Can the game industry keep a lid on rising development costs?

Can the game industry keep a lid on rising development costs?
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

May 14th 2014 at 1:10PM

Developers admit budgets are increasing on PS4 and Xbox One, but efficient middleware could stop it spiraling out of control

Rising game development costs on the Xbox One and PS4 have been a great concern for many developers making the jump to the new generation of consoles.

Many in the industry had waded into the debate before Microsoft and Sony launched their new hardware, with some claiming more powerful consoles would inevitably lead to a rise in development costs, as has happened in previous generations.

And you only have to look at Activision's $500 million gamble on Bungie's new IP Destiny to realise how big triple-A budgets are getting, even for new IP.

Some however have said the jump in costs may not be that great, at least for most games, particularly given the PC-like architecture and more developer-friendly nature of new console hardware.

Six months into the new era of consoles, to find out how developers at the top-end are dealing with rising game development costs on the PS4 and Xbox One, and get an insight into just how big budgets are getting, we asked developers at The Witcher maker CD Projekt, Climax Studios and Forza Horizon outfit Playground Games for their opinions.

Great expectations

Climax technical director James Sharman says costs are inevitably rising thanks to an increase in graphical fidelity, but believes it is factors such as increased expectations for new-gen titles, as well as an over-reliance on high review scores, that will continue to drive up budgets.

“There are some great titles in the launch window that clearly could have been done on the last generation at similar budgets,” he says.

“However with more hardware resources it's always possible to spend more at the top end. There are many factors involved in the upwards pressure on budgets including user expectations and the industry’s over-reliance on review scores. Higher expectations for the new consoles will contribute but perhaps not as much as people think.”

To combat this however, Sharman and other developers say the creation of more efficient middleware is one of the key battlegrounds in the fight to push down such rising costs.

Sharman states that with consoles adopting a more PC-like development approach, this could be what helps keep costs down.

“Good tools always help the process, there will always be new techniques coming along that require new tools, however PC gaming developed smoothly over the last generation so developers are not being surprised by new data requirements that nobody is experienced with,” he says.

Big teams

Playground Games technical director Alan Roberts, whose studio worked on Xbox 360 title Forza Horizon, says development costs on Xbox One have risen, and the studio has expanded its dev team headcount by around 20 per cent and is working with more outsourcers to deal with the extra work required on new titles.

“We’ve not seen the same sort of jump in development costs that occurred on previous console transitions, but costs have risen,” says Roberts.

“Our in-house development team is roughly 20 per cent bigger than it was on last-gen, but we’re doing even more with outsourcers this time in order to create content to the level of detail required by new generation games. “

Roberts says that during the initial period of development there had been a shift in emphasis towards tooling up the new console, and believes this is key to creating efficiency on new consoles

“Most console teams are spending a lot of their development budget on empowering content creation,” he explains. “Generally speaking, rapid iteration for content developers is the key, as content is expensive to create on a large scale. Efficiency gains need to be continuously sought out to keep costs under control.”

There are many factors involved in the upwards pressure on budgets including user expectations and the industry’s over reliance on review scores.

James Sharman, Climax Studios

Roberts also discusses another change affecting studios on new consoles, and that’s the sheer amount of data developers must handle. He explains that asset sizes have increased ten-fold, and notes how Playground’s IT director tells him “we now have the IT infrastructure of a small bank” – all handled by a studio that employs around 150 staff.

“Asset sizes have increased by between 6x and 10x – depending on type – due to increased resolution and fidelity, which has meant a complete re-think of the backend infrastructure we had in place on the previous console generation – we’ve increased our storage platform by a factor of four to accommodate this increased data," he explains.

"Storing it is only part of the challenge though – we need to ensure our team can access and work with it quickly so we’ve increased our network capacity by 5x and installed two additional external gigabit lines to support the project.”

Bigger worlds

CD Projekt senior art producer Michal Krzeminski states the ability to create bigger worlds and more detailed titles has resulted in a rising costs, in terms of both time and resources, but also believes tools could be the answer.

"I think it’s a fifty-fifty case. On one hand, creating a bigger and more detailed game means utilising more assets, the creation of which obviously costs more both in terms of time and resources. On the other hand, since we’ve been working closely with console manufacturers and middleware developers, we’ve managed to optimise a lot of things that have been costly in the past.” he says, adding the virtues of using its own in-house game engine.

“When it comes to tools, we have the comfort of working on our own tech, REDengine 3. The technology is developed by an internal, core team here at CD Projekt, and this team constantly monitors requests from other parties within the studio, and addresses their needs. In my opinion, there’s nothing better than developing games like this, we don’t need to hack a third-party tech and create workarounds, we just submit requests and things happen. Also, various smaller tools that help everyday work are created in a similar fashion. It really facilitates work a lot.”

Krzeminski also believes team management and clear instructions are perhaps the most important weapon in the battle against rising development costs, and explains lots of time and money can be lost when issues aren’t addressed due to a lack of communication.

“I think that, in triple-A development, everything essentially comes down to communication,” says Krzeminski.

“When you’re working with well above 200 people, it’s absolutely critical to have a crystal clear and unobstructed path of communicating ideas, tasks and feedback. You can lose a significant amount of time and money when something gets stuck somewhere down in the pipeline, that’s why you have to constantly monitor the flow of information and address issues. It’s absolutely paramount.”

What have your experiences been with development costs on the PS4 and Xbox One? And what is the best way for developers to combat development costs? Let us know in the comments below.