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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.
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+