Archive:Barriers to Entry

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  • Published: 19 August 1998
  • Host:
  • Author: Paul O’Connor

The Designer Diary

Part 8: Barriers to Entry

A couple weeks ago, our weekly lunch meeting wrapped up with a technical conversation between our chief financial officer and our operations manager about the unique hardware needs of our project. I think it had something to do with how we were handling image files for our movies.

I’m no genius, but I’m no dummy, either, and I’ve been around this business for a long time. But I had no freaking clue what they were talking about. I listened as intently as I could, but they might as well have been talking Babylonian for all the sense it made to me. A couple other people in the room understood (Lorne and Sherry, certainly, and others I am sure), but I didn’t get it, and neither did the lead engineer on the Munch project, who was sitting next to me.

And this told me two things: First, it didn’t matter that I didn’t understand what was going on, because there are members of the team who did (and who would be just as mystified if I’d been using design jargon about pushes and pulls and enders and hubs). Second, I realized all at once what an incredibly complex business this has become in the span of just a few short years.

Six years ago, any yahoo with 1500 bucks in his mattress could purchase a Sega development card, plug it into his computer, and declare himself a software developer. Now, this equation simply isn’t possible. The 32-bit era, with CD-ROMs the most common storage and retrieval device, has changed the development landscape forever. It’s not enough to make great games anymore. You’ve got to make great entertainment, too. And that means movies, and character design, and sound, and music, and great writing… all things that were present in the best of the 16-bit games, to be sure. The difference is that if you didn’t have those things in the old days, you could just squeak by, but if you don’t have them now, you’re dead.

And of course, no one person can do all these things by him/herself. So teams are getting larger, with greater equipment needs, which means greater overhead and longer development cycles… which means that publishers are laying out more cash than ever before to create video games, and they’re not about to take a flyer on some wild man in his garage, even if he is a genius and has all the gear and all the smarts to make the greatest game on earth. The risks are too great. The barriers to entry for new shops are too high.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in movie production. Love ’em or hate ’em, the still-frame cutscenes of the 16-bit era have evolved into full-blown cinematic sequences. No one does movies better than Oddworld, and in my next installment, I’ll introduce you to some of the folks that have made Abe into a small-screen star.

— Paul O’Connor, Oddworld Inhabitants

NEXT: Virtual Hollywood