Blockbuster movies are costing more and more money to make nowadays, but they aren’t always the most expensive entertainment to produce. Video games are quickly taking over. The average blockbuster film costs about $100 million to make, but Marvel, Star Wars, and DC Comics movies tend to eclipse that number. While most games fall way below those totals, there are plenty that exceed the $100 million mark — sometimes drastically. Note that all the following numbers are the total combined cost of development and marketing, adjusted for 2016 inflation.
Most video game studios are known for making one or two video game franchises. With Rockstar Games, that game is mainly Grand Theft Auto. Sure, the studio dabbled in other genres over the years, but didn’t really branch out until the Western-themed Red Dead franchise. The first installment, Red Dead Revolver, didn’t make much of an impact when it released. The sequel Red Dead Redemption was a different story.
With an astounding 95 rating on Metacritic and having sold over 14 million copies since its release, Red Dead Redemption proved to be a huge improvement — in both quality and sales — for Rockstar. Critics praised the game for its ground-breaking visuals, well-rounded characters, and excellent downloadable content (i.e. the Undead Nightmare Pack). That level of quality, especially one that is leaps ahead of its predecessor, isn’t bred without some sort of investment by the publisher.
As it stands, Red Dead Redemption currently holds the tenth spot of most expensive video games ever made. With a development cost of $100 million, the game cost more to produce than the average movie. And that number doesn’t account for marketing costs, which remains unknown. Adjusting for inflation, Red Dead Redemption cost $109 million to produce, with at least several million more for marketing. It makes one wonder just how much 2017’s Red Dead Redemption 2 will cost when all is said and done.
APB: All Points Bulletin ($109 million)
Video game developers sometimes leave a studio and form another one, which is what DMA Design founder David Jones did in 2002. As the creator of Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto, Jones carried a lot of clout with him when he left Rockstar North to form Realtime Worlds. Jones and the studio successfully launched the Crackdown franchise in 2007 before moving onto the open-world multiplayer game APB: All Points Bulletin in 2009. There was certainly a lot of hype surrounding the game. Studio executive Colin MacDonald said it was everything they had been “striving towards” for almost 20 years.
Statements like that made APB seem like an ambitious project for the studio, and ambition costs money. Judging by the $105 million (approximately $116 million, adjusted for inflation) the studio burned through, it’s clear the game was a huge undertaking for them — and the $50 million they originally raised wasn’t enough. Unfortunately, the cost of the game was too heavy to bear, and the studio entered administration just six weeks after APB released. All online servers were closed and the game’s 130,000 players were left in the wind while the studio searched for a buyer. Later that year, K2 Networks acquired the one-time $105 million title for only $1.8 million. After some restructuring, the game relaunched as APB: Reloaded, a free-to-play title. APB just goes to show that not all risky bets pay off, even with big names behind the project. Just ask Hollywood.
The idea of “development hell” gets thrown around a lot in Hollywood — with movies lingering in development for years without moving forward — but it doesn’t just apply to filmmaking. Just look at developer Silicon Knights’ Too Human. Originally announced for Sony’s PlayStation in 1994, the studio halted the game’s production after forming a partnership with Nintendo several years later. But before that happened, the studio was just months away from completing the title. Then they decided to instead develop the game for the Gamecube in 2000, which caused some setbacks. It wouldn’t be until 2005 that people heard about Too Human again. This time, however, it would be with yet another platform.
Silicon Knights formed a partnership with Microsoft in 2005 to develop a Too Human trilogy for the Xbox 360. It was a massive undertaking, and since it had already been 11 years since the studio began development on the game, they were looking to get started immediately. The game had a reported budget of $100 million ($110 million, when adjusting for inflation), but sold just 700,000 units, which wasn’t enough to recoup those costs.
Grand Theft Auto IV ($110+ million)
When Bungie’s Halo 3 released in 2007 is set a record as the highest-grossing entertainment product within its first 24 hours and proved console gaming is an industry to be reckoned with. That industry success continued the following year with Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV. The game beat Halo 3’s record of $170 million in sales within the first 24 hours by scoring an astounding $310 million within the same period, albeit by releasing on multiple platforms, whereas Bungie restricted Halo 3 to the Xbox 360.
Considering how beloved Grand Theft Auto III had become among longtime gamers, it only makes sense that the sequel would be a hit. That level of anticipation forced Rockstar to put a lot of time and effort into getting the title just right, which is why more than 1,000 people worked on the game concurrently for several years. To accommodate for that many developers, as well as various other production costs, Grand Theft Auto IV became the most expensive game ever made at the time.
With a game as anticipated as Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar pushed for an aggressive marketing campaign. The studio never revealed how much it cost to market the game, though it stands to reason it was well in the millions of dollars. Therefore, we are only left with its development cost, which lies at around $100+ million. Accounting for inflation, GTA IV would have cost more than $110 million to develop if it released in 2016. It’s not much higher than its price tag in 2008 — but that’s not the point. GTA IV opened the flood gates, and there have been plenty of games that cost more than $110 million to develop since it hit shelves.
Star Citizen ($138+ million)
Crowdfunding small projects is a growing trend, and has recently been adopted by the entertainment industry — i.e. filmmakers and video game developers — as a viable form of funding. In 2015, Yu Suzuki and his studio Ys Net made headlines for launching a Kickstarter campaign for the long-awaited Shenmue III, which ended up breaking the record for being the highest-funded (as well as the fastest funded) game in Kickstarter history, raising more than $6.33 million.
