This article was originally posted at Apolyton.net, I am reposting it here just for archival purposes.
How And Why Do Bad Games Get Made And Published
I have worked in the game industry now for 6 years. I have helped create top selling titles. I have also been involved in a few games that… well, shall we say I would rather not talk about. There has been one question that I keep hearing time again that I felt I should try to answer for people. That is the question of "How (or why) did a game this bad ever get published (or made)?" This article is going to try to address that issue. I must make a general disclaimer here however, I am not discussing any particular game in this article, I am only explaining the general problems in the industry. I am not placing blame on any one person, company, or product. This is just a general discussion of how it happens. The other thing I want to point out is that I am going to talk about money and sales figures in this. I have no official knowledge on this other than things I have just learned from being in the industry. I am a programmer, not an accountant. This is all estimates from knowledge I have, and they may be insanely inaccurate. Every single thing in this article is my personal perception of the way things are. A single persons perception may be vastly different than reality, but this article is the knowledge that I have on these issues.
One additional note before I continue. This is about how games turn out bad. There are games that have been published that the people who work on them do not think they are bad. They actually like the game, it just does not have mass appeal, and therefore flop on the market. Those are not in the same category. What amount of enjoyment you get from a game is a very subjective thing. While some games are extremely popular and are enjoyed by almost everyone, those games are actually rather rare. Some of my favorite games of all time were commercial flops. So sometimes a game is actually thought to be good by the design team, and it just does not turn out the consumers agree with them. I have definitely worked on a few of these titles too. Those are not the same kinds of games that I am talking about in this article.
Nobody has ever set out to write a "bad game." Every game that has ever been written, at one time the people involved thought it was a good idea. At one place I worked, we kept a review of a game on the wall to remind us of that fact. This review received a rating of 4, which does not sound so bad until you know it was out of 100. They actually scored 4/100 on a game review. Did these people set out to make the worst game in history? I doubt it. I bet they thought their game would be really great when they started. What went wrong, how did that happen?
One of the first thing that a lot of people do not understand is that the video game industry is big business. It’s not the same industry it was 20 years ago where a small group of people, or even a single individual, working in a basement or a garage in their spare time can make a great game. Those days are gone. In this day and age a game development team is upwards of 20 people, some teams I have heard of (but have not worked in) have 100 people on the team. They have sophisticated hardware and software to help them do their jobs, and doing their jobs takes over a year, sometimes three of four years. It does not take much effort to see a team of 20+ people working over a year is going to cost a few million dollars. This is not a hobbyist’s business model. There is still the occasional game that comes from hobbyists, those are generally found as shareware for download, that is not the market I am talking about.
Now that we have established that a game costs millions of dollars to make, what goes into deciding if a game is made or not. When a game is proposed, there are several things proposed with it. The key thing is the estimate of how many units they think it will sell. There are actually three numbers there, the minimum they think it will sell, the expected number, and the maximum over the life of the product. The minimum units expected to sell is really the most important one. Game developers (the company, not the individuals) generally get about 40% of the sale price back in profit, after the cost of distribution and store markup and such. So a $50 game will yield the company about $20. If a game is going to cost $1,000,000 to make, it will not even be considered if the minimum number of units sold is going to be less than 50,000 units. Why would they make a game to lose money? So at some stage, someone has tried to estimate that if the game gets build the way the envision it, how much money will it make.
The next thing that goes into the planning is how much will it cost to make the game. A good number for estimating the cost of development is to assume that every single person on the team costs you $100,000 a year. There are many people who cost less than this, but there are people who cost more. This includes not only their base salary, but also their benefits, the cost of their equipment, the cost of the rent for the space they need, electricity, net connections, taxes, and anything else I have forgotten or not thought of. It may even be more than that. I have already said that it takes 20 people over a year to make a game, well 20 people times $100,000 is about two million dollars. Some games take fewer people or less time, some games take far more. I have heard about games requiring thirty people for three years, that’s nine million dollars right there. So a game that cost $2,000,000 is going to need to sell 100,000 units just to break even.
So now we have figured out how much it all costs to do. How and where do things go wrong that this thing that costs millions of dollars to make, is just really terrible. Well, creating a game is a creative process. It is not something that is just done from a formula. Every time you create a new game, you are creating something that nobody else in the world has ever done before. Even if you are just making a cheap knockoff of another game, you are not making the same game, because you do not know how they solved the problems you are going to face. So people have to guess at how long it’s going to take them. Sometimes those guesses are wrong. Sometimes there are problems that come up that you just did not know about, or consider when you started. Sometimes there are external events that happen that adversely affect what your doing. I even heard about one project where the lead programmer died about halfway through the project, I imagine that strained the ship schedule a bit. The development team will be working along, everything is going great, and they will come across some problem. What the problem is not really important, just that there is a problem. Problems can and will be solved, but usually they cost time.
