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The Little Fighting Game That Could

Lab Zero asked for $150,000 to make a new Skullgirls character, and fans said "hell yeah!" In the process, it exposed a growing disparity between what people think games cost and the truth.

It’s been a bumpy road for Skullgirls, but just one day into its Indiegogo campaign, the game has raised the necessary $150,000--it's at $218,000 and counting--to start adding new characters to its brawler. It’s also the biggest gaming campaign the rival crowdfunding service has ever seen.

The animation-happy 2D fighter, the debut release from Reverge Labs, was already asking for trouble by trying to be a brand-new fighting game. It's an intensely competitive genre with few newcomers. Most fighting games these days are built on established franchises with known characters. Then, much of the team was laid off, prompting a bunch of employees to rebrand under Lab Zero Games last November. As if that weren’t enough, the owner of Skullgirls, Autumn Games, remains in litigation over Def Jam Rapstar, which has complicated efforts to continue work on the game or move it to another company.

Through it all, there’s been one constant keeping the developers motivated.

“We have the best fucking fans in the world,” said Lab Zero Games CEO Peter Bartholow.

Squigly is the first of three characters Lab Zero Games is hoping to produce for Skullgirls, depending on its total funding.

This connection motivated the idea of picking up where it’d left off. Previous plans were brought back to the table, and the team opened its pitch with Squigly, a ranged stance character that leverages singing in her rather unique moveset.

“We were at lunch at Curry House [in Los Angeles],” said Bartholow, “and people were like ‘I think we ought to try it because...I don’t know, why not?’"

It’s not as easy as flicking a switch, though. While Autumn Games was supportive of Lab Zero Games’ desire to expand Skullgirls, due to the continued litigation, providing the financial backing to do so was out of the question. Big problem. The concept of pitching the idea to fans came up, but the studio was forced to back off for a few weeks, following the explosive response to the game’s chance to be included in the EVO 2013 fighting game tournament. To secure a spot at EVO, fans raised money for breast cancer research. Skullgirls fans raised an incredible $78,000, but it wasn’t enough to topple the dedicated fans of Super Smash Bros. Melee, who raised a massive $92,000. It didn't seem right to ask the community for more money just after it had given so much to a great cause.

The Indiegogo campaign went live on Monday morning, but articles were up on websites ahead of time. This included a Joystiq story with the headline “Skullgirls dev wants $150,000 in crowdfunding for new character,” which prompted a series of comments from users shocked at the sticker price.

“$150k Christ on a bike. I've overseen whole projects that cost less than that," said one commenter.

“Its just a character........" said one reader. "how the fuck can making a character for a video game cost more then my house??? 0_o”

“Building is what they can jump off of," said another commenter. "For one character? Even CAPCOM isn't that greedy, they only sell you the same game 3x”

Trying to raise at least $150,000 was picked for a very specific reason: it was the money Lab Zero Games needed. Often, crowdfunding projects will ask for roughly half of what it actually needs to complete what it’s really promising. There is a psychological effect to crowdfunding, and people want to back a winner. A winner is likely to exceed its funding goal, and get closer to its real goal. The Skullgirls developers actually broke down development costs, hoping to persuade people this was reality:

  • $48,000: Staff Salaries - 8 people for 10 weeks
  • $30,000: Animation and Clean-up Contracting
  • $4,000: Voice recording
  • $2,000: Hit-box Contracting
  • $5,000: Audio Implementation Contracting
  • $20,000: QA Testing
  • $10,000: 1st Party Certification
  • $10,500: IndieGoGo and Payment Processing Fees
  • $20,500: Manufacturing and Shipping Physical Rewards

“We’ve always tried to be really transparent,” said Bartholow. “ [...] We’ve always taken a kind of Game Dev 101 approach to all of this. People don’t know anything about game development, and the people that you think might know something, know shockingly little.”

Other developers I’ve talked to back up Lab Zero Games’ claims.

"We’ve always taken a kind of Game Dev 101 approach to all of this. People don’t know anything about game development, and the people that you think might know something, know shockingly little."

--Lab Zero Games CEO Peter Bartholow

“I think a lot of things in game production tend to be a lot more expensive than many people realize,” said former Capcom special advisor Seth Killian, now lead game designer at Sony Santa Monica. “The Skullgirls team has done a great job breaking out some of their costs, and I can certainly attest that a good fighting game character costs a lot more to develop and implement than developing virtually any other similar asset in games. [...] The characters are the game in fighters, and adding more involves a huge amount of intricate assets and one of the most difficult ‘but how does it fit into the rest of the game’ challenges anywhere in development.”

