Game publishers sweat console change

More game companies may drop out of business as new consoles push up development costs.

As gamers anxiously await powerful new consoles from Microsoft and Sony, game publishers are trying to figure out where they'll get the extra millions of dollars needed to create titles for the new hardware.

With schedules and budgets of top-tier games already approaching those of Hollywood films, the advent of new game machines from Microsoft and Sony is expected to put added pressure on game developers and may lead to further consolidation in the shrinking ranks of game publishers.

"It's a big, big problem the industry faces," said David Cole, president of research company DFC Intelligence. "As you increase the graphics capabilities on the costs so much more to create a game that lives up to the graphics potential. Developers are really going to have to look at the bottom line."


What's new:
New game consoles promise startling graphics and more realistic play. But additional hardware complexity is expected to nearly triple the cost of developing new games.

Bottom line:
While another wave of consolidation among software publishers may result, game makers are investigating new programming techniques to help ease the pain and save money.

Market leader Sony, along with Microsoft and Nintendo, are expected to introduce new console designs within the next year or two. While Nintendo has downplayed the importance of graphics performance in its plans, Microsoft and Sony are promising dramatic increases in horsepower from the next versions of the Xbox and the PlayStation. Xbox 2 will sport an internal configuration dramatically different from the current console, while Sony is promising revolutionary advances from the "Cell" processor that will power the PlayStation 3.

Harnessing that silicon will mean a lot more work for game developers, said David Doak, director of Free Radical Design, an independent developer best known for its "TimeSplitter" games. Characters in games for the previous generation of consoles were represented by a few hundred polygons, the basic units of geometry rendered by game engines, Doak said. Current consoles use a few thousand polygons, and density is likely to jump to hundreds of thousands with the next generation.

"The problem is that the mechanisms for making those characters and textures haven't really scaled to make it easier to create all that complexity, so you just have to do a lot more work," he said.

Current development budgets for an A-list title average around $5 million, Doak said. For the upcoming consoles, "I expect the minimum will be two to three times the current costs," he said.

"We're seeing some publishers teetering on the edge right now."
--IDC analyst Schelley Olhava

That's a nut that some developers and publishers aren't going to be able to crack. The current generation of consoles has already seen the dissolution of several major publishers, including 3DO and Acclaim, and more may be on the way

"We're seeing some publishers teetering on the edge right now," said Schelley Olhava, an analyst for researcher IDC. "It's going to get harder and harder for the small publishers because the development costs are getting so high."

Jack Sorensen, executive vice president of worldwide studios for publisher THQ, said he expects a few game publishers to go by the wayside, but he dismisses speculation the game industry will become a company town run by leading publisher Electronic Arts.

"With every hardware cycle, there's some shakeout," he said. "When I started in the 1990s, there were all these big Japanese publishers who aren't around anymore...But there's no part of the entertainment industry that has fewer than half-a-dozen major players, and I don't think games will be any different."

Staying in the game
Publishers who weather the transition will have to make a number of adjustments, including being more selective about the titles they produce. Doak expects to see publishers narrow their ambitions to the closest the game industry has to a sure thing--sequels and games based on licensed content such as movies and comic books.

"It's going to become much more difficult to develop an original title," he said. "When the cost of development was lower, it was OK to have these occasional moon-shot titles where you really pushed ahead with an original idea. Publishers aren't going to be willing to take those kinds of risks now."

Olhava said the "throw it against the wall and see if it sticks" attitude of game publishers won't fly as development costs soar. "It's a very hits-driven business," she said, with little customer research to understand what makes a game a hit. "The publishers need to know who's playing games, and why, a lot better than they do now," Olhava said.

Even selective publishers will have to make tough decisions about how they spend limited development dollars. Elements such as cut scenes--the animated and often pointless sequences that bridge levels of a game--may need to be discarded as needless luxuries.

"Developers are going to have to be really smart about what they put into a game and what they leave out," Cole said. "They need to have a good feel for what kind of features customers really appreciate. Feature sets have to be justified as a way to increase sales, as opposed to adding to the artistic nature of the game."

THQ's Sorensen agreed, saying graphical glitz is already being overemphasized in some cases. "The main thing is to focus on entertainment value," he said. "I remember 10 years ago, if a game wasn't offering 50 hours of entertainment value, you wouldn't even consider it. Now it's down to 10 hours for a lot of games, because so many resources are going to the graphics."

Time to recycle
Developers will also have to get better at reusing code, a practice traditionally shunned by game artistes. "We used to be an industry where people wrote the technology on an ad-hoc basis with each new game and then started over with the next game," Doak said. "It's getting less and less practical to work that way."

For some developers, that will mean an increasing reliance on middleware, development tools that apply prescripted code to govern game elements such as physics and artificial intelligence (AI). Electronic Arts signaled its intentions earlier this year by purchasing Criterion Games, whose RenderWare is the most widely used piece of middleware in the industry.

"If I've made the perfect beer glass, why should anyone want to make that again?"
--Fred Skoler, COO of Whatif Productions
EA representatives declined to comment for this story, but company executives have characterized the move as part of the publisher's strategy to deal with the complexity and cost of developing for new consoles. "RenderWare is significant for EA in terms of getting ready for the next generation of consoles," EA Vice President Jeff Brown recently told BBC News.

Microsoft is promising similar advantages from XNA, the flexible game development architecture it announced last March. XNA will give developers unified sets of tools for working on games for current and future versions of Xbox as well as Windows PCs, said Cameron Ferroni, general manager of Microsoft's Xbox Live online game service. Microsoft's objective with XNA is to trim enough trench work from game development that creating games for the next Xbox won't be much more expensive than for the current model.

"Our goal is that as systems get more complex, more powerful...we can reduce the amount of money you have to spend on physics, AI and things like that," Ferroni said. "We're providing developers with additional tools to really speed up the process, and we're making it possible for other people to create and share tools and engines that fit on top of the XNA environment.

"If someone writes the best physics engine in the world, they can put that out and it's there to incorporate in your game," Ferroni said. "We want to make it where games really distinguish themselves in the creative aspects--the artwork, the audio, the gameplay--not the plumbing."

Start-up Whatif Productions hopes to take the reuse concept one step further with a new game engine that allows developers to reuse code between games and platforms. Create a nifty ball-handling effect for an Xbox basketball game, and you can port it right over to the PlayStation version or to another title altogether.

Fred Skoler, the company's chief operating officer, said he is confident the complexity of developing for next-generation consoles will promote interest in reusing code. "We think that down the line, the idea of being able to quickly assemble content and then tuning it to make it your own is going to be seen as having a lot of value," Skoler said. "You've solved a huge problem with this industry if you can start from a very capable foundation and then focus on the creative things."

Skoler imagines a fluid marketplace where developers will be able to grab ready-made components instead of creating their own imitation. "If I've made the perfect beer glass, why should anyone want to make that again?" he asked.

Skoler believes publishers will also appreciate the opportunity to get something out of a game that flops in the market. "The way things work now, if a game doesn't do well, you've basically spent a lot of time and money creating content that doesn't have any value at all," he said. "What if everything you put into the game had a reuse capability?"