Game budgets, a powers of 10 overview

Realtime Worlds’ high profile MMO All Points Bulletin was shut down recently, after a mere 80 days in operation. There’s been a lot of disbelief regarding the $100 million of venture capital that Realtime Worlds burned through on their way to bankruptcy. Let’s take a look at that number in the context of game budgets, to get a better idea of what $100 million buys you.

All dollar amounts are in US dollars. Let’s start at the comprehensible scales and work upward:

$1000 (or 1 person-week)

A week’s worth of labour is enough for a tiny prototype with a single game mechanic, like the ones I’ve been posting here. With the simplest concept and the smallest scope, you can still create something delightful. Petri Purho created the Crayon Physics prototype in under a week.

A typical week might involve a day for brainstorming/mock-ups, a couple of days to code it and fix the (worst) bugs, a day to test it and tweak the details and a couple more days to slap some rudimentary art and sounds into it.

$10,000 (or 3 person-months)

(Assuming an indie author subsisting on $40K annually)

Everyone has heard the proverb that the last 20% of a project takes 80% of the time. If you’re looking to achieve commercial-quality polish, that may actually be an underestimate. On Flick Kick Football*, getting a fun prototype with mostly final controls and some rudimentary obstacles to kick around was only the first 10% of my work on the project. The other 90% was spent addressing the multitude of details that kept that basic prototype from fulfilling its full potential. Menu systems, tutorials, title music, animated flourishes to draw the eye, leaderboard integration and so forth.

If the game has to be polished, advance one power of ten, do not pass go.

  • I don’t know what Flick Kick Football’s precise budget was, but it had 5 digits.

$100,000 (or 18 person-months)

(Assuming a $70,000 average salary, as reported by the Gamasutra salary survey)

OK, so we’ve accounted for the 10-fold increase that comes from polish. What if the game isn’t a simple single-mechanic game? What if there’s an element of exploration? There’s a gulf between games that take place in a few reusable arenas, and games where the player progresses through a game world. With the latter, you need to develop tools like level editors, and you need to build environments with them. You develop more variations on the core gameplay to keep the player occupied throughout their journey.

Back in the good old days, you could make an Xbox Live Arcade game for this much. Jonathan Blow has stated that Braid cost $200,000 in living costs and art contracting, so it’s a touch large to be the example here. In terms of pure labour, there are also some large open source games that are at this scale.

$1,000,000 (or 15 person-years)

This was big-budget, back in the early ‘90s. At this scale you have teams of specialists. Take Doom for example, a year-long development with 3 coders, 2 artists, 3 level designers, a composer and a couple of admin folks.

Projects in the millions can spend more on technology, building/buying rendering, physics, sound and scripting engines, tackling tricky features like network multiplayer and streaming levels. Art teams start to benefit from specialisation into modellers, animators, texture and concept artists.

You can still put out a minor retail game for this much, though people will bitch about the graphics incessantly.

$10,000,000 (or 150 person-years)

If you’re making a blockbuster console game for the core gamers, you’ll be spending tens of millions.

In first person shooters and action adventure games, it’s striking how quickly the player moves through the environment. They’ll typically spend under a minute in each room. Nobody likes to see the same room, cut ‘n’ pasted over and over, so it’s typical to produce hundreds of rooms worth of environment geometry and texturing, all lushly detailed.

With this sort of production effort, you want to be very sure that the design is going to be work, and you have the right content creation tools. To achieve this, there’s a long preproduction phase - sometimes more than a year - to really explore the possibilities. After producing a promising looking vertical slice, dozens and dozens of staff pile on to the project. There’s lots of outsourcing to achieve this. Where there is outsourcing, there’s the associated bureaucracy of managers and producers.

Take Killzone 2. There was a presentation at GDC ‘09, KILLZONE’s Art Tools and Techniques, that went into a lot of detail about their team composition and schedule. Here’s the breakdown:

  • 50 Testers
  • 48 Artists
  • 27 Coders
  • Approximately 25 modellers (they said they outsourced, so there was some guesswork here)
  • 17 Level designers
  • 14 Environment artists
  • 13 Producers
  • 10 Other technical (whatever that means)
  • 8 Visual design
  • 7 Animators
  • 6 Special effects (making particle systems and the like)
  • 5 Audio
  • 4 Human Resources
  • 4 IT support
  • 3 Lighting
  • 2 Cinematics
  • 2 Tech art
  • And a partridge in a pear tree
  • 245 staff total
There’s no information about how long each of these people were on the project, but we can make some educated guesses based on the length of time they spent in each production phase.

They spent a year in preproduction putting the art pipeline together and producing a trial level. Let’s say the code team and a third of the art team were there for that year, at a cost of about $2 million.

Then they spent 18 months in full production. That would’ve cost more like $16 million.

Then I assume there was a 6 month beta test, which the code and test team would’ve remained for. That’d cost $2.5 million.

And that’s how you spend $20 million.

$100,000,000 (or 1500 person years)

I’m not sure if anyone has actually ever spent $100 million on developing a single project. Realtime Worlds had another project called MyWorld eating into that aforementioned $100 million. It’s not hard to see why there’s a lack of examples: you have to be among the highest selling retail games of all time just to break even. Some projects have come close though:
  • GTA4 is said to have cost $100 million, but that figure includes marketing, so the actual development budget could be as low (!) as $50 million.
  • Half Life 2 spent over 5 years in development, but it cost a piffling $40 million.
  • The 3D Realms incarnation of Duke Nukem Forever was cheaper still, burning through $20 million. While absurdly late, at least their team size was restrained.
  • The notorious Shenmue cost $70 million. What a bargain.
  • Tabula Rasa is rumoured to have cost $100M, but the details never got aired in public, so we can’t be sure.
  • Lum has inferred from some comments made by an EA exec that Star Wars: The Old Republic might break the $100 million barrier. Once again, we can’t be sure.
Only MMOs tend to get anywhere near $100M. Instead of being just a mere software development, MMOs combine some of the most expensive aspects of building a theme park, running a large online service, and policing a city. You also don’t want people cancelling their subscriptions, so there’s an incentive to make the game as long and as large as possible.

Let’s take World of Warcraft. We’re told it cost less than $100M, but its success ($800M annual revenue) is the most frequent justification offered for spending $100 million. (Not that it’s not a wise justification)

In Warren Spector’s master class videos, Blizzard co-founder Michael Morhaime says “We started working on WOW in ‘99, and we released it in ‘04”. As for the team size, Blizzard did a presentation at Austin GDC ‘09 with some excellent statistics.

  • 32 coders maintaining 5.5 million lines of code.
  • 51 artists with 1.5 million assets.
  • 10 producers.
  • 135 people in total on the development team, not including sound, testing or cinematics, which are shared between project teams.
This was the live team as of 2009, not the development team prior to launch. Let’s make a wild unsubstantiated guess that getting WOW to launch was 200 people working for 5 years, or 1000 person-years.

But hang on, you point out, that’s only $70 million. The really shocking part comes from the on-going costs of their operations team:

  • 2056 game masters / customer service reps
  • 340 in billing
  • 149 in network administration
  • 121 in technical support
  • 67 in quality control
  • 66 community managers
I’ll grant that this team is so huge because WOW has so many customers. Nevertheless, you need at least somebody on this team for launch. Realtime Worlds were swinging for the fences, so they could well have had a sizeable operations department anticipating an influx of players.

So there you have it. $100 million. Enough for a truly, truly gigantic game.

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