Learning to Budget at a Glance

I’m hoping to discuss some more ambitious topics in the coming weeks, but let’s take a break from serious technique analyses and talk about a very basic skill every video game writer should possess (but probably won’t, starting out): budgeting at a glance.

When I say “budgeting” I don’t mean in dollar figures–I’m talking about the time and effort needed by a writer and other developers to implement a writer’s designs. (In the end, of course, this does equate to cash, but the numbers themselves are a red herring.) Game development is a slow, unpredictable, painstaking process–a writer who doesn’t understand the scope of her requests and their impact on the team is a burden to the project, not a benefit.

Let’s look at an example before going further. Suppose I’m writing a cutscene for Call 2 Action: The Soldier’s Journey, a military first-person shooter. It reads something like the following:

We’re looking at a well-maintained suburban playground. Our focus is two young children who are yelling and running, play-shooting at one another with brightly colored plastic guns. One child drops his gun and rushes the other, and the two laugh as they roughhouse and roll on the ground. Cut to an old man in a wheelchair watching them; the man is missing one arm from a war wound.

Ah, Call 2 Action… you never fail to tug at the heartstrings! But profound as it may be, is this scene an easy one for your team to create? Or are you using half your cutscene budget on this one moment, asking weeks and weeks of effort on the part of dozens of people, leaving no time or money for the EMP detonation scene that occurs ten minutes later?

A complete answer to that would need to involve project managers and all the relevant stakeholders. As the writer, however, I need to have some clue what I’m asking. So at a glance, here’s what I see that needs to be accounted for:

Park environment and props (benches, monkey bars, etc.) A grassy park should be pretty easy to build for a military shooter (our game has plenty of grassy spaces, so we’re presumably pretty good at creating them fast), but the props will likely need to be built just for this cutscene. They’re not terribly complex props, so they probably won’t be an enormous burden. Then again, the scene might play just fine without them.

Plastic guns. Again, new props, but we might be able to just retexture existing gun models used by our enemies and make them bright orange.

Children. This is potentially a big one–if we aren’t using children elsewhere in the game, we’ll need to build entirely new 3d models on new animation skeletons for this. Children aren’t just scaled-down adults. How many weeks of work just for this one scene, now?

Children fighting. This will require a lot of new motion-captured animation (and hand-tuning to make it look good in-game). The roughhousing and such will probably be particularly costly and time-consuming–we need the two children to sync up properly, generate a sense of physical impact and such without clipping.

Children’s voices. If we’re doing a big-budget game with full voiceover anyway, a few shouts and laughs are a drop in the bucket. No real concern.

Wounded veteran. He’s a tricky one–at the very least, he’s a new 3d model and so is his wheelchair. We probably already have some existing sitting animations / postures, so that part isn’t too scary. (And if we don’t already have those, we’ll certainly reuse them later.) But if we need him to move his wheelchair, that’s another set of assets.

Ambient park activity. Is it okay that no one else is in our park? If not, rebudget to accommodate the background characters.

That looks like a pretty scary list, and if this isn’t a cutscene we’ve scheduled a lot of time from artists, animators, and cinematic designers for, we could be in trouble.

But… not necessarily. These are the items that catch my attention, but maybe some of them are cheaper to produce than I think. I’m not an artist, after all–this isn’t my area of expertise. And maybe we had, say, child models in the previous game (Call 1 Action: Terror on Terror) that we can import and reuse here. The only way to know is to communicate with my team and ask them what’s viable and what’s not–preferably before I write my script, rather than after I’ve already constructed a whole story that requires these items.

Of course, a different style of game would have very different budgetary costs. In a mobile game displaying static, 2d images accompanying text descriptions, a child isn’t any more expensive than an adult–nothing gets reused, but nothing is extravagant either.

Note also that budgeting doesn’t just apply to cinematic assets–art, sound, etc. It also applies to design time, technical issues, and quality assurance. If you design a mission in which the player gets surrounded by enemies and is therefore forced to flee down a sewer entrance, custom AI and scripting may be needed to make those enemies act as required. If you design an elaborate series of story branches dependent on player choice, those branches need to be understood and scripted by a designer or programmer and then painstakingly run through by the quality assurance department in every run-through of the game henceforth. (Never underestimate the toll on QA when it comes to branching storylines–and never forget how important good QA is to your game’s success.)

Lastly, the ability to judge a budget applies to a writer’s own work, as well. If you only have a week to write a mission, don’t outline a massive series of branching conversations and optional side quests.

No one expects a writer to catch every potential high-budget item before it gets written down. And of course other departments should review a writer’s design documentation and scripts as early as possible in order to provide input and request changes as appropriate. But a writer who doesn’t write while keeping in mind the resources and schedules of the rest of the team–who doesn’t bother talking through his questions and concerns with the relevant parties–is either oblivious or kind of a jerk.

Honing your budgetary instincts will be slow and painful, and there will always be aspects of your writing that end up more or less expensive to implement than you predicted. That’s okay–playing The Price is Right with game assets is a useful trick, but it’s not necessary. What is necessary is an overall awareness of what may be costly, and the willingness to communicate when you suddenly realize, “I’m not sure if we can afford to put this in our game.”