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 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?
- Why is game development so expensive in 2023?
- Can you make a video game for free?
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.
Vampire Survivors - the roguelike shoot’em up that took the indie world by storm in late 2022 - only cost around $1,500 to make, and made $7 million in its first month after leaving Early Access. How’s that for a return on investment?
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
- Early Access: Not only can you raise money from selling Early Access to your game, you can also gain feedback from the community to help you find and fix bugs.
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. In fact, the most expensive video game ever made is a AAA game - Cyberpunk 2077, whose development costs totalled a massive $174m, alongside a $142m marketing budget.
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
Why is game development so expensive in 2023?
The reason games are so expensive to buy is that they’re so expensive to develop, especially at the AAA level. Indie game development costs are rising, too, but there are ways to mitigate that cost if you’re prepared to cut some corners.
Whether your game is already under construction or you’re a newcomer put off by the high costs, let’s take a look at the factors that make video games so expensive to develop.
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.
Running Costs & Overheads
Game development requires the latest technology, from game engines and PCs to tablets and sound engineering software.
Despite the welcome rise in remote working, some studios prefer to have their teams working under the same roof. For these teams, there’s rent, energy prices, chairs, desks, breakout rooms, copious amounts of coffee, and cleaning costs to consider.
Indie developers that work on their games from home might not be subject to office rental prices, but they’ll be responsible for everything else listed. Not everyone can take on those extra overheads without recouping some of that added expenditure through game sales.
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. You might think you can cut some costs and do this part yourself, but having such an intimate knowledge of your own game can be to your detriment here.
You need a team of fresh-eyed testers who can tinker with your game without any preconceptions if you really want to root out the bugs. 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.
When you’ve poured your heart and soul into creating your perfect game, that last thing you want to see is others stealing and profiting from your hard work.
Even if you make the world’s greatest video game, all your hard work means diddly-squat if your marketing efforts aren’t on point.
Copywriting, campaign management, and social media savvy are only the tip of the marketing iceberg. Marketers wear a lot of hats, and that either means hiring a team of talented specialists, or learning a bit of everything if you’re flying solo.
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.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, developed by Infinity Ward
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.
Can you make a video game for free?