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January 15, 2012

What if Game Developers Had Smaller Budgets?

You know what they say about people who have money.  It turns them into jerks.

Well, they say that behind their backs.  But the fact remains that people and companies with some serious coin are always going to come under fire from the regular guy; it’s the bourgeoisie against the proletariat all over again.  The gaming world is no exception: if you’ve got a company with enough money to make Scrooge McDuck a little antsy, you’ve got a company that draws ire from armies of non-believers.  Activision, Square-Enix, EA, and more put their wallets into production, and it shows.  Massive ad campaigns.  Graphics that make reality look like a finger painting.  Bombastic set pieces.  Cinematic experiences that are waging war on Hollywood.

They're comin' for that ass, Cameron.

All of these factors and more are enough to earn the never-ending hatred of gamers everywhere.

With cinematic bombast come plots that have holes the size of craters.  With eye-melting graphics comes re-used assets and drastically shortened gameplay.  With dedication to set pieces and sights comes an experience so linear that a tube of toothpaste has more depth.  It’s enough to make gamers bitter and cynical -- and drive them to hold indie games and titles from smaller companies in higher esteem (provided that they’re good, of course).  Big-budget games are -- and by extension transform the industry into -- a business affair with high risks and expectations.  Small-budget games are what you might call “hipster magnets” in the sense that they’re in it for the art.  You know, in a totally un-ironic way. 

You've probably never heard of it.

But I wonder what would happen if big-budget titles -- the dreaded AAA releases and annual franchises that earn groans from forum-goers everywhere -- had their big budgets slashed?  What if they were suddenly forced to rely not on the ability to tout their hyper-dimensional graphics engine, but on all the other factors that make a video game a video game?  What if they had to convince audiences and potential buyers without the ability to spend a cool five million with bells, whistles, and Jonah Hill?


The Case For

The average game, as I once read, costs twenty to twenty-five million dollars to make.  At least, that’s what they cost back in 2009 -- when the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 firmly rooted themselves as “current-gen” technology.  When God of War III came out, later boasts revealed that it cost somewhere around 44 million dollars to make.  In spite of that astronomical number, it did fairly well for itself; it probably helped that it had a healthy fanbase and a recognizable franchise behind it.

But money corrupts.  We’ve seen it in fiction and in real life.  Gamers have every right to fear for their future when sales figures and total shipments are the biggest accomplishments for a game, and not things like innovative gameplay or an engrossing story.  The big companies can put in the big bucks and afford top-of-the-line motion capture tech or an input/output doohickey that renders 4,096 different shades of brown -- and chances are they’re confident they’ll make their investment back.


But suppose they didn’t have the money for that.  I can think of a few features they’d have to slash right off the bat: awe-inspiring graphics and most likely diminished online support (to say nothing of crippled marketing).  In terms of the actual company, you’d probably have to work with a smaller team as well.  And you wouldn’t be able to hire outside help, either.  Come to think of it, would a smaller budget lead to a download-only release?  That’s a fair avenue for plenty of companies compared to a retail release (or releasing said game at a discount).

So let’s see here…worse graphics.  Slashed online multiplayer.  No set pieces.  Lower expectations of success; probably just trying to stay afloat.  Probably no voice actors with a high price tag.  Really, big developers would be losing a lot (at the cost of being able to, say, give the money they weren’t allowed to use to children.  Or puppies.  Or orphan puppies.)

How do you succeed, then?  How do you get your product out there?  Make it good.

Originality.  Depth.  Challenge.  Amusement.  Catharsis.  Fun.  You don’t need a big budget to make sure that your game succeeds.  You just need to remember, and implement, what makes a game a game.  If you can’t afford the Hollywood trappings, axe them; companies have done more with less in the past and in the present.  With the fat gone, all you have left is the delicious meat; as a developer, it’s your responsibility to make sure you’ve made that meat as tasty as possible.  And there are plenty of ways to do it.  Make a game with stylized visuals, rather than graphics that render every grain of dust.    Introduce a story that tugs at the heartstrings, or just makes players laugh out loud.  Push gamers to the point of tears with levels that are hard enough to make eating a box of Railroad Spike-Os seem pleasant by comparison, but just rewarding enough to make them as addictive as Cinnamon Railroad Spike-Os. 

Part of a balanced breakfast.

In a world where big budgets = huge risks = the threat of job losses, maybe it’s good to not put so much money into a product.  It gives the developers a chance to take risks not with their pockets, but with their intellectual property.  Games with guns n’ zombies are in right now, which leads to an overload of the market with the same generic product; what better way to differentiate oneself from the crowd -- and earn some notoriety -- with something different?  Something original?  Something that’s earned its merits based on the game’s mechanics, not bells and whistles?

