Two events have recently placed Team Bondi into the local game development news. First, it was recently announced (although not by them) that they were delaying their long awaited LA Noire into 2011, second an anonymous insider started airing dirty laundry on Twitter. The combination has the Australia development community once again discussing Team Bondi, and in general the prognosis isn’t good. I, on the other hand, am pretty sure that LA Noire will be at least a mild success, and at best a redefining game for the Oz industry. I seem to be pretty much alone amongst the wider development community on this front (especially if you read the primarily anonymous comments on Tsumea) so I thought it might be worthwhile explaining why I think so.
Overtime and overbudget is actually a positive sign :
LA Noire is a hugely ambitious open world game of the type very few people in the Oz industry have worked on. Hugely ambitious open world games share some common characteristics – they’re always late, they’re always over budget, and the entire team always crunches like mad throughout. Every GTA from 3 onwards has been late and over budget (in fact, it’s fair to say that’s true of almost every Rockstar game full stop), the same is true of projects I’ve been personally closer to (like Mercenaries 2, The Saboteur or the cancelled Batman game).
I can definitively say that no-one has yet shipped a large open world game easily on their first outing. Direct sequels (that don’t move to a new platform or reinvent the genre) are easier, but still not easy. In general, I don’t think people in the broad game community understand the additional complexity of building open world games with emergent and supporting systems over building classic linear games. Fans have close to no idea, and even developers are prone to massively underestimate the challenge.
Still, there is at least one company that understands this exceptionally well. They’ve built multiple massively successful open world games and continue to define the benchmark of what an open world game can achieve. That company is Rockstar, and they’re not only the open world experts, they’re very canny businessmen and marketers. Dan Houser is one of the most switched on producers I’ve ever met, which means if Rockstar are betting on Team Bondi I’m inclined to support that bet, evidence otherwise notwithstanding.
The thing about going over budget is that it’s actually a statement of support of the project – in order to get more money, you need to convince people that it’s worthwhile to continue. In this case, Team Bondi seem to have the support of Rockstar – a company that understands that one of the biggest obstacles to greatness in open world games is releasing too early. That has to be seen as a good sign, not a portent of disaster.
Crunch time and overwork :
Long, sustained crunch isn’t my thing. I’m not a fan of it for my studio or any teams I’ve ever led. In the long term I believe it loses more productivity than it gains. I’ve never shipped a 90+ open world game, though. The fact of the matter is, inside the industry, we know that’s how those games are made. Rockstar SanDiego was the latest example as they crunched to ship Red Dead Redemption. People go to studios making games this way because they want to ship an acclaimed title and they understand (at least they should if they’ve done their research) what is involved. The flipside is, they then gain a golden ticket to work anywhere else in the industry they choose. Once you have a GTA4 or Call of Duty under your belt, the world is your oyster. People make that trade off consciously.
One of the flip sides of long development times and frequent crunch is high staff turnover. This can be a killer for a studio that needs to maintain a high quality benchmark over time, especially in a city as starved for game dev talent as Sydney. Nonetheless, I say that crunch isn’t necessarily a sign the game will be bad (although it does likely mean Team Bondi will lose some staff to greener pastures once the game has shipped).
Threats of Studio Closure :
A lot of people seem to be worried the studio will close. That seems unlikely at this point in time, as LA Noire is far enough progressed that it will certainly make more money than it takes to complete. This relates to sunk costs and the manner in which new investments are calculated – all the money already spent has been spent, and it won’t come back no matter what you do. All you can do now is calculate how much more you need to spend (lets say it’s $8 million) and whether you’ll make that back when you release the title. Sure, you may not get back all of the sunk costs ($25 Mil?) but if you can spend $8 million today to make $20 million tomorrow you’re still better off than if you cancelled the project today.
This is the way publically traded companies approach this sort of question, with the additional complication that if they’ve mentioned the project in their earnings calls they have to explain to shareholders why they’ve cancelled it. In case you’re wondering, that’s not great for shareprices, so it’s something they tend to avoid.
For both these reasons, I doubt very much the studio will face closure. If that was going to happen, it would happen before the announced delay (and thereby extra money they’ll have paid out to the developer). Despite what Anon said in the Tsumea comments, it’s exceptionally rare for announced projects to get shut down late in the cycle – when it happens, it happens because everyone understands they’re not actually late in the cycle (ie, it’s clear there’s no way they’ll ship when they claim).
What if it’s a decent success? :
LA Noire doesn’t have to be a smash hit to put Team Bondi on track to be the most important studio in Australia. It really just needs to be okay enough to allow them to build a sequel. The most important thing for a studio like their is to build on the technology and knowledge they’ve built in order to move on to their next project. There are few teams in the world that can build truly great open world games – it would be fantastic for Australian development if Team Bondi became one of those studios.
Of course, all this said, everything could go the same way Realtime Worlds did. None of us know for sure. What I don’t understand is why everyone in Australia seems to be wishing for their failure, when with the limited knowledge we have to hand we could as easily anticipate success.