ELI5, Why does game development take so long?


I’ve dabbled very briefly before with game development personally but I am largely unknowing, so please take me as an extreme laymen.

As the title says, why does game development take so long? Specifically, games used to take a year to develop but now they take 3+ years for AAA games. I understand the improvement of gaming systems requires greater detail but shouldn’t that be offset by the improvements of technology/ development tools?

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Some things have certainly gotten much better and faster, but other things have gotten much more complicated.

Yeah you can procedurally generate trees now instead of manually crafting dozens of unique models.

But, you have to record 100,000 lines of dialogue now instead of just one guy in Japan making Link’s Hyeeps and Hyuuups.

Yeah you can get a bunch of off-the-shelf physics engine components rather than developing them from scratch.

But, you have to make sure it works for the thousands of physics enabled objects of various densities you’re placing in the world.

The complexity has ramped up faster than the toolsets, and games have larger scope than ever.

It all depend on the complexity of the game. Of course if look at a simple game that was done 20 years ago, it was made in a year. But a simple game made today would also take a year to make. And the same thing for a complex game in the past and today, they would both take a lot of years.

WoW is a complex game and it took 5 years to develop the original. That was developed in 2001 so 22 years ago. In 2000 Perfect dark and Metal Gear Solid took 3 years to develop, they are not simple game, but less complex than WoW.

Then if you look at 2022 you have Elden Ring that took 5 years, and you can see that it’s a game closer to WoW than Perfect Dark in term of complexity.

The difference isn’t that big honestly. Especially since you have to take into consideration the size of the development team. A team of 20 people that take 5 years to make a game is the same amount of man hours as a team of 50 people working for 2 years.

I think the reason you have this perception is just that we hear a lot more about video game development today, than we used to in the past.

The scope and level of detail has increased tremendously. Compare something like Pac-Man or Space Invaders (which were the AAA games of their time) to something like Red Dead Redemption 2, Cyberpunk 2077, etc… Those early games took several months to a year to make back then, but today’s tools allow us to make them in an afternoon. A modern AAA game contains a huge lot of assets (music, sound effects, dialogue, 3D models, textures,…), most of which is hand made. Drawing a 10×10 pixel sprite to look good might take some time, but making a full 3D modelled character, with textures, animations, voice over takes way more time.

Another aspect is the industry grew and specialized. There are a couple hundred people at Epic working on Unreal Engine, which is a tool to make games, and no team in the early days was more than a handful of people (just look at the credits roll then and now).