Iron Galaxy Studios has worked closely with Capcom, and is responsible for the upcoming Darkstalkers Resurrection, Marvel vs. Capcom Origins, and others. It knows fighting games. Additionally, the company is building a proper version of the cult hit, Divekick. When I tossed the $150,000 number at Iron Galaxy CEO Dave Lang, here's what he told me:

“I don’t have any particular insights as to how the Skullgirls team works, but I can tell you if we were doing a similar game there would be two major time sinks: new frames of animation and time required to balance the game.

The frames of animation are very expensive for a couple reasons, but at the end of the day it gets down to volume. Say you need 500 frames of animation per character (arbitrary number, I don’t know what Skullgirls frame count per character is), you actually should budget for 1,000 frames of animation in time and materials because for a 2D fighter the animation is the gameplay, and you will need to rework a lot of the sprites to have the game play the way you want. If you were to outsource that many frames of animation you’d pay $20-$30/hour for that, and at that resolution/complexity each person working on them would get around 4 frames of animation done per day (these are highly involved sprites). That puts the cost of just getting the sprites done anywhere from 40k-60k USD. Keep in mind this will take time, and while you’re waiting for the art to get back from the outsourcer you’re still paying salaries, rent, internet, insurance, etc., so sunk cost for just the art itself is probably gonna net out to 90k USD.

Once you get everything in the game, now you need to balance it. And balancing a fighting game is a “n-squared” problem, meaning each additional fighter you add makes balancing the game much more difficult (and therefore take more time/people) to balance. This takes a long time, even with Skullgirls (now) 9 characters. Every studio has their own cost structure but you can safely assume each individual game developer costs their studio around 10k per month (including rent, insurance, etc.). This number will vary wildly for any given dev, but in the US it’s as good a rule of thumb as you can hope for. Sounds like the Skullgirls crew runs a pretty lean ship so let’s chop that to 7,500k/month for them. If there are 5 people on the team (not sure if this is right, but I can’t imagine doing this with less people so let’s call it 5), that’s 37.5k/month for them. If your budget is 150k, that gives them about 2 months to balance the game, which isn’t really a lot of time.

We haven’t even touched on audio, UI, etc. All that stuff adds up. This is why I think 150k is a bargain."

That’s a lengthy explanation related to a minimal amount of ignorant complaining about content that was funded almost immediately. Still, crowdfunding has created a fundamental misunderstanding about how much it costs to make games. Skullgirls ultimately cost about $2 million, and $2 million is not that much money, especially when you’re paying a number of salaries and running a company.

The $150,000 for creating Squiggly, for example, already takes into account reduced salaries for everybody involved. Most of the staff is going to be making roughly the equivalent of $600 per week. That's unlikely to change. That isn’t much in the city of Los Angeles, where most of the staff is located.

“Our guys are pretty close to the edge financially,” said Bartholow.

One way Lab Zero Games hoped to curb its monetary stress in the days ahead was launching through Indiegogo, not Kickstarter. On Kickstarter, projects have to wait weeks after funding closes before it actually shows up in a bank account. Indiegogo also takes less of a cut. On Indiegogo, that money starts coming in after hitting the goal. When I spoke to Bartholow yesterday, it had collected about $34,000.

Fortunately for the company, the money keeps coming in, too.

“We put the stretch goals on there because it’s...a thing that you do?” he said. “We tried to design the stretch goals in ways that would be appealing to our fans.”

It’s already past the first stretch goal of $175,000, meaning it'll get to create a specific stage and story section for Squigly. The next stretch goal is much further off. At $375,000, it will introduce the first male character into the game’s lineup, Big Band. Additional stretch goals include a stage and story for Big Band, fans voting on yet another character, and more. Fans are loudly asking for a Vita port, which the studio is considering, but that specific demand depends on how much ultimately comes in by the end.

And even if you don't contribute to the total, you'll reap the rewards. For the first three months, each funded character won't cost a penny. Microsoft and Sony charge for download codes, not to mention the logistical nightmare associated with distributing the codes to backers. Zero Lab Games figures the promotion will drive people to pick up the original game, in case they missed it the first time around.

Patrick Klepek on Google+
296 Comments
Posted by CountYourBlessings

Beautiful.

Edited by Shinryu

Wow 150k for 1 character thats ridiculous

Posted by shintsurugi

We need more stories like this. Things that show exactly why games cost so much. Education, people!

Posted by KogX

Not my type of game but great that they are successful.

Posted by Overbite

Good on them, this game is amazing and more people need to play it.

Edited by boylie

And the award for "Person who skipped over the contents of the article in order to comment on the headline" goes to --

@shinryu said:

Wow 150k for 1 character thats ridiculous

Posted by Nekroskop

Kickstarter themesong:

Posted by m3ds334
Edited by KelpPlankton

The cost breakdown really illuminates a lot of what I don't know about games in terms of money. It's kind of surprising- and it certainly explains why it's not a trivial matter at all for Capcom to add new characters to their own games via DLC.

