Video game budgets might be increasing, but inflation is a big part of that.
Even if it’s labeled the most expensive video game, it doesn’t mean it’s the best in the market – or even its franchise.
The most expensive video games tend to be first-person shooters.
Gamers always buy more games, so it's up to individuals to determine their standards for buying.
It’s no secret that video games have raked in boatloads of cash since their inception. As a multi-billion dollar industry, gaming rivals Hollywood in profits; it has also expanded interest in professional competition and entertainment with esports and content creation on YouTube and Twitch. The 2022 video game market pulled in anestimated $90 billion in the United States alone.
Corporations are taking notice. Microsoft is working to finalize its acquisition of Activision Blizzard for a whopping $69 billion – a record by a long shot. Big money is making big moves to get games into people’s hands but as the industry continues to burgeon, how much of this money has made its way into the hands of creatives and production? What is the most expensive video game ever? Who saw the biggest profits from their game?
You Break It, You Buy It
Publishers throw big budgets at developers who have the potential to bring the biggest returns, and when the adjustment is made for inflation, there seems to be a trend — third-person and first-person shooters (FPS) hold many of the top spots in the biggest budgets on record.
As studios don’t publicize their expenditures in getting a game developed, marketed, and shipped, these numbers are estimates. The public hopes to one day have access to these financials and as such the 10 games discussed next have the most verifiable numbers.
As of January 2023, this is the list of the 10 highest budgets in video games:
10. Battlefield 4 (2013)
The early 2010s FPS market was dominated by Call of Duty, and after the success of 2011’s Battlefield 3, publisher Electronic Arts wanted to break through in a big way and wrote a sizable check for Battlefield 4.Brought to bear was $116 billion, but 4’s launch was marred by a motley of technical issues, bugs, and crashes across all platforms.
Critics and fans' first impressions dogged the game well after launch and despite significant improvements, the game’s quality is considered somewhere in the middle by Battlefield fans.
9. Shenmue (1999)
Sega dumped an inflated range of $75 to $119 million into the original Shenmue as a flagship title for their Dreamcast console. It’s unclear if some of this budget filtered into Shenmue II (2001), and despite the budget and amassing a cult following, the first Shenmue was considered a commercial failure, barely surpassing a million copies sold.
After years spent in development hell, director Yu Suzuki left the studio after II and future games were published under Sony.
8. Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
Grand Theft Auto IV’s Liberty City is considered one of the standard setters for open-world games and paved the way for its sequel to have one of the largest profits in history. While not nearly the commercial success that V became,IV received a gargantuan budget that could be argued to set the stage and system needed for V’s success. Grand Theft Auto IV’s budget clocks in at $126 million.
7. Dead Space 2 (2011)
As a very particular section of science-fiction horror, Dead Space could stand in a similar category to that of Doom, Metroid, and Halo — an armored and armed-to-the-teeth badass going up against undead and alien invaders.
Despite critical and player acclaim, it didn't see the profits hoped for in its estimated $145 million budget for marketing and development.
6. Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018)
As the conclusion of Lara Croft’s origin trilogy, Square Enix threw a lot of dough at the development of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, costing in the range of $119 to $146 million. It experienced a lull in sales at first, being criticized for lacking originality compared to its predecessors. However, the studio saw enough success to release eventual downloadable content expansions.
5. Destiny (2014)
Destiny is Bungie’s first of two titles on this list. After their major success with Halo, Bungie entered into a publishing deal with Activision; the first result of the partnership was Destiny. In attempts to replicate the same lightning-in-a-bottle, Activision threw an estimated $160 million at development. Critical reception was mixed and the partnership eventually dissolved in 2017 shortly after the release of Destiny 2.
4. Halo 2 (2004)
After Combat Evolved’s success, Microsoft knew they struck gold. The budget for the next game reflected this: It was the biggest budget on record at the time with $120 million, which would be roughly $230 million in 2023. And Bungie put the money where their mouth was — Halo 2 set numerous sales records and was lauded as the greatest console FPS yet, quickly sold over eight million copies, and turned Xbox Live into the juggernaut it currently is.
