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Budgeting for Success: Identifying and Using the Right Cost Levers in Game Development

Many of our clients face tough funding limitations requiring practical trade-offs. However, this doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your vision outright! In our time in the game-based learning industry, we’ve learned that balancing your aspirations with affordability starts by identifying cost levers – adjustable design choices that influence a project’s overall price.

via Giphy

In this article, we’ll identify key cost levers such as game mechanics, 2D art vs high-end 3D assets, and more. By keeping these factors in mind, our clients can innovate confidently within their budgets!

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.


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 using both the Unity and Unreal game engines, which allow us to deploy to different device types relatively easily. For projects where it’s required that a tablet run the game in a browser (as opposed to running the game from an app), we use a pipeline we’ve developed called unity3D-pixi. One thing to keep in mind is that if you are deploying to PC, tablet, and mobile phone, there is usually additional effort required 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 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.

By carefully considering each of these cost levers, you can ensure that your project impacts learners and stays on budget. 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!

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