The cost of making a video game can range from absolutely nothing to a colossal $174m - the current record for the most expensive game ever developed.
Costs vary from project to project; AAA (Triple A) games, indie games, and mobile games all face unique development challenges which create huge disparities in their overall cost.
It’s perfectly possible to make a game on a budget though, as some of the great indie classics remind us.
This article covers:
- How much does it cost to make an indie game?
- How much does it cost to make a AAA game?
- How much does it cost to make a mobile game?
- Can you make a video game for free?
- What’s the most expensive game to develop of all time?
- Why does it cost so much money to make video games?
- How to make a video game on a budget
Mars Horizon, developed by Auroch Digital
How much does it cost to make an indie game?
Estimates on the overall cost of making an indie game vary wildly. Indie studio Auroch Digital put the number at somewhere between $50,000 and $750,000, while others suggest costs actually run into the millions.
Don’t let those numbers scare you off, though. We spoke to Dale Turner, developer of indie hit Astronarch, who told us he developed his auto-battling roguelike for less than $250. Game-Stats.com now estimates the game’s lifetime revenue at $160,000.
How do indie developers fund their games?
The whole point of being an indie developer is not having access to the millions of dollars publishers offer to their development studios. So how exactly do indie developers find upwards of $50,000?
Some of the most common methods are:
- Self-financing: All the money comes from the developers' pockets. Unless they’re working an incredibly well-paying day job, costs are usually chipped away at over a number of years, which can stretch out the development process
- Game sales: Indie devs like Gagonfe, who earn enough money from their games to make a career out of indie development, reinvest sales profits into making new games
- Crowdfund campaigns: Many successful indie games have launched crowdfunding campaigns in order to accelerate their development cycles, add new content, or simply finish their project
Indie developer Eric “ConcernedApe” Barone self-funded his world-famous farming sim Stardew Valley, whereas Team Cherry, developers of equally-renowned Hollow Knight, raised $57,000 AUD during their successful crowdfunding campaign.
Stardew Valley, developed by Eric “ConcernedApe” Barone
How much does it cost to make a AAA game?
AAA games are funded by multi-billion dollar publishers like Activision and Square Enix. Some AAA franchises enjoy yearly releases (even if their players don’t always enjoy them), while others see more spaced-out releases, such as Halo and Final Fantasy.
Given the scale of many of these titles, AAA games can take tens of millions of dollars to develop.
A series like Call of Duty requires multiple development studios to work on several games at once to meet holiday deadlines years in advance. Each studio requires millions of dollars to run daily operations, pay its staff, and market the final product.
How much does it cost to make a mobile game?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that mobile games are cheaper to develop than desktop or console games, but some can still cost more than smash-hit indie titles.
Mobile juggernaut Pokémon Go cost Niantic up to $600,000 to develop (which they’ve handsomely recouped since its launch in 2016), and even Angry Birds - simple bird-flinging, high-scoring Angry Birds - cost a princely $140,000 to make.
Not all mobile games cost three lungs and a jade monkey to develop, though. Viral sensation Wordle was developed by one man for next to nothing, before eventually being sold to the New York Times for an undisclosed seven-figure sum.
Angry Birds, developed by Rovio Entertainment
Can you make a video game for free?
However, the larger your game becomes, the greater your chances of having to spend a little money become.
What’s the most expensive game to develop of all time?
Cyberpunk 2077 became the most expensive game ever released in 2020. Its development costs totalled a massive $174m, alongside a $142m marketing budget.
It’s fair to say publishers CD Projekt (CDP) have a few regrets, though.
A rushed development cycle saw the game release with an array of glitches, bugs, and graphical errors. The company lost over $50m in refund requests alone, and suffered a 73% drop in CDP share prices.
Remember, it’s not what you spend, it’s how you spend it. Not forcing your team to work six days a week helps as well, though.
Cyberpunk 2077, developed by CD Projekt Red
Other examples of expensive video games
More examples of the most expensive video games ever developed include:
- Star Citizen, which has crowdfunded over $400m. It hasn’t released yet, but if it does, it’ll take Cyberpunk’s mantel as the most expensive game ever made
- Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (the 2009 one, not the 2022 one). Better known for its controversial “No Russian” mission and its excellent multiplayer maps, MW2 cost a then-record $50m to develop
- Final Fantasy VII. The legendary JRPG cost Square Enix $45m to develop back in 1997. We can probably agree it was worth every penny, though
Why does it cost so much money to make video games?