By 2007 and just before Halo 3 was set to release,over five million players played Halo 2 on Xbox Live. There’s a reason it is often debated as the franchise’s peak.
3. Final Fantasy VII (1997)
Considered one of the best role-playing games ever made, Final Fantasy VII was Square Enix’s first foray into 3D for this genre-defining franchise. After delays to development and hardware restrictions, developer Square left Nintendo and decided to publish on the original PlayStation.
Released in January of 1997, the game experienced universal acclaim and is cited as one of the most influential and greatest video games ever created. The budget to experience such success came in the range of $80 to $145 million, which adjusts to $135 to $245 million at the time of this writing. Final Fantasy VII made that money back shortly after launch and solidified a legacy that few other games can claim.
2. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009)
Call of Duty-Halo rivalry was at its peak in the late 2000s. The game was starting to come into its own in terms of active players. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007) rivaled Halo 3’s sales. It's also important to note that Modern Warfare’s sales figures come across multiple systems, whereas Halo 3 was only released on Xbox.
Intent on growing its market share, Activision loaded up developer Infinity Ward with $250 million, which is $316 million in 2023 valuation. It resulted in massive returns and what is often considered the peak of its respective franchise.
1. Cyberpunk 2077 (2020)
CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 was hotly anticipated after the universal praise of 2015’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. A dedicated budget of $316 million ($331 million in 2023) is speculated to have increased after late-stage development was impacted by COVID-19. The released product was praised for its storylines and visuals of the popular science-fiction subgenre. However, poor optimization for older systems forced the studio to pull the PS4 version for months and issue over 30,000 refunds.
Two years later, the game’s reputation has improved but its disastrous launch still taints what could’ve been a universally praised cultural phenomenon.
The following list is composed of games that have less verifiable numbers, have been outright canceled due to sinking costs, or haven’t even been released yet. See if some of your favorite games made the list!
Star Citizen (TBA)
Star Citizen is considered the biggest financial commitment for a game ever — and it still doesn’t even have a release date!
What started as a thought experiment and was crowdfunded by a Kickstarter has ballooned to over $500 million in costs. As a space combat and trader massive multiplayer online (MMO), an extended stay in development would be expected. However, pre-production on the game began in 2010. While playable portions of the game have been released over the years in demos, criticism has abounded for developer Cloud Imperium’s scope and ambition but mostly for the wait and money spent thus far.
Whether this game is going to be an auteurist masterwork or the video game equivalent of Theranos fraud is yet to be determined.
Rumors have persisted that Halo’s first foray into an open-world styled campaign and free-to-play (F2P) multiplayer cost Microsoft over $500 million, a number denied by developer 343 Industries at several points. However, there is little evidence to the contrary or efforts to deter the game’s reported financials, troubled development cycle, and lackluster launch.
Rockstar Games has seen lucrative returns and critical acclaim with the Grand Theft Auto series and standalones like L.A. Noire (2011) and Red Dead Redemption (2010). Years after the success of the original Red Dead, rumors of a follow-up game persisted.
Eventually, the released sequel saw an improved and expanded Wild West action-adventure open world with deeper storylines, combat, and exploration. Analysts estimate a wide range of $370 to $540 million in budget, development, and aggressive marketing campaigns. Rockstar saw its returns shortly after release — 2 was highly profitable and is considered one of the greatest games of the decade, if not ever.
Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
An unofficial estimate clocks V’s budget at $265 million ($308 million adjusted). After nearly a decade in-market and several rereleases, Rockstar has raked in over $6 billion (yes, with a ‘B’), selling 170 million copies of the game across three generations of consoles. If it ain’t broke, don’t rush to fix it.
Thanks to ateenage hacker, the next Grand Theft Auto has been confirmed to be in development.
Star Wars: The Old Republic (2011)
Following up on the critical acclaim of Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic (2003) and Obsidian’s cult hit Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (2004), developer BioWare decided to take a third game into the subscription MMORPG space. While it is not as highly regarded