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?

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