Making Games


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Do you know what it really takes to make a video game? Do you know why a game costs $60 or even $80. Making a game takes a ton of work.

Sometimes I think I should try to teach a class in it in high school. Creating a game might be something that some students might want to do and having a class about it would allow them to experience what it really takes to make a game. It's not just about having fun, it's about lots and lots of work. It's about reports, schedules, budgets, tradeoffs, teamwork. All the things I wasn't taught in high school or college for that matter.


Most people think that a game starts when someone has a great idea for a game. The problem is that almost everyone in the industry and every game player thinks they have a great idea for a game. Someone has to be convinced that your idea is the one idea that should get done. This is done by pitching the game whether you're an internal team (a team that is internal to the game publisher) or an external development team (a team not owned by any publishing company but that does products on contract for a publisher.)

To pitch a game you have to create pitch materials. The better your materials the better your chance of getting your game approved. Usually the minimum materials are a small report 2 or 3 pages describing the game briefly. If you can't describe the game briefly then you are unlikely to be able to keep the attention of the people you are trying to sell the game to. Most of them are not game players. Another common pitch material is the storyboard. Storyboards attempt to show the game with pictures. Good looking storyboards definitely make an impression over those teams that don't have them. Even better than storyboards is an actual demo of the game.

Time and Money

What many people don't realize is that the game they pitch must be able to be done in a certain amount of time within a certain budget. Lets say you wanted to make a 3D Fighting game with 20 different characters and 1 background for each character. An intro video introducing the game and a video ending for each character when that character wins the game. How much time and how many people is that going to require.

Lets guess that each character will take 1 month to create in 3D and animate. Each background also takes 1 month. The 3D programming we guess will take 1 year. The intro video will take 4 months and each ending video will take 1 month. Add it up.<ul>

  • 1 month 20 characters = 20 months
  • 1 month 20 backgrounds = 20 months
  • 1 year of programming = 12 months
  • 1 intro video = 4 months
  • 1 ending video * 20 characters = 20 months
  • That's 20+20+12+4+20 = 76 months. In other words, if one person could do all the work by themselves it would take them 6 years to make the game. Of course 6 years is too long to take to make a game. If you started today, in 6 years the video game systems that people have at home would probably have been replaced. Instead of a Sony Playstation they'd have a Sony Playstation 2 or maybe even 3 and your game would have no market anymore.

    Most publishers would like a game to take about 1 year. So if you wanted to get your game done in a year you're going to need at least 7 people. 76 months / 7 = 10.8 months or almost 1 year.

    How much do 7 people cost for a year? Well an artist can cost anywhere from $30,000 a year to $100,000 a year depending on their experience. A programmer from $40,000 to $100,000. Lets just guess and assume you get 6 artists for $45,000 each and one programmer for $65,000. That's $45,000*6 + $65,000 = $335,000. But wait, people need benefits like health insurance, they need supplies like paper and pencils. They need a place to work like an office with a desk, a phone and a chair. You also have to pay certain taxes in addition to the taxes that each person on the team pays. All that adds up to around 30% of their salary. So, $335,000*30% = $100,500. Your total cost is now $335,000+$100,500 = $440,000. Okay, now you need equipment and software. Each artist and programmer needs at least one computer. A reasonable computer with monitor will cost at least $3000. Artists need software and 3D software can be very expensive. Lets say you decide to use 3D Studio Max. That's $3500. They may need a copy of Photoshop or some other painting software which is about $600. Your programmer will need a an editor $200, and a development system, $30,000. So the total for equipment so far is

    Total so far, $516,500.

    Now lets say you ask a publisher for $516,500 and they agree to give it to you to make the game. What did you forget? Well some things that come to mind, music and sound effects for one. Also, your schedule probably didn't take into account all the communication that needs to go on between team members so they are all working as a team. Do you need someone to lead the team? Do you need a art director to organize the artists and make sure that all the artwork in the game has a consistent look? You could ask one of your 6 artists to do it but then they will be busy managing the other artists and won't have as much time to get their work done. Who is going to pay the bills, do the payroll, order the equipment and software. Whoever does it will have less time for working on the game. What about a network? Are you going to have a network so that people can share there work with each other without having to use lots of floppy disks?

    Lets add one more artist as art director and because they are the art director they command a higher salary of $60,000. You also hire a producer or manager to both organize the team and pay the bills and manage the other money matters. (Maybe you don't like the idea of hiring a manager and instead you want to manage. Now your time is taken up by managing so you are going to need to hire someone else to do the work you no longer have time for. Either way it's going to require another person). You need to contract out for music and sound effects. That can easily cost $60,000 to $80,000.

    Lets add that in.<ul>

  • 1 art director = $60,000 + 30% for rent, insurance, taxes, supplies, ... = $78,000
  • 1 producer = $40,000 + 30% for overhead = $52000
  • Music and sound fx = $70,000
  • 2 more machines = $3000 * 2 = $6000
  • 1 more 3D Studio Max = $3500
  • 1 peer to peer network = $4000
  • New total = $4000+3500+6000+70000+52000+78000+516500 = $730,000

    Lets say you ask for $730,000 from a publisher and they give it to you. You now have enough money to pay your team for exactly one year and no more. If you forgot something tough luck. If it takes 16 months instead of 12 you're going to go hungry for 4 of those months or your going to have to re−negotiate with your publisher and they are going to want something in return for your failure to deliver your game within the time and budget you originally promised. They might for example lower your royalties or they might demand a part of your company. They might ask you all to take a 50% pay cut until you finish.

