If I had to rank the questions I get asked about working with Filament Games by frequency, “What does it cost to make an educational video game” is, by far, the number one question. Most people by now understand the value of educational video games as a learning tool but the bottom line is that they need to understand the bottom line. A few months ago, I blogged about strategies for companies to get their corporate training video game project funded. Knowing how much budget you should pursue is an important part of that equation whether you are an educational publisher, a non-profit whose mission includes education, or a corporate training organization looking for innovative ways to train employees.
In this blog post, I’m going to provide you with hard numbers on what it will cost you to make a digital learning game with Filament Games. If our prices or pricing structure ever changes dramatically, we’ll do a follow-up post that specifies any significant changes (and will remember to link it right here).
First, let me walk you through what makes up the cost of making an educational video game, what the major price levers are that you can pull that impact price, what has little to no impact on price, what we do to pass on savings to you, and lastly, what it costs to make a game with us.
What Goes Into the Cost When you decide to make an educational video game with Filament Games, all of the price you are paying goes towards the team that is going to work on your project as well as the things they need to be productive at work.
Most people are surprised by the size of the teams we put together for projects. That’s because video games require many different disciplines. On a typical project in our studio, we staff a designer (who doubles as our client advocate), an engineer, a UX artist, an illustrator (for 3D games we require both a 3D illustrator and a 3D technical artist), quality assurance, and a sound engineer who doubles as our music composer. All of these contributors are supported by a production team. If you need a website to house your game or you want to collect data from your game and present it back to your learners and/or instructors, we include web engineers on your team (front-end and back-end). We use our employees as in-house voice talent when needed although for some projects that warrant it, we include pricing to outsource professional voice talent. If your project needs to be multi-language capable, we outsource the localization work (for both text and voice). Our Community Manager works with area educational institutions and corporations to secure age- and skill- appropriate user testers for independent testing throughout your project.
Lastly, we feel it’s important that each of our clients have a direct line of contact to one of our founding partners, so each project is assigned to a partner who serves in the role of Account Manager. The percentage of each staff’s time varies from project to project depending on the project concept. For example, some projects are more art-heavy while some projects are more engineering-heavy. We do custom fixed-cost pricing for each of our engagements based on an initial pitch so you know what the cost and schedule is going to be during the contracting process.
For your team to be effective, they need all the common things that employees need - a building to work in, equipment, support staff to handle the office, HR, and sales and marketing, health insurance and vacation time. In addition, they need licenses to the game engines we use, productivity software, and drawing tools. We try to keep things as lean as possible while still being an organization that attracts the best talent in the industry. It’s a balance.
Major Price Levers When cost is a concern for clients (and the majority of the time it is), I can often suggest ways to reduce the price while explaining the implications of each decision. I call them price levers. There are different levers that you can adjust to high, low, and somewhere in between to get to a final price. I name the most common ones here but usually it requires that I understand something about your project before I can make suggestions for your specific situation:
Game Mechanics. Game mechanics, simply put, are the things you can do in a game. Running might be one game mechanic. Jumping might be another. In building a learning game, we design game mechanics to mirror what we are trying to teach. For example, in the game Morphy! that we designed and built for the Smithsonian one of the learning objectives is to understand animal traits. To deliver on that objective, the game asks you to navigate unique environments with specific challenges that are overcome by swapping out specific animal parts (for example, you need to move a large object out of the way, use elephant tusks!). Game mechanics vary in size and complexity and the number of game mechanics in each game varies wildly. If a project comes in too high for your budget, we often re-examine the game mechanics and determine if they can be scaled back or in some cases eliminated. My colleague Stephen Calender wrote an interesting blog post about high priced game features which goes into some more detail about specific mechanics that are particularly costly to build.
Schedule. Once we’ve established the scope of the project, shrinking or expanding the timeline doesn’t impact the price because, in the end, the project is based on effort. In fact, we generally prefer to attach a smaller team for a longer time to complete a project because in our experience the best ideas need time to germinate. Adding gaps to the schedule does increase the price. Sometimes a client will ask us to pause for an evaluation week or two after a major build so they can review the product to date and obtain approvals before moving forward. We’re happy to do that, however the reality is that we have to add those extra weeks to the schedule (and associated costs) since our team will be sitting idle and it’s impossible to book them on something else for such a short period of time. A better way to proceed is to move forward with your approvals but have the team continue to work toward the next release. Any feedback that we might obtain from the review process won’t get into the first sprint of the new release, but we can usually incorporate the feedback in subsequent sprints.
Art Assets. The number and type of unique illustrations required for a game impacts the price as well as the detail of those illustrations. We can often explore an art style that is still high in quality and fidelity but more restrained in terms of detail to reduce illustration costs. There are also considerations involving 2D and 3D art. 3D art models are more time-intensive to develop. However, they are elegantly reusable once made, which can end up reducing illustration time. Lastly, background art/locations impact the illustration time, so reducing the number of background art pieces is another option for manipulating cost.
Target Platforms. We currently develop games in both HTML5 and Unity which allow us to deploy to different device types relatively easily. One thing to keep in mind is that if you are deploying to PC, tablet, and mobile phone, there is usually additional effort to streamline the game for the smaller phone screen. Also, the more devices you target as delivery platforms, the more quality assurance testing we apply to ensure an optimal experience across all intended device types. When we define the scope of work in a Statement of Work, we note the various testing configurations that we will test on so we enter the project with a shared understanding of the test plan. We actively follow the research on which device types are the most prevalent for your target demographic (school vs. home vs. workplace, domestic vs. international, etc.) so we are always happy to share our best recommendations with you.
