As I write this article Star Citizen has raised USD$99,734,573. That’s a lot of cash, especially for a crowdfunded title. But is the $100million mark really as much as we think in terms of game development? For Star Citizen to pull off all that it has promised will be no small feat and they’ll need one hell of a budget. As the man behind the game, Chris Roberts, says “I don’t want to build a game. I want to build a universe.” Roberts’ vision is for a first person universe experience that sounds more like a sci-fi simulator than a video game, if Star Citizen delivers even slightly on this it will revolutionise they way we view online games.
So back to the price. Is $100million enough to propel a game into astronomical realms of success, and does money make a good game?
Destined for greatness
If you thought the $100million sounded like an insane amount, try multiplying it by five. Activion Blizzard’s CEO Bobby Kotick claimed that the total budget for Destiny was set to be a whopping $500million, something Bungie have said isn’t true, but even that ballpark number is astounding. If it’s even close to that number it by far dwarves most other releases, including Grand Theft Auto V, which was previously considered the highest with an approximate budget of $260million.
But do these budgets translate to good games? I would argue yes for GTA V without a doubt, especially with the next gen re-release. However, with Destiny it’s more of mixed bag. I sit strongly in the camp that the original 2014 release was a demo for what the game should have been, something which they somewhat delivered with The Taken King. The PS4 Metacritic page for Destiny has mixed user reviews at 6.1, with some criticising the grindy nature of the game, poor plot and questionable voice acting, and some consumers indicated the game felt rushed.
I’m not suggesting that mixed reviews mean it’s a bad game, I’m simply drawing attention to the fact that some gamers felt it could have used a bit more attention. Now is probably a good time to remind you that that is for a game with a budget almost double that of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
It’s not all about development
According to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Electronic Arts spent $2.75 million on Facebook ads alone for their big budget shooter Battlefield 3. Just let that sink in. Not on marketing, on just one social media platform. Overall this $2.75million was a fraction of EA’s spend, all up the game is rumoured to have had a marketing budget in excess of $100million.
Even that $100million pales in comparison to other games. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 had a marketing budget of $200million, twice that of Star Citizen‘s total funds to date. Both Battlefield and CoD are the big boys of shooters, so it’s not at all surprising they spent so much on advertising, and all credit to them, both games were fantastic when they came out. I’ve even talked about how great I thought Modern Warfare 2 was in the past. But when you have games spending so much on marketing, it really makes you wonder whether a bit more attention to the game’s development could have yielded an even better product, like a Battlefield game that doesn’t constantly crash when joining servers.
As crazy as all these big budgets sound, pumping buttloads of money into advertising isn’t a new thing. The 1981 arcade game Frogger had a marketing budget of $5million. Want to see how that was spent?
This retro advert, that strangely shoehorned Star Wars into the mix, contributed to a campaign that cemented Frogger’s place in pop culture. The amphibian with poor road safety skills has become a household name with over 20 million copies of Frogger sold worldwide, so clearly advertising does work for games and has done so historically.
Now is probably a good time to mention Fallout 4, the game that was marketed so well its release resulted in Pornhub reporting a 10 percent loss in traffic. Bethesda are yet to release or mention a marketing figure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it surpasses Battlefield and CoD significantly. In Melbourne we had trams and bus stops kitted out with a smiling Vault Boy and one of the most popular mobile games this year was pretty much an advert for the game. Fallout 4 was reported to have sold over $750million in the first 24 hours following release, so whatever they spent on marketing, it clearly worked.
Low budget heroes
It’s time to wade into the murky waters of indie games, and by murky I mean hard to find budgets for. Unlike the larger companies who seem to get a kick out of revealing how much they can spend, the smaller game companies and solo developers aren’t so forthcoming about it. Maybe this is due to them not actually keeping records in the same way big AAA companies do. Take the Stanley Parable for example, developer Davey Wreden made the mod that turned into Stanley Parable as a side project, it wasn’t intended to be a career move. Wreden found his success to be a negative thing, having made a shit load out of the game (it sold over 100,000 copies in the first three days) he struggled with the sudden wealth, as detailed in this bleak blog post from 2014.
An indie game we actually have a figure for is Braid. Game developer Johnathan Blow has said that the game cost him $200,000 to make. In the games first week it sold 55,000 copies, which if they all sold for the current retail price of $15, then the game made a total of $825,000 in the first week alone, a profit of $625,000. On top of all of this Braid was also a critical success.
So how do these low budget indie games go when compared to AAA titles? Braid has a Metacritic score of 90 vs. Destiny‘s 76. I know they’re very different games, but when you compare the budgets, it is staggering. Overall it shows that sometimes a lot of money isn’t necessarily the recipe for a great game. In Braid‘s case the low budget almost helped its success, as it stuck to the core concepts and delivered them in a fun and well polished package, whereas vanilla Destiny appeared to have too many aspects mixed together to actually focus on what made a fun game.
Linking back to Star Citizen it could be justified worrying over the games ever increasing budget, instead of focusing on the concept Chris Roberts has teased, we could instead see an underwhelming mash of ideas that chew through the $100million faster than the Millennium Falcon can make the Kessel Run.