Rising Handheld Costs Torture Developers

Rising Handheld Costs Torture Developers

We stand on the cusp of the Nintendo 3DS’s launch. Good times, but now we have to ask the unavoidable question: As handheld games and portable gaming in general become more complex, what will that eventually mean for game developers’ budgets?

Chris Kingsley, the co-founder of the UK-based Rebellion games studio, believes that the advanced tech that makes up the innards of the 3DS and upcoming Sony NGP/PSP 2 means people will be expecting fancier portable games–and development budgets will have to rise to meet that demand.

“With more powerful machines to develop on, expectations are higher and you have to spend more time and money creating larger and more detailed worlds,” Kingsley told Develop. “With more power comes greater expectation.”

Indeed, NGP and 3DS development budgets may well pass the one million mark before long. How will rising costs shape the portable games market?

Said rising costs may simply speed certain changes along. For instance, in the earlier half of the aughts, it was common for developers to put their big budget projects on home consoles, while portables like the Game Boy Advance (and later, the Nintendo DS) were the default platforms for more experimental titles. A 2D platforming game tailored to retro enthusiasts was far more common on handhelds than on consoles, once upon a time. But even that trend started to change long before the Nintendo 3DS was even thought of. Now, experimental and retro titles end up as downloads on Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, WiiWare and the iPhone and iPad 2 App Store.

In other words, some developers intend to treat Nintendo and Sony’s handhelds as a “full” game platform. Capcom has already turned to the Nintendo DS and 3DS to carry on some game properties that were established on consoles, including Okami and Mega Man Legends. The Nintendo 3DS adaptation and launch of Super Street Fighter IV, a game recently released for consoles, is pretty telling, too.

Kingsley is correct: Given the wide divide between the price of Apps and the price of a full Nintendo 3DS game, people are in fact going to expect the latter to be a high-quality piece of work with considerable depth. Would Angry Birds have wound up as a monster hit if it had been a full-priced Nintendo 3DS game that was sold at retail, or would people have been irritated over its “lack of depth?”

At first glance, it looks as if the rising price of handheld game development is an unfortunate thing for smaller developers. Truthfully, game development is never easy, and it never has been. But developers also have more options now than they’ve ever had. Even putting together a Game Boy Advance game “back in the day” was not a cheap, easy feat. But now, young developers have a chance to find their footing with downloadable game markets like Steam, XBLA, the App Store, and DSiWare. When they’re ready, they can take a crack at 3DS and/or NGP development. Beyond that, consoles.

In fact, developing a piece of DSiWare and then stepping up to Nintendo 3DS game construction seems a natural step. Let’s hope Nintendo realizes this and pours the needed attention into its digital games distribution–though so far, it’s not on the right track.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.


  1. well making a 3DS game is going to cost similar to wii around PSP. That is something that many developers are familiar with.

    the question is for NGP though that boasts close to PS3 quality games. That also means close to PS3 cost of production to a certain degree. if you are to follow similar to PS3 pipelines and development methodology and toolsets, that is pretty much what we are talking about. and that cost is going to come to the user.

    That is where i feel nintendo once again considered seriously the cost for the developer as well as the cost for the consumer more than sony. That is why they decided to provide that level of visual quality and not higher than that which for a handheld is high enough. Definitely better than PSP. And even, better than wii in certain aspects.

    Are developers ready to spend something similar to how much it costs to make a PS3 game for a fully fleshed handheld title? Or are they going to under-use the specs and deliver titles of lower visual complexity and quality in order to balance costs?

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