A number of factors contribute to rising development costs, especially at the AAA level.
Staff wages are the main reason games cost so much to develop.
As games become more detailed, ambitious, and larger in scale, studios require bigger teams to bring their games to life against tight release deadlines.
Unless you’re a jack of all trades, even solo indie developers will likely need to reach out to sound designers, testers, artists and others to properly realise their creative vision.
You need to be sure your game is in tip-top shape before it releases. That’s where playtesters come in.
Playtesters scour games for bugs, soft locks, glitches and anything that negatively affects gameplay.
It’s a vital job that could spare your blushes ahead of a public release.
Securing the rights to your own intellectual property (IP) is another important expense that’s easily overlooked by first-time developers.
Protecting your IPs prevent chancers and copycats from stealing components of your game, such as art, music, and character designs.
If you don’t claim the copyright, someone else might, and they’ll be the ones benefitting financially if your game takes off.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, developed by Infinity Ward
If you’re still of the tired belief that marketing isn’t as important as other departments, you’ll quickly change your tune when you have to market your own game.
Copywriting, campaign management, and social media savvy are only the tip of the marketing iceberg. Without good marketing, even the greatest games won’t find the spotlight.
If you ever needed proof of the importance of marketing, remember that Modern Warfare 2’s then-record $50m development cost was soundly eclipsed by its $200m marketing budget.
When your game is ready for public consumption, you’ll need to make it available on accessible platforms.
If you’re looking to export your games to desktop, the fees are fairly nominal: Steam will charge you $100 for each game you submit to Steam Direct, and GX.games titles made with GameMaker can be uploaded for free.
If you’re looking to export your games to Nintendo, PlayStation, or Xbox consoles, you’ll be faced with higher publication charges. The cost goes up even more if you’re looking to release physical copies of your game.
Astronarch, developed by Dale Turner
How to make a video game on a budget
You can still make high-quality games even if you’re working on a shoestring budget.
Use free game-making software
With GameMaker, you only need to move to a paid subscription tier when you’re ready to publish your game on a major platform.
Make it 2D rather than 3D
2D games are simpler and cheaper to make than 3D games.
Sticking to 2D strips away the added complications and reduces your overall development costs.
Download stock assets and sounds
No-one wants their game to look like any other game on store shelves, but if you’re working on a tight budget, using stock assets is the way to go.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you might decide you’d like to create your own assets and compose your own music.
GameMaker Asset Bundle 01: Fantasy Platformer
Taking shortcuts and making sacrifices
No-one knows whether Voltaire really was the first to say “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good”, but whoever it was, they were bloody insightful either way.
As a developer, you’ll always find that some ideas have to be left on the cutting room floor, or that others can’t be done exactly as you imagine them. Whatever doesn’t make it in can always be added later, or can be saved for a sequel.
In an interview with gamesindustry.biz, game designer Ian Lotinsky explained that during the development of AR mobile game Farhaven, the team used a dust cloud to cover a transition, rather than spend more time and money on a dedicated animation.
These small changes may seem inadmissible, but they all stack up.
Start a crowdfund
Video game crowdfunds aren’t a miracle cure for every developer’s financial constraints, but if your game is showing promise and gaining a following, it could be just the boost you’re looking for.
Crowdfunds come with their own challenges, like demos, promotional art, and trailers, but hundreds of indie games like Hyper Light Drifter and ANTONBLAST wouldn’t be where they are today without them.
ANTONBLAST, developed by Summitsphere
If you’re thinking of making your own game, but find yourself overwhelmed by the potential costs, it’s important to remember that you can still make brilliant games without a $50,000 starting budget.
A leaner budget may require longer development cycles or force you to pick up skills you never imagined you would, but if your game is a passion project, the time and the effort will always be worth it.
And who knows, maybe the game idea you’re sitting on could be the next great indie hit. Maybe you’ll meet talented people along the way who can help. Maybe its crowdfund will explode in popularity. Maybe an indie studio will reach out to help.
You’ll never know until you try.