Problems do happen, and they happen on every project. If the development team has been given a years worth of budget, and mind you that’s $2,000,000, to develop a game, and 9 months into the development they discover problems that is going to require another 6 months to solve, what do they do? They only have another 3 months worth of budget. The additional 3 months worth of budget they are going to need is going to be $500,000. Some teams, and companies, say oh well, it will be another $500,000 and eat the cost and do it. Everyone has heard about this happening. Games that are supposed to ship for Christmas do not ship until the following Christmas, that’s a lot of money right there. Some companies just can not financially do that. Even some of the companies that can afford to do that, have to decide whether the additional money is going to make a game that will earn back the money they spent.
At this stage they have a playable game (hopefully), and they can test the game and see if it’s really going to be as cool as they originally thought it was going to be. Let’s say for sake of the sake of argument the game really is not all that fun. It is the game they envisioned from the beginning, but their imagination of the game was far superior to what the game turned out to be like. In a perfect world they would say, "Oh well, it’s not that fun, let’s just through it away." This isn’t a perfect world though, and they have already (after 9 months of development) spent $1,500,000 on the development of it, they have another $500,000 still left in the budget, although they probably don’t even want to spend that much more on it if it’s going to not sell the original estimates anyway. So at this stage most companies will decide to fix it as best they can, with some much smaller amount of budget left, with very little time, and ship it anyway. If you cancel a product altogether you will not earn a single penny off of that project. If you ship a mediocre game, you will earn some money back. Maybe not as much as you spent making it, but at least it’s not a total loss. However, shipping a mediocre, or even bad, game does not endear you to your public. It will cost you money in the long run. Reputation actually means a lot in this industry. There are companies who have near flawless reputations. Those are the companies that "eat" the cost of a lot of games. They make far more games than they publish, and if the game is not up to their standards, they kill it or fix it, regardless of what it costs them. Not every company can afford to do that, matter of fact, most companies can not afford to do that. So those companies do what the fans hate, and ship a game that is not necessarily something they are proud of.
As you can see from all this. Nobody ever sets out to make a bad game, but it happens. It’s not really anybody’s fault either. Nobody can predict ahead of time how good a game will be. At some stage during the development process you will get a pretty good feel for it. At that stage you have already spent a whole lot of money, and you have to decide what to do if it’s not what you expected.
There is also the issue of bugs. And bugs will happen in a game. The largest game I have worked on was 1,500,000 lines of code. I know a lot of people do not have any perspective on how big that is. So let’s turn that into "layperson" terms. If you print out a page on a standard printer, it prints 60 lines per page. That’s roughly equivalent to the number of lines on a page in a paper back book. So that prints out to 25,000 pages. When was the last time anybody read a book with that many pages in it? Now think to yourself what it would be like to proofread that book and find spelling and grammar errors in it. That’s sort of what debugging a program that large is like. Because bugs in a program are often just typos, a misplaced letter, or number. Finding mistakes is how we debug and fix the problems. With something that large and complex, mistakes will be made, no doubt about it. For the record, the smallest game I have ever worked on was only 60,000 lines, but that is still 1,000 pages printed out, no trivial read there.
Every game has bugs, what do companies do about them after the game ships. Well, at this stage you already know whether the game is any good, you have played it. You may even have some preliminary sales numbers as to how well it’s selling. At this stage you determine what bugs you have found since it went gold (usually several weeks between gold and on store shelves, you do find things in that time), and what bugs the fans have reported. You can estimate, although probably not accurately, how long it’s going to take to fix those problems. You can then very quickly determine how much it’s going to cost, and based on what the sales are like so far, is it worth fixing. In some cases development teams have spent months making patches for games. If a team spends 6 months making patches to a game, that’s (according to the numbers above) $1,000,000. For a company to decide it’s worth spending 6 months making those patches, they had better have a pretty solid feeling that they are going to earn that money back, plus some. This is why games seem to get "abandoned." It’s not a decision that is weighed lightly. It’s a decision that is made as if millions of dollars are at stake, because they are. Nobody is ever proud of any bug that is found in something they worked on. However, at some stage at the end of the day, all of us are doing this to get a salary. We are going to cut our losses if the company makes the decision that it will cost more than we will earn to repair anything that is wrong with whatever we have done. Are the companies "Evil" for making those kinds of decisions? No, not at all. If they do not make hard decisions like that (and they are in fact hard to make), they will not be a company for very long.
That is my perception of how these things happen in this industry. It is unfortunate, but as I said before, this is not a perfect world. We have to deal with it the best we can.
Last revised: January 31, 2004