Data and Metrics. Different projects have different needs for data collection, reporting, and presentation. This spans from no data collection to very detailed data collection that must then be accessible to the learner as well as the instructor (and with school aged learners, sometimes also parents and administrators). There are different tools we can recommend for data collection depending on your reporting and presentation needs. If the data is for internal use, we sometimes recommend collecting data from Google Analytics for web-based games as we did for our McGraw-Hill Inspire Science Games project. If the data needs to be presented to the learner and their instructors, we can build a custom analytics platform for collection and presentation as we did for iCivics. We can also easily connect to an existing CMS/LMS through standard APIs.
What Has Little to No Impact on Price There are some common misconceptions around what might decrease cost for our clients. Here, I review the top three requests that have little to no impact on the final price:
Content Area. Some clients think that because we’ve made a suite of STEM games that we sell directly to school districts, the price will be lower to make a custom STEM game for them. Because we create games where game mechanics are custom-developed to address specific learning objectives, there is little to no reuse potential for any individual game’s mechanics (however, there is potential for foundational software reuse). In cases where our clients don’t have in-house subject matter expertise, we encourage them to contract for it and often help them identify a subject matter expert.
Co-Development. Many of our clients use us to extend their software development capabilities, but when they think long term, they like the idea of maintaining the product in-house. As a result, we are sometimes asked if we’ll agree to a co-development project where the client assigns 1-2 of their staff to our game project team. For larger projects or in situations where we have an existing relationship with a client, we’ll embrace this approach and their staff will work on our teams and at our direction. In our experience, while this more aptly prepares the staff to maintain the product long term, it doesn’t reduce the time we spend on the project. In fact, it often has the opposite effect. If you are concerned about the price of a project, there are other price levers you can adjust but co-development is usually not one of them.
Royalty Agreements. I often get asked if we’ll agree to a royalty-based fee structure. At our current size and business model, we will agree to a royalty-based fee structure as an incentive plan but not as a means to replace our fees for service. We never say never and maybe one day the right project will come along and we’ll consider it, but heretofore this has not happened.
What We Do To Pass Savings to You As a mission-based organization that is passionate about making game-based learning available to everyone who would benefit from it, the cost of making digital learning games is something that very much keeps us up at night. Making a great learning game that is both effective and engaging is not an inexpensive endeavor. We are constantly looking for ways to streamline how we estimate and work on projects so that we can provide you with the best possible quote:
Custom Quotes. As previously mentioned, we create custom quotes for every single project. It would be much easier on us to have a standard-sized team that we sold at a standard monthly rate for as long as it takes but we know that would result in a pricetag that would be unpalatable to most of our clients. Instead, we right-size each project based on a the initial concept, carefully on-ramping and off-ramping resources depending on the phase of the project. In addition, we offer fixed-price quotes, thus absorbing a significant portion of the price risk for the project.
Discovery-Only. All of our projects start with a Discovery Phase which is when we work with our clients to crystallize the learning objectives and goals of the project, define the assessment needs, and create a detailed design for the project. At a minimum, our clients end up with a detailed game design document, a finished piece of high fidelity concept art, wireframes and a production plan for development that all becomes their property at the end of Discovery. We offer our clients the ability to contract just for the Discovery Phase if necessary so they can then decide whether or not to proceed and pursue additional funding with the advantage of being able to share the tangible Discovery Phase deliverables. The only drawback to this approach is that if there is a break between Discovery and development, we can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to book the same team for the development phase of the project. We always try to maintain team continuity when feasible.
Self-Producing Teams. One of the big ideas we’ve decided to experiment with this year is the concept of the self-producing team. A producer on a game project minds the schedule, budget and resources for the project but isn’t directly involved in the making of the product. What we’re experimenting with now is to have self-producing teams where we identify one person on the team (a designer, an engineer, or an illustrator, for example) to perform the day-to-day project management functions while our Production Director oversees all of the projects in the studio. Our theory is that the people actually making the games have the best insight over the work that needs to be completed, the challenges, and the dependencies, resulting in a more efficiently-managed project.
Foundational Software. From a technical perspective, we’ve always explored ways to develop games more efficiently through the use of technology. While game development environments and engines have come a long way, we continuously look to add to and improve our proprietary foundational software to make our engineers more efficient and share those efficiencies with everyone we work with.
Cost to Make a Video Game with Filament Games Hopefully, you’ve read through this entire blog post to learn about what goes into the cost of making games, what doesn’t impact the cost of games, and what we do here at Filament Games to pass additional savings to you. As I previously mentioned, we create custom quotes for each of our projects so all of the previously listed factors will have an impact on the price for your specific game project - there is no “one size fits all” pricetag.
That being said, many of the projects we take on in our studio for rich, immersive games are priced between $250,000 - $400,000. We have worked on mini-games and interactives that are well below $100,000 and we completed a large-scale multi-player game that was over $1,000,000. All in all though, the range above is a good starting point. It should be noted that commercial learning games can be higher in price than the range above because then we have to hit an aesthetic and quality standard that is in line with AAA studios. If you need a website for your game to live on and/or a data reporting and presentation system to integrate with your game, this also drives up the cost. Lastly, if you commit to developing multiple games under one contract, we are happy to provide you with a discount as we benefit from the efficiencies of doing that.
If you would like to talk more about your specific game project and what it might cost to make it with Filament Games, contact us and we’d be happy to have a conversation about it!