Herman Hulst of Guerilla Games was quoted on Destructoid as saying that development on PlayStation 4 -and, by inference, the next generation in general- is “not as scary as maybe some led you to believe.”
Now, before you go blogging and Twittering the fallacy of any assertion by publishers or developers that next gen development is more expensive, it’s important to consider what Hulst is and is not saying.
1. Next Generation Development IS More Expensive…
Hulst is also quoted in the article as saying that his staff went up from 125 to 150 employees. That is a 20% increase in manpower and overhead. Assuming those 25 additional employees were on the project for the two and a half year duration, and assuming an average salary of $6,000 a month, a ballpark estimate for the additional salary burn is $4.5 million. And that doesn’t cover the cost of equipment, software, benefits etc. This is a significant price increase. To put it another way, Guerilla would need to sell something on the order of 150,000 thousand copies of Killzone: Shadow Fall just to cover the additional head count, a number equivalent to 6% of the cumulative global sales of Killzone 3. Not insurmountable, but not insignificant either.
So, next-gen development is more expensive. Does it mean that the staff of any given title will need to double to cover the new tech ceiling? No. But, it also does not mean that the upgraded horse power makes development easier. A common misconception is that more powerful tools and processing power remove the need to optimize assets and make them fit within a memory footprint. This is purely wishful thinking. Artists will still sculpt and texture character models at a higher resolution than the game can handle, and then determine how best to make the character work within an established technical budget. Level designers will still need to streamline their content. Technical directors will still need to worry about performance and memory usage. So it has been in previous generations, and so it will be here. Beefier hardware will never remove the need to perform technical due diligence and refinement.
To put it another way, Guerilla would need to sell something on the order of 150,000 thousand copies of Killzone: Shadow Fall just to cover the additional head count
2. Efficiency and Cost Saving Is About More Than Just Tech
Hulst is also quoted as saying that the next generation will be about smarter, rather than bigger development. This is a key point. As the technical sophistication of games continues to increase, the best way to fight ballooning budgets is more efficient production. This seems like common sense, right? But, as any veteran of the industry will tell you, common sense is not exactly in high supply in product management.
If these problems are already bad, how much worse will they get when assets are even more expensive and take even longer to produce?
What Hulst is saying is just as true for the current generation. Unfortunately, the industry is, overall, very bad at “smart” development. Developers and publishers already struggle with bloated production budgets that are hard to recoup through sales, inefficient production processes, delayed launches, decision bottlenecking, and corporate bureaucracy. If these problems are already bad and publishers are already uber-dependant on sequels to keep them in the black, how much worse will they get when assets are even more expensive and take even longer to produce? How much worse will they get when levels are even bigger?
It is also important to remember that “next-gen” doesn’t just mean “prettier” to fans and developers. It means more feature rich. More explorable. More dynamic. Sophistication is expensive, complicated, and unpredictable to develop, and if our expectation as consumers and developers is that the next generation will be more sophisticated, than it will also be more expensive.
3. Killzone: Shadow Fall Has a Predictable Scope (Probably)
The last point that the reader should keep in mind is that not all games are created equally. Judging by the preview during the PlayStation 4 launch event, Killzone: Shadow Fall will be a 1st person shooter. It will be prettier and more refined, but probably not wildly different in style or substance than the previous three Killzone titles, and will probably have a comparable running time and feature set.
More content means more production time, more heads and, thus, more money.
Guerilla is working on the forth iteration of an IP they own, the forth iteration of the same mechanics, and the forth iteration of the same art style. In production terms, this translates into more knowledge, better forecasting, fewer unknowns. For an experienced developer, like Guerilla, it is much easier to streamline and develop “smarter” in this scenario.
Now, contrast this with next-gen poster child Watch Dogs. New IP. New mechanics. Open-world setting with sandbox gameplay. More unknowns, more unpredictability. It is much harder -though not impossible- to streamline this sort of production, just as it is difficult to improve efficiency at a factory while you are still building it. For an open-world game to feel open, you need A LOT of content. And for a next-gen game to feel next-gen, that content will need to be robust and detailed. You can certainly streamline asset creation, but, at some point, it still has to generated by an artist or designer. More content means more production time, more heads – or both – and, thus, more money.
What I take from the article – and what I think the reader should take as well – is that if you know what you’re making and know what you’re doing, the necessary budget for a next gen game will be incrementally, not exponentially, more expensive.
The real question: how many dev teams can say “we do” to both?