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.