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The short answer is – from zero to infinity. However, it's worth keeping in mind that it might be the most challenging questions in the game industry. Why? Because of so many factors affecting the cost of the game development. That said, we will still try to be as precise as possible in explaining how much it will likely cost you to develop a game, including the key factors that might affect the game development budget.
For instance, Tomb Raider, which was released to the public in 2013, is said to have cost $100 million to develop. Destiny, initially released in the fall of 2014, is estimated to have cost $500 million to make. Other games are less expensive. Pokémon Go, a game that seemed to have been an overnight success, was, in fact, 20 years in the making and might have cost up to 600K to make. Game industry analysts estimate that it cost around $140,000 to develop the initial version of Angry Birds which is considered a moderate budget these days. Of course, they do not come close to what Star Citizen might cost when it finally releases.
Except for the AAA and publicly funded titles, game developers and publishers reluctantly release budget information about their games. Sometimes even the game developers working on the biggest titles might not have an exact data on their development budget. The numbers that circulate are mostly educated guesses from industry analysts and experts accompanied by occasional leaks to the media. When becoming publicly known, the numbers tell us that games have become extremely expensive to develop, sometimes matching and even exceeding the budgets of Hollywood movie production, such as Cyberpunk 2077 that cost $316M not counting the extensive full-scale marketing campaign.
An important thing to note is that the cost of developing a video game is not an indicator of the sales potential. Minecraft was extremely cheap to make – its production cost could be estimated to be whatever price the creator, Markus Persson's time was worth when he created it – yet he would years later sell it to Microsoft at $2.5 billion. However, if we look at the most recent indie hits like Vampire Survivors, turns out the developer Luca Galante spent around $1500 by the time the game released on Steam Early Access which is an incredible given that it already hit 93K reviews on Steam that roughly accounts for 4.5M units sold.
As you might expect, teams with more experienced developers and an access to the resources will be able to develop a game more efficiently than less experienced teams. Depending on the game's complexity and the targeted platform, larger teams may also get an additional support staff, including game designers, artists, animators, and QA testers. That's why it is better to match the scale of the game with the experience and size of the development team – taking on AAA-level project being a team of two beginners most likely isn't going to work. More complex games typically require more resources to develop and test, resulting in a higher budget. This can include detailed graphics and animations or advanced gameplay features like artificial intelligence (AI), dynamic environments, and online multiplayer capabilities.
Game genres naturally have different costs associated with their development due to the additional resources needed. For example, games that utilize high-resolution graphics or advanced physics simulations will cost more to develop than simpler 2D games or mobile games that rely on text and basic graphics.
The more platforms a game is developed for, the higher the overall cost. This is due to the extra work required to optimize the game for each platform and the need to purchase or lease additional development hardware and software.
The costs associated with marketing and promoting a game can vary greatly depending on the size of the publisher and its resources, as well as the complexity and popularity of the game in question. This could include anything from promotional events to TV ads or merchandise. In addition to these factors, many developers also consider costs based on how long it will take them to produce the game. This can be particularly important for smaller developers who may not have the financial resources to support a large team or extended development cycle. For a bigger projects, marketing budget can equal up to 50% of the development budget, so it's worth having in mind.
The costs associated with developing a video game can be divided into two main categories: production costs and marketing/distribution costs. Production costs are those associated with the game's actual creation, including things like team salaries; software licenses and purchases; physical equipment or other materials needed for development; and acquiring intellectual property (IP) such as popular characters or settings. Marketing and distribution costs are associated with promoting and selling the game to players. These can include advertising campaigns, promotional events, licensing fees for popular IP, PR costs, and more. We'll discuss some of these cost elements below.
Today's average game developer salary in the Western market is $92,000 a year at around $44.26 an hour. If your game development process were to last for a year with a team of ten game developers, this game development cost element would cost you just a little shy of a million dollars. That said, there may be variations in the overall costs based on the experience of the individual members of the development team, their level of involvement in the project, and what exactly their responsibilities will be throughout the project. For instance, the salary for a game designer might be different from that of a client-side game programmer, sound design specialist, or graphics and animation expert. As an indie developer, it's worth calculating how much time it will cost you to work full-time on your game even if you do not actually plan to pay yourself a salary. After all, the time does have a cost too.
This game development cost element is self-explanatory, and the cost will depend on what type of data or software your game requires. For instance, purchasing a popular IP license would cost more than acquiring an open-source license for generic graphics or audio assets. Developers often avoid paid software by finding free alternatives that have similar functionality. But when developing a game, you'll almost certainly need pro solutions that you'll have to pay for. Software programs like Maya, 3D Max, Adobe Photoshop, Unity3D, and plugins will cost you money. Unity3D Pro, for example, costs $150 per month or $1800 a year per seat. Developing games can require specialized hardware and software, which can be expensive. For example, a high-end gaming PC could cost several thousand dollars, while professional-grade graphics editing software like Adobe Photoshop can cost hundreds of dollars.
