At GDC 2012, I attended the panel on launching SWTOR as a AAA-quality MMORPG hosted by SWTOR Executive Producer Rich Vogel and Director of Production Dallas Dickinson. Massively provided a nice writeup on the panel.
There are two takeaways from the panel that I wanted to discuss:
- the team size and ballpark burn rate
- the parallels of working across disciplines between the gaming industry and online business
Team Size and Ballpark Burn Rate
Rich and Dallas talked about the massive headcount involved in delivering the work:
- 30 Producers / Project Managers
- 75 Designers
- 80 Engineers
- 40 Platform
- 10 Localization
- 10 Audio (not including LucasArts)
- 140 Artists
- 280 QA
That’s 665 people total! What is not clear is whether that was the max concurrent team size, or the number of people involved in the lifetime of the project, etc. My impression is that it was the former.
When you know the headcount numbers, you can ballpark the resource costs, i.e. the sum total for of the costs per resource for compensation, benefits, training, equipment, licenses, etc. If we were to assume an average cost per resource of $100K* per year, that’s a burn rate of $67MM USD annually, excluding costs for PR / Marketing, Community Management, hardware / network / data center costs, etc.
* Keep in mind I’m not saying the average salary of a BioWare team member living in Austin is $100K per year. The $100k estimate is simply a ballpark that includes not only the compensation and benefits, but the complete costs for each person including training, hardware & software, the facilities they worked in, travel costs, and the associated non-developer resources needed to support them (e.g. HR, IT, etc).
So when we hear numbers being thrown around for the cost of developing SWTOR running in the hundreds of millions of dollars, they’re not unreasonable. A team of that scale generates a significant burn rate of millions of dollars on a monthly basis, and the extent to which such a massive team is structured to deliver effectively and managed effectively has a huge impact on the total costs and quality of the deliverable.
Parallels of Working Across Disciplines Between the Gaming Industry and Online Business
One of the big aha’s that Rich and Dallas had was the critical importance of setting up “strike teams” that were multi-disciplinary, i.e. teams that consisted of Designers, Engineers, Artists, QA, etc to work on specific issues and solutions. After the panel, people from other development shops, e.g. from Microsoft’s XBox 360 team, shared that they recently came to the same realization.
What I find interesting is we reached the same conclusion in the Internet business space over a dozen years ago. Launching online products and services required close collaboration across multiple disciplines: Product Managers, Information Architects (who define the site / app structure and functionality from the perspective of the user), Content Writers, Graphic Designers, System Architects, Front-End Engineers (the ones writing the web scripting / pages), Back-End Engineers (the ones implementing the middleware, business rules, databases, integration with other systems, etc), etc.
The good thing is that as developers learn to better execute and manage these large-AAA launches, the smoother the process should be and the better the end product for gamers.
GAMEBREAKER Host for “The Republic” SWTOR show: http://www.gamebreaker.tv/category/the-republic/