Shenmue III may hold the Kickstarter record, but no entertainment property has ever crowdfunded more than Cloud Imperium Games’ Star Citizen. The game has raised $138 million and counting, a far cry from the $2.14 million the game originally raised on Kickstarter in 2012. Studio head honcho Chris Gates, famed for launching the Wing Commander series in the early 1990s, says Star Citizen isn’t a normal game, which is why they continue to raise money despite exceeding their initial goal. Roberts told Eurogamer the additional funds will only make the game “all the richer and so much more immersive.” The developer has yet to announce a firm release date for Star Citizen, though several pre-release builds have been shown.
Star Wars: The Old Republic ($200+ million)
It’s not uncommon for Lucasfilm to shell out over $200 million producing a Star Wars film, but it seems a bit unrealistic to expect a studio to put up that kind of money for a Star Wars video game. Implausible, but apparently not impossible. Fans loved the Knights of the Old Republic games, so instead of developing a single-player sequel in the vein of the first two titles, developer BioWare moved forward with Star Wars: The Old Republic, a MMORPG sequel that is still regarded as one of the best in the franchise.
While it’s unknown how much it cost to develop a game of this scope, the total cost (development and marketing combined) of the game was $211 million, of which $200 million is estimated to have gone into development costs. If we were to take a look only at the development cost of games, The Old Republic would take the title for being the most expensive game of all time — but we aren’t. We are taking marketing into account, and that is why The Old Republic isn’t higher on this list.
Final Fantasy VII ($214 million)
The Final Fantasy franchise is one of the longest-running and most commercially successful in video game history. Created by Hironobu Sakaguchi, the series began with the release of the eponymous Final Fantasy in 1987. The latest installment, Final Fantasy XV, released in 2016 — almost 20 years after the first game. Series developer Square Enix owes much of its success to Final Fantasy, which spawned other lucrative series such as Mana, SaGa, and Kingdom Hearts. Final Fantasy has always been popular in Japan, but it wasn’t until the release of Final Fantasy VII in 1997 that the series jumped across the Pacific to North America.
After the success of Final Fantasy VI, Sakaguchi and his team began brainstorming narratives and designs for the inevitable sequel. It was originally intended to be a 2D game for the Super NES, but with the industry leaping from 16-bit games to 32-bit, the developer ceased its relationship with Nintendo and decided to sign with Sony and develop for the PlayStation. The system’s use of CDs allowed the studio to reach the level of detail and complexity they wanted without breaking the bank. But that doesn’t mean the game wasn’t expensive to develop.
Even with the reduction in cost, Final Fantasy VII still cost $45 million to develop and another $100 million to market (most of which went into its North American campaign). When adjusting for inflation, that amount comes out to approximately $214 million. Expensive, but worth it. It’s because of Final Fantasy VII that factions of Western gamers have fallen in love with Japanese RPGs. Without the Final Fantasy series as a whole, there’s no telling what the state of the RPG genre would look like today.
Grand Theft Auto V ($270 million)
As previously mentioned, Grand Theft Auto IV was one of the most anticipated video games of all time when it released in 2008. So one could only imagine how much anticipation was behind Grand Theft Auto V in 2013. Releasing at the end of one console generation and the beginning of another, Rockstar positioned the sequel for commercial success by releasing the game on a new series of platforms every year. Beginning with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in 2013; then moving to Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in 2014, and finally PC in 2015. It was a smart strategy that paid off big for the studio. Having sold more than 70 million copies, Grand Theft Auto V has become one of the best-selling games of all time.
Developing the game for multiple platforms and pushing the boundaries — both graphically and narratively — required a hefty amount of money. The development cost of GTA V is certainly high — coming in at about $137 million — but what Rockstar saves in development it makes up for in marketing. Industry analysts estimate the total cost of developing and marketing the game totaled roughly $265 million, which comes out to approximately $270 million when adjusting for 2016 inflation rates. It’s a lot, sure, but definitely not the most expensive game ever made.
Call of Duty 2: Modern Warfare 2 ($276 million)
Call of Duty is undoubtedly one of the biggest video game franchises ever conceived. With 13 principal installments in the series topping over 175 million copies sold since its launch in 2003, Call of Duty is perhaps the most influential first-person shooter in video game history. The Modern Warfare story arc accounted for a substantial amount of the series’ sales, so in 2009 Activision released the sequel Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The title cost approximately $50 million to develop and another $200 million to market. Adjusting for inflation, Activision spent $276 million making Modern Warfare 2. But with the title having sold like hot cakes, it looks like Activision made the right call.
Destiny ($501 million)
Bungie was best known as the developer behind the beloved Halo franchise, but when the studio sold the IP to Microsoft’s 343 Industries, it had to start fresh with a new idea. Enter Destiny, an always-online first-person shooter that resembles a massively online multiplayer game, with player versus player and player versus environment modes. Destiny had a lot of hype leading up to its release, but it was Bungie’s involvement that likely had a lot of gamers interested.
Activision was the new publisher behind the studio (part of a 10-year publishing agreement) and put up a lot of money to produce the game — $500 million to be exact. When adjusting for inflation, the game’s total cost comes out to about $501 million. Approximately $140 million of that cost accounts for the development of the game, while the remaining amount applied to marketing. With that total, Destiny is currently the most expensive entertainment product (movie, TV show, or video game) ever made. It was certainly a big bet in the company and one that paid off in spades. We’ll have to wait and see if the Destiny sequel costs as much as the original title.