Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

The Price of Art

If you’ve played Dragon Age 2 at all you’ll have encountered the endless (Figuratively speaking. It does, in fact, have an end.)  repetition of maps and art assets that has been the focus of so many a bad review of the game. Bioware is hardly the first studio to re-use assets but the practice seems to become more and more mainstream. This does leave me wondering: Clearly it is everything but good publicity to show users the same assets over and over again, so there must be a very compelling reason for game studios to do so. In the case of Dragon Age 2 I can come up with two such reasons, but surely the main one has to be money.

Each art asset costs money as studios have to pay artists and their equipment and skilled manpower doesn’t exactly come cheap. Creating full-fledged character models and monsters from stretch is an arduous tasks and takes even skilled labour quite a while. It is obvious why we often see re-colored monsters making an appearance in later levels of games because it is so much cheaper to do that than to come up with another one from scratch. I don’t see the same holding true for lesser assets though. Surely doodads like trees, stones, lampposts, and portraits are dime a dozen and could easily be used to add more variety to the look of game areas.

I can accept though that 3D art is expensive and that the pool of available assets will be limited for any given game. What is a lot harder for me to accept is the price of level design. Given an acceptably sized pool of assets and a decent toolset you can create pretty much any amount of different maps / levels for your game. Sure, that also takes time and the large amount of terrible user-made maps for games on the internet show that it isn’t a trivial task either. That said, level designer is hardly a high-paying job and there are scores of talented people out there who will be willing to do pretty much anything to catch a break into game design through the job of level designer. Long hours at low pay seem to be what defines that part of the industry, so don’t you go along telling me that level design is too expensive to get.

Especially something like the maps in Dragon Age 2 can’t be hard to design at all and it should be even easier to modify them a bit so that they at least look different even if they are built on the same basis. An example of more complicated level design would be World of Warcraft dungeons. I’ve complained before about Blizzards new-found tendency of recycling old dungeons with virtually no changes to the level design or art assets, but I do believe that a new dungeons is quite expensive. Unlike a map in Dragon Age 2, a WoW dungeon needs to have a very unique look and feel to it as well as being balanced mechanically. In WoW, you need to make sure that areas are suited for the fights you want to place in them while at the same time avoiding giving players any shortcuts or other ways to abuse the maps. You need to develop challenging boss-fights with mechanics that are sufficiently different from what has been seen before to keep players interested and you need to provide models for all kinds of items that can be found in a dungeon. None of these apply to a simple map in a single-player RPG.

Yet even what Blizzard is doing feels quite greedy to me. Surely keeping millions of player playing is worth the work of a couple of artists and underpaid level designers for a couple of weeks? Am I drastically misjudging the cost of art & level design or are game companies simply saving in the wrong places to make the shareholders happy?

  • Actually, in the case of Dragon Age 2 I think that the reuse was because of time, not money. That sucker was rushed to market compared to most games.
    Andrew´s last blog post ..198 years ago the Americans invaded

  • “are game companies simply saving in the wrong places to make the shareholders happy?”
    Corporations are focused on that and only that: shareholders. For them there is no right or wrong way, only the shareholders. Until half-assing art causes some loss to shareholders, the corporation and the shareholders won’t care. They’re here to get money, not to produce anything worthwhile.

  • @andrew: i’m not so sure about that. Not only is time money but money is oftentimes time as well. Level & asset design seems like a problem that can easily be rushed by throwng money at it (due to the fact that you can split it into many small independent tasks.)

    @klepsacovic: True, and I don’t even fault them for that. Still, the happiness of the customer should be directly related to future profits so producing quality games should be of direkt (long-term) benefit to the shareholders. Doing shoddy work seems very short-sighted to me.

  • I might turn that around. Are they being short-sighted if we still buy it? I think it’s the consumer who is being short-sighted, refusing to have the patience to hold their money until a better product is offered. Instead we’re in such a rush to consume that we waste money on similarly rushed products.

  • I dunno. I’ll probably still buy DA3 because I still enjoyed DA2 a lot, but if I had had more issues with the game (or the maps had been an even worse turn-off for me) I would seriously consider not buying the next one.

    Companies like Bioware (and Blizzard for that matter) have earned a lot of respect in the past for the quality of their games. Clear anti-consumer choices (and bad games) draw on that credit. Do enough of that and consumers will lose their trust. (Case in point: Blizzard. WotLK and the decisions around it stopped me from simply buying every Blizzard game blindly.)
    scrusi´s last blog post ..The Price of Art

  • Reputation is itself a commodity. There’s always a tension between cashing it in in the short term for money now by releasing shoddy product that sells on past success or sustaining it, which may make more money in the long term. Often short term cash is what’s coveted by management who don’t necessarily plan to be around in the long term and who’s bonuses depend on inflating current figures.

  • Speaking as a consumer/armchair designer, I’ll just second Klepsacovic and Roq.

    Speaking as an artist in the game industry, the price of assets, even “cheap” assets, can vary pretty wildly, depending on how fussy the managerial staff is. Sure, you can probably use and reuse meshes and textures, maybe even from past projects or purchased object collections, but if the producers want new stuff, you might be surprised how much time it takes to make trees and even the “simple” stuff. It’s usually not *difficult*, it’s just time consuming. When I was working on Tiger Woods golf games, we had a guy whose sole responsibility was trees and bushes, and he sometimes had a hard time keeping up, depending on the course. It’s tricky to find the balance of reusing assets without making it obvious you’re doing so.
    Tesh´s last blog post ..Musical Onions

  • @Tesh: I’d be quite interested in some figures on that topic, but I suppose you won’t be able to divulge that kind of information. All I have is my limited experience in 3D modelling and texturing (just university stuff really) and what I’ve experienced in other parts of the software industry.
    scrusi´s last blog post ..The Price of Art

  • I couldn’t really give specifics, no, but again, it varies wildly anyway. Also, you’d really have to factor in the approval process and the pipeline. I can whip up a lamppost in oh, a few minutes, but getting it in-game can take a few more, and getting approval from the art director can take a few more. Micromanagement and repeated requests for revisions can also suck up time. It all adds up.

    Once some object has been through all that, it’s usually quick to duplicate it around (say, to fill a street with said lampposts), but then you almost always want to tweak each iteration a little bit to try to dodge the uniformity that can make duplication obvious. Then you’ve got to get approval for that round of placement…

    There’s definitely time to be saved by reusing assets, but the math doesn’t always scale linearly in production.

    That said, I do think that WoW is more than profitable enough to hire a few more artists, designers and programmers. That’s just a gut feeling, though. I’d love to see their numbers, too. I’d even be happy with a ballpark figure in the vein of “WoW maintenance and future development takes $2.58 of your $15/month… the rest we send to shareholders or make new games with”.
    Tesh´s last blog post ..Musical Onions