March 8, 2005

Scoble, do the math...

Robert Scoble thinks that 5 discounted licenses with restrictions will solve the affordability problem for XNA Studio. Unfortunately, game development is a bit stranger than application development.

To break this down, let's look at the startup costs for a new developer who wants to make a cross-platform (Xbox/PS2) game.

Each developer is going to require an Xbox Development Kit, which runs approximately $10,000. Microsoft is nice enough to include a full licensed version of Visual Studio .NET 2003 with the purchase of your development kit. Each developer will also require a Playstation 2 Development Kit, which can run about $10,000-$25,000 each, depending on how you get it. That's just for the kit. The compilers and tools that you need to use are extra, and end up running about an extra $5,000 per seat.

Your art staff and quality assurance staff will each require both a PS2 and Xbox test kit. These run about $1,500 a piece.

Your artists will require the tools of their trade. Maya Unlimited was $16,000 a seat, but it's now just under $7,500. 3D Studio MAX costs about $4,000 a seat.

So, let's do the math for a small development team. Let's assume 4 developers, 10 artists (with Maya) and 1 excessively effective tester. That's $160,000 for the developers, $75,000 for Maya, and an extra $16,500 for the test kits.

That's $251,500. That's just for the necessary hardware and software to do their jobs. We haven't even gotten to the cost of their computer systems yet, or the server architecture necessary to support the massive quantities of assets involved in game development, or rent, or wages. (At a recent game jam, we created over 700Mb of assets in two days for a 2D shooter!)

Now, we've got 15 people who need XNA Studio. We'll be nice and assume that Microsoft will provide XNA Studio for the Xbox Development Kits. That leaves 11 copies left to acquire, with 10 of them only using it for asset management. That's another $16,500, assuming $1,500 a license.

Perforce is currently a standard for source control in this industry. Even Source Depot, which was in use internally at Microsoft for many a year, was based off of Perforce. Perforce runs $800 a user starting June 2005, meaning I can outfit all 15 employees with Perforce for $12,000. The more people that get added, the larger my savings and I get a proven source-control system instead of a Microsoft v1 Product. The proper licenses for Alienbrain would run just shy of $18,000.

Bug tracking? FogBugz 4.0 is only $99 a user. Bugzilla, which isn't exactly the most friendly piece of software on the planet, but still works, is free.

Things are even bleaker for the bedroom developer. The bedroom developer is limited to PC only, and generally is developing either game mods, freeware games, or portfolio pieces. He generally can't afford to go the licensing route, so he's going to buy a 1-year MSDN subscription to get the tools and let it lapse, or he's going to buy a boxed copy of Visual Studio. He's going to get the cheapest one he can, so he'll either buy Visual Studio 2005 Professional for about $1,500 and use Visual SourceSafe 2005, or pay for Visual Studio Express, use CVS or Subversion and have a substandard experience across the board.

I understand why Microsoft is targeting game developers, but remember that only 15% of games make money for the publishers, and less than half of those make money for the developers. While there is value in having Visual Studio installed on every one of the 15 machines in our fictional developer scenario above, we're already dropping a cool $250,000+ just to get started. Right now, I don't see the value-add we'd get for the extra cash per seat.

The real world is not like Microsoft where I could just pop up to the Products server and install what I need. Thanks to the BSA, we have to make damn sure that we pay for everything we use, or fines could be higher than our per-seat expenditure. To reduce our expenses, we need to cut where we can without affecting the quality of the end product. So sorry, Scoble, there's nothing I see about XNA Studio right now that makes me need to afford it.

(UPDATE 9:00am: That's what I get for posting before my shower...I missed an extra $16,500 for test kits. Test kits cost $1,500 per kit per platform, so that's a total of $33,000 for the test kits.)

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