How to cut production costs (indie / AA games)
Kamal Aittah
13/11/2021

How to cut production costs (indie / AA games)

If you’re here, chances are you are planning for your next project or you already have an ongoing project and you want to learn the best way to cut production costs while preserving high quality.

 

But before I tell you about three of the best techniques, let me introduce myself first!

Hi, I’m Kamal, CEO of Game Hermits. We are a game studio based in Egypt and I’ve been managing game projects for over 6 years now. Some failed, others were delivered successfully; nonetheless, I’ve learned a lot, and I’m here to share my experience with you … So, let’s get right into it.
 


 

Cutting production costs is a very crucial step in making any project successful. It directly lowers the risks of a project and allows you to focus the saved resources on other important matters like marketing or PR.

However, in a lot of situations, cutting production costs can lead to production disasters where you end up with unfinished work and you need to over-extend the timeline which ultimately leads to spending way more than the initial budget.

To avoid going into this dilemma, we first need to understand the general production pipeline for game development before we dive into how to effectively cut both the timeline and the cost of production.

 

Pre-production

 

As with any project, the pre-production phase consists of business planning, Market researching, identifying your target audience, and designing revenue streams.

However, things get a little more complex in the game industry.

If you’re developing a story-driven game or even an online multiplayer with a coherent backstory, you first need to write and polish that story in the pre-production phase as well. I’m talking world-building, character profiling, quest designs, in-game narrative, and many more things that need to be written, revised, and polished to give a better understanding of the game world and its expected theme.

 

Another form of writing that also needs to be done before production starts is Game design. Writing a full comprehensive game design document (GDD) is a very important step. Especially if you’re designing a mid-big game. GDD lists down all the details about your game. From player controls to camera controls, AI behavior, in-game store, currency and exp, characters and unlockable, levels and items, literally everything.

 

And these documents take time. Don’t underestimate the amount of time a GDD needs to be fully polished. It never really is finished until the project is shipped as it usually will be subject to change throughout production. Nonetheless, the initial GDD has to be complete in pre-production.

 

Another thing in Pre-production is testing and prototyping. Game development is a risky business, the potential is as high as the risk. This is why you often need to test your GDD and story with a small prototype that you keep updating and testing with a small group of your target audience to get their feedback and find the *Fun* in your game. This step takes time and effort.

 

All of these steps are done in the pre-production phase. Not to mention core concept art that helps bring the game one step closer to life.

Most games die in the pre-production phase because not all of your ideas are fun and not all of them can turn into interesting games. That’s why you need to spend time testing your ideas with real players to find out if the game is fun and can be actualized.

Now that you’ve tested your idea, you wrote down the initial GDD and the backstory (If you have one). It’s time to develop an MVP; A vertical slice of your game that is highly polished, very close to the end product, but very small in scale featuring only one level and a couple of characters for example.

MVPs are used for a lot of things, they are used to draw investment for production, they are used as early marketing material, they are used to pitch in front of publishers. Skipping this step raises the risk of your game significantly.

 


 

Production

 

Production starts once you raised investment for your game (or allocate funds from your pocket and go indie), hire the right team, and everything is set up to turn the MVP into a full-scale game.

The production pipeline in the game industry is pretty straightforward. You start with art and programming in parallel, art is being everything visual (Concept art, splash art, 3D modeling, 3D animations, VFX, etc…) while programming is, of course, the functionality of your game (backend programming, gameplay, UI handling, dynamic animations, achievements, and character customization, etc…). Those are the two most important steps and the ones that are going to take most of the time. If done right, those steps can make everything else way easier.

 

After finishing the core art and programming needed for the game, normally your team will work on these steps:

 

 

After these steps are done, you end up with a beta version of the game usually filled with glitches and is unoptimized. Holding a beta test helps you find all the issues in your game as well as find design flaws that might interrupt the player experience. Upon Beta test compilation, you and your team will begin the long step of Game Polishing which includes a bit of everything you’ve done to produce the best version of your game and release it to stores.

 

As you’ve seen, the pipeline isn’t complicated from a bird's-eye view. But if you get into the nitty-gritty details, you’ll find that it’s very complex. Most of the time steps overlap each other, and dependencies lead to unavoidable sudden moments in your timeline where a team is waiting for another to finish their work. I will be talking about these technical details in another article; For now, let’s take a step back, and look at how we can minimize the cost and time needed for production which will ultimately benefit you when times get rough throughout the development of your game.

 


 

How to cut production costs

 

As I’ve said earlier, the most important steps in game development are the early art and code you produce. If those are of high quality and well documented / reusable, they will save you a lot of time down the line and will allow you to move faster around obstacles that might appear in your path. This is why there are four best ways to effectively cut production costs: -

 

  1. Outsource early development to a game studio that works for hire and is experienced to do the job perfectly. In that case, the technical & art directors of the game should be involved with the outsource studio to ensure they are producing exactly what you need in the highest quality possible.

    This way lets you have a very solid start without the Hussle of recruiting, HR, trial period, salaries, utilities, and team management. However, if your team already possesses the technical experience to work on all the aspects of your game, then outsourcing will only be needed if you need an extra boost down the development line to meet a nearing deadline.

    Just remember to list down all the requirements you need and deal with this as a separate project from your real game. That means the outsource company should deliver a stand-alone project that contains art, models, animations, and code that you can use later to compose your game. So, in this case, you’re still minimizing the risk of outsourcing itself since the outsource studio won’t be in need to put the game together and it’s completely your vision, your execution, and your decision that controls how the game should be.

    After this step, you can start your hiring process and assemble a relatively small but talented team that can work with the tools you have from art and code. This small team should then build the game under your lead and vision.
     

     

  2. Plan out reusable content very early on. Yes, reusable content saves you a lot in production. And I’m not talking about retexturing only. But also, systems that let you change the behavior of an object in your game with a couple of attributes.

    Keep in mind that when you test your Alpha versions, you will need to change some mechanics or even revision the core game loop. So, Designing and Producing reusable assets early on will help you greatly in reducing the time and overhead needed to change something and will allow you to move faster in your production.
     

     
  3. Be as agile as you can. I know that agile workflow doesn’t fit perfectly for bigger teams, but that doesn’t mean that you cannot borrow some of Agile techniques to your advantage. Focus on communication and getting everyone on the same page. This will help your employees produce the needed assets faster and more efficiently as they already have a close idea of what you think the game should look like.

    For smaller teams, this goes without saying, agile enables you to compete with big companies, it enables you to move very fast and to adapt to rising challenges way faster than bigger studios.
     
  4. Create a valuable culture within your studio. This works magic and I can’t stress enough how important this is. A valuable culture that makes employees feel valued, visible, rewarded, and influential turns them from people who work for you to people who work with you. This greatly increases the effort and creativity of your employees to the point where you won’t even believe how fast they work to get things done on time, if not before.

    When everyone cares about the game, the game will inevitably come out better and faster.
     


This was an overview of how you can cut production costs through effective management, decisive leadership, and valuable work culture.

Of course, we at Game Hermits do work-for-hires. We can work on mobile, PC, web games, AR/VR, and multiplayer. And although we are still a new studio, we have the experience to produce the best work for you especially in the early stages of development. So, if you’re looking to cut down production costs for your next game, don’t hesitate to shoot us an email. 😉

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