Testing costs can range from a few hundred dollars to hire a few testers to several thousand dollars to set up an in-house testing department complete with the appropriate hardware and software.
Intellectual property rights can be quite expensive depending on the nature of the IP and how popular it is. For instance, if you wanted to use a recognizable character from one of Disney's movies in your game, this would likely cost significantly more than just licensing generic graphics or audio assets for your project. That's why creating something unique is always a more budget-friendly than buying someone else's IP.
The costs associated with marketing and promoting a game can vary greatly depending on the size and scope of the project. For instance, marketing a big-budget AAA game can cost millions of dollars, while promoting an indie game might only cost a few thousand dollars, or be free if you dedicate some time to the influencers outreach.
At the most basic level, the complexity of a game is determined by the number of different elements it contains. Games with engaging 3D environments or advanced artificial intelligence techniques will likely be more expensive to build than simple games such as text-based or 2D puzzle games. For example, a simple puzzle game might consist of only a few levels and basic sound effects. In contrast, an open-world RPG might include hundreds of unique locations, dozens of interacting characters, and complex physics simulations for weapons and vehicles. Furthermore, larger games that require extensive testing and bug-fixing may also require additional resources to ensure a high level of quality. In general, the more complex a game is, the higher its development cost.
There are many different types of games that you can develop, each of which has its own unique set of costs and challenges. Generally, indie and mobile games have smaller budgets compared to AAA games. Let's explore how much it would cost you to develop each of these games.
The cost of making a mobile game ranges from a few thousand dollars to $150-$200K, depending on its complexity. The price tag also changes depending on the extra functionalities you wish to integrate, such as administrative functions and payment systems. Such additional functions will cost you around 20% more for iOS than Android. But even a simple mobile game can easily require tens of thousands of dollars to develop. In addition, there are ongoing costs associated with running a mobile game, such as server maintenance and customer support. However, with a well-designed and exciting mobile game, you can quickly recoup these costs through in-app purchases and advertising revenue.
Indie games are typically developed by small teams on relatively small budgets. The average cost to make an indie game is about $250,000, but some small projects can cost as low as nothing + time you spend on development. The lower numbers assume you're working alone and don't have any other developers on board yet; however, the costs stack up quickly once multiple people are involved. To make the game available on multiple platforms, you can expect to spend extra because it'll take more to build and test the game for each platform. Localization can require a lot given that there is a lot of text in the game (which is right for RPG and novels).
But how do you keep your costs under control? The best way to do it is to start small. Make a simple game that you can finish on a shoestring budget. Having released a couple of games, you'll have a better idea of what it takes to make a successful indie game. And you'll be in a better position to negotiate deals with publishers and distributors as well.
AAA games are the big-budget games that large studios and publishers typically make. The average AAA game takes about four years to develop, with an average cost of about $80 million and higher. But this amount can vary significantly depending on the type of game and its level of complexity. For instance, action-adventure games often have bigger budgets than RPGs or strategy games due to their larger scope and more detailed graphics.
Game studios that create AAA games typically have large teams and a marketing budget that can compare the development budget. Blockbuster games such as Grand Theft Auto 5 or Red Dead Redemption 2 have budgets in hundreds of millions of dollars as you could see above.
The team size for GTA 5 was over 1000 people. In addition, AAA games often use expensive marketing campaigns to generate hype prior to release. For example, Rockstar Games spent roughly $128 million marketing GTA 5 in 2013. Consequently, the cost of making a AAA game can be very high, with some estimates reaching over $300 million. AAA games often make a significant return on investment despite the high cost, making them a lucrative endeavor for major game studio. Overall, the cost of making an AAA game has further increased over the years due to the increasing demand for high-quality graphics and gameplay.
Whether you're a small mobile game developer or you have been working in the AAA-level project, the cost of game development can be pretty high. Many different factors determine the cost, including the type of game, the development team's size and experience level. For indies looking to keep costs under control, it's recommended to start small and build up the portfolio. For mobile devs, it's important to balance between the development expenses and the ongoing content production that is expected from the mobile players. On the other hand, game studios that develop AAA games should be ready to spend substantial amounts of money on marketing and salaries for their large development teams. Regardless of the type of game you wish to develop, stay focused on delivering quality, addictive gameplay and graphics that emphasizes its key features.
In case your team is looking for a reliable vendor to help with the continuous production of 2D and 3D game art, feel free to drop us a message.