Overpriced DLCs, abusive freemium models, absurd preorder campaigns. You’ve seen every attempt under the sun to fleece consumers for their hard-earned cash, and I get it. You’re a wary, skeptical consumer, as well you should be.
Maybe you head over to Kickstarter or IndieGogo to support the indie scene, free from that corrupting influence. And maybe you see a 2-D title and it looks promising. Metroidvania-style world progression, jRPG-style combat, cool southeast Asia-inspired aesthetic. You’re into this! And you check what they want, and…
$1.5 million dollars. And they’re getting an additional $2 million from a publisher after the fact?!
That’s ridiculous, you think. Another Metroidvania-style game, Ghost Song, asked for $15,000. Undertale, indie game darling of the year, asked for $5000. These are supposed to be works of passion!
Except, of course, that they need all that money, because video games are really really expensive to make.
No disrespect meant to the brilliant work from Toby Fox or Matt White, certainly. But it is worth noting that Undertale, while brilliant in many respects, has shockingly weak production values. We can also assume that Toby Fox (and possibly those who assisted him) were definitely not living like kings while the game was being made, but instead betting their time and energy in the hopes of a big payoff. That gamble ended up aces, but most working professionals can hardly afford to take such risks with their finances and families.
Human resources, as it turns out, is always the largest cost in developing a game. People make games, and people need to live, and living costs dollars. Assuming you’re a professional, you’re probably going to need to move to a city, where most studios congregate, and the costs of living (and supporting a family, heaven forbid) can skyrocket. Even $80,000 can seem a paltry sum in certain conditions, and each company needs to pay taxes and overhead on each employee. “$10,000 per man [per] month” is a current rule of thumb in the industry.
“Well, not for indies,” you might say. “They’re just coming up in the world. They can work on it in their spare time!” Well… not really. Even assuming these folks have the energy to work on their title after engaging in their paying occupation, the development cycle in these cases can take years. Without a salary, hobbyist work always comes in second place to family, spouses, school, work, what-have-you. The market for indies right now is as crowded as ever, so without some seriously high quality and a fair bit of luck, even a five-year labor-of-love might go completely unnoticed on the Steam marketplace. Go onto Steam right now and check the New Releases tab. How many of those games have you heard of? How many user reviews do the relative unknowns have?
To be noticed, to stand some reasonable chance of selling well, to make waves with press and YouTubers and streamers alike, the game needs to be good. It needs play great, sound great, look great. It needs to show up at trade conventions, work with established partners, send out press releases. And the people who are capable of pulling off all of these feats simultaneously, who are capable of conquering the unbelievably difficult task of putting together a modern video game, are talented human beings whose skills would probably land them a six-figure salary in other markets. They’re already sacrificing to make games, and often, it seems, consumers would have them work for peanuts.
But, of course, there are other costs as well. Assuming they go about everything above the table (and not every indie does, of course, but they should) there are large licensing costs for indispensable tools, everything from Adobe Photoshop to Final Cut Pro to Autodesk Maya to Unity 5.0. There’s the cost of hardware and development kits. There’s the federal and state payroll tax, flat tax on LLC corporations, and workman’s compensation insurance. There’s the cost of the office space at which these professionals need to collaborate effectively, the cost of travel to E3 and GDC to show off their titles and meet with partners, the cost of setting up a company and registering trademarks. How about voice acting? Talented pros aren’t cheap, and bad voice acting can absolutely decimate a game’s immersion. It differs by company, but you can often expect these costs to eat up anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of a game’s total budget.
Every single one of the above factors has been negated or ignored by some indie or another, of course. Someone found a guy in Iowa who records audio for three bucks an hour and sounds great. Someone’s uncle works at NVIDIA and got them a free GTX 980. But rare is the indie who can do art, music, programming, design. Rare is the indie who can work free from all external financial pressure, who has the resources to devote themselves fully to their art without having to work a day job. And that’s okay. People can suffer for their art, but they shouldn’t *have* to. Well compensated workers make better workers, and better workers make better games.
Developers should live and die by their products, certainly. And consumers make that happen. The money that funds the games you love invariably comes from your own wallet, one way or another… nothing sends a vote to the industry like the cash you spend to play a great game. Smaller developers, especially! Games are expensive, monstrous beasts that comparatively few human beings can tame. The costs can be high. Deservedly so.
For the most part, though?