Produce Awesome Content Without Blowing the Budget

Produce Awesome Content Without Blowing the Budget

The best game engine, code library, or CMS is meaningless without the stuff that goes into it. The stuff that hits you right in the heart. The most important part of any project. The content.

Content is the fun part. It’s where you get to connect with human beings. Content is the limelight. It’s king.

So how do you make content without blowing the budget?

Perfection is the Enemy

There is something impressionistic about content. Too little detail and the image is fuzzy. An uneven amount of detail and the image appears unfinished. Too much detail and the amount of effort explodes into infinity.

Perfection, is like π. It will give you as many digits as you ask for. Each digit makes the result more accurate.

This in mind, ask yourself: “how detailed does the content need to be?”


Perfection is like PI


How Much Detail Do You Need?

Is something like lacking visual detail? Sure. But is anything missing from its impact? Would this comic make its point better if it was more realistic looking? The lack of detail adds to the impact.

Find a balance between detail and the impact you’re going for. You might not need AAA photorealism to achieve your vision.

Don’t go down the detail rabbit hole for no reason. Details do not always proportionally add to an experience versus the level of effort required to include them.. You can end up making work for yourself.


Picture of Batman with lots of garbage at his feet in a futile attempt to add detail to a scene.

Batman: Arkham Asylum by Rocksteady Games

One temptation is to fake detail by generating lots of stuff. The first thing you notice is how everything looks the same. Should we add a few different textures for the cans? Is it worth the extra texture memory and production time? Or is it garbage in the game and does not matter at all? We’ve made more work for ourselves!  We’ve only traded one type of monotony for another. Nothing is solved.


Batman with less garbage at his feet.

Batman: Arkham Asylum by Rocksteady Games

Here is the same scene with none of the extra stuff. Ok, I’ll admit those 4 cans are pretty sad looking. But was the extra stuff worth adding at all?

Details we can rationalize don’t necessarily add anything to the core experience. Never add something just to fill space.


Art Is Never Finished, Only Abandoned. - Leonardo Da Vinci

All Content is Draft Content, Forever.

Avoid creating filler that is of no value. Instead, create draft content. These are production assets that will be refined over the course of the project. Some will need more work than others.

Placeholder content gives a false sense of security. It makes you think “oh yeah, we have stuff in there, but we’ll need to replace it with real stuff.” You’re fooling yourself. There is so much more to do than that.

You want to say to yourself, “we have real stuff in there and we need to make that stuff better.”

Better implies you might be able to live with what you have. You might get lucky and what you have now is all you need. Content which is not “real”, in contrast, is unusable.

It’s so much easier to go in and enhance than it is to pull out all the meaningless stuff and replace it with actual stuff. Especially since you’ll need to refine the actual stuff anyway!


Wait… What’s the Difference Between Draft Content and Placeholder Content?

What’s the difference between real content and lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit? One has meaning the other does not. Your draft content should be plausible and related to your production process. Not nonsense.

Novelists don’t start a book by filling 500 pages with lorem ipsum. Lorem ipsum might fill the space but solves few real challenges. A bad sentence is better than a meaningless sentence. A bad story is better than gibberish.

There are nuances when using gibberish. Lyricists will use gibberish to find where lyrics will work in a song. You can hear this in action in this episode of Song Exploder. I would consider this to be meaningful gibberish. Gibberish refined into lyrics. It’s meaningful. It’s not just filling up the space, it’s defining the cadence of the words. 

If you’re making a 3D game like Batman, your initial asset might use a bunch of cube shapes for a body. You have to model, bone, and animate it. If it is central to your character, get the cloth physics of the cape working. Your enemy characters can use the same model, without the cape. Voila, models for your main character and enemies, and a production process to boot.

Don’t stick an untextured cube in there and say “that’s Batman.” What does that solve? Nothing.


Time Boxing

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” — Abraham Lincoln.

I doubt Abraham Lincoln said this. It’s way too catchy. I like this way of thinking though. Only, after spending 4 hours sharpening an axe, I’d expect at least 2 trees to be cut down in the remaining time.

Time spent up-front optimizing has to provide gains later, or else what is the point?

It is vital that you limit the time you spend on each piece of content. Don’t perfect too much at once. This provides focus and has productive side effects.

Let’s say your game asks for 10 synthesized gun effects. I’ll give you a (hypothetical) budget of 4 hours. 4 hours is a ton of time, you can do it! That’s 24 minutes per sound!

What if I asked you to spend the first hour coming up with as many different types of gunshot sounds as possible? 10 sound effects is a hard limit. Do you think you could make more than 10? I bet you could.

When you’re finished, put the sounds in the game to see how they work. You’ll still have 3 hours left to make new sounds.

Solve Real Challenges

Unfocused placeholder content doesn’t solve problems and can create new problems. The mentality toward placeholder content is different than draft content.

Adding real content to your project immediately will uncover challenges. By solving those challenges early, you get faster. By being faster, you’ll have the opportunity to add more content.

But, Things Might Change Later?

Yes, things can always change and there should be some contingency for changes.

In music production there has been a trend back towards analog production. One of the reasons for this is because digital production lets you pick away at details. You have a lot of options. Options don’t help you move forward. You can always undo what you’ve done and explore those other decisions.

With analog, what you decided in the moment is what you’re going to have and there is very little you can do about it. There is no undo. You have to do your best now. Over time, you make fewer bad decisions because bad decisions are costly.

Don’t wait and see. Don’t leave yourself an extra option that requires you to undo your work and revisit later. Trust yourself.  Decide. Commit to a course of action and get on with it. Don’t fix it in post.

This commitment to action also helps you get things right. It lets you know when you’re going wrong. It makes planning essential. It’s a little uncomfortable, kinda scary and demands work.

What If I Make Mistakes?

Everyone makes mistakes and you’re going to as well. Mistakes are a part of the process.

One thing I’ve found is that people notice errors before they notice things that are missing.

If you put some copy into a dialog box that says “You haven’t saved your game are you sure you want to quit?” with buttons that say “Yes, I’m sure” and “Cancel.” If this is wrong, it’s easy to fix. If this is good enough, it may be shippable.

The only critical mistake you can make is to not look for mistakes!

When Am I Done?

You’re done when you have no choice left but to let go.

When your project ships, you want to know you put everything you could into it. You’ll see a million things you wish you could have done, even if you did everything you thought of. Start with those on the next project. Get better.

When you optimize your workflow, enhancing content as you go, you clear a path to perfection. Put as many meaningful details in as you can until you run out of time or budget.

That’s what you want to be. Moving towards finished, polished content at every step so when you take the last one, you love what you’ve done.

Matthew Willox

Artist masquerading as a developer in a designers world.