“How much will my game cost?”
At our game dev agency, Double Coconut, it’s the top question we receive.
“It depends,” is the only correct answer. Ultimately, the cost we as a studio/agency will charge will depend on how many skilled personnel are working on a project and for how long. And of course that depends on dozens of factors of...
“Hold up,” most people stop us. “I just want to build a simple platform game. So, just tell me a rough range... how much is this gonna set me back?”
Our next answer sounds like we’re being evasive, but really, we’re not:
“Between $1,000 and $10 million.”
Let’s look at a quick example. Here’s GAME A, the $1,000 Platform Game:
And here’s GAME B, which costs nearly $10 million:
What’s the difference?
On the surface they’re both video games where a character runs across a scrolling field, jumps on boxes and platforms, collects stuff, avoids bad guys, and tries to get to the end.
So what’s the deal? How can they differ by four orders of magnitude?
As a more specific example, here’s the example of a typical “shower of coins” effect from two casino games we worked on.
The first is a lower-budget game. We used some nice stock clip art of a coin and quickly animated a few of them up in a row, up toward to slot of T-coins at the top. This took about one day of art and engineering time.
And here’s a high-end slots game we worked on. We took a while to come up with a concept for the coins that felt familiar yet unique. We then rendered the coins in 3D, textured them, created unique paths for them to fly, lit them, and then post-processed the animations in our game framework, adding more particles, shaders, and special tinting and then synching the clink of coins and exuberant BIG WIN music and text to sound good and scale in intensity for any amount of coins won. All in all this probably took several man-weeks of time between an art director, 3D artists, game engineer, particle artist, and sound designer.
So how low-budget or high-budget should your game be?
Part of our services here at Double Coconut are helping people understand and articulate the scope of their game. To do this we can assign a game designer to work with you and help you write a Game Design Document (GDD). A GDD contains:
- The game’s setting and story, if it has one.
- All specific gameplay mechanics.
- An outline of the total number of levels and how levels will be different.
- The business model.
- A wireframe of each and every screen and how they connect.
- An asset list that outlines all art, animations, and audio that needs to be created.
- A small spreadsheet explaining the economy -- how points, coins, etc. are earned and how they are spent.
- Details of other systems that may be needed for ads, marketing, analytics, push notifications, etc.
- Overall style guide / creative brief of the look and feel. May contain a "mood board" of target games, screenshots, or YouTube video clips that hit the quality and style the game needs to achieve.
Once you’ve got your vision outlined in a true Game Design Document (GDD), we can break out all the tasks and assets that need to be created and provide a very accurate bid, with milestones and budget. You can then decide whether to engage our services… and if so, thanks to the GDD, everyone will have a clear idea of what the final delivery will look and play like.
To achieve this design document, we’ll set up a series of meetings and answer some questions together. Some of the questions are straightforward to answer:
- What platform? iOS? Android? PC / Desktop? Console? Web?
- What business model? Premium? Ads? Free to play with in-app-purchases? Subscription?
- Single Player? Social? Or full multiplayer?
- 2D or 3D look and feel?
- Any live operations needed? Will your game continue to have new content, new levels, or live events?
- Does the game need to be localized?
Other questions are quite a bit more difficult and often involve heavy soul-searching and making business trade-offs:
Art quality? Want to create unique characters and environments that are completely your own and that couldn’t exist anywhere but this game? Or can we riff off some existing game style, matching it pretty closely?
Or is off-the-shelf art ok?
Game design originality? Want to try mechanics or features that have never been done before? If so, we better plan to prototype and iterate on those since we’ll be stumbling off the beaten trail and doing some discovery. Or can we ‘borrow’ mechanics and level designs from other games and modify them a wee bit?
Minimum viable product? What ideas or features can be cut or reduced to get your game’s scope down and get your product to market more quickly and at less cost?
The cost for this pre-production phase depends on the overall size of the game and how much material you’ve already documented, but typically takes a few weeks and starts at $1,000.
Don’t tell anyone I told you this — but as an incentive, we will often deduct some of the cost of pre-production from the production phase, should you decide to go with us as your development partner. The nice thing about a “real” design document, however, is that you will own it. You can freely use the document to get bids from numerous companies, not just us, and compare apples to apples.
When you hire a contractor to do a big job, you need to start with a clear and mutual understanding of the work involved. In the world of real-estate you’d likely start with a blueprint.
Let’s imagine you want a 3,000 square foot house.
You may be cool with a solid, cookie-cutter built from time-tested off-the-shelf plans:
Or you want want to help birth a unique gem:
Clearly, the time to develop and budget these two projects is hugely different, even if the number of bedrooms and bathrooms is the same.
Games work the same way — a mix of clear-cut technical functionality with unpredictable and elusive form that takes iteration and teasing-out and lots of playtesting to make special. Until you have a clear Game Design Document that really lays out the nuts and bolts, it’s impossible to know how little or much a game will cost.
As with a new real estate project, the scope of the game you want to build depends on your business goals, as well as personal/artistic goals. You can achieve success by quickly rolling out cheap, decent-quality, addictive game mechanics and figuring out how to make more per user than you spend acquiring them… or can craft something utterly unique and aim for elusive greatness.
The choice is up to you. The reliability and know-how is on us.