Is Game Development Becoming Too Big and Expensive?

With each new generation of hardware comes added pressure to develop something that’s bigger and better than could be achieved on previous consoles. And this isn’t just from a graphical perspective either, though it’s the first and often most noticeable improvement gamers see when a trailer launches. Game development nowadays can take a long time between conception to release, and then a good long while afterwards to patch the bugs and provide additional content. This all comes at a huge expense to the developers and the publishers, regardless whether that be third party or first party. 

Ubisoft has somewhere in the region of 20,000 employees and the latest Assassin’s Creed title has a team of over 2,000. Rockstar Games has gone from developing three GTA games in a short period of time in the PS2 generation to needing all their resources to focus on a single entry in the franchise. There hasn’t been a new entry in the series since 2013. The only game Rockstar released since was Red Dead Redemption 2 which released in 2018. 

Not too long ago, Phil Spencer spoke that game development is going to become a four to six year cycle. Nintendo spent six years developing Breath of the Wild and then a further six on Tears of the Kingdom. Granted, Covid impacted that to some extent as Japan operates so differently to the West that it created huge challenges. However, it’s certainly known that one whole year was spent on ironing out the bugs and polishing the game ready for release. When Nintendo releases more powerful hardware, is that time going to increase further?

Even with better tools to help create these worlds, it’s clear something is going to need to give. Part of the problem is the expectations that now come with the price tag. Open world hundred plus hour games are seen too often as the only types of games that warrant the £70. Shorter but more focused games are seen as not worthy unless sub £40. It’s a dangerous mindset with ever increasingly expensive and longer development times. 

The past decade has seen a massive influx in games as a service. On the face this could be an easy way to get around these problems, but it does come with its own downsides. Most of the releases are either outright shut down or abandoned due to failing to gain enough gamers to generate a large enough profit for the publisher to consider it a success. Even when they are a success, the ongoing development to keep a constant stream of new content takes its toll. Fortnight is perhaps the biggest games as a service release, but in order to maintain the regular updates, Epic Games has found itself acquiring multiple studios. Crunch is a big problem. 

Every new generation has seen developers and publishers either go under or sell out to stay in business. Ocean Software did just that. Ocean was a major publisher across Europe during the 8-bit and 16-bit era, but in the mid 1990’s they sold out to Infogrames. Development costs were increasing, it was taking longer to develop games and licenses were also becoming more expensive. And that’s before you start looking at producing the physical copies, marketing and distribution etc.

In the early 2000s, both Titus Interactive and Acclaim Entertainment went under. Titus’ bankruptcy also took down Interplay Interactive which they owned. The 3DO Company, once in the console business with the 3DO itself, then turned developer and publisher, also went under in the early 2000s. Flash forward to 2009, Eidos Interactive sold out to Square Enix to prevent themselves from going bankrupt. In 2010 and we see Midway Games go bankrupt and then in 2013, THQ goes the same way. This year we hear Ubisoft sending out an email to all its employees which starts making one question whether they are in financial trouble. They’ve had numerous games underperforming. Sega, once a major player in the console scene, practically went under but were saved with an emergency cash injection from the owner while they looked for a suitable company to sell to. Admittedly, Sega did a lot of self inflicted wounds, especially in the lead up to and throughout the Saturn’s lifespan.

In truth, I’m not sure what the answer to the problem is. There is so much at stake in the industry, and it’s increasing as costs and development time continues to go up. Something has to give. The problem is, what?

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