Last week Sixty Second Shooter developer Jamie Fristrom released the total cost for publishing on the Xbox One at $5,143. That figure may be daunting to some, but it's also close to the absolute minimum to publish on a console. I spoke with Tyrone Rodriguez, a developer working on Binding of Isaac: Rebirth as well as Mike Roush from Gaijin Games to get a better idea of what an "average" indie title costs to make and publish.
"Jaime… isn't wrong," he says, "but he also made his game on a really tight budget, and his experience isn't representative." Every game is obviously different, and everyone's going to have a different set of expenses based one that they need for their project, but game development is often ludicrously expensive, especially if you want to launch on more than one platform.
"Making games is the craziest thing anyone can do," Mike Roush tells me. "It makes no sense whatsoever... and it's one of the biggest running jokes in our office." Even cheap titles often take thousands if not tens of thousands of person-hours to get through development and publication. "Runner2 cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $700,000 to develop. Around 12% of that went into publication, localization and QA. Our publication costs were a little higher, but that's pretty close to normal." Tyrone's figures for Binding of Isaac: Rebirth were pretty close at 500,000 and 10%, but those aren't quite final.
PEGI, the ratings board for the majority of the EU, charges € 500 ($670) per game per platform. Other regions and ratings boards will have a higher base fee, but allow that same rating to be used on every platform. Germany's USK is one such organization. These ratings are required by console manufacturers to be on their respective online marketplaces, and when you're looking at a global launch on all of the different platforms that starts adding up really fast. Just to release in EU countries on the PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, 3DS and Vita will run you upwards of $6,116, but that doesn't include porting costs, promotion or insurance. "Porting your own code base," Tyrone says, "can easily cost over $10,000 per platform. " With Binding of Isaac: Rebirth coming to the PS4, Vita, OS X, and Linux in addition to PC, that's expected to cost the team just over $50,000 total.
These are small companies and budget-priced games, too. Larger games are notoriously expensive to produce and ship, but with teams of hundreds, that's not even the slightest bit surprising.
The notable exception here is, of course, Steam. If you know the right people and can bypass the Greenlight process, publishing on the PC can be just about free. Granted, you still have to pay royalties, but maintaining your game with patches costs nothing and runs almost immediately. With that kind of disparity, you'd wonder why anyone ever bothers to publish on consoles. Tyrone said, "In one word – legitimacy. When you're on XBLA or PSN, people know you're serious." Steam can sometimes see several new games published every day. With so many different titles coming out constantly, it's hard to get any kind of recognition. Unless you're established or get supremely lucky, you're not going to make it big on the PC. Mike was far less friendly to consoles, saying that for his well-known brand, mobile platforms and Steam have by far the best return on investment.
In contrast, Jaime Fristrom said that he's glad he made the choice to publish on the Xbox One, mentioning that he's sold enough to recoup his costs. But the Xbox One's marketplace is still pretty sparse, and he got the development kits for free through the ID@Xbox program. That's definitely helpful for such a small developer, but he stresses that his budget was also on a "shoestring" so he didn't have to sell much to recoup the loss. The reality is that any kind of publishing is expensive, and while the market has never been more open for or to new games and companies, it's still a challenge to get recognized.
Unfortunately, getting specific numbers for any one title can be pretty tough. Most developers must sign non-disclosure agreements with their console manufacturers – this keeps anyone from figuring out exactly which consoles are best to release on so they make those kinds of business decisions beforehand. That can lead a culture of hostility that Mike feels is damaging to the industry. "There's not enough communication. The developers of Shovel Knight released some of their sales data, but I'm surprised that wasn't a breach of NDA."
Going forward, there are a few doubts about how indies will be able to keep up with the shifts in digital marketplaces. On the one hand, Sony and Microsoft seem intent to help developers with profit sharing and advances against royalties programs, but it still takes months to get through certification and published. In some cases, simple bug fixes and patches can take as long or longer getting the game onto the store. Steam affords a lot more flexibility, but at the cost of visibility. "It's really tough." Mike lamented, "I don't think if we were to start our business now, that'd it be as successful, and if you told me how much time and money I'd have to spend talking to lawyers and insurance agents… I don't know. I don't get to make games anymore. I help others make games. And that wasn't my dream, but that's what it takes these days."
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