Developers need to make money, right? They’re a business, just as a coffee shop has to sell coffee, a piano shop has to (somehow) sell pianos, or a barber shop has to sell haircuts. But let’s say you walk into a barber shop for a nice, fresh haircut and it actually cost the barber $18 to cut your hair, but all he got in return was a crisp $20 note, plus if you didn’t enjoy the haircut he would have to give you your money back… This is a terrible metaphor. Here are the top 5 most expensive games to develop so far.
Star Wars: The Old Republic (BioWare/Electronic Arts/LucasArts)
Back in 2011 our buddies at BioWare developed this huge MMO beastie for the proud PC master race. It boasted one of the fastest growing subscriber counts in its field (with over a million subs in three days), but a fairly tepid reception resulted in a sharp decline in its player base the months following. This prompted the introduction of a hybrid free-to-play business model for its remaining subscribers so they could then skip around the universe and finish whatever missions they had undertaken, free of charge. As is the deal with most stupidly expensive games, the hype was colossal. Could BioWare deliver on that hype? With a hefty price tag of over $210m US for development costs, the answer to that question is: you’d hope so. To put that into perspective, if a banana costed $2.10 then BioWare’s budget was 100 million bananas. I don’t care what part of the world you’re from, that’s a lot of bananas. Despite a shaky launch, it still managed to profit reasonably well with income from its initial million+ subscribers, and multiple expansion packs improved the experience and raked in another $135m+. While they eventually managed to make it work I imagine there were a few tense board meetings at EA headquarters following its release.
Final Fantasy VII (Square Enix/Sony/Eidos Interactive)
In 1997, Final Fantasy VII released on the PS1 and became a success virtually instantly. Everyone clamoured to get their hands on this expansive and beautiful RPG game that took up a whopping four slots of data (about 280 bytes for those playing at home) on our memory cards. It only took $45m to make (I say ‘only’ in comparison to the rest of the listed games), but that was still a fair whack of salad in the 90s. The publishers and developers were confident that their profits would flow if they advertised the shit out of it, and they did, to the tune of over a million big ones. Total cost taking into account inflation over the past two decades? $214m US.
Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar Games)
GTA games seem to show up in 90% of my articles and there’s little wonder why; it’s one of the most well-known franchises on the planet and is as controversial in its content as it is lucrative for its developers and publishers. It’s also gargantuan in scope as a sandbox crime simulator, so you’d assume the cost to make a game like this would be massive, right? Yes, $270m massive. Don’t think Rockstar are short on a bus fare because of though, as after the first three days of the game’s releases they managed to rake in a tidy $1bn+ US.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Infinity Ward/Activision)
Arguably one of the greatest CoD games ever developed, MW2 wasn’t shy to dish out $266m on its marketing campaign. It seemed to work though as it sold over 4.3 million copies within the first 24 hours, earning a hefty $310m for a hard day’s work. Profits climbed over the half-billion dollar mark after the working week was over. Not bad for a game that cost a little under $50m to make (they spent more money on advertising than the product itself?! Preposterous!), bringing the total development cost to $306m with lettuce and tomato.
I won’t beat around the bush here, this game cost over $500m total to fully develop and publish. Thanks to the mighty power of the hype train, this widely criticised MMO-lite managed to make back that investment from sales in the first 24 hours. While some players felt they’d been had, and it was later revealed that the game was intentionally designed with the help of behavioural psychologists to addict its player base in a grind loop resembling a Möbius strip, the evil lords at Activision laughed all the way to the bank. As of today they’ve made $1bn US profit, probably due in no small part to how expensive they made it to access DLC for those who couldn’t get enough of the Destiny crack pipe.