Just as the power of home consoles and high-end gaming rigs has increased in recent years, so too has the cost of developing cutting edge games.
Back in the late eighties and early nineties, the cost of developing video games was fairly modest when compared to what it is today. As the capabilities of home consoles and high-end gaming rigs have increased though, so too have development costs, with most modern titles now costing publishers and developers tens of millions of dollars to produce. Some, however, can cost considerably more.
Over the last decade or so, there has been a huge increase in the number of games costing more than $50m to develop, and that’s before marketing and promotional costs are taken into account. While most of these titles do manage to turn a profit, some of the figures involved can be truly mind-blowing and offer a lot of insight into the sheer scale of the games industry as well as how competitive it really is.
Updated May 21, 2022, by Tom Bowen: With each passing year, the total value of the video game industry continues to rise. In 2021, it was valued at around $200 billion; an amount that is expected to rise to just shy of $340 billion in the next five years alone. It’s not just players who are spending more money on video games though, with developers and publishers also investing larger and larger amounts into their titles in the hopes of capturing a larger market share. As a result, the record for the most expensive video game ever developed has been shattered multiple times over the past decade or so, with average development costs also now considerably higher than they were just a few years ago.
1: Star Citizen – $339m+
Following several hugely successful crowdfunding campaigns, developer Cloud Imperium Games was able to raise more than $300m for the production of Star Citizen. Since then, even more capital has been raised through private investment, which, in turn, has led to both the scale and the scope of the project increasing dramatically. While this is undoubtedly good news for backers and the game’s future players, it has brought with it a new problem.
Production of the game first began back in 2011, yet there is still no clear indication as to when a full commercial release will finally arrive. Estimates suggest that hundreds of millions of dollars have already been spent on development up to this point; an amount that is only going to increase as production continues to drag on. To say that there is a lot riding on the game’s final performance would therefore be a bit of an understatement.
2: Star Wars: The Old Republic – $200m
Despite releasing almost a decade ago, Star Wars: The Old Republic continues to receive updates on a fairly regular basis. Considering how much time and money was spent on its initial development though, this really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Reports suggest that the game had a $200m development budget, making it one of EA’s most expensive and most ambitious projects of all time.
This ambition has definitely paid off though, with the game now thought to have generated more than $1b dollars in revenue since servers first went live back in late 2011. This would make for a healthy return on the game’s hefty development budget, and, with tens of thousands of people still playing the MMO, there really is no telling how much more profit the game might generate before its servers are finally shut down.
3: Cyberpunk 2077 – $174m
After eight years of development and multiple delays, developer CD Projekt Red had a lot riding on the launch of Cyberpunk 2077. It sold well enough, but the game’s buggy performance and various glitches led to widespread criticism from players, causing the company’s value to fall by billions of dollars in the weeks that followed. Compared to that, the $316m that was spent making and marketing the game seems like little more than a drop in the ocean.
According to one of the company’s own financial reports, around $174m was spent on development, making it one of the most expensive games ever produced at the time of writing. Miraculously, the company did manage to turn a healthy profit on this amount, although its share price remains less than half of what it was prior to the game’s release and shows no sign of bouncing back anytime soon.
4: Red Dead Redemption 2 – $170m+
It may not have sold quite as many copies as GTA 5, but Red Dead Redemption 2 features just as much detail throughout its large open world. This attention to detail came at a huge cost, however. The game alone is thought to have set the developer back between 170 and 240 million dollars, with as much as $300m spent on marketing on top of that amount. When all’s said and done, the true cost of the title may have passed the half a billion-dollar mark.
Considering the game generated an impressive $725 million in revenue in just its first two days on sale, it seems safe to say that Rockstar was once again able to make a healthy profit on this occasion. Like GTA Online though, the game’s online features will no doubt have driven the production cost higher still since the game’s initial release, so exactly how much the developer spent or made in total remains something of a mystery.
5: Destiny – $140m
Though certainly not for everyone, Destiny and its 2017 sequel have both been incredibly successful games; winning numerous awards and attracting a sizable and enthusiastic fan base in the process. All of this success has come at a cost though, with Bungie’s initial publishing agreement with Activision suggesting that the first game cost somewhere in the region of $140m to develop. Scarily, this may just be the tip of the iceberg.
Destiny 2 is bigger and better than its predecessor in just about every measurable way and has spent considerably longer as the developer’s main focal point. It’s also received several more expansions and still has two more to come, with Lightfall and The Final Shape due out in 2023 and 2024 respectively. With all that in mind, it seems incredibly likely that considerably more money has been spent on Destiny 2 development than was spent on the original game. Of course, the fact that Bungie continues to support the game more than half a decade on from its release would suggest that this was all money well spent.