It's a shame, though, that this game can meet it's goal within 24 hours for a single character, and yet Project Awakening hasn't even hit the halfway mark of their kickstarter, when they've got an amazing looking game and modding toolkit in the works. Oh well, that's how the market sways I guess.

Edited by videogamesarenotart

did this article just try to say the entire thing was nonprofit, because if so thats hilarious

Edited by Dtat

@boylie said:

And the award for "Person who skipped over the contents of the article in order to comment on the headline" goes to --

@shinryu said:

Wow 150k for 1 character thats ridiculous

HAHAHAHAHA!

Posted by Zaccheus

That's amazing. There are 24 people who paid 1000$ for that character. The best fucking fans indeed.

Edited by Kerned

@shinryu: The article was really interesting, you probably should have bothered reading it.

Posted by Monkeyman04

@shinryu: There's this thing called reading, maybe you should try it.

Posted by MindChamber

@shinryu: wow some who didnt read the article, thats typical.

Posted by JJOR64

Really glad this is working out for them.

Posted by Imsorrymsjackson

@shinryu: Articles motherfucker, do you read them?

Edited by Sargus

@videogamesarenotart said:

did this article just try to say the entire thing was nonprofit, because if so thats hilarious

Um... No?

Posted by FLYmeatwad

I guess this means people are still actively playing Skullgirls. Maybe I'll pick it up finally. Did they ever end up adding a moves list in the game? That was what kept me from getting it at launch.

Edited by skrutop

BTW, Indiegogo would be an awesome name for a Skullgirls character.

Posted by Benny

@boylie said:

And the award for "Person who skipped over the contents of the article in order to comment on the headline" goes to --

@shinryu said:

Wow 150k for 1 character thats ridiculous

I hope it was a joke comment but if not, way to basically be the guy who sings "In Bloom" without knowing what it means.

Posted by FrostedMiniWheats

This is a really great article! That block quote from Dave Lang was solid gold in how it broke down costs specific to the genre from a perspective other than the Skullgirls team themselves. This does lead to a followup question though... why do so many things in games need to be outsourced? It makes a certain amount of sense in something like Assassin's Creed where Ubisoft is trying to create one of the biggest games of the year every single year, but why can't the Skullgirls developers draw and animate their own art? How big does a studio need to be before they can support their own dedicated artists?

Edited by captainanderson

Awesome, Patrick has started writing good articles again. He should become a cyborg more often. (I'm only half joking). It's amazing how many people still don't even have a general sense of how much money even relatively small games take to develop.

Posted by Dolphin_Butter

Unless I'm wrong, I don't think SSBM raised that much money for Evo and that the $228,000 is the total for what all fighting games raised.

Anyway, great article. Nice to see a happy ending come out of both indie development and the fighting game community.

Posted by BuddhasEarlobe

Just got the game yesterday and it's pretty dope!

Posted by Mesoian

Keep donating money people! I want BigBand in that game!

Posted by vinster345

Loved this article and hope to see more like it. Revealing the actual costs and workings behind games makes us understand why the industry is going in certain directions

Posted by patrickklepek

Unless I'm wrong, I don't think SSBM raised that much money for Evo and that the $228,000 is the total for what all fighting games raised.

Anyway, great article. Nice to see a happy ending come out of both indie development and the fighting game community.

Good catch.

Posted by ectoplasma

I like the topic but... maximum verbosity!

Posted by medacris

@skrutop said:

BTW, Indiegogo would be an awesome name for a Skullgirls character.

The first thing that came to mind was a girl with either a stereotypical hipster/indie music musician or gogo dancer costume, who just so happens to like violently eviscerating other fighters for some reason. We should send this idea to the devs, see what they think.

I'm all for this. I know it's expensive, but a lot of hard work goes into the music, voice acting, and animation, and the backstories of each character look awesome. I wish Lab Zero best of luck with Big Band and Squigly.

Edited by chiablo

"Contracting, contracting, contracting"... Aren't you a development studio? Hitbox contracting? This isn't speedtree, this is your engine that you developed (I hope) and it would be much cheaper to have your in-house developers do this.

Edited by MMann

This is a really great article! That block quote from Dave Lang was solid gold in how it broke down costs specific to the genre from a perspective other than the Skullgirls team themselves. This does lead to a followup question though... why do so many things in games need to be outsourced? It makes a certain amount of sense in something like Assassin's Creed where Ubisoft is trying to create one of the biggest games of the year every single year, but why can't the Skullgirls developers draw and animate their own art? How big does a studio need to be before they can support their own dedicated artists?

Pretty big.

