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The man-month concept gets a lot of grief; it’s called mythical, sexist, outdated; game developers throw shade at it all the time.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”.

Thoughts on Alphabear

I love me some Spry Fox.  Dan Cook, David Edery, what’s not to love?  These are brilliant, ethical, exploratory artists working at the cutting edge of the interactive medium.  For me, it has the same sort of brand loyalty as Blizzard: I’m going to purchase what they make at full price and with no regrets.  Alphabear is no exception.  It’s quick to learn, hard to master, and provides a remarkably deep engagement for the simplicity of its interface.  If you’ve ever enjoyed word-making games like Scrabble or Boggle, download it now; it’s free and you’ll love it.  $5 gets you unlimited play time.

My wife continues to be delighted by the game and plays every day, but I’ve stopped.  When I realized that the bear bonuses continue to increase semi-exponentially, it broke a fundamental tension for me.  At that point, the difference between skilled play (being able to put together longer, more complex words) and long-term play (the meta-game of unlocking and upgrading bears) tilted inexorably in favor of the latter.  I’m sure that this evens out eventually, that at the end of the progression, the difference in scores is determined more by skill than time investment, but I’m not really interested in grinding to get to that point, as much as I enjoy the process of playing the game.

It’s a personal bias, no doubt, but I’ve always felt that the tension between what you can achieve currently and the promise of being able to achieve more – in a meaningful fashion – is at the heart of gameplay.  As flawed a dichotomy as it is, this is part of how I separate games from toys.  Games have a skill progression; toys don’t.  I’m not going to spend a lot of time justifying that, as it’s fairly arbitrary, and there are all sorts of overlap points where skill with toys can be meaningfully differentiated from non-skilled play.  But for me, at the point that I realized spending time grinding out matches was more important to my progress than my score in those matches – that I fundamentally could not progress without spending match after match inevitably falling short of the goal due to predetermined design math – Alphabear fell into the classification of “time-waster” rather than “game”.

It’s not that I’m opposed to grind in itself.  Hell, I played more hours grinding WoW than I did following quests or learning new skills.  But, the grind was subservient to mastery – it was necessary to the end-game, but not determinative of success.  I think that this dynamic is also a component of why I find the Elder Scrolls model of RPG progression less than satisfying.  Yes, there is something intuitive about getting better at things the more you do them, but I’m not looking for a game experience where I need to spend hours upon hours jumping – without any sense of purpose – to become superhuman.  There’s a point where the skill progression curve gets overtaken by the time investment curve, and for whatever reason, that invalidates the skill progression for me.

As a game designer/developer, establishing and maintaining this tension – keeping players involved over the long-term because there is skill reward as well as stat reward – is a key component.  In the free-to-play world this often gets mistaken for monetizing effectively – maintaining the tension between what you can do and what you want to do within the limits of your monetization tolerance.  However, that is a bastardization of the core dynamic.  It’s one of the reasons why hard-core gamers continue to resist free-to-play, games-as-a-service, and microtransactions, because too often they have tried to buy butter and been handed margarine.

Clearly, Spry Fox is not one of those companies playing bait-and-switch with gamers’ expectations.  Probably to their corporate detriment, the monetization approaches in their games are extremely loose.  It is not in any way required to monetize to get the best out of their games, and I would bet that they make less money as a result.  So, I look forward to their next release avidly, and I fully intend to pay money for it – even though that is not going to be required – but for now, at least, Alphabear goes into the back folders of already-played games, even though I never got to play the last word.