'People still believe we play games all day': Development's perception problem

'People still believe we play games all day': Development's perception problem
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

March 8th 2016 at 11:29AM

Kickstarters and regular blog posts are in danger of glossing over the public’s appreciation of the harsh realities involved in bringing a game to market. Develop asks leading devs at Playtonic, Cloud Imperium, Ninja Theory and Epic about potential ways to educate the masses

At the start of the year, 20-year-old gamer Devin Tripp set up a Kickstarter with the aim of raising $200,000 for a Star Wars RPG.

While Tripp acknowledged he had no development experience, he hoped to hire devs to help him create a title that would “completely blow people away, like Fallout 4 or The Witcher III”.

The Kickstarter was cancelled after Tripp was cruelly mocked by people hiding behind the anonymity of the internet, but it served as a reminder that there remain misconceptions about games development among the public.

Not only does a goal of $200,000 barely come close to the development costs of The Witcher III – which took $81m to make – it also fails to take into account the costs of licensing, setting up a studio or the full scale of such an ambitious project.

It’s a level of general ignorance that many devs are all too familiar with.

“There’s still the belief that we sit and play games all day,” Playtonic’s MD and creative lead Gavin Price tells Develop.

“I think it always surprises people to understand how many developers it takes to ship games of a certain scale.

“The best resource you can give any project is time, and time is expensive no matter what your headcount is. 

“As a developer that has successfully used crowdfunding, it makes you think creatively to utilise every bit of time and money to create something greater than expected.”

"It always surprises people to understand how many developers it takes to ship games of a certain scale."

Gavin Price, Playtonic

Chris Roberts, CEO of Star Citizen studio Cloud Imperium, says the vast majority of gamers are still accustomed to the triple-A model.

“The publisher doesn’t really roll out the promotional campaign until they are deeper into the dev process – but it may have taken the team three to six years to get to that point,” he explains.

“The public doesn’t see all the bumps along the way, the delays the team encountered and how many times they had to redo something because it wasn’t fun.”

Price adds that there are other variables that affect development costs that are rarely, if ever, covered by the games media and therefore conveyed to the end users.

“Location alone can be as big a factor as team size,” he says. “We’re a team of 20 in Burton-on-Trent – I wonder how big a studio you could run in San Francisco for the same money?”

Then there are the games that are taken back to the drawing board or scrapped altogether – the ones players will likely never know about.

“Consumers don’t realise just how many games get canceled,” says Roberts. “Now with Kickstarter, everyone is betting that a project will ultimately be completed and will never have any issues. That almost never happens in development, because the norm is that games take longer and cost more, and a lot of them just don’t work out.” 

Playtonic's Gavin Price, Ninja Theory's Dominic Matthews and Cloud Imperium's Chris Roberts

There is an ongoing change in the games industry that is exposing more consumers to the true nature of development and helping them understand the trials of bringing a game to market.

“The rise of independent development has given developers the freedom to be open in their creative processes and share the making of a game at every step,” says Dominic Matthews, product development manager at Hellblade studio Ninja Theory. “There is an appetite among players to see behind the curtain and understand the development process – it is up to us as developers to embrace this enthusiasm and use it as a means to help make our games successful.”

Ninja Theory made a rare and bold announcement when it first unveiled Hellblade, promising to be open about the game’s development from the beginning: regular updates and developer diaries, in-depth insights into aspects of the title’s creation and more are shared online by the studio.

The UK developer isn’t alone, either. Several studios now regularly update their community on the progress of their game. Not only does this help gather an audience before a title is even finished, many devs believe this is perhaps the most efficient way to educate the masses about the hard work that goes into development.

“We try our best to share information,” says Roberts. “Those monthly reports we post on our Star Citizen page are more than I ever gave to EA or Microsoft when I was developing for them – and they were writing the cheques.”

Price adds: “We love to surprise gamers and, had we been constantly revealing our plans, we could’ve got lost in the noise of everyone doing the same. Yet for other devs, the exact opposite is true and it can be what helps create a mega-hit – revealing your game as a concept alone would work.”

However, Roberts warns that being completely open about your game’s development is a “double-edged sword”.

“Since we share so much information externally, that provides ammunition for people who want to be negative,” he says. “You have to put up with the critics because the transparency helps in the education process and more people than not appreciate it.”

Matthews reflects: “We had faith that if we explained ourselves well enough fans would understand that what we show during development won’t always be representative of the final experience. 

“If we want open development to work as a strategy for gaining the interest of an audience, we have to take the risk in showing the game at early stages and be prepared for there to be misunderstandings along the way.”

"Devs should concentrate on showing what a great value entertainment medium games are."

Mike Gamble, Epic Games

So, is there an optimum way to better educate gamers about the highs and lows of games development? Epic Games’ EU territory manager Mike Gamble questions whether or not we even need to.

“I enjoy watching films and TV but really don’t have a huge insight into how they are made,” he says.

“Perhaps it is time we stop worrying about communicating how games are made as part of the marketing process and concentrate more on showing what a great value entertainment medium they are.”


BRINGING DOWN THE BARRIERS

Another major factor helping to convey the delights and difficulties of games development is the ongoing democratisation of the biggest dev tools.

The fact that any gamer or aspiring games creator can access the likes of Unreal and Unity for free goes a long way to showing people how much hard work goes into making the best titles.

“Anyone interested in real-time interactive entertainment, whether they are enthusiasts or planning a career in the industry, can use exactly the same tools and features as professional developers,” says Epic’s Mike Gamble.

“Of course, given the sophistication of UE4 we are always working to provide accessible materials to tutor people on the best way to use the tools.

“Offering free samples and tutorials, hosting Twitch livestreams and building a vibrant community through online channels and user groups has proven to be the most effective way to do this.”

However, Star Citizen creator Chris Roberts stresses that these are just entry points: “People who haven’t had the experience in building games wildly underestimate the work it really takes and the details that go in to making a successful game. Even though Unreal and Unity make things easier to get up and running, if you want to build a Witcher III-type game, you are not going to build it any quicker than CD Projekt Red. 

“There’s definitely some naiveté out there. You can do simpler games quickly now, but deep games, no.”

Playtonic’s Gavin Price agrees, adding that while the barriers to entry might be lowered, the actual path to success becomes that much harder.

“It aids the production process, but not necessarily the creative process,” he says. “The best tools in the world won’t turn a bad idea into a good one so, to really benefit, both current and future devs need to pour more thought into defining what makes their game different.”