Wednesday, April 8, 2009

How Big Games Are Getting Smaller and Small Games Are Getting Better

In this article, writer and designer C.J. Kershner discusses industry trends that lead to quality games with shorter play experiences.

As the video game industry grows, the production value of many mainstream games is increasing while the length, with some exceptions, is shrinking. At the same time, independent developers are producing longer games as they attract larger audiences with high quality titles and innovative gameplay. This article attempts to examine a few factors that are bringing both triple-A and independent game lengths toward parity.

Bigger Budgets

When I entered the industry in 2001, a game that cost $6m to develop was considered “big-budget”. In 2008, a producer at Rockstar estimated that Grand Theft Auto 4 cost somewhere around $100m, employed 1,000 people, and took three years to create. While certainly higher than the average title’s budget and team size, it is representative of the increasing relationship between quality and cost. These numbers probably won’t surprise anyone familiar with Hollywood bookkeeping, but GTA’s budget was nothing short of astronomical in the games industry.

As development costs continue to rise, producers – either at the studio or publisher level – are making choices about what is worth spending money on. For a triple-A title, creating a single-player campaign is one of the riskiest and most expensive components to develop. Should we hire a Hollywood screenwriter and a film composer? How much motion capture studio time do we need to schedule? How many art assets can we recycle, how many are unique, and how long do we have to polish them? How much do we have left over for marketing?

Important story scenes are trimmed and features are cut to bring the game’s scope within its budget. The result? Judging from my own notes (and excepting RPGs and sandboxes) is a highly-glossy experience that lasts between six to twelve hours, though sometimes content and objectives are re-used to pad the game’s length.

Indie budgets are increasing as well, and gamers are more concerned than ever about getting quality for their dollar. Jonathan Blow claims to have spent $180k out-of-pocket to create Braid, and 2D Boy’s recent GDC presentation placed development costs for World of Goo just south of $100k. Winners of the Independent Games Festival often develop their games into commercial releases, and with a top prize of $30k, there is a distinct movement toward turning critical successes into commercial ones as well.

New Distribution Channels

The ubiquity of broadband internet connections and near-unlimited bandwidth (at least here in the United States) has developers and publishers re-examining how they deliver their product to customers. The days of downloading Doom over a 2600 baud modem from a BBS have been replaced by venues like Steam, Greenhouse, WiiWare, Xbox Live Arcade/Community, and the Playstation Network.

Downloadable games services typically cater to non-core audiences, and where there are large groups of players with time and money, the publishers aren’t far behind. With increased profits from direct downloads and embedded anti-piracy measures, EA, Capcom, and THQ have all attempted to cut themselves a slice of the casual games market. Employing smaller teams with lower budgets, their releases are often retro retreads and board game adaptations, but every once in a while one of the majors produces a short, original IP.

These outlets also offer smaller developers access to gamers that would ordinarily be out of their reach through a traditional retail approach. By nature of being self-funded, their games are usually shorter than the million dollar releases. Their length, however, is no indicator of their quality. Both Braid and Twisted Pixel’s The Maw took about four hours to complete; both were satisfying and polished to a diamond shine.

Episodic Expansions

Broadband has also brought about a change in thinking regarding the viability of episodic content. Developers like as Telltale Games and Hothead have embraced the rigorous schedule required to produce and deliver new content on a monthly or quarterly basis. I was surprised when I started Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness one evening and set the controller down six hours later.

Valve's episodes for Half-Life 2, on the other hand, are often years in the making for a few hours of entertainment. The production quality on the episodes is incredible, and each new installment brings with it new engine features like HDR lighting and cinematic physics, but they stretch the definition of “episodic” to its breaking point (it has been a year-and-a-half since the release of Episode Two).

But Valve also delivered 2008's critical darling, Portal. Its short length possibly traces back to its student project origins and its experimental gameplay. Could the puzzles or narrative have been extended another two to four hours? Many fans and reviews lamented that there wasn't more, but few accused it of being too short. A sequel is as inevitable as the sun rising tomorrow; it will be interesting to see if Portal 2 is another three-hour trip through the Aperture Science Enrichment Facility or something more expansive.


In a previous article for Game Design Aspect of the Month, designer Reid Kimball wrote, “One hurdle is to convince many that quantity of play experience does not always equal value for their money.” There will always be a market for longer games – I have spent countless hours wandering the wastes of Fallout 3 and the streets of Liberty City in GTA 4 – but as the length of triple-A games continues to shrink and the polish applied to independent titles grows, it is my hope that the notion of “value” between the two will blur.

C.J. Kershner is a New York City-based writer and designer. He has written for GameSpy, Opium Magazine, and Monkeybicycle. He currently works at Kaos Studios and can be reached at this e-mail address.


Reid Kimball said...

Great writing C.J. I hadn't considered how the indie produced Braid was comparable to the not-so indie produced Portal.

I just finished reading David Sirlin's "Subtractive Design" article in the March 2009 Game Developer issue. In it, he writes about Braid and Portal. They are great examples of games that have a "subtractive design" where nothing unimportant was included. This led to highly refined and polished games.

Eric said...

I knew the team on GTA4 was very big but, 1000 people? Holy Toledo.

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