Art isn't cheap and artists, unless they can also program, aren't - for lack of a better word - extremely useful in every step of the game development process. Artists are absolutely critical to making a game but there will come a point in the dev process when all the art assets are in and final, but the code and QA is far from over; and unless the studio is big enough to always have a second or third game in the works that means they'll have a paid employee with no work to do. That isn't sustainable.

Outsourcing art isn't cheap, but it's more economical than having a staff artist on at all times.

Posted by DennisTM

Am I wrong or does 48k sound really low for 8 people for 10 weeks? Technical staff no less.

Edited by Losfer

@shinryu said:

Wow 150k for 1 character thats ridiculous

Reading comprehension: Bottom tier.

Great fucking article Patrick!

Posted by TheGlitchmaster

WOO YEAH SKULLGIRLS

One of my favorite games of last year. I wanna see tons of people playing on that PC version. This game is great.

Posted by lokilaufey

@videogamesarenotart: Did we read completely different articles? Skullgirls raised money FOR a nonprofit, the character crowdfunding ISN'T nonprofit. It'll just be free for 3 months after going live.

Posted by Krakn3Dfx

I have zero interest in fighting games, but seeing a developer actively give customers the option to pitch in for more content and having it work out is awesome. I would love to see more of it.

Edited by HellknightLeon

Awesome article Patrick. This is the kinda new I want. It shines some light on the game dev and also shows how much people care and are willing to back the games they make and play. Awesome. 150k for one character seems like a lot but after the read... I get it. Takes money and making games is not cheap.

Posted by Demoskinos

This is a good lesson for people to realize how much this stuff costs. Seriously I think some people think DLC just falls out of the sky.

Posted by big_jon

@shinryu said:

Wow 150k for 1 character thats ridiculous

That's what I was thinking...

Posted by w1n5t0n

In the latest episode of the Double Fine documentary, they had a similar problem either start cutting the scope of the game or find another million dollars.

Posted by Phished0ne

I was wondering if an article was going to be written about this, great read. Its really a shame what happened to Reverge/Lab Zero. Autumn's hand really got forced with that lawsuit, and its a shame that a game that had such big plans in store for it had to get dropped like a bad habit. Its great to see the community stepping up and getting behind Lab Zero to help Skullgirls grow.

It's a shame, though, that this game can meet it's goal within 24 hours for a single character, and yet Project Awakening hasn't even hit the halfway mark of their kickstarter, when they've got an amazing looking game and modding toolkit in the works. Oh well, that's how the market sways I guess.

There are numerous reasons for this:

1) Skullgirls has a pre-existing community. Specifically for their game. They get *Decent* tournament turn-outs for a game a lot people said would be dead on arrival. There are still people that want and hope this game will do better in the future in the competitive scene.

2) Skullgirls can also tap into the FGC as a whole. Contrary to popular belief, the FGC is pretty positive when it comes to things like this. Donation drives for good/noble causes centered around the FGC usually raise a fair amount of money. FGC members want to see another fighting game succeed, even if they aren't necessarily interested in playing the game. The idea that they can tap into the resources of the FGC is really important, there are whole websites dedicated to fighting games, that lends a lot of help to Lab Zero because they can get more coverage than the average crowdfunding project.

3) Project Awakened is wayyyyyy too "pipe-dreamy" to seem true to a lot of people. Plus they are asking for 500,000 dollars, that's a lot of fucking money. I understand the scale of what they are making is huge, but the claims they make about what that game will do are nuts.

4) Lab Zero is being SUPER transparent about exactly what their money is going to and why they need what a lot of people think is a lot for "just one character".

Posted by Dinosaurs

I haven't been paying too much attention to Skull Girls so to me this is good news they've got enough support to add to their game. And with a recent publisher agreement for a PC release SG is on the up and up. I wish them much success.

Edited by happymeowmeow

Nice article. Was a little confused if the four paragraphs quoting Dave Lang are just one long quote or separate ones or possibly you interjecting for a second because there's a quotation mark at the end of the first paragraph.

Edited by l3illyl3ob

@chiablo: This is not really true. They obviously know the person they're going with, know their price, and know the amount of time it would take themselves to do it. You'd be really surprised just how much game development work is contracted out. Almost every game developer big and small constantly contract out small jobs like this. It's a very regular thing and is actually done to keep costs down.

Edited by Albedo12

I think it's a truism that in general, nobody has any proper understanding of the time, work and cost of any job other than their own. As a result people have an unrealistic view of how much money is needed to make anything, including video games.

Posted by galloughs

Weird this much money was raised for such a mediocre game. Ah well, that's capitalism!

Posted by Morbid_Coffee

The skullgirls guys are cool people. Knew this ever since MikeZ kicked my ass in the game during PAX East 2011, and was super humble about it because he wanted people to enjoy the game. Really glad things are working out for them, even if I haven't actually touched the game since launch.

If they release a Steam port though I'm all over that shit.