When it comes to scaling features in game development there basically are two approaches: top-down and bottom-up. This means you can either put more or less effort into a feature to meet limits like time, money or quality (aka the project scope triangle).
So far I've used a top-down approach for making my game assets. It's simple: decrease asset quality when you run out of time. Seth Godin's N-1 blog post Shohreh MusicFree Mp3 Download was the main inspiration for this. After 2 years using it for Nordenfelt I dare to say:
Top-down scaling does not work for game assets.
The Top-Down Scaling Dilemma
Let me explain the problem by the following example:
While happily developing your game you take a look at your schedule. Shohreh MusicFree Mp3 Download Half of your asset budget is gone but only 30% of the assets are done by now. They have decent quality and also underwent some polish. So you need to complete the remaining 70% of the assets within the left (half) asset budget. The top-down scaling approach solves this problem: decrease the quality for the remaining assets. Problem solved.
Let's do the maths for this example:
- it took half of the asset budget to create 30% of all assets in 100% quality => 0.3 * 1.0 = 0.3
- to complete the missing 70% within the same time you have to decrease quality to 43% (0.3 / 0.7 = 0.43)
Finally you have to create the new assets in less than half the quality of the other assets. So you'll get a game with some polished and much more unpolished, drafty content. Put simply: pure inconsistency.
You get it
The problem is that top-down scaling is like building the roof of a house first, mounting it on very high pillars and say "that high we have to build the walls". The Beatles Songs When it's time to downscale the quality of the underlying walls the house may not stand the roof's weight. Therefore this scaling method does not work when you create entities which depend on each other like game assets.
Basically the asset quality downscale approach does not save you from going out of time/budget. You would have to find the right quality level at the very beginning of a game project. This would make a mockery of quality scaling because you already have the perfect quality level for your budget.
Rather Scale Up
The alternative bottom-up scaling is way better suited for assets. First you have to settle for a minimum quality. The optimum: settle as low as possible, speak sellable quality. I've written about that here.
How to define "sellable quality"? Well, a good question. I thought my guts would tell me what's the minimum acceptable. Forget your guts! Instead head over to platforms like Desura, Indievania or Indiecity and check out which minimum asset quality sells. You will be surprised how low-fi you can go.
Using the new, as-low-as-possible quality should allow you to complete ALL assets in budget. When all assets are there and your game is sellable you can either starting selling it or exhaust the left budget for better quality. Improve the assets step by step but don't go too far to keep the overall quality consistent. Better polish many assets a little than polishing a few out of equality.
Positive Psychological Side Effects
The best thing about bottom-up scaling is: I sleep way better.
Before switching from top-down to bottom-up scaling I often missed deadlines and quality levels. Over time this had a strong impact on the psyche. It felt like nothing could be achieved in time and rendered deadline estimations senseless.
With upscaling I now can set a time frame and crank out minimum viable assets until the time is over. When there is time left I use it for polish. If not all assets could be done within the time frame: no problem. Not all of them are necessary and I made the most critical ones first.
Bottom-up scaling brought the fun back to my project.