The Extreme Cost of Game Development Might Be Unfixable

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

There’s definitely some interesting ideas in Koster’s talk and this analysis of it. I definitely think we are looking at a future where game development looks a lot like music, if only because I’m not sure there’s a unique point about games that will push it out of that space. We have a model of creativity, as Kunzelman says – why should games escape the gravitational pull?

Is the Bandcamp of games?


Hmmm, what is the Soundcloud of games, tho? :thinking:

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Newgrounds. That’s still around right?

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If it is, then you’re right.

I need to get more involved in the scene. This makes me really sad about the prospect for future single-player epic games (like most of my favorite games are). Obviously I don’t want anyone to suffer to bring them to us, though. I hope that there’s a solution here that is being overlooked. (It’s certainly not the Shadow of War method. Ick.)


I’m curious if single player epics will get a downscaling in scope and graphics in the near future. I’m thinking something like the PC RPG renaissance happening now, with games like Divinity or Shadowrun Returns being released at least a couple times a year. I have to imagine with that sort of release schedule those devs have found something more sustainable than the Kingdoms of Amalur model. Perhaps we’ll see something similar where the next Saints Row (as an example) gets scaled down to a Saints Row 2 level of scope and graphics and is marketed to the core audience that want more games like that. I myself certainly wouldn’t mind more 360 era 8-hour shooters that play great but aren’t top shelf in terms of presentation.

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Saints Row 2 is a hell of a game. I’ll take as many of those as they can throw at us.


SR2 has problems but it also has the best avatar customization of any game ever made (that I’ve played) don’t @ me

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Saints Row 2 is the best Saints Row game feel free to @ me


hard agree thanks

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While looking at the big picture can be useful to see trends, focusing too much on the abstract dollars and bytes Koster seems to sometimes ignore the ways people interact with these products. For example:

Unreal Engine 3 and Unity both launched in the 2004-5 window. I would have expected these two amazing toolchains to have hugely helped the cost per byte. Instead, it kind of looks like it went flat. It raises the disturbing possibility that maybe standardizing on these two engines has actually blocked faster innovation on techniques that reduce cost.

Of course certain areas of innovation has slowed after these engines were released: they were the innovation solving the problem of development being too inaccessible. It’s a weird hypothetical that can never be satisfied. There could always be something better, but this is the best we have until something better comes along.

Only looking at technical breakthroughs also ignores art or design ideas that would never had happened without these tools. Whether it’s as complicated as Unreal or simple as Twine, countless more people have been able to experiment with their ideas that would never had happened if they had to start from scratch and build an underlying engine themselves. I don’t think Koster means to make this argument but by saying these tools have “blocked faster innovation on techniques that reduce cost” he’s devaluing the design innovation that all these new creators have come up with.


I had a long conversation with a friend about this the other day. I think it comes down to the fact that this is a problem is seems all technology is facing. Consumers always expect something bigger and better, and shareholders always expect profits to grow. The only difference between games and other digital media in this sense is that consumers seem more in tuned to what’s going on behind the scenes, for better or worst. I don’t think the game industry is going to fix capitalism and I don’t see a solution in sight that doesn’t involve another games crash. I get that games are expensive and prices are have stayed the same. However, rarely in the discourse are there viable ethical solutions being offered.

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Personally I wonder if having freelance studios that specialize in a few things that contract out to the bigger ones would help. E.g. a studio that prides itself on hiring the best character artists so you can contract them out to do the work of making all the no name NPCs that populate the game.

The indie scene has people who make asset packs and that certainly helps out a lot I’ve noticed, a more refined version of that might help out the bigger studios. Like middleware but in art form.

The no-name NPCs are ideally going to come from generating a set of variable ranges and then populating from inside it (think custom character generator only firing off over and over for NPCs and then baking those creations into the game as fixed assets, so any artist with spare time can do some manual pass to increase that base selection of variability). “Speedtree for NPCs” (may be developed in-house, may be middleware). The crowds of people in Hitman and the crowds in Planet Coaster are very different but the underlying needs (animate via these basic bones, fit this poly budget, have these LoD levels, texture budget/derive from this base texture/atlas of components/box of “parts”) isn’t shockingly different (just as you can use the underlying tech of SpeedTree for making trees that look however you want, as long as you just want a lot of slight variations on a tree because that’s what you need to give your artists to work from, if any hand-tweaking is required/budgeted). One of the important things to remember is that generating those assets may not be the main spend as you’ve got the tech concern of how to manage them possibly being the unsolved issue you’re working with.

As to specialisation and contracting out: that’s already how the AAA industry works. Big publishers both contract and have full-time support studios (not to mention having potential “floating” art teams inside some studios that are the primary developer on a project and can end up working a range of projects depending on load - which always ramps up over a project until it ramps back down as everything gets the polish pass, ideally with DLC or being timed so everything concludes roughly together at the largest team size). The less charitable term (for full time art-heavy teams working to specs and shipping it to a primary studio) is “asset farm”. Sometimes it’s a label inaccurately used by devs to feel more special, that they somehow do the “real” work, but its common usage points to how standard it is. Here’s Epic in 2006 talking about setting up just such a shop.

There was an interview recently with the Ubisoft Shanghai head [Edit: found it!] where she pushed back against the term being used for their (massive) studio but Ubisoft is a great example of where a lead team may get assets from many different teams all over the world on any one game project. “We did 70% of the work on The Division. We did a lot of things in Watch Dogs. We did so many things. I hope people will realize that.” So it’s cool to think of Austin recognising New York in The Division and knowing that much of that stuff was built in Shanghai, lead by a studio in Malmö, with contributors all over the world.

While trying to track down that interview link I even stumbled onto this. So The Division concept art also came from that independent Shanghai contractor. One of many who do this specialised work. Unfortunately the industry in general is not as open as it could be about this stuff.