What Does $1MM Buy in Game Development?

A million dollars seems like a lot of money, but what does it really buy?  To explain the answer, I’m going to use a widely reviled concept: the man-month.  I should also clarify upfront that I’m talking largely about commercial game development; indies do more with less through a variety of approaches, but for most consumers, their points of reference are mainstream commercial games.  So, if you’ve ever wondered what it costs to build that kind of a game, here are some outlines.

The man-month concept gets a lot of grief; it’s called mythical, sexist, outdated; game developers throw shade at it all the time.  From a project management perspective, this is thoroughly justified.  Everyone knows that nine women can’t incubate a baby in one month, and using man-months to try and figure out the scope of an in-progress or near-future feature is like using a chisel to brush your teeth.  But, at the project planning stage, man-months can be a useful estimating tool, as long as you understand that they cannot account for critical path issues, do not reference actual men, and have low precision.

At the 10,000 foot view, when trying to establish the starting parameters for things like scope, budget, and schedule, the man-month is a valuable concept.  At a base level, a man-month is the rough amount of work that a team member can get done in a month.  Far more interesting is looking at the man-month cost of a project, though.  Let’s say, for example, that a project is going to take 5 people 10 months.  You can call that 50 man-months, and if you have an average man-month cost for your team (or studio), you can take that product, add some pad for additional overhead, and have a rough cost for the project.

What is an average man-month cost?  This is all over the map, depending on what kind of environment and team you are looking at.  The biggest part of this is always salary.  Let’s say you’re paying someone $84K a year; on a monthly basis, you’re paying $7K in salary.  However, salary generally only accounts for about 70% of an employee’s cost.  In addition to salary, you have benefits (insurance, vacation, etc.), rent (if you have a physical office), hardware (if you provide it), software licenses, etc.  So, that person making $84K a year is actually costing you about $10K per man-month.  That’s pretty good in today’s market for an A-level studio.  Indies are obviously cheaper; top-notch outfits go higher ($15-20K per man-month).

$84K a year is good money, above the established mark for where income makes a noticeable difference in quality of life.  Most people would be happy to make that kind of money.  The kicker is that on larger teams/projects, that’s the average salary.  So, let’s say you need a Tech Director for your project, and let’s say you manage to score one at the relatively bargain-basement price of $140K/year.  That additional $56K has to come from somewhere; if you take it all at once, someone else needs to be making $28K/year (under the poverty line), or you can spread that out across multiple people, but even spread across 4 other people, each of them has to take a $14K/year hit.  That’s for one hire.  For everyone you hire at a salary above average, you have to pull that money out somewhere else.  If programmers are pulling above $84K/year (and they generally are), your designers and artists are going to have to come in lower.  For every senior person, you’re going to need some juniors.

So, getting back to the question at hand, if you’re spending about $10K a man-month, and you have $1MM dollars to work with, you can afford about 100 man-months.  You can slice that various ways, 10 people for 10 months or 5 people for 20, but let’s set a timeline of a year; at 12 months, you can afford to hire 8 people (yourself included if you’re part of the project budget).  Let’s say off-hand that you need to have a lead for each of the major disciplines – tech, design, art, and production.  That leaves 4 additional hires.  Let’s say you want a full-time concept artist, modeler, and animator; that leaves you with one slot, probably a programmer.  Keep in mind that all of those people are going to need to be junior because your leads are going to need to be senior, and the man-month cost has to balance out.  Oh, and did you account for QA?  What about audio? Level design? Finance/accounting? Facilities management?

There are lots of ways to skin this cat; some projects don’t need a lot of art and/or can get more volume at less cost by outsourcing.  On a lot of teams this small, people wear multiple hats, because they have to.  Distributed teams are becoming more common and can avoid a lot of overhead costs, like facilities.  But, the bottom line is that for $1MM, you can get a small, 8-person development team that’s about half experienced people for about a year.  For contrast, most AAA PC and Console products take 50+ people to make; market leaders are almost all over 100 people, and MMO’s and other massive franchises can get to 200+ and multiple sites of development.  Even AAA mobile teams these days are commonly 20+.  Time to market is generally at least a year, even on small mobile projects (250+ man-months),  AAA is generally 2-3 years (1200+ man-months), and MMO’s run 5-8 years (4000+ man-months).  Remember, $1MM only buys you 100 man-months.

Or in other words, “not much”.

GDC 2014: Positive Signs

This was my first year running the Leadership roundtable at GDC. I had two fears going in: 1) that no one would show up, and 2) that I’d end up with a room of alpha personalities, each of whom would try to run the room. So, when I showed up half an hour early for my first roundtable and saw 4 people scattered to the edges of a room that could handle 80, I was sure that I was in for #1. By the time the session started and we had 70+ people in the room, I was sure it wasn’t going to be #1, but #2 was a real possibility.

Instead, we had a very smooth, supportive conversation that was encouraging on a number of fronts.

  • Leadership as supporting the team.  This was definitely the subtext of the entire conversation, that leadership is not about driving the team, running the team, or whipping the underperformers, but rather that effective leadership in a collaborative and complex environment like game development is about supporting the team.  At the end of the first session, I asked the participants for some quick-fire, aphoristic summaries of their approach to leadership; what came back were things like “to protect and serve”, “remove the obstacles and let the team excel”, and “take care of everything extraneous and let the team focus”.  I think that would have been a very different conversation fifteen years ago.  It seems that we are, actually, maturing as an industry.
  • Women in leadership.  There were a number of strong, compelling female voices in the conversation, and in general a fair number of women in the room.  I don’t have exact stats, but I’d say that we ran about 20% women on the first day, which isn’t bad for the games industry but still woefully inadequate.  The good news is that it was just completely normal for these women to be there doing what they were doing.  No one challenged it, directly or indirectly, and it’s clear from the participants that the future for women as leaders in games is bright indeed.
  • We are getting better at this.  Part of a roundtable is getting people to share their problems so that the rest of the room can help.  There was a clear pattern in this, as the more common problems got responses from all angles.  The more abstruse difficulties got fewer responses, usually from the more clearly veteran folks in the room.  What this says to me is that the bar for what qualifies as a difficult problem is definitely going up.  The common problems have been solved multiple times, repeatedly, and in a great variety of contexts.  As an industry, we’re moving on to more challenging ground.

I’m not sure whether I’ll run this roundtable again next year.  Some of that will depend on how the surveys come back; some of that will depend on what else I’m committed to.  What remains clear, though, is that we are making progress in this area.  Oh, and there is clearly a hunger to make more progress, which is encouraging in its own right.