Friday, May 29, 2009

The Cost of Simplicity

In this article, game designer Ryon Levitt explores how the spiraling cost of game development leads to simpler and more polished games.

As a designer and long time gamer, I learned one important aspect of simplicity in games the hard way - costs. Cost is something that is not often considered by players and even new arrivals to the design field. Sure, people toss around budget approximations (a $10,000,000 budget) but until you've entered the industry and dealt with the budget, the number exists in a black box. Even as a programmer, budget wasn't something you think about. You're told what you need to get done by when, and you do your best to achieve it. But when you get down into the thick of it, cost controls a lot of what can and cannot be done in a project.

It is a fact that as long as you are working for someone who controls the money, proper budgeting is going to be an important, though perhaps unfortunate, aspect of the game design. Every man-hour costs money and needs to be budgeted for based on the expected size of the team at any given point in the process. Without going much deeper into budgeting (since 1] I don't know too much on the subject, and 2] Budgeting will likely need a GDAM Topic of its own), it is safe to say that not everything that every designer wants to put into the game can get in and still have the game released withing a schedule that is "in budget". Furthermore, based on the specifics of the game (such as genre), not every part of the game will cost the same.

With that in mind, we can already see one potential reason for games to have gotten simpler (or at least easier) in more recent years. With the move from sprite-based games to full 3D games, the cost of many aspects have gone up significantly. As a simple example, look at someone like Megaman or Mario in one of their later 2D titles. A common action like Jumping was pretty "easy". Make a number of 2D sprites to create the animation and then program in a timing to switch between them while moving them. It was okay if they didn't look very dynamic or realistic; it was just a limitation of the medium.

But lets now look at more modern 3D animation. Search YouTube for gameplay videos of God of War, Heavenly Sword, or Ninja Gaiden (post 2004). Characters are expected to move and behave realistically. If a character is too stiff, it is usually frowned upon. Now we need modeling teams, animation teams, motion capture actors, cloth simulations, etc. This means, of course, that more people are getting paid, which translates to higher cost.

Now this is just a simple example, but this translates to a big issue - the more complicated something is, the more it costs, not just in making it, but also in testing it. Someone needs to make sure that characters don't jump into objects or fall through the ground when they land, or any number of other potential bugs that may be possible with all the new technology being used today. Not only that, for every character that is made to not be a carbon copy of any other character, the cost gets duplicated. Suddenly something that seems small - adding one more character - is greatly increasing the costs.

And with mentioning Carbon Copying, I bring up one of the many ways that various teams cut costs - they take short cuts. While this usually seems like a good way to bring the development back down to budget, the end users - the gamers - don't get to see that. All they end up seeing is the end result, and if the "wrong" things were cut, we end up with dissatisfied fans who feel cheated.

This is where cost-performance usually comes in. Various aspects within a game can be reused more easily than others. Easily, in this case, being factored both in usability - Does the object/action/system fit in other places within the game? - and fun - Will this object/action/system be fun the second or third time around? Aspects that are hard to reuse in both cases are far more expensive than aspects that are easy to reuse.

As an example, if a Dragon boss has a special fire breath attack that it only uses on hard difficulties per spec, this as an idea alone can be quite interesting. This boss has a new feature that can improve replayability if played again on a harder difficulty level - great. But is it feasible to put in? Well, by spec, it cannot be used in the lower difficulty levels, though it may be usable elsewhere in the game. However, if the ability was supposed to be a surprise new ability for the player to deal with, it cannot really be used in too many other places before it stops being a surprise and falls to common. As such, the threat of staleness limits its use. Furthermore, the average gamer does not play their first playthrough on Hard - if they did, this wouldn't be speced as an ability to promote replayability. In addition, many gamers do not have the time anymore to play a game through multiple times. This means that over 50-60% of players (probably closer to 75-90%) may never even see this feature of the game. This means that what started out as an interesting way to balance out a particular fight across difficulty settings - a feature that requires particle effects to display the attack, sound effects to follow along, AI to determine when to use it, collision checking to find out who got hit, and hours of QA making sure it happens when it should, doesn't when it shouldn't, behaves correctly, looks good, etc. - has had money spent on it that could have been perhaps better spent on something that more people would see.

Now multiply this again for every other boss in this hypothetical game. A lot of money may have just gotten wasted on a game balance that almost never gets seen. So we throw it out - toss out all these little features that would possibly make the hardcore gamers wet with glee because in the grand scheme of thing, they are the minority of gamers today. And not only are they a minority, they're really difficult to please. What do you put into a game for a player that has seen everything and yet make it accessible, fun for all, and cheap?

Finding a way to give every gamer what they want at cost is a daunting task, but with a bit of creative finagling and a little bit of love, it can be possible to find one. But until then, it may be better to have a slightly simpler but solid and polished game, than one that provides too much but feels incomplete.

Ryon Levitt is a programmer-turned-designer for KOEI, currently working at their main branch in Yokohama, Japan. He is currently working on his first title as a designer. Ryon is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG, and helped coin the acronym GDAM.


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