    Lets take a look at royalties. Most games by external developers are done on an advance against royalties arrangement. That means that the $730,000 they gave you is an advance against your royalties. Maybe you got 15% royalties and the game sells for a suggested list price of $49.95. You don't get 15% of $49.95. You get 15% of net so if the list price is $49.95 the wholesale price is probably 45% of that or $22.48. If this is a Sony Playstation or Sega Saturn game they both charge around $8.00 per disc sold as a licensing fee so the net price is $14.48. 15% of that is $2.17. Your team gets $2.17 per unit sold. You got an advance of $730,000. $730,000 / $2.17 = 336,406 units. You must sell 336,406 units before your team will see any more money than they already got. Not very many games sell 336,406 units. Maybe only the top 10 games on any platform.

    Another issue that comes up here is the feeling that the publisher is being greedy.   The typical point of view of the developer, you, is that you are going to do all the work and they are getting 85% of that $14.48.  You feel like you should get more.   I know I often felt this way.  Here's the other point of view.  From the view of the publisher they put in $730,000 and probably several $100,000 more on marketing and plus they also need to pay sales people and marketing people and producers etc.   Lets say they spent a total of $1,500,000 on your game.  What have you spent?   You've spent $0.  They are risking $1.5 million dollars on you.  If you or your team fails they are out $1.5 million dollars.  On the other hand you risk nothing.  If you fail you already got from them $730,000 dollars.  That hardly seems fair.  The reason they get all the money is that they are the people taking all the risk.  That actually brings up another point, if you want a better deal, lower their risk.  For example if you develop the game entirely on your own and then once it's finished you go to them and they decide to publish it you can usually get a much better deal.  The reason is that they don't have to risk as much money.  Of course they still have to risk all the money they will spend of advertising and duplication and distribution and sales.  Unfortunately most people can't make a product on their own.  It takes too long and too many people.


    Design is going to be different for different types of games.  For the type of game I like to make, action games or action adventure games, I personally believe the best way to design is by storyboard and sketches.  I've seen teams make huge documents 300 to 400 pages long for their games and I personally don't think it works.  Nobody wants to read a 300 document.  Instead you probably need some kind of outline just so you can make sure you've got everything listed.  Then you need to design each world and each character and each object.  Each item will need two basic things, a visual design and a behavioral design.  The visual design would be designed by the artists.   This is one way to get your artists involved in the game.  Give them a basic idea of what you want to do with the game and then give them a couple of days to go off and sketch settings or characters or objects.  Then have a big meeting and decide which of their ideas you want to actually use in the game.  Once you've chosen, have the artists make much more detailed color version of those items.  You see this type of thing in movie production.  The #1 reason you need this is you need to make sure everybody understands what everybody is trying to make and a visual picture is your blueprint.  In other words, "make what you see in the picture".

    The perfect example of this is the original Star Wars.  If you look in to the making of Star Wars you will see lots of paintings by a guy named Ralph McQuarrie.  I used to think those painting were made after the movies since they looks so close to scenes in the movies but actually the opposite is true.  Mr. McQuarrie drew those paintings and then from those paintings people made the movie.  If you think about it you can see why this is so important.  It takes lots of people to make movies and video games and without images like these nobody will have the same idea for how to make their particular piece of a level or scene.

    Secondly you need behavioral design.  This is best done with sketches.  In the movies this would be the black and white sketches that show each scene and camera angle.  In a game these would be sketches that show each item and character and all their moves and behaviors with notes giving details for things like timing, speed, distance, power etc.  While working in Zombie Revenge at Sega I saw hundreds of these sketches.  Every motion needed for every character had a sketch describing the motion BEFORE it was created.

    Levels also need to be sketched.  These should look like blueprints or top down maps that show where each item/door/character etc should be.  Having worked both ways I personally believe levels should be laid out on paper by game designers and THEN those designs should be handed off to artists so the artist can build the level based on the game designers blue print.  This lets the game designer make sure the level is designed to be fun, fair, not frustrating, etc and lets the artist make it look beautiful.   Some of you are going to think you can just jump into a map editor or 3d program and start creating a level.  I could happen but I've never seen a really good level come out this way on time.  The problem is without a blueprint you have no idea where you are going or when you're done.  You'll just keep noodling and noodling until you get bored and start working on something else.  If you have a blueprint you'll have a specific goal in mind.  You'll know when you are finished and when you are not.   You'll know what other things need to be created for the level before the level is even built.

    The successful companies where great products are made on time the designer is at the top of the heap. From the designers the game is made.  That means they must be good people capable of leading, of creating designs that are possible, of not creating frivolous un−thought−through designs that the team implements and then have to be thrown away.  They need to be aware that from their designs, thousands of dollars will be spent implementing them and that bad decisions from them will cost lots of money and possibly the entire project.



    You're Done

    to be continued...



    Parappa the Rapper
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