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We asked three PS4 developers how expensive their games are
We asked three PS4 developers how expensive their games are Exclusive
February 21, 2013 | By Frank Cifaldi

Having now seen demonstrations of a few of the in-development triple-A games for Sony's just-announced PlayStation 4, we're walking away with one major impression: these games look really expensive.

What does this increased development cost look like? Are these studios having to grow even larger to facilitate more complex games? And if so, how large are they getting?

We asked three developers of triple-A PlayStation 4 games this question, and as you'll see below, there's no standard answer.

Herman Hulst, Guerrilla Games (Killzone: Shadow Fall)

I can very simply share with you that when we did Killzone 2 and 3, we probably maxed out with a team size of 125. We have 150 now, so it's marginally bigger. This is about a two-and-a-half year development cycle, which is roughly similar. It includes a hardware transition, so that explains potentially the six months of extra time.

It's actually quite comparable. But if you look at the scale of what we're doing and the detail in not just the assets but the more believable detailed animation and things like that, the effects, I think a lot of the effort has gone into tools. Making sure we can develop smart.

We've also learned a thing or two in previous installments on the PlayStation 3. So it's not, in terms of the cost, it's not as scary as maybe some people have led you to believe.

There's more art outsourcing, but that's not necessarily very expensive. We're outsourcing between double and triple [from previous games]. There's a lot of art.

Matt Southern, Evolution Studios (Driveclub)

"We've got about 110 on our team. It was a very small incremental increase…"

Jonathan Morin, creative director, Ubisoft Montreal (Watchdogs)

I'm not the best person to give you numbers, but what I can say is… you can measure the level of experience of a studio by looking at their tools.

New machines and new criteria and new expectations will push everyone in the industry to deliver more. More can be a lot of different things: it doesn't always have to be the graphics or the art. There are other ways to do that. It could be the depth of your systems.

You should always ask yourself, what are our strengths? And how can we meet expectations at a normal cost? And the answer is always relying on building tools. Like, you need to enable your team to create what they have in their heads faster. To iterate. Every time you have a creator spend minutes not creating, they're wasting time.

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Mike Murray
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My question is, does a great-looking game always have to be expensive? I can name some games that look great but have less than half the size these AAA studios have.

Brad Borne
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I'm sure that it doesn't, but I'd love to know how much money is spent on overblown set piece content, and how much is just spent actually making the meat of the game.

Benjamin Quintero
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This industry has defined itself in the last decade with set piece moments. It will continue, but you'll see some games crop up that try another angle. The issue is that subtle is not often a word in the target audience for mainstream games. You need big, bombastic, and controversial because its what the kiddies like. That cost money. Transformers the movie wasn't made on a shoestring budget; robots gotta eat to.

Johnathon Swift
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The answer is, frankly no. You can get a really great looking game for relatively cheap (See Just Cause 2). A big budget CAN get you a great looking game, see Halo 4. But it's for a lot of other stuff as well. Voice acting, building and debugging your single player and co-op and multiplayer and metagame, localization and years of playtesting.

Honestly a huge bump in processing power can give you a lot of "Free" new visuals. 1080p and quadrupling your texture resolution, shadow map resolution, and polycount are all pretty much without cost.

I've noticed most of those worried about next gen games costing a lot more are either over obsessive with graphics, I.E. Epic and their "It has to look like Avatar in realtime!" attitude, or studios that are not really technically apt, Bethesda Softworks and their always bug ridden and visually behind games like Skyrim and Fallout 3. I'm sure most studios are staying fairly calm and collected about it.

Jacob Pederson
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-Christian Keichel

More resolution does not mean more work. At the very most, its a mater of setting the dpi a little higher before you start drawing. But probably its not even that much work as any artist worth their salt works at a MUCH higher dpi than is required for the end product, and then scales down as needed. Dito for 3d modeling, models start with a very high poly count, then scale down for the real game.

Merc Hoffner
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"We're outsourcing between double and triple [from previous games]. There's a lot of art."

That one line sounds scary.

More importantly, an incremental ratcheting in cost compared to a traditional 4-fold increase isn't actually a great situation, because high end games had already become financially untenable. What was needed was a CUT to production costs. Sure there are stochastic successes, but the losses have been outweighing them. We've seen swathes of devs, great, good and worse, fall by the wayside this gen, and virtually none of the major 3rd party publishers (and only one 1st party) has walked away with anything approaching consistent, significant profits.

What's worse is that while you guys may say that these games 'look expensive', and they do I suppose, and you are probably more able to appreciate the intricacies as industry professionals, I, as a sometime gamer, see very little psychovisual return in these games over the PS3 - certainly not something I'd say looks 4 times better as the flops would imply, or hilariously 16 times better as the RAM would imply. If they're selling me on a huge leap in visuals, then either the hardware is no longer paying off for me, or the dev budgets aren't, or both. Truth be told, the visually exciting stuff from the show actually looked like PS3 games, and looked like they could run in essence on a PS2. Art is king afterall.

As a side note, if they're trying to sell me on something else, be it social integration, stereo cameras, cloud computing or smart digital distribution, then as a consumer I ask, "why won't you let me do that on the PS3? It's mostly server side isn't it?"

Gil Salvado
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"Art is king afterall."?

