Democratization of development

Ten years ago, you only had a very few options for making a game. I know. I was there. For indies, you were basically limited to a few open-source code libraries (like Allegro) or some fairly expensive professional stuff. There were a few niche options—RPG Maker has been around forever, and it’s never cost too much—but most dev tools fell into the “free but bad” or “good if you’ve got the money” categories. And, to top it off, you were essentially limited to the PC. If you wanted to go out of your way, Linux and Mac were available, but most didn’t bother, and consoles were right out.

Fast forward five years, to 2011. That’s really around the time Unity took off, and that’s why we got so many big indie games around that time. Why? Because Unity had a free version that was more than just a demo. Sure, the “pro” version cost an arm and a leg (from a hobbyist perspective), but you only had to get it once you made enough profit that you could afford it. And so the 2010s have seen a huge increase in the number—and quality—of indie titles.

Five more years bring us to the present, and it’s clear that we’re in the midst of a revolution. Now, Unity is the outlier because it costs too much. $1500 (or $75/month) is now on the high end for game engines. Unreal uses a royalty model. CryEngine V is “pay what you want”. Godot and Atomic lead a host of free engines that are steadily gaining ground on the big boys. GameMaker, RPG Maker, and the like are still out there, and even the code-only guys are only getting better.

Engines are a solved problem. Sure, there’s always room for one more, and newcomers can bring valuable insights and new methods of doing things. The basics, though, are out there for everyone. Even if you’re the most hardcore free-software zealot, you’ve got choices for game development that simply can’t be beat.

If you follow development in other media, then you know what’s happening. Game development is becoming democratized. It’s the same process that is bringing movie production out of the studio realm. It’s the same thing that gave every garage band or MIDI tinkerer a worldwide audience through sites like SoundCloud and Bandcamp. It’s why I was able to put Before I Wake into a store offering a million other e-books.

Games are no different in this respect. The production costs, the costs of the “back-end” necessities like software and distribution, are tending towards zero. Economists can tell you all about the underlying reasons, but we, as creators, need only sit back and enjoy the opportunity.

Of course, there’s still a ways to go. There’s more to a game than just the programming. Books are more than collections of words, and it takes more than cameras to make a movie. But democratization has cut down one of the barriers to entry.

Looking specifically at games, what else needs to be done? Well, we’ve got the hard part (the engine) out of the way. Simpler ways of programming are always helpful; Unreal’s Blueprints and all the other “code-less” systems have some nifty ideas. Story work doesn’t look like it can be made any easier than it already is, i.e., not at all. Similarly, game balance is probably impossible to solve in a general sense. Things like that will always have to be left to a developer.

But there is one place where there’s lots of room for improvement: assets. I’m talking about the graphics, sounds, textures, and all those other things that go into creating the audiovisual experience of a game. Those are still expensive or time-consuming, requiring their own special software and talent.

For asset creation, democratization is hard at work. From the venerable standbys of GIMP and Inkscape and Blender to the recently-freed OpenToonz, finding the tools to make game assets isn’t hard at all. Learning how to use them, on the other hand, can take weeks or months. That’s one of the reasons why it’s nearly impossible to make a one-man game these days: audiences expect the kind of polish that comes with having a dedicated artist, a dedicated musician, and so on.

So there’s another option, and that’s asset libraries. We’ve got a few of those already, like, but we can always use more. Unity has grown so popular for indie devs not because it’s a good engine, but because it’s relatively inexpensive and because it has a huge amount of assets that you can buy from right there in the editor. When you can get everything you need for a first-person shooter for less than a hundred dollars (or that Humble Bundle CryEngine collection from a while back), that goes a long way towards cutting your development costs even further.

Sure, asset libraries won’t replace a good team of artists working on custom designs specifically for your game, but they’re perfect for hobbyists and indies in the “Early Access” stage. If you hit it big, then you can always replace the stock artwork with something better later on. Just label the asset-library version “Alpha”, and you’re all set.

Looking ahead to the beginning of the next decade, I can’t say how things will play out. The game engines that are in the wild right now won’t go away, especially those that have been released for free. And there’s nowhere to go but up for them. On the asset side of things, it’s easy to see the same trend spreading. A few big “pack” releases would do wonders for low-cost game development, while real-world photography and sound recording allow amateurs to get very close to professional quality without the “Pro” markup.

As a game developer, there’s probably no better time to be alive. The only thing that comes close is the early generation of PC games, when anyone could throw together something that rivaled the best teams around. Those days are long past, but they might be coming back. We may be seeing the beginning of the end for the “elite” mentality, the notion that only a chosen few are allowed to produce, and everyone else must be a consumer. Soon, the difference between “indie” and “AAA” won’t be because the tools used. And that’s democracy in action.

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