Games with cutting-edge graphics are costing more and more to make. I mentioned one solution, but I also have an even better idea, and I’ll explain the former later.
First, let us cast our minds back to the early days of animated film. It was a long time before anyone made a feature-length animated film because each frame had to be drawn and painted by hand. When color and sound came along, all of a sudden the costs of making these expensive (in terms of pure man-hours) but short films increased exponentially.
What originally happened is that very few people even tried to make feature-length animated films other than Disney, and even then Uncle Walt needed to franchise the heck out of every film to turn a profit. Each Disney film had all-new characters, all-new animation, all-new everything. Which is the same approach most big game studios are taking right now and it’s killing us.
Looney Toons were a different story: Short films that starred characters from previous cartoons made on a tight budget (but not so tight that it showed) with running gags and slapstick and puns. Simple. Effective. Efficient. If a particular cartoon didn’t get a lot of laughs, it wasn’t the end of the world because along came another(and the writers and directors soon fine-tuned their operation so that virtually every Toon was a hit).
But the Looney Toons approach doesn’t go far enough.
In Japan, one of the cost-cutting measures they developed early on is recycled animation. If you show a person walking, you only need to animate two steps and cycle through it. If you have a fancy expensive transformation sequence you darn well show it every week. If characters are talking, you don’t even necessarily have to animate their lips: have them at a distance or facing away from the camera or even show what the characters are looking at instead of the characters themselves.
Some shows even recycle animation from other shows.
The game industry needs to borrow this paradigm, and a little of Hollywood’s live action paradigm too. Some of it is being done already by those sensible enough to see the advantages of episodic content. Headcrabs from HL2 are also in HLep2. But we need to go a step further.
Live action movies use actors, props and sets from other movies all the time and no one blinks an eye. This should be done by those developing high-cost games, because soon there won’t be any other choice. Have a nice set for New York for that driving-mayhem game? Great: rip chunks out of it and you have your post-apocalyptic game set. Put chrome on everything and add a few arcologies and you have your futuristic set. Get rid of the scyscrapers and make replicas of the buildings that used to be there for your pulp-adventure 1930s set. Rerender everything in the dark and smash some windows and you have your horror set.
The same goes for characters. Make one orc in a loincloth. Then make a whole bunch of different things for him to wear and hold and use (you know: like how WoW does it), and keep those things in mind for your next game. Maybe the hero of the next game can use the orc’s axe or the armor. Maybe you can recolor and tweak the orc model to represent the Drovarians from the planet Xondar. Maybe you can grab an existing sword, paint some rust on it and have that be the orc’s main weapon.
Cut scenes are nice, but they’re not the be-all and end-all. If an optional flashback can be explained in a diary, try that. ASCII characters are your least expensive asset.
If yo have a nice looking hero, give him a scar and make him a minor pirate character in the next game. If you have a good dog model and animation, he could be a character’s faithful companion or just a random mutt. Got one bird? Copy it a hundred times and you’ll never want for a flock of birds. Have a soda can? You never ever need to make another one: just different labels for each game!
Create a cast of characters and put them in different roles, expanding the cast a little in each game. Then you don’t need to make every character from scratch every time. You can have the same voice actors match the characters every time, or swap them around a little. If you have a couple voice actors that can do a wide variety of voices (remember Mel Blanc), that’s even better. Don’t forget to make costumes that can work for different characters! You can even swap heads around for minor characters who wear similar clothing.
Some game studios are already doing one or more of the above. But soon everyone is going to need to think this way to keep production costs at a reasonable level. The sooner, the better.