First of all, I'm an artist myself. And we're playing video games, we're not watching them. A painting can be beautiful to look at and be just fine, but a game that's just good looking ain't worth my time if it's aint fun to play.
Gameplay is king afterall.

Art gets you into a game, but you stay because of the gameplay.

For AAA productions its absolutely normal to outsource that much. The major part is art content. Take a look at Liquid Development for example. They got a lot of AAA assets in their portfolio. No studio can afford a constant staff of 200-300 artists.

Michael Kolb
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Even if the game will have a great presentation via the art and technical team it always boils down to the gameplay. What I forsee with the next-gen lifecycle is great looking games with mediocre gameplay at times. Will that deter the mass market, probably not. For example take what we've seen from Watch Dogs, that game looks and plays pretty amazing.

Duvelle Jones
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@Gil Salvado
This is true... But think of it like window shopping. Without expressive assets, you are just another store on the street. Art in many ways is your advertising, for most game developers... art and cost will determine whom at least tries the game. Which is likely why demo's can be seen as damaging... since if the game-play isn't compelling the player to keep playing, a demo is all one is going to experience of the game-play.

But until that happens, until the consumer tries the game... game-play has little to offer. Not to say that you can't slide on the game-play, because you're right about it keeping the player, playing. But both being compelling (not equal, compelling) is necessary to attract a sale and keep the customer content with it's value...

@Merc Hoffner
What bugs me about that statement isn't the fact that studios are growing, it's the fact that the cost is being off loaded to other studios. Which would likely mean that, overall, development costs are relatively the same (if a bit higher)... but that would mean that the overly high costs to development are not going down any time soon. It's a concern, but frankly this is better than what was expected.

Merc Hoffner
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Sorry, yes. You're totally right. To quote myself in this article ;-) (

"The original Super Mario Bros. is now as primitive as can be imagined (heck, go back to pong), but there's a visceral something in the instant physicality, something in the jumping and the sliding, that's immediately satisfying,"

This is much of the problem right here, isn't it? There was very little to show yesterday that the gameplay of the next generation is any different to what has been done, or what could be achieved on the PS3,. Or even on the PS2. The proposed platforms are now being sold almost solely on their visual strength. And if visuals are both no longer producing a big mental impact, and are stretching budgets out to fill with art content, then what exactly is the point of new hardware? To make developers' lives easier? It's an odd thing to say but it seems to me that when their lives were harder they were making more money.

As you'll probably agree, there is no current substitute to a human artist - necessary for generating textures, models, animation etc. Better tools improve humans' productivity, but at the end of the day if you have four times as much detail to fill in, it'll take something approaching four times the man years to paint, right? We have no idea what the proportion of Guerrilla's manpower used to be outsourced to art, but even if it previously made up only a fifth of their budgets (totally out my butt, I'll agree), now it'll be 2 to 3 times bigger. On top of a 20% internal staffing rise, we're looking at a $30 million game becoming upwards of a $40 million. Like he said, incremental. Like I said, unaffordable. That's under the best case. Under a worse case we're looking at a $40 million game becoming an $85 million game - starting to get scary.

And all this might all be moot if no one cares about the 'graphical leaps' enough to buy new machines. Gameplay is king. Art trumps shaders. Good art probably trumps capacity.

Eric Harris
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Am I the only one who is understanding Merc? This man is speaking truth here.

Gil Salvado
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Well, I guess you can keep the costs quiet tolerable if you have the experience and proper tools. We're talking about AAA after all. Hollywood Bluckbusters haven't become any cheaper since the move to HD.

Mike Murray is correct, you can let a game look like AAA, although it aint that easy as it with movies. A scorsese-like studio is in my opinion superior to a michael bay-ish. Both still go boom! and wow! but only one becomes a cult classic.

Cordero W
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I like how they said absolutely nothing. Not to mention, I wonder if they count outsourcing s part of the team or not.

Jonathan Murphy
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Holds pinkie finger to face and says, "1 trillion dollars!"

wes bogdan
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Please make sure if we briefly continue physical discs they don't run $79,$89 base price $59 is fine and day 1 digital should be up to $25 cheaper to get people to embrace digit
al:stream all games through ps cloud services hopefully attached to plus and cloud gamesaves from vita,ps 3 would mean we wouldn't miss a beat.

Glenn Sturgeon
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I wonder what percent of Guerrilla games game budget went into thier preview video shown yesterday?

Nick Quackenbush
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As a 3D artist my workflow will NOT change with the new generation. Going from PS2 era to PS3/360 era you introduced an immense amount of workflow changes. Normal map generation alone quadruples the amount of time to make an asset versus Diffuse only. There is no similar workflow change for this generation.

I in fact expect most team sizes to not increase greatly because of this. Add into that, that tools are getting insanely good about speeding up our workflow, and you may actually see no size increase whatsoever within some teams. Some games will be different of course, but this generational switch will be a much easier transition then the last.

Jacob Pederson
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Jacob Pederson
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Finally an informed voice! Thanks Nick :)

Dave Hoskins
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Any worthy game company has their artists create high definition models and art in the first place. It's the exporting code and tools that matter. A high def model from 3D-Coat, should be usable on all platforms.
The reality is that games will simply look like the best PC games out there, with all the quality sliders turned right up. So plenty of people may just go, "is that it?"