The art and complexity of video game development

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It took one man to invent probably the most famous early video game. Allan Alcorn developed Pong as a prototype, with 2 colours, 2 paddles, a single square ball and digits to keep scores. The analogue video game ran on a Hitachi black and white TV that cost $75 and went on to turn Atari into one of the biggest video game developers of the 20th century.

Fast forward to 2017 and we’ve come a hell of a long way. Currently, the writer of this piece is busy trying not to get lost in Ancient Egypt in Assassin’s Creed: Origins, an RPG / fighter / puzzle / sneak ’em up (we don’t really have single genres any more). Clocking in at around 42GB on PlayStation, the game files made up of graphics files, sounds and endless amounts of code is roughly big enough for 450 million games of modern ROM Pong, which can be as small as 110kb.

Although technology has helped greatly when it comes to creating games of such vast proportions as Assassin’s Creed, the scale and epic value of a game that boasts over 100 hours of gameplay still requires huge teams of people to deliver the finished product. Ubisoft Montreal, who created Origins, has 3,000 people, supported by tens of thousands of employees in other Ubisoft studios around the world. Creating a game isn’t the bedroom business it used to be (roughly 16 people developed and released the first Tomb Raider game).

Functions and form

Let’s start with how the game behaves. Each character, animation, storyline, dialogue option and gameplay interaction needs to be planned out, mapped, coded or written, usually using a game engine, a task which can eat up resources and requires dedicated programmers, software experts and developers. This part of the process is often the starting point for many games after the storyline or concept is decided. When Grand Theft Auto 5 was released in 2013 for example, the entire RAGE engine that was used had to be overhauled completely to accommodate greater draw distances, more NPCs and vehicle’s and of course the life-like animations that make GTA games what they are.

Graphics and textures are also a make or break aspect of the gaming, integrating seamlessly with wireframes and meshes to make the game world more attractive and sometimes realistic. In the current generation of gaming, which is stepping into the world of 4K and high dynamic range displays, photorealistic textures are required for many games, upping not only the storage required, but the work needed to collect and manipulate often hundreds of thousands of images. The next Forza game boasts hundreds of cars capable of displaying in 4K at 60fps with an Xbox One X, so it’s no surprise that the texture mapping and images used to bring these cars to life make the whole experience are starting to look very close to reality.

Sound is vitally important for next-gen games too, with similar techniques borrowed from the movie industry and full scores now very common on high profile releases. It’s no surprise that video game budgets are now averaging around $40 million to produce, with Grand Theft Auto the most expensive game ever produced at roughly $265 million.

Multi-platform gaming

It isn’t just console games that are getting a lot more TLC when it comes to design and production however. Mobile and browser-based gaming have also upped the stakes, with better mobile devices and developments like HTML5 and faster connectivity helping studios to improve mobile gaming significantly.

Take online poker. Although quite simple in terms of graphics and coding, virtual games of poker are now starting to match the excitement and ‘realistic’ gameplay you’d find in a casino. 888 Poker boast dozens of poker varieties, all playable on a massive range of phones, smart devices and computers, with everything from 3D poker rooms to themed tables playable on Android, iOS and Windows. With vastly improved user interfaces, customisable profiles, and even video-fed live casino poker, which transmits professional dealers directly from the casino to device screens, poker has come on leaps and bounds from the basic layouts seen in the early days of online casino gaming.

The next step in gaming

We’re currently at a crossroads in game development too. VR has well and truly arrived with HTC, Occulus Rift and now PlayStation making virtual reality headsets more accessible. Although still in the early stages and limited by computing power, gaming will certainly transform as players becoming more engaged in digital environments. Games like Doom, Fallout 4 and Skyrim are all either on their way or released, acting as benchmarking tools for user interaction when the action is coming from several directions at once.

It’s easy to see how video game production costs will keep climbing too. With limits on imagination slowly beginning to lift and the number of gamers growing significantly since the first consoles appeared in the 80s, there’s a lot of money in the market and a constant demand for more exciting games. Let’s hope this unbridled creativity and artistic approach to game design continues and doesn’t go the way of the movie industry, which saw 47 reboots and remakes hit screens this year.