Think Development on One Character Shouldn’t Cost $150,000? Let Seth Killian and Dave Lang Explain Why You’re Wrong

By on February 27, 2013 at 9:03 pm

After Lab Zero Games’ announcement of their $150,000 goal for the recently opened (and so far highly successful) Skullgirls fundraiser, Giant Bomb’s Patrick Klepek noticed a distressing emotion running through the comment threads of many articles: disbelief. Though the company was completely transparent regarding how the money would be spent and adequately backed up the figure, some still thought they were reaching too far.

To help shed some light on the subject, Klepek contacted Lab Zero CEO Peter Bartholow, Sony Santa Monica’s Seth Killian, and Iron Galaxy Studios CEO Dave Lang for their insight. His article and the answers they provided make for a very interesting read on the nature of game design and the extensive amount of work that goes into creating just one character for a fighting game.

We’ve included a short excerpt from the piece below, but be sure to visit Giant Bomb to read the entire article.

Iron Galaxy Studios has worked closely with Capcom, and is responsible for the upcoming Darkstalkers Resurrection, Marvel vs. Capcom Origins, and others. It knows fighting games. Additionally, the company is building a proper version of the cult hit, Divekick. When I tossed the $150,000 number at Iron Galaxy CEO Dave Lang, here’s what he told me:

“I don’t have any particular insights as to how the Skullgirls team works, but I can tell you if we were doing a similar game there would be two major time sinks: new frames of animation and time required to balance the game.

The frames of animation are very expensive for a couple reasons, but at the end of the day it gets down to volume. Say you need 500 frames of animation per character (arbitrary number, I don’t know what Skullgirls frame count per character is), you actually should budget for 1,000 frames of animation in time and materials because for a 2D fighter the animation is the gameplay, and you will need to rework a lot of the sprites to have the game play the way you want. If you were to outsource that many frames of animation you’d pay $20-$30/hour for that, and at that resolution/complexity each person working on them would get around 4 frames of animation done per day (these are highly involved sprites). That puts the cost of just getting the sprites done anywhere from 40k-60k USD. Keep in mind this will take time, and while you’re waiting for the art to get back from the outsourcer you’re still paying salaries, rent, internet, insurance, etc., so sunk cost for just the art itself is probably gonna net out to 90k USD.

Once you get everything in the game, now you need to balance it. And balancing a fighting game is a “n-squared” problem, meaning each additional fighter you add makes balancing the game much more difficult (and therefore take more time/people) to balance. This takes a long time, even with Skullgirls (now) 9 characters. Every studio has their own cost structure but you can safely assume each individual game developer costs their studio around 10k per month (including rent, insurance, etc.). This number will vary wildly for any given dev, but in the US it’s as good a rule of thumb as you can hope for. Sounds like the Skullgirls crew runs a pretty lean ship so let’s chop that to 7,500k/month for them. If there are 5 people on the team (not sure if this is right, but I can’t imagine doing this with less people so let’s call it 5), that’s 37.5k/month for them. If your budget is 150k, that gives them about 2 months to balance the game, which isn’t really a lot of time.

We haven’t even touched on audio, UI, etc. All that stuff adds up. This is why I think 150k is a bargain.”

Source: Giant Bomb, tips via James Chen and King9999