If you’ve been gaming as long as I have, you might have noticed that the price of games has gone up a bit. Jason Schreier did a great piece for Kotaku back in 2017 about the approximate cost of the development cycles on an indie level all the way up to top tier AAA budgets. Readers should check it out to see a more comprehensive breakdown of the numbers involved in budgeting games. Many gamers understand the reasons for high cost development cycles and are willing to pay for their entertainment accordingly. However, it seems there are just as many complaints or, even more absurdly, expectations for games to be at a certain price point without having the slightest idea of how many man/woman hours went into its inception and creation. Let’s step back and look at why games cost so much to create, develop and market today in comparison to previous generations.
The video game industry is unique in that only up until relatively recently, there were no development tools and engines for young startups to take advantage of in order lower their costs by licensing an engine. Tools and engines had to be built by hand which exponentially drives up development costs. When a more casual gamer asks me why video games are so expensive I would easily answer that it was because they are expensive to make. “More expensive than movies? Because I pay way less to watch a movie and the budgets are usually larger.” This comparison is misinformed at best.
There are too many differences to state between the film and gaming industry to adequately compare the allocation of resources. Imagine a film director in pre-production organizing its staff. Scouting locations and preparing the millions of variables required for a large scale film production. Something to consider about film production generally is that the cameras used are already constructed and formatted to be played for general audiences. They’ve become standardized on some level. What if this director needed to hire and organize an entire team of potentially hundreds to build those cameras? That is the film equivalent to engine building. Moreover, what if fans and critics not only judged a film’s plot, special effects, and acting but also the fidelity and technical prowess of the cameras used on set. Viewers would be more critical of things like colour and movement if cameras differed greatly between studios. These are only factors considered within the gaming industry inherently due to the interactive nature of the medium.
A thought experiment. What if you could have decided which route Luke’s X-Wing took to destroy the Death Star? Or if you could decide to not murder John Doe at the end of Se7en upon the discovery of the box’s contents? Well, video games give that power to the person interacting. Unlike games, movies can’t account for every viewer’s tastes and it’s just not possible within the limitations of the medium to allow for that level of choice. Games allow us to make those choices and that’s why we gamers tend to gravitate towards this industry. We want to feel in control. It’s also why we, as gamers, are more critical of the quality of our entertainment generally speaking. Sometimes to a fault. While it may seem effortless for developers to offer these choices, countless hours are spent behind the scenes at your favorite studio anticipating your play style and accounting for every potential decision you may make. By that metric every game that is designed is unique, yet the same in that it will never be perfect at anticipating everything a player can interact with. In fact, any developer or production manager will tell you that it’s a miracle on some level when any game ships due to the technical complexities involved with building interactive worlds. With budgets only becoming larger and games becoming more technically advanced, it’s hard to say if the AAA games industry is sustainable without companies having to be creative as to not appear to be nickel and diming people. Which happens enough already through predatory microtransactions.
What value is it to the average gamer to know more about game development? If you’re a gamer that engages with the culture on a more casual level, then you might not notice many of the technical subtleties between the different pieces of software at your local game store or why they’re at that price point. Even if you’re a more involved gamer and you frequent message boards or pre-order the larger titles throughout the year, that doesn’t necessarily mean you know about the countless hours and sacrifices that are made to put these products on shelves. Especially now when a lot of gamers expect games to go on sale and often relegate games to the “I’ll wait until it goes on sale” list. As fans of this amazing art I believe we are better than hurling insults at developers for not fulfilling our entertainment needs on demand. We often forget that there are real people behind these projects. Some may argue that we don’t owe these teams that benefit of the doubt as paying consumers; however, to ignore what goes into a game’s creation is to take for granted the complexity and ingenuity offered by this incredible industry.
We should not be so quick to throw development teams under the bus or go after them as if we were paying their salaries. It creates a toxic culture within the gaming industry that is unbecoming of us as newcomers to the entertainment industry at large. It is our right as gamers and paying customers to complain about the quality of our entertainment products, but it is not very productive or effective to spread hate and negativity online or anywhere. This industry has enough issues that fans can truly rally around if they chose to, but attempting to comment on the nature of game development from the outside is not the answer. It is a developer’s job to make a good game in the same way that any of us are expected to perform at work. Except that when we mess up waiting a table or stocking a shelf the collective doesn’t come together to degrade us or utter death threats on our social media accounts. They are engineers, QA testers, producers, artists, designers with as much to do with the artistry of video games than anyone sitting in the director’s chair. But most importantly, they are human beings trying to put something out into the world and usually at great cost, perhaps more than any of us are willing to put in ourselves.
Forged in the 8 bit era, Duarte can be found quietly contemplating the future of the games industry. Wondering what the exhilaration of digital achievement will look like on the next horizon.