In today’s mass market climate, the idea behind making games is simple, spend as little as possible to make as much as possible. To do this, you need to get the highest percentage of players to development pound as is possible. For example, if you can get 100 mass market players for 1% spent on a project compared to 5-10 hardcore gamers for the same 1%, then you do what you need to get as many mass market punters as you can.
This makes sense, a lot of sense; so you have to wonder why so very few developers/publishers do it. Sure more and more players are being welcomed into gaming culture, but where’s the development cost going?
First, you have to decided how long an average project is, and for this discussion we’ll say two years. For many Large AAA games, this is conservative, since they can span 3 or more years (Half life 2 and Doom3 being 4 to 5!).
If we also assume that the cost is spread evenly (which isn’t usually what happens – costs usually go up towards the end), what portion of your development do gamers play? Well the mass market gamer will buy a game, and play only a small section of it before either becoming bored with it, or simply not possessing the skills needed to reach higher levels. Problem is, with games being so expensive, they won’t then rush out and buy another one, they’ll simply play this on off and on, and not getting much further, and getting more and more frustrated.
The Hardcore gamer will play the game from start to finish, and take however long is required to do so. This means he won’t buy a new game until he’s finished the current one. The developer’s problem is that they make content for the hardcore gamer, making games bigger and bigger to satisfy these people (and I include magazine reviewers in this as well since they play games for a living).
This pushes up team sizes, costs and risk. The problem is, around ⅔ of this is wasted effort. The casual gamer just doesn’t get that far, so the return on your development pound drops after the first few levels. Ironically, the first few levels are easiest to make, the most polished and usually finished inside a year to 18 months, and would probably reduce the development cost by at least half. So, what if games were ⅓ the size? What if they were ⅓ the price? This would place games squarely in the impulse buy bracket (around the £15-£20 mark), and as a result, people would probably buy more games. And even if they did finish the game, a new one isn’t 4 years off. Updates could extend the game easily with more levels; in fact the exact same levels that were going to be in the game in the first place, only now, the casual gamer will now want to buy and play them, pushing up the return on the development pound.
Teams should not only find that the dreaded overtime is now reduced giving them a social life, but that the next set of games are much easier to do. With a firm codebase to work from, extra features and content can be added along with new levels in around 6 to 8 months making new releases quicker to come out, again increasing the value of the development buck.
So what’s the downside? Reviewers will no doubt complain that games are smaller, and hardcore gamers moan that they finished it already and will then promptly rush out and buy more. However since the price is now at least half what it was, they can afford to.
They may have to wait 6 months for the next set of levels and added features and so on. But what percentage of your paying public is this? No clear study has been done, but several reports suggest that only around 10-15% of the market can be attributed to the hardcore.
Given a choice of paying ⅓ to a ½, most of your paying public would opt for the smaller game, given that they’ll never finish it anyway. Putting it another way, if GTA was ⅓ the price and ⅓ the size (say only 1-2 stages), would you care? Especially if you knew another was only 5-6 months away?
There’s also a sound psychological reason as well. When a player finishes a game, he gets a thrill from seeing it through to the end, and this encourages him to do it again. Being beaten over and over isn’t very satisfying, and will eventually drive them off. Valve’s “Blue Shift” was a case in point. Small, beautifully done, and possible to finish for the masses; not to mention only costing around £15. Reviewers weren’t happy at the size of it, because they were used to these games and finished them easily, but most people who played it, loved it.
Anyone who’s played Farcry will know that it just doesn’t stop! It goes on and on. By the end of it (and I cheated to see the end, only to discover around 15 huge levels!), you’ve had your fill. And if another one came out, I doubt I’d buy it, as nice as it was.
Certain games will always take time (Doom, Unreal and HalfLife etc.) since they also make engines to sell, and others will appeal to everyone no matter what the size (Sony’s Eyetoy being one). But for the most part, there is simply too much content in games. Anyone that’s played Halflife 2 will notice fantastic levels that you fly past and only see once; pointless.
The point is, that even though there is a small market for very large games, all gamers expect games to be large because the magazines, online reviewers and even publishers assume that every game has to be, when its simply not the case. Games are one of the cheapest forms of entertainment around; DVD’s and Cinema give you only a few hours fun at most for a lot more cost. However reviews and the hardcore seem to expect games to last for months, but without the price tag. This needs to change.
While games will always represent value for money, the size and scale of them needs reducing. Around the days of Shenmue on the Dreamcast, there was talk of episodic game creation. While not quite the same thing, the concept is sound. Smaller games, more often.
The Sims have proven the bolt on market very successfully, and while the game is larger than normal, it keeps extending itself with each “small” release. This in turn keeps the interest up, and sales going. The last problem here, is convincing publishers that they need to sell these games cheaper. After all, the public's used to paying £30-£40 for a game, so why stop? We can make even more money? Publishers must also be made to realise that its in their who best interests to reduce the price, and get into that critical impulse buy bracket. Once there, sales should go through the
Not only would this aid in getting a better return on development costs, but it helps the development team do less overtime per game, reduces the risk to the publisher, and thereby allowing more variety in gaming. It also helps the public by reducing gaming costs and by allowing them to complete games, which in turn encourages them to play more, and hence buy more.
Its time to stop coding for the hardcore gamer, and go where the money is.