How much does it cost to make a video game?

19.06.2018Yury S.,Darya Tryfanava
57 Comments
cost of developing a video game

How much does it cost to make a video game? This is an issue on the minds of many of our customers as well. The process of game development is complicated, and the cost depends on many factors, the most important being the complexity of the game.

There are casual, AAA level and MMO games. And their prices will be significantly different. For example, Flappy Birds game development can cost $0–500, and GTA 5 costs $265 mln.

Let’s figure out on what these figures are based.

In this article, we will outline the main expenditure items:

  • Development, namely salary for a development team.
  • Software, software licenses and data needed for development.
  • Intellectual property. Purchase of rights to the brand, a popular character, a series of games, etc.
  • Purchasing the right equipment for development.
  • Exponential cost growth of the game that depends on game complexity.

In addition, we have created a game cost calculator to give you an idea of how much it will cost.

Shall we begin?

Article Content

The salary for a development team

Game Designer.They bring the idea to life, develop the game rules and the content. The game designer’s involvement is similar to that of a project manager on a software development project or a director on a film set.

On small projects, the game designer’s duties can be divided among other team members. On medium and large projects, you need a dedicated game designer or even a whole team (chief game designer, level designer, etc.)

Programmers of the game client side.To use popular engines like Unity3D or Unreal, you will have to onboard C# or C++ programmers.

If you are planning on shipping the game to several platforms without a specialized engine, we will find programmers who specialize in Android, iOS, PS4 or web development.

If the game involves interaction between users and centralized data storage, then we will need to develop a server side of the game as well.

Graphics and animation.There are many graphics types: 2D, 3D, interface graphics and so on. For an excellent result, you need to engage specialists for each of these. For some projects, it may be a 2D graphics designer, interface designer, icon designer and 3D modeler.

Animators play an essential role. Usually, they specialize in 2D or 3D animation. Please note that both animation types have unique natures and features.

For smaller projects, one specialist can execute a combination of these roles. In a real-world game development scenario, 2 to 10 graphics and animation designers are usually required.

For effects, you should consider hiring a visual effects (VFX) artist. Sometimes, they are referred to as a multimedia artist or animator, which combines the roles of both designer and animator.

For 3D projects, we also need a technical designer who is engaged in writing shaders, adjusting textures and displaying them on modern video cards.

Sound design. Sound is used in all computer, mobile, and video games. Of course, you can take ready-made sounds from a sound bank. You can find sounds for free or for a charge. The charge varies up to $500. Following is a list of free resources for game developers:

However, for more ambitious projects, it is preferable to create sounds and soundtracks from scratch. It will allow you to stand out and engage the player in the game process.

Testing

Testing is a critical part of the game development lifecycle. QA engineers carry out functional, regression, security and performance testing. They ensure that user requirements are met and bugs are fixed before your game deployment.

A very common mistake is that the role of a tester can be performed by a project manager, programmer or customer. Imagine spending dozens of thousands of dollars to develop a game, which fails to run on the version of the Android device that is used by 30% of users. Or setting up monetization, only to find out how quickly advanced users can bypass it leaving you without income. Or on Level 44, you cannot defeat the boss because of the wrong color of the texture or a misplaced BoxCollider.

Software, software licenses, and data needed for development

Software. Developers use free alternatives to paid software if they give similar functionality. Most of the time, this is not the case and you will have to buy 3D Max, Maya, Adobe Photoshop and plugins for them to get the job done. For example, Unity3D Pro costs $125 per month.

Note that each platform and store (AppStore, Play Market and PC Windows Store) requires a license to be purchased. Platforms require special equipment too, but more on that later.

Services. Often game developers use third-party services, such as Google maps, storage or multiplayer services (PlayFab, Photon, Firebase).

Their commercial use is costs money.

Templates, libraries, and plugins. There is a wealth of libraries that make game development faster, cheaper and more maintainable. Many of them are free and even open-source, but some of them are released on a paid basis. Template solution is not as expensive as having a similar library built from scratch.

For example, for AR development we recommend buying a ready-made Vuforia library. There is also a free version, but it is not feature-rich enough for a big project.

Copyright on pictures, music and more

Intellectual property. Purchase of rights to a brand, a popular character and so on

Would you like to develop a game with a certain character like Terminator or Superman? Unfortunately, you can’t do so legally without buying the applicable intellectual property. The same situation applies to brands, celebrities, etc.

