Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Double your development time?

A recent conversation with a fellow indie about their first game, and it’s (relatively) low sales led me to think about how best a small games company should break out of a ‘cheap games and low sales’ rut.

GSB took way more effort to make than any of my earlier games. It was a bit of a big gamble for me, but it paid off. I don’t have exact figures to hand, but I’m pretty sure that the return-on-investment per hour of dev time for GSB is higher than for my earlier games. That makes me think if this might generally be a good rule to follow.

It’s easy to get stuck into an assumption that there is simple¬† linear mapping between effort and reward, but I’m pretty sure that’s not true in game development. Very big smart companies don’t seem that keen to work on lots of small projects. Call of Duty X is always a huge stupidly expensive project, and the profits from it are always staggering. Nobody ever thinks ‘hey maybe spending >$30,000,000 on a game is a bit crazy, why not do two $15,000,000 games?’. I suspect that is because the profit on the one 30mill game is bigger than the profit on two 15mill games.

So for indies, I’m wondering if we should take a leaf out of valves book. Team Fortress 2 took 7 years to make. Half life 2 cost a fortune (at the time) but then sold 12 million copies. Maybe indies should be spending more in time, money and effort and taking much bigger risks in scope if they want to make a decent return.

GTB will definitely have higher production values than GSB. I thought GSB seemed pretty good, but some bits could have been better. I’m aiming for more polish, and a more impressive initial release. If that means it takes an extra 3-6 months, then I’ll do it, but I still hope to release in 2011, if I knuckle down to it :D


13 thoughts on Double your development time?

  1. I think you’re right, effort and polish probably pays off in the end, on average. While the CoD analogy is a bit fallacious (yes, it has very high production values, which contribute to its returns, but it also has brand recognition, which I think contributes even more), I know that games that walk the extra mile to put in a bit more personality, a touch more of varnish, a dab more gameplay tweaking tend to really please me, and take both my time and money.

    However, I think the real value in making small first games is to teach yourself the dev game. Risks related to scope diminish as a dev gains experience in not only developing, but also releasing and selling his games. Many devs have been burnt out of the industry by ambitious projects that exploded in complexity, which they didn’t have the experience to curtail and manage.

    It seems to me that game development is pretty much like anything else: you start out small, work out the kinks one at a time. One should, however, escalate the scope along their sequence of projects as they gain the ability to manage their higher difficulty, since by your correct arguments these should yield better returns.

  2. I agree with the previous poster that a lot of indie dev’s start out smaller not just because the risk is smaller, but also because there is some significant confidence building involved in starting and then finishing a complete game, no matter how small. Others simply don’t have the resources to contribute toward building even a slightly bigger game (even if it is still in the single person development realm).

  3. Hmmmm – I don’t think you can generalise about this because different games need different levels of time and effort to produce.

    There’s a market for quick, simple games which don’t cost much and offer a chunk of fun to the player – and there’s a market for lavish, detailed games which contain a tonne of content and will keep players entertained forever.

    One of your past concerns was low game pricing – that people are pricing games at a level they’re unlikely to make money – but you can’t stop that tide single-handed and a lot of ‘indies’ really have to work within that market whether they like it or not.

    Make a REALLY good platform game for PC and you’ll have to sell it alongside VVVVV, SMB and the like – so you can’t really make it any more expensive – you have to cut your cloth.

    Shooters – even worse, there are a RAFT of original and decent shooters on PC and most are super-cheap – again you can’t contest that.

    Strategy games – your current forte – are a bit different perhaps BUT today I could have picked-up Napoleon/Empire Total War GOTY edition for ¬£5 – that’s both games and all the DLC for the price of a magazine – how do you compete with that!?

  4. Don’t rule out the power of good marketing. Before Discreet was assimilated by Autodesk, they would match every dollar spent on development with their marketing on every product.

  5. Taking bigger risks means just that – bigger risks. Standing to lose a lot more in the event of failure, which is likely. Doesn’t sound like good general advice?

    However, what you describe doesn’t sound like actually taking risks. Spending time polishing a high-quality product in a popular genre isn’t risky – that’s just business as usual. Valve spent a lot of time and money making sequels to a popular game? OOH RISKY. No. It’s making things that are new and interesting and unlike anything that’s gone before that’s a risk.

  6. Hi Cliff,
    You mentioned hoping to release GTB in 2011… but from following your blog I can’t tell exactly when you started working on GTB. How long do you think the total dev-time would be in calendar-months?

    Thanks :)
    – Sean

  7. It’s true that the bigger the project, the higher the revenue (per invested hour). Most indie devs don’t realize this, and thus work on their own. But 20 solo indie devs (with 20 indie games) will never make more money than a single project created by a team of 20.

    I don’t think it’s a viable solution for indie devs to invest double time into their projects. You need to sustain yourself, and for double development time you need a steady income or double the savings.

    Better would be to join forces to work on bigger projects. I can imagine a team under the lead of successful indie devs like you Cliff.

    I would go so far to require team members to bring an equals share of money to the table to pay for artwork and other fixed costs. All team members are entrepreneurial indie developers who invest time + money into their single-man shows anyways.

  8. Interesting post.
    Not so long ago (around 2007 for example) the long devellopment cycle was the assumed standard for indie devs.
    Most people’s indie role models were devs like pixel (cave story) or Cliffsky who patiently slaved month after month on their game. Even in casual games, most HO or match-3 teams used to have a several months long dev cycle.
    Then came the flash game “industry”, and IOS and facebook. And one day we woke up to discover that it had suddenly become “too risky” to spend more than a month/a month and a half on a game.
    I would like to come back to that long dev cycle paradigm unfortunately it’s becoming more and more difficult because players are being conditioned to play crap games for a dollar, and unless you take the perilous and lonely path of the direct-selling samourai (like cliff or Jack norton), most distributors will look at you with a funny face if you try to sell them your big,$20 game.

  9. Most statistical distributions in nature seem to follow power laws. For example, you might find that 20% of game titles account for 80% of sales revenues. If so, it is really worth going that extra mile to be in that top 20%, rather than picking up the scraps in the 80%.

  10. No update since such a long time!
    Don’t read that post again every day, Cliff, if you double your Dev Time every day you won’t finish at all!

  11. half the money to create a large game creates two games of less than half the quality of the large game.. look at Warren Spector’s history even if I personally disagee on UW2 vs Deus ex

    polish is all i agree. I replied a while ago areeing that one of the indie bundles with five games for five dollars was probably too cheap. I now take that back : I played the consruct a rocket game and whilst it’s reasonably novel in concept the implementation is irritating. Theres too many other games vying for my attention so I didnt buy even at that price

    its better to do a few things well than more below par

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