6: Grand Theft Auto V – $137m
Regardless of one’s thoughts on the game itself, it’s hard to argue that the $137m Rockstar poured into the initial development of Grand Theft Auto 5 wasn’t money well spent. It has sold more than 140 million units since it first went on sale back in 2013; an amount that will no doubt increase when the PS5 and Xbox Series ports of the game finally arrive in late 2021. For those wondering, that all equates to a total profit of around $6 billion and counting.
It’s worth noting that the $137m figure only covers the game’s initial production costs, with DLC, GTA Online, and the game’s multiple next-gen ports likely to have driven that amount far higher over the course of the last eight years. The game’s initial marketing budget is also believed to have been around $137m, so, when all’s said and done, it wouldn’t be too surprising to learn that Rockstar has now spent more than $300m on the title in total.
7: Max Payne 3 – $105m
Rockstar Games isn’t known for taking half-measures or playing it safe, as evidenced by the sheer scale of the projects that the developer typically takes on. While GTA and Red Dead may be the most notable examples of this though, there are plenty of other impressive titles decorating the company’s extensive back catalog of games. One of these is Max Payne 3.
The iconic video game cop’s third and final outing is also his most expensive, with estimates suggesting that the game had a production budget of $105m. It sold more than four million copies in its first year though, so should at the very least have recouped its development budget. More importantly, perhaps, the game served as a perfect send-off for Max while also offering a solid gameplay experience in the process.
8: Battlefield 4 – $100m
Considered by many to be one of the very best FPS franchises out there, it should perhaps come as little surprise to learn that EA’s Battlefield games are not cheap to make. According to the company’s former Chief Creative Officer Richard Hilleman, in fact, the series’ fourth entry cost a staggering $100m to develop, which would make Battlefield 4 the franchise’s most expensive title to date.
The game performed strongly with critics and has sold more than seven million copies since its launch. Despite these impressive accomplishments, however, it struggled to keep up with the competition, with Call of Duty: Ghosts going on to sell almost three times as many copies. Whether the highly anticipated Battlefield 6 will fare any better in this regard remains to be seen.
9: Defiance – $80m+
Defiance was an MMO third-person shooter that was released for the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC back in 2013. Although it didn’t impress critics all that much, it did attract a fairly sizable player base and survived for a very respectable eight years before servers were finally shut down in early 2021. The game’s huge budget certainly helped in this regard, although its true cost remains a little unclear.
Shortly before its release, a report from Forbes suggested that around $100m had been spent on the entire project, although this amount also covered the cost of a sci-fi television series of the same name. The report estimates that around $80m went towards the game itself, but this amount could be considerably higher given that an enhanced version of the title was later released for the PS4 and Xbox One.
10: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain – $80m+
It’s looking increasingly probable that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain will be Hideo Kojima’s final Metal Gear game, with the influential Japanese developer having parted ways with Konami back in 2015. The exact reasons for the sudden and shocking split will likely remain a mystery, but the budget for his final project with the company is at least a little bit clearer.
According to Eurogamer, a report from a Japanese financial newspaper revealed that $80m had been spent on the game’s production as of April 2015. With the final release not coming until September of the same year, however, it’s fairly likely that the final cost was a lot closer to the $100m mark, especially if post-release content and patches are taken into account.
11: Shadow Of The Tomb Raider – $75m+
The latest chapter in the excellent Tomb Raider reboot series, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, also happens to be Lara’s most expensive outing to date. In an interview with gamesindustry.biz, head of Eidos Montreal David Anfossi revealed that the game’s production budget came in at somewhere between 75 and 100 million dollars, with an additional $35m or so being spent on marketing and promotion.
Luckily for the developer, the game sold incredibly well, with more than four million copies being snapped up in its first three months on the market alone. It performed strongly with critics as well, although its ratings over on Metacritic aren’t quite as impressive as those for the two games that preceded it. Regardless, it’s more than likely that the title returned a healthy profit for both its developer and its publisher, Square Enix.
12: Shenmue – $47m / $70m
For many years, Shenmue held the Guinness World Record for the most expensive video game ever made, with reports suggesting that the Dreamcast classic cost Sega a staggering $70m to develop. Even by today’s standards, that’s an awful lot of money, though, given that the game actually began development on the Sega Saturn several years prior to its eventual release and some of the cutting-edge components found throughout it, it’s perhaps not too surprising to see such a large figure being bandied about.
Interestingly, however, in the years prior to the game’s release, its creator Yu Suzuki has suggested that the $70m figure supplied by Sega may not be entirely accurate. While speaking at the Game Developers Conference back in 2011, Suzuki revealed that the actual figure was closer to $47m and that some of this amount was spent on marketing as well as on the development of the game’s 2001 sequel. Whichever way one slices it though, that’s still an awful lot of money, particularly once inflation is taken into account.