When studios regularly start hiring stars we’ll see the real cost of blockbuster game development

Greater maturity in story-driven games surely means more big-name actors and writers in games – and greater costs.

As we march forward into a new console generation, one thing we can expect to see more of are highly polished, story-driven games. These games will feature impressively rendered characters with many more layers of even higher fidelity motion-capture animations, brought to life through the voice work of extremely talented professional actors. These stories and characters will increasingly be imagined and written by top-level writers – both those with years of game writing experience as well as those who are able to successfully transition from other media. In the console space, over the course of this generation, I think it’s safe to predict that well-crafted and highly polished narrative will be more important than ever before, and will reach new heights of quality.

Of course, it also goes without saying that all of these things have costs. The exponentially increasing costs of higher fidelity rendering and animation are costs the industry is familiar with confronting in each new console generation. Many publishers and developers have spent the past few years laying the foundations that will allow them to absorb and manage these costs, and they are now well prepared for them. But there are also new costs that the industry has not historically had to manage. As we seek to improve the quality of our stories by bringing in big-name writers from film or television, and as we look towards bumping up the marquee value of our story-driven games by using famous actors to voice our characters, we will encounter not only new costs, but new ways of doing business.

Guilds, unions and agents and the associated overhead of working through them to access this new talent come with all kinds of costs that game development projects are not accustomed to absorbing. The cost for three days of voice recording work from an unknown actor may be much higher than the cost of three days of work from the sound designer on the development team who integrates all the voices, but it is almost laughably insignificant compared to the cost of three days of full-body, facial and voice performance capture from a well-known star. A star does not fly through a public airport and spend four nights at the Standard, taking a cab back and forth to the recording studio. A star flies on a private charter with their family and stays in Beverley Hills. A star has a driver, and a car, and needs a trailer and a voice coach and a catered lunch. A star needs handlers and assistants to make sure everything runs smoothly so they can focus on their work without distraction. If there are changes needed to the script, the writer might need to be flown out, meetings scheduled, rewrites done, and changes validated by various leads and directors back at the studio. Everything might be delayed for a few days – schedules shifted, flights rebooked, housing extended, tutors flown in for kids missing school…

Performance capture is an expensive business – even moreso if you’re paying a Hollywood star to do it.

If you’re a game developer reading this, you may be laughing at how ridiculous it sounds. You’ve probably taken your share of economy-class, red-eyed flights with three connections to share a hotel room with three other people to work 16-hour days at E3, and then had your expense report rejected for going above your $50 per diem because of a $49 cab ride you had to take when both backup power supplies for the console you were demoing on melted and you needed to go to Santa Monica and borrow one from a friend working at another studio.

The reality, though, is that these costs are not ridiculous. They are not ridiculous because film-industry-style production management has figured out how to account for all of these risks and their associated costs in order to bring a project in predictably on budget – or at least within a predictable margin of error over budget. In a sense, it doesn’t matter what the costs are so long as they are predictably lower than the projected return. Ultimately, the thing that makes the costs predictable is the linear, authored nature of filmic narrative. The script for a movie is a roadmap to its production. If you know how to read it, it tells you how much the movie is going to cost. This is not the case for games. Yet.

As the game industry moves into this brave new world of exponentially increasing costs and escalating demand for higher fidelity characters and Oscar-calibre performances, we have to wonder where the predictability that allows us to account for these costs is going to come from. It’s not going to come from a richer, more meaningful possibility space. Dynamic gameplay, by its very nature, is unpredictable, and as a consequence requires an unknowable amount of time and energy to iterate, polish and refine.

With a six-hour story in hand, written by an award-winning writer, and performed by famous actors, we have a predictable map and a mostly predictable budget. More importantly, we’re armed with the knowledge that the design of the gameplay only needs to be balanced well enough that the average player will not discover how the design degenerates until after the six-hour mark. And once we have that predictability, games will have finally arrived.