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Video Games Are Too Big to Succeed

On a trip to Canada, one Motherboard editor finds why developers still want to make AAA games despite shrinking margins.
An artist at The Coalition at work. Image: Jackie Dives/Motherboard

This is part of Motherboard's feature about the development of Gears of War 4. Follow along here.

Can video games get too big? Based on Motherboard editor Emanuel Maiberg's visit to Gears of War 4 developer The Coalition, it certainly seems like a dangerous possibility.

According to Patrick Walker of video game research firm EEDAR, so-called "AAA" games like Gears 4 cost between $50 million to $200 million to make these days. It's so rough that the original studio behind Gears of War isn't working on this sequel in part because they can't afford the risk. "We don't have great current and historical data on the cost of AAA game development, but we do know that the vast majority of a game's budget is spent on the people making it, and we do know that fewer than 90 people worked on the first Gears of War in 2006, while around 330 worked on Gears 4," Maiberg wrote. "Head of Xbox Phil Spencer told me that Gears 4 is five to six times more expensive than Gears 1." Beyond its insights into the reasons studios still make games like this in an age when cheaper mobile games make as much or more, Maiberg's piece looks into the human side of a game's last days of development. Maiberg spends most of his time with The Coalition studio head Rod Fergusson, but he also takes time to peek into other offices in the studio and learn how the stressful days of crunch time affect individual lives and family. How stressful is it? As Chuck Osieja, creative director for Gears 4, told Maiberg: "We got 10 pounds of shit and we got to fit it into a five-pound box. How the hell are you going to do that?"

And yet many people still eagerly line up to take part, not just for the money or the resume headings but also for the excitement of being a part of such a complicated, unwieldy, but often (in the right hands) beautiful thing.

"The analogy I use is that making AAA games is like the Fomula 1 of computer science," Mike Rayner, technical director of The Coalition, said in the piece. "You're always pushing the bar because that's the expectation and that's great."

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