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.
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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. The work we do for clients is all custom so there is no easy answer to this question. However, in general, most of the projects we take on in our studio to create rich, immersive games are priced between $250,000 – $400,000. That being said, we have worked on smaller games and interactives for below $100,000 and we have completed large-scale games with budgets over $1,000,000.
What Goes Into the Cost
When you decide to make an educational video game with Filament Games, most of what you are paying goes into labor, with a fraction of that cost going into the things our teams need to be productive at work.
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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 producer, designer, an engineer, a visual interaction designer, a game artist (2D or 3D), quality assurance, and a sound engineer who doubles as our music composer. 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) and a graphic designer. The percentage of each staff’s time varies from project to project depending on the project concept. All of our teams are led by an experienced manager who has expertise in their discipline.
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).
For your team to be effective, they need all the common things that staff members need – a building to work in, equipment, support staff to handle the office, HR, sales, 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.
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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 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.
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:
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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.
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.