Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Small Teams Kicking Arse: Defining "HPD"

The classic question that any game developer with an inkling of project management is bound to ask is "how do we do more with less?"

A more pertinent variation is "How do we do just enough to make the game addictive while consuming as few development resources as possible?"

I was recently playing the game Fate by good folks over at WildTangent. It is a lovely little Diablo clone with a bit more of a delicious old school Hack flavor than I was expecting. There's an article on the development of the title in the latest CGW magazine.

Fate took 6 months to develop and had a team composed primarily of 1 programmer and 7 artists. I crunched some numbers and found that Fate had a stunningly efficient production cycle compared to comparable teams. More after the break.

Fate took 6 months to develop and had a team composed primarily of 1 programmer and 7 artists. They were supported by WildTangent's QA team. The title sells for $25 over the internet and is available as either a 27.5 meg file or a 128 meg file with improved graphics. They estimate 20 to 30 hours of game play.

Market-wise I would classify this as a niche title. The PC Action RPG genre appears to have tailed off in the past couple of years with the release of Diablo II and there are few major blockbusters announced. Fate follows the proven market strategy of releasing a competent B-grade title in a niche genre and then taking advantage of existing genre addict word of mouth. Though it is marketed as a 'casual game', I'd be curious to see what percentage of buyers had played a Diablo game in the past.

Why you should care
The impressive point of all this is 1 programmer and 7 artists. This is substancially less than Diablo with its 17 programmers and 39 artists. I'm not even counting the bloat from Diablo's producers, designers, or the four semi-random lasses listed under "Mr. Dabiri's Background Vocalists".

Diablo, admittedly, had quite a few more hours of gameplay than 20 to 30 hours. Let's say that on average someone would spend 60 hours on the title. (I'm being generous) That roughly translates to a 2x or 3x factor. So Fate managed to squeeze out 50% of Diablo's gameplay using 5.8% of the programming resources and 18% of the artists. And don't forget that Diablo took 2 years to make vs 6 months for Fate.

HPD, baby!
If you'd like, you can calculate "hours of game play per developer year" value. A developer year is similar to the mythical man month, except longer. Let's call this value hpd (Hours per developer). For Diablo, that comes out to 0.53 HPD. For Fate, that comes out to 7.5 HPD.

An order of magnitude
Certainly you could argue that this is a bit academic since game developers care a lot more about more than just how long people play the game. Other factors like the intensity of the experiance and the amount of money the game makes also matter.

Still, I'm seeing a team that is roughly 10x more efficient than another benchmarked team. In the immortal words of Keanu, 'Whoa'. An order of magnitude improvement in efficiency is worth exploring.

Teams who are making casual games or serious games on a fixed budget can learn a lot from the development techniques involved in a title such as Fate. What if you could successfully finish your project and spend 10% of a typical game budget?

Questions about HPD
  • How do these small teams achieve such impressive efficiency compared to full game development teams? Are there techniques we can apply to other projects?
  • How does HPD compare to the HPD of other media production. What is the HPD for a movie? What about for an hour of training? How far does production efficiency for games need to advance before it can compete with other serious games-style applications.
take care

PS: Diablo also lists in their credits Alan Dabiri as a 'dunsel', which as far as I can gather is 'a nautical term for a part with no obvious function or purpose' Despite his undoubtedly essential presence in every game up until World of Warcraft, I did not include dear Alan in my number crunching.