting more cash may not be an option, although some companies do go back to that well a second time, or start selling virtual items in advance to make up the cash.

I was once asked in an email how to estimate a budget for a game for a brand-new producer. Unfortunately, my only answer was to first make a game with that team, and then use that as a baseline to compare future projects with. It’s a dumb answer, but it’s true. And that estimate may change if you change team members. People have different strengths and weaknesses. A super-hot 3D modeler may be less-than-average when it comes to animating 2D sprites.

It’s also difficult to make estimates for sales. This is perhaps the #1 question new developers ask in one form or another: how many sales can I anticipate for this kind of game. We jokingly refer to that as a “how long is a piece of string” question, but the rationale is entirely justified: how can you possibly consider a budget when you have no idea what sales might look like. I’ve seen countless studios sunk because they grossly overestimated sales. And maybe they weren’t necessarily wrong… another game of similar genre and quality may have gone on and outsold them 100:1 with no clear reason.

It’s a tough call. It’s even harder in AAA, where competition and an emphasis on production values may mean that he who spends even a few (thousand) dollars more ends up winning all the marbles. You don’t want to miss out on millions of dollars of sales because you skimped by 0.5% of your budget. But that the problem is there’s no bottom to that hole, as the AAA game industry has been rapidly discovering.

Endeavor-Science-SevenWith indie, it’s still very tricky. Tons of indies spend tens of thousands of dollars (hard cash, not “donated” time) on games that have had trouble selling in the double digits. It’s very hard to plan a budget when the return is such a wide range. You are shooting yourself in the foot if you aim for either the bottom or the top of that range, but if you want to stay in business, you can’t keep setting budgets with the expectations of near-maximum returns.

Some indies have now started talking about “sustainable development.” Or as Dan Cook puts it, “Minimum Sustainable Success.” My friend Josh Sutphin of Kickbomb Entertainment also frequently talks about “sustainable development” – really, sustainable game development lifestyle – which means not having to constantly kill yourself to make games for a living in a constant state of crunch (the sadly all-too-common stereotype for AAA game development). There are a lot of different strategies and approaches to make this work, especially in an era where people are freaking out over the “indie bubble” finally bursting.

There are no guarantees. It sucks, but that’s life.

Sure, it may be possible to right the ship after-the-fact (as was done with Broken Age), but that’s fraught with peril and may lose a lot of customer goodwill in the meantime. Especially as an indie, at an absolute minimum, even the tiniest lone wolf game developer is going to have to master some basic survival skills if they want to make games as more than just a hobby (even if it’s not a full-time venture):

#1 – Budget
Understand upcoming costs, burn rate vs. income, and how much might be in reserves. It doesn’t matter how awesome the game you want to make, you are limited by your budget, and you have to make the game you can afford to make. And don’t plan a budget to take things to the ragged edge so that you have no margin for error.

#2 – Task Estimation / Scoping
Learn how to estimate requirements and the time / budget it would take to complete them. This could be as simple as deciding that you need 3 minutes of original music and getting estimates. Or it could involve careful and probably painful timing of your own work efforts and that of your team to provide better estimates in the future. And then planning out the scope of your game to match.

#3 – Tracking and Scope Revision
No matter how well you planned things in advance, things will change once you are in development, and you’ll have to adapt the project to match. This can be both good and bad… maybe in playing the prototype you realize a change would vastly improve the game, or maybe that another feature wasn’t as cool as expected and is taking far too much effort to implement without bugs. Either way, you have to be able to track how things are going and adapt and revise things to be able to deliver.

These are un-sexy skills and activities that have nothing to do with the quality of the game being released or the marketing needed to make it a success. But if the quotes above are any indication, the coolest game in development of all time with some of the coolest hype and excitement already raised over it can’t ward off failure if these basics aren’t followed.

Filed Under: Production - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • CdrJameson said,

    Scope Revision is the big one for me – If it all starts going wrong, be mentally and structurally ready to jettison features. If it goes well there won’t be any shortage of extras you can add.

    I worked at a studio that did Extreme Development. We had something we could ship every six weeks. Come back in six weeks and it’d be better, but you could stop at any point and still have something that worked.

    Some things didn’t fit brilliantly. Stuff like voice work could go from not existing to existing in one chunk, but would be a pain if you had to go back and add some later because a new level had appeared. It forced you to design things with natural breaks though, and concentrate on what needed doing NOW.

  • 10/5/15 – Threats, Difficulty, Events, Architecture, and Survival | Game Design Digest said,

    […] Minimum Survival Skills in a Post-Gold Rush Game Development World […]

  • The Old Farmer said,

    You have a very valid point about budgets, they are absolutly necessary to do well but very hard to get right all the time.

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