Purchasing the right equipment for development

For development

You should certainly consider buying Nintendo Switch, Wii, iPad, Android, Microsoft HoloLens or any other piece of equipment you expect shipping to. In cases with PS4 or Nintendo Switch, there are developer device versions available, you will definitely want to have them. And don’t forget about VR devices.

If the game should support the iPhone down to the 5th version, it means that you need to have 5, 6, 7, 10, X versions and thoroughly test them.

For content creation

To create content, you need equipment, for example for Motion tracking capture or a recording studio. There are cases when you would want to hire actors as well or else do these double backflips yourself 😉

The more complex the game is and the more content it contains (levels, missions, bosses, functional), the bigger team and the more resources and time you need.

Exponential cost growth of the game

How long does it take to develop a game? A game development process may take from one month to a few years. You will sum the costs of a development team with rights, devices and software costs and get the right amount. So, a game can cost you from $500 for a simple version with limited features to $300 mln for an action-adventure video game.

For the smallest of projects, you can employ one programmer and one designer, that will combine animator and modeler functions. However, as the requirements grow, team size, costs and complexity of the project skyrocket exponentially. Let’s dig deeper to find out the reasons.

Team type

A tiny game requires one or two programmers. You can even code it by yourself or hire a freelancer.

Please note, the larger the game is, the more workforce it requires. For a medium-size game, you already need three or four programmers, a team lead and a QA expert. Once a team grows to 5+ people you either need to rent out an office or hire a distributed team.

Game design

The same is true with game design. If the game is small enough, the customer, programmer and project manager discuss game mechanics, levels and features in words. As the game gains momentum, you will need proper documentation, a dedicated game designer and a whole lot of other things to keep the whole team on the same page.

Tools development from scratch

A simple game, such as a visual novel, can be created on a ready-made engine. For other games though, you would either have to heavily modify an existing engine or even write your own engine from scratch.

A small project can be done in two or three months. However, once the complexity is slightly increased, the terms are extended to a year.

Services integration

Integration of a single plugin for a mobile platform can take 10–30 minutes. On the other hand, wiring 3 plugins together may take a whole day or even a few days. Sometimes plugins are not compatible, and it is going to take a lot of time to overcome that.

Increase the graphics quantity and quality

The next example of an exponential increase in the development terms with a linear increase in complexity is the graphics.

As graphics size grows, the need to compress and optimize it emerges. The same is true with quality. If we want perfect quality graphics, we have to use sophisticated optimization methods (for both size and performance) on the target platform. This takes longer than using streamlined approaches.

Server scaling

For basic functionality, we use a simple server or even ready-made solution like PhotonNetwork, GameSpark, etc.

But if you need more, you need to manage your own custom server and provide for scalability.

More code, more effort, more programmers.

The more code you write, the more its complexity increases. Writing an X-size functionality may take K hours in the first six months of development.

After a year of development, a new functionality with the same size of X can already take 8K hours. This happens because when the project gets bigger, it takes more time for it to be maintainable. Analytics, build, testing and optimization systems are probably already in place a year into the project and should be taken into consideration for every new set of changes.

Quality assurance system. Assembly systems

We can compile, run and test a small project manually. As the project grows, the complexity and importance of testing infrastructure grow as well. We need to build systems that streamline the deployment of a server, an application or a website. Required automated testing increases complexity and cost.

More platforms, more complexities

Although Unity3D is a cross-platform engine, you should grow Unity3D code base with all platforms in mind. Sometimes, you have to maintain a single code base and introduce changes to the old code not directly associated with a new platform for the whole thing to work as intended.

Iteration and updating

Examples of the relationship between cost and complexity

We have compared 15 popular games by its development cost. We take the Flappy bird game for a functional unit and run a comparison.

Functional UnitsCost, $
Flappy bird1300
20482500
Agar.io58000
Clicker Heroes5060000
Subway Surfers5050000
Soccer Stars100300000
Angry Birds Rio500100000
Match 3600100000
Poker Room900200000
HearthStone1000300000
Hay Day2000500000
PokemonGo3000650000
Clash of Clans1000012000000
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare2000050000000
GTA V100000265000000
exponential growth

Game cost calculator

Have you ever wondered how much it would cost to make a video game? We’ve created a handy game cost calculator just for you. Select the items below that best describe your app and the features you require. All estimates are approximate but should give you a rough idea of what it will take to build your app.

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