Black Hole Sun: the Hidden Cost of Star Craft II

Star Craft II Zerg

Star Craft II, Blizzard/Activision 2010

Lately there has been some controversy and discussion surrounding the development budget, marketing and purchase price of Star Craft II, developed by Blizzard and published by Activision. The Wall Street Journal, which released a budget figure of 100 million US dollars for the game, was recently forced to retract the figure; they had in fact misquoted Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick when he was discussing the development costs for World of Warcraft, not Star Craft.

Does this mean that Star Craft actually did not cost 100 million dollars to make? No, not really. In fact, it may actually mean that the game cost more than 100 million. At this point, the Wall Street Journal‘s retraction states only that Activision/Blizzard has not released a figure for the budget of Star Craft II. Activision has stated that they have not released a figure for the game’s development budget, and will not, for reasons of competition. In reality, the development budget for Star Craft II could have been more than 100 million, even before the money devoted to its tremendous marketing budget.

What does this mean, in practical terms? It means, for one thing, that Activision/Blizzard will have to take certain measures to “monetize” this title, to make sure that they receive a full return on their investment. They have broken the game down into three components which will cost full price, $60 each. Gamers can now shell out $99 for the first installment bundled with extras on the EB Games website.

Some gamers may complain about these prices, but as always, they have a choice of where to spend their gaming dollars. And when the players of a game are satisfied with their purchase, and feel it was worth the money, there isn’t much more to say about it. No one should have to apologize for his/her taste in games. A lot of people like very expensive titles with very large budgets; if they weren’t popular, it would not be considered a “safe” choice to develop and publish them. In terms of budget and production values, SC II is the equivalent of James Cameron’s Avatar. A publisher spends a whackload of money in development on such a titan game, and they get their money back by selling lots of product at a premium price.

In game development as in film-making, the only real problem with such a huge budget business model is that it has a powerful effect on the industry in general. The only metaphor that comes to mind is the gravity of a massive black hole bending the fabric of space-time…and obliterating less massive objects with its weight. Putting this much money into a single project, like putting that much mass into a single point, warps reality to an enormous degree.

Before anyone rushes to defend Blizzard/Activision and the quality of their content, it’s wise to simply take a step back and look at things from a broader perspective. While Activision probably spent at least 100 million dollars (or much more) on this one game, there were at least a dozen other games, all of which would have had a decent team size and budget, which they could not even consider making. (Eight-to-ten million dollars is still a respectable budget for development, although as years pass it is increasingly on the “low end”.)

One must also take into account that Activision is not the only company making these decisions…and crushing development of smaller projects in the wake of their supermassive budget “Titans”. While other companies which control this kind of cashflow are investing mainly in projects of this magnitude, the dozens of games not being made is multiplying.

It isn’t just Activision and it isn’t just SC II. Pick out the 10 biggest budget titles you have bought or will buy and play this year. They’re probably pretty shiny and there’s nothing wrong per se with enjoying them. You have to realize, however, that those 10 “Titan Titles” represent at least 100 other games that will never exist. And as a correlate, those 100 games would have employed 100 decent-sized teams. Those teams will never be able to deliver their ideas to the gaming audience, will never have the chance to learn important lessons in game development and become established professionals, etc..

In fairness, of those 100 games that we’ll never see, it’s probably safe to say that at least 40 of them would have been dismal. This is how statistic averages tend to work. Another 20 of those games would have been mediocre, with a few good features or ideas buried in a title which was otherwise uninspired. Another 20 would have been pretty good, and pretty entertaining, but not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea.

The problem is that another 15 of those games would have been excellent, and probably done a lot to introduce new ideas, new gameplay, and even create whole new genres of game. And at the top, there would have been 5 games that were absolutely brilliant. Inspired, innovative, intelligent, fun, thought-provoking, revolutionary. They would have been all the things that a great game can be.

Speaking as a developer, a former reviewer and a gamer, I have to wonder at times whether those 10 Titans are really worth the cost.

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About Arinn

Author, Game Developer, Anthropologist, Feminist, reformed Supervillainess.
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5 Responses to Black Hole Sun: the Hidden Cost of Star Craft II

  1. Sean says:

    Using the analogy of a black hole in reference to films and games is clever. It’s a bit depressing to see the narrative of the film industry play out again with video games, and so soon in its development. It seems that like with films, our collective palette is being calibrated for these very large, flashy and expensive productions, making it even harder for less extravagant fare to compete. People look at a game that isn’t fully voiced or covered in mip-maps or whatever and say it’s “shoddy” or bad out-of-hand without investigating it’s merit.

  2. Vengashii says:

    Actually, Blizzard has stated multiple times that the 2nd and 3rd games will be priced as expansions. 😛

  3. Arinn says:

    Here’s the official word from Blizzard’s own website on Starcraft II. “The StarCraft II Trilogy will consist of the base StarCraft II game and two expansion sets. Pricing on these games hasn’t been determined at this early stage; however, we’ve always charged an appropriate price for the content the player receives, and we will continue to release high-quality games that offer great value.”

    Note that they carefully do not tell you what the “great value” price for the expansions will be. 😉

  4. Fraser says:

    I broadly agree with your point, but it’s noteworthy that not all games are equal in scope. This is where the comparison to film is shaky, as any two films with wildly different budgets will still run for roughly the same amount of time, which gives them equal opportunity to show their quality. (See Avatar vs The Hurt Locker.)

    Time is not as useful a measure of “content” in games than in film, so I don’t want to start comparing the longevity of games, but in terms of mechanical depth, complexity of rules, potential for emergent gameplay and so on, one Starcraft II is equivalent to many Torchlights or Shadow Complexes. If Starcraft was compared against ten games with a similar combined budget, statistically only one or two of them would be as worthwhile as Torchlight or Shadow Complex, and it’s very unlikely anything would be of Portal standard, so perhaps the balance is not so bad.

    But I’m only playing devil’s advocate because I like what I’ve heard about Starcraft. If the example was, say, Modern Warfare 2, I’d trade it for ten other games in a heartbeat.

  5. Leevo says:

    While I agree with your argument that “safe bet” big budget titles are killing innovation in the industry I’m not sure if I can swallow the inductive reasoning of your ‘100 games we’ll never see’.

    SotS is truly a diamond in the rough, one that I would have missed entirely were it not for indirect marketing I stumbled across. I can’t help but feel that a larger part of the problem isn’t so much the money put into actual development as it is the money put into advertising.

    The last decade or so is full of games and movies that were utter crap that made up for their development costs through a successful advertising campaign. Whether its because they saturate the market with flashy adverts, or they capitalize on a previous title’s success. The reverse holds true as well.

    I know its anecdotal but Starcraft II, as well as the Warcraft series, is proof of the power of advertising and market saturation. Most people I Know who purchased Starcraft II didn’t do it because of reviews or previews, they did it because of the name. Same goes for Warcraft. Both titles take a large deal of influence from tabletop gaming and fiction novels, yet because of the level of saturation in advertising of both series the majority of people seem to believe that the reverse holds true. That is, authors and game developers alike have borrowed from Blizzard’s creation.

    Its been a long day and I now fear I’m rambling. Long story short, I agree that big budget entertainment is pushing small-time innovation further and further into the shadows, I just disagree (somewhat) on the exact nature of how its being done.

    Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go glass a planet because its full of creatures that aren’t attractive to my superior human taste of aesthetics.

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