In The Click Of It



AThe cost of block­buster gam­ing

s we march for­ward into a new con­sole gen­er­a­tion, one thing we can ex­pect to see more of are highly pol­ished, sto­ry­driven games. These games will fea­ture im­pres­sively ren­dered char­ac­ters with many more lay­ers of even higher fidelity mo­tion-cap­ture an­i­ma­tions, brought to life through the voice work of ex­tremely tal­ented pro­fes­sional ac­tors. These sto­ries and char­ac­ters will in­creas­ingly be imag­ined and writ­ten by top-level writ­ers – both those with years of game writ­ing ex­pe­ri­ence as well as those who are able to suc­cess­fully tran­si­tion from other me­dia. In the con­sole space, over the course of this gen­er­a­tion, I think it’s safe to pre­dict that well-crafted and highly pol­ished nar­ra­tive will be more im­por­tant than ever be­fore, and will reach new heights of qual­ity.

Of course, it also goes with­out say­ing that all of these things have costs. The ex­po­nen­tially in­creas­ing costs of higher fidelity ren­der­ing and an­i­ma­tion are costs the in­dus­try is fa­mil­iar with con­fronting in each new con­sole gen­er­a­tion. Many pub­lish­ers and de­vel­op­ers have spent the past few years lay­ing the foun­da­tions that will al­low them to ab­sorb and man­age these costs, and they are now well pre­pared for them. But there are also new costs that the in­dus­try has not his­tor­i­cally had to man­age. As we seek to im­prove the qual­ity of our sto­ries by bring­ing in big-name writ­ers from film or tele­vi­sion, and as we look to­wards bump­ing up the mar­quee value of our story-driven games by us­ing fa­mous ac­tors to voice our char­ac­ters, we will en­counter not only new costs, but new ways of do­ing busi­ness.

Guilds, unions and agents and the as­so­ci­ated over­head of work­ing through them to ac­cess this new talent come with all kinds of costs that game de­vel­op­ment projects are not ac­cus­tomed to ab­sorb­ing. The cost for three days of voice record­ing work from an un­known ac­tor may be much higher than the cost of three days of work from the sound de­signer on the de­vel­op­ment team who in­te­grates all the voices, but it is al­most laugh­ably in­signif­i­cant com­pared to the cost of three days of full-body, fa­cial and voice per­for­mance cap­ture from a well-known star. A star does not fly through a pub­lic air­port and spend four nights at the Stan­dard, tak­ing a cab

A movie script is a roadmap to its pro­duc­tion. If you know how to read it, it tells you how much a movie is go­ing to cost

back and forth to the record­ing stu­dio. A star flies on a pri­vate char­ter with their fam­ily and stays in Bev­er­ley Hills. A star has a driver, and a car, and needs a trailer and a voice coach and a catered lunch. A star needs han­dlers and as­sis­tants to make sure ev­ery­thing runs smoothly so they can fo­cus on their work with­out dis­trac­tion. If there are changes needed to the script, the writer might need to be flown out, meet­ings sched­uled, rewrites done, and changes val­i­dated by var­i­ous leads and di­rec­tors back at the stu­dio. Ev­ery­thing might be de­layed for a few days – sched­ules shifted, flights re­booked, hous­ing ex­tended, tu­tors flown in for kids miss­ing school…

If you’re a game de­vel­oper read­ing this, you may be laugh­ing at how ridicu­lous it sounds. You’ve prob­a­bly taken your share of econ­o­my­class, red-eyed flights with three con­nec­tions to share a ho­tel room with three other people to work 16-hour days at E3, and then had your ex­pense re­port re­jected for go­ing above your $50 per diem be­cause of a $49 cab ride you had to take when both backup power sup­plies for the con­sole you were demo­ing on melted and you needed to go to Santa Mon­ica and bor­row one from a friend work­ing at an­other stu­dio.

The re­al­ity, though, is that these costs are not ridicu­lous. They are not ridicu­lous be­cause fil­min­dus­try-style pro­duc­tion man­age­ment has fig­ured out how to ac­count for all of these risks and their as­so­ci­ated costs in or­der to bring a project in pre­dictably on budget – or at least within a pre­dictable mar­gin of er­ror over budget. In a sense, it doesn’t mat­ter what the costs are so long as they are pre­dictably lower than the pro­jected re­turn. Ul­ti­mately, the thing that makes the costs pre­dictable is the lin­ear, au­thored na­ture of filmic nar­ra­tive. The script for a movie is a roadmap to its pro­duc­tion. If you know how to read it, it tells you how much the movie is go­ing to cost. This is not the case for games. Yet.

As the game in­dus­try moves into this brave new world of ex­po­nen­tially in­creas­ing costs and es­ca­lat­ing de­mand for higher fidelity char­ac­ters and Os­car-cal­i­bre per­for­mances, we have to won­der where the pre­dictabil­ity that al­lows us to ac­count for these costs is go­ing to come from. It’s not go­ing to come from a richer, more mean­ing­ful pos­si­bil­ity space. Dy­namic game­play, by its very na­ture, is un­pre­dictable, and as a con­se­quence re­quires an un­know­able amount of time and en­ergy to it­er­ate, pol­ish and re­fine.

With a six-hour story in hand, writ­ten by an award-win­ning writer, and per­formed by fa­mous ac­tors, we have a pre­dictable map and a mostly pre­dictable budget. More im­por­tantly, we’re armed with the knowl­edge that the de­sign of the game­play only needs to be bal­anced well enough that the aver­age player will not dis­cover how the de­sign de­gen­er­ates un­til af­ter the six-hour mark. And once we have that pre­dictabil­ity, games will have fi­nally ar­rived.

Clint Hock­ing is a de­signer who lives in Seat­tle and also writes about games at www.clic­knoth­

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