What Games Are: Going Small

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer and creator of leading game design blog What Games Are. He manages developer relations at OUYA. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Some changes are as obvious as night and day. Where once mobile phone gaming was the preserve of Java studios against a backdrop of handset operators taking 70% revenue cuts, now there are smartphone gaming and app stores. Steve Jobs got up on stage and announced the App Store and changed the world in a moment. Things would never be the same again.

You can mark your calendar by those kinds of change, look back and say “I was there when…”. However most change is not like that. It’s only clear in retrospect, gradual, almost imperceptible. The games industry slides from one state of being to another without any one dramatic moment capturing its essence. One day you wake up and realize that the world is a different shape to the one you remember, but you’re not sure when that happened.

It’s with that second model in mind that I’ve noticed just how much small-team game development has changed. Not only it has become viable once again, small game makers seem to have developed much more capacity. Some of the games being advanced by small teams would be considered large in the lens of yesteryear and old measures would have mandated that they need dozens of staff to complete. Without being able to pinpoint the shift to any one moment, that metric seems to have changed.

Going Big

One day we all realized that video games had become a big business. In the early 1990s it was uncommon for a team working on a game to consist of more than a few people. Most studios consisted of 10-ish people working on various parts of a game for a year and then publishing the result. The budgets and stakes were favorable such that studios could work on many different types of game, and the ecosystem that resulted was one of many diverse voices. While most games wouldn’t be hits, a savvy publisher could lay on enough projects so that one of them would boom and pay for all the others.

Then the situation started to change. Teams grew little by little, as did project timelines. It was teams of 20 working for 18 months, then 30 for two years, then 50 for three, and so on. There are lots of reasons as to why this happened, from technology allowing for greater graphics and consequently needing more artists to market demand for content-heavy games. Over a period of 10 years games evolved from a small-team industry to a big-team (and in some cases even a gigantic-team) industry.

Today it’s no longer unusual to hear stories such as the one about Riot Games renting the entirety of the Element LA campus in order to house 1500 employees working on League of Legends. Nor is it stunning to hear that Grand Theft Auto V cost $265m to develop. They’re certainly on the upper end of the scale, but don’t feel like they’re three-standard-deviations different. A bunch of games operate at that sort of scale now. They’re all large scale operations involved with teams of specialists.

One of the other consequences of the change from small to big was that it came at the price of multiplicity. Back in the day it was more normal for studios to work on many types of game, but in the big-team world that model doesn’t work. Big-team studios keep making and improving on versions of one franchise over and over, whether as annualized releases or large-scale service operations, and are intended to do so ad infinitum. Their games are keystones, critical to the life of their publisher and they can’t really afford to take risks.

For many of us who observe the industry this big way of working has long seemed dubious. There are occasional stories of games like APB, for instance, spending its way through $100m but with little to show for it. For a long time such failures seemed to confirm a bias that we already held. We told ourselves that such intense manual labor on single titles simply wasn’t an efficient way of working in the long term. Yet for much of the industry it seemed that the only option was to go big or go home.

Going Small

At the recent Casual Connect conference in Amsterdam I had the chance to play several games from tiny teams that show just how far we’ve come from go-big-or-go-home. One example game I saw was Darklings by tiny studio Mild Mania (see the image above). Another was Bokida by Rice Cooker Republic. A third was The Last Tinker by Mimimi Productions. There were literally dozens of other examples at the show, and there are hundreds, even thousands, of them out there in the world.

Such games are interesting from a business point of view as examples of how digitally-connected open platforms breed diversity. Game makers can now access markets in ways that previously did not exist (the App Store and Steam most especially) and this means they have a means to make a living. 

However what’s fascinating is how ambitious the games from small teams are becoming. Making games seems to becoming a much smarter, much less labor-intensive process. The dramatic improvement in efficiency has come by way of tools and technologies, chiefly the Unity game engine. When talking to many indies at Casual Connect, for example, I learned that almost all of them work in Unity 3D and associated tools. It’s made their lives much easier and less risky.

Another dramatic shift has more to do with ways of working. Many small teams work remotely, from their homes or in shared office environments that are low cost and easy to service. Many have become adept at hiring freelance talent for parts of their project that don’t necessarily need full time attention (audio and some art typically), often using people based all around the world.

And by being smart small teams attract all the usual advantages of being nimble. They have the flexibility to innovate and take creative risks. They can consider a game intended for only a niche to be a great success because they don’t need to sell three or four million copies just to break even. A small team like the 4-person crew at Hello Games has a lot more room to try interesting things than a 400-person team cranking out the next iteration of a sports title. They can be excited by a project like No Man’s Sky rather than be terrified of it.

Are these studios the canaries in the coalmine of another big change? I think so. Just as the industry slowly shifted from cottage industry to massive factories over the course of a decade, the next change seems to revolve around doing a lot with a little. Even Ken Levine seems to be getting in on the act, shutting down his large team at Irrational Games so that he can start over with a small crew.

We may not yet be at the point where a small team can create the next Call of Duty, but it is worth noting that even Titanfall (the next big Xbox One exclusive) has been developed by a surprisingly small number of folks (around 60). There is still a degree of labor needed to produce the best next generation graphics and cool visual effects, to craft cinematics and story and lots of other tropes of blockbuster video games, but it seems to be falling. Likewise there is still a need for certain kinds of game to maintain a large support staff (League of Legends again), but community is allowing some other games in the same space to do a lot with a little (such as DayZ).

For the small game maker we seem to be living in a smarter age.