Are Small Budget Games a Dying Breed?

Are Small Budget Games a Dying Breed?

According to Logan Booker, the media liaison for the Aussie game studio Firemint, the iPhone game Real Racing 2 cost over $2 million USD to develop over a period of 18 months.

To which the immediate response can only be, “Well, for a while there, the iPhone was looking like a great place for indie studios to get their start with low-budget games.”

Are things as bad as all that, though? Is the low budget game about to lay down and die?

Firemint is the studio behind Flight Control, and is therefore worthy of all praise. But Booker’s interview with Pocketful of Megabytes brings to light a sobering fact: Game development is getting more expensive, even though we’re currently in an era of digital distribution and breakout indie studios. It’s cheering to hear about the success of a simple and ridiculously addictive game that was put together by some earnest young buck or doe, but we don’t hear about the dozens of developers who fail every day because they can’t cough up the money to develop a dream on any platform.

In a 2010 interview, Alexandra Peters from Firemint said she believes that small budget games are on their way out. “I think the days where you can do something quite simple, and do it on a small budget, are probably gone.”

David Jenkins of GamesIndustry.Biz concurs. “With higher end iOS titles costing more to make and selling for considerably less than a traditional portable game, the gulf between commercially successful titles on the App Store is likely to widen further over the coming months.”

That’s a whole lot of doom and gloom, but it’s not unwarranted. If big-name developers like Square-Enix, Capcom, and Rockstar sell full-blown games like Street Fighter IV and Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars on the App Store to much fanfare for a mere $10, can the little guys still develop and peddle their wares in the shadows of giants?

Yes! Firemint’s most successful iOS game is also one of its simplest: Flight Control. If you were to run down a city street and snatch iPhones out of pedestrians’ hands and purses (not recommended), you’re more likely to find Flight Control on those phones in lieu of bigger, more complicated games. The world needs deep games, but it also needs blissfully mind-numbing distractions.

Currently, we think of multi-platform game development as a hierarchy: Start on the iOS, advance to handheld systems, and then move on to PC and/or consoles. Maybe we should tweak that hierarchy a bit: Start with simple games based around a single concept that can be put together by a small team. Work upwards to a more complicated adventure. Finish with a massive multiplayer online RPG if your company is really rolling on cash and is feeling ambitious.

Whatever path a small developer takes, it’s not easy to break into the games industry, much less find success. But there’s still room for the little guy, and there always will be. After all, little guys can squeeze through crevices, nip ankles, and they don’t eat much. They’re survivors.

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 Comments

  1. Angry Birds’ development budget was supposedly $140k. The racing genre– dominated by photorealism and a wide variety of sounds and visuals captured from real cars on real tracks– is a horrible benchmark to use for gauging development budgets, as they are bound to be near the upper range.

    In the iOS Top Paid Apps chart, there are three versions of Angry Birds, plus other relatively small projects like Fruit Ninja and Cut the Rope.

    Real Racing 2 clocks in at #118. Perhaps the question isn’t weather small budget games are dying, but whether or not big budget games are dying– or if big budgets are any guarantee of success on iOS. Going by highest gross instead of unit sales, big budget Unreal engine game Infinity Blade still doesn’t make the top ten. Halo clone Nova doesn’t make the top 100. Real Racing 2 jumps up to… #71 with its $6.99 pricetag.

    Being a small developer sure isn’t easy, and the demands of today’s graphics engines and jaded gamers doesn’t help, but it still looks to me like iOS still makes it possible for small developers to make small games and do fairly well.

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