Atlus is a Japanese company that consistently -- almost unfairly -- doles out titles that, while small in budget, are big in ideas, challenge, entertainment, and more.  It’s a comparatively small company, yes, but its fans are as rabid and dedicated as any other (I speak from experience).  But of course, there are plenty of western developers busting out some hits: Outland, Super Meat Boy, and ESPECIALLY Braid are all lifetime achievers in my book.  Super Meat Boy has gone on to sell a million units, in spite of being about a block of 2D meat.  Braid has gone on to become an exemplar of “games as art” -- and it was made with less than 200k.

It was Super Mario Bros. for geniuses.  And stalkers.

For some companies, their AAA models are fine.  For others, there’s no money to be had in aping what your competitors are doing, and doing better by virtue of being so filthy rich that a dip in Niagara Falls wouldn’t clean them off.  If you can’t beat the competition on their terms, shift the battlefield in your favor.  Give them something smaller, but much more satisfying.    The gaming world will thank you for it.

The Case Against

Hey, you know what’s good?  Money.

You know what else is good?  Using money to produce the things you want.

Let’s be realistic here.  Games cost money to make -- a lot of it.  Even if you slash the budget, you’re slashing the kneecaps of the creators.  It takes money to hire talented people.  It takes money to put all the assets into a coherent package.  But most importantly, it takes money to realize a creative vision.  Now more than ever is that the case; in the age of HD gaming (or as I call it, “The Age of Nolan North”), there’s potential to create the biggest, most luscious worlds in history.  But it’s not a task you can do alone.  You need a team.  You need tech.  And most of all, you need money.

We're lucky Braid didn't look like this.

The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim is making the rounds as one of the most impressive and open-ended games ever released.  Having played it -- and having sent my hero Blackules to the farthest northern reaches to burn walruses alive -- I can attest to that.  But would even a tenth of that sprawling world be available if not for the developers throwing money into its gullet like an oversized baby?  Likewise, how successful would any company be in realizing its aims if it didn’t have the money to back up its production?

Money doesn’t always ensure quality.  But given the choice, would you rather a company with no money handling your games?  Or a company that can afford a quality assurance team?

Let’s have a scenario.  Company A is the big budget company.  Company B is the little guy.  Both are competing in an art contest.  Company A has plenty of money to spend, and they use it to buy all the best art supplies, and paints, and brushes, and glitter, and paper they can -- and they even have veteran voice actor Nolan North handle the painting.  Company B can’t afford anything more than Popsicle sticks and glue, so they have to work with that.  Company A puts out the biggest, most glittering painting they can -- a mural-sized work that takes two forklifts to carry in and out of a building.  And the painting itself?  It’s a sailboat.  Company B walks in with a smaller piece: an abstract model of the universe rendered in Popsicle sticks…which also happens to look like Nolan North’s head.

Let's face it, the man has a rugged appeal.

What will people like more?  Who’s to say, really?  They could go for the sailboat, if only because its glitter is blinding to them.  They could go for the Popsicle sticks, citing it as the most moving work of art ever produced, while remaining curiously handsome.  People have different tastes, and if they want to prefer the sailboat, they’re allowed to.

The same applies to the gaming industry.  People wouldn’t buy games like Gears of War 3 or Uncharted 3 or Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty if there wasn’t something in there that they liked.  The games have their audiences, and they’re aware of what they like, want, and need; with gaming itself becoming more popular and mainstream, so too must companies cater to their tastes.  Maybe people want supreme visuals.  Maybe they want popcorn-flick plots.  Maybe they just want simple gameplay, coupled with the chance to shoot and stab their friends (but mostly enemies, I’d wager).  Maybe it’s just best to be at peace with that; we shouldn’t blame a company’s resources for its failings, but the paradigms within.  It’s those big budgets that make plenty of games possible; if there’s an issue, it should be with the fact that there’s an intellectual disconnect, not “They’re rich, so they’re Hellspawn.”

So in the end…

This post solves nothing.

Still, you can’t help but wonder.  Are budgets alone to blame for the gaming industry’s problems?  Is money the root of all evil here, as well?  Would everyone be better off with indie titles and games from little companies?

Yes, no, maybe so.  It’s all a matter of preference, I suppose.  Some people are happy with things the way they are.  Some aren’t.  All I can say is, stick with the games that make you happiest.  Let others enjoy their games.  And most of all?  Be sure to look up at the sky every night -- because if you do, and if you believe in miracles, you’ll see Nolan North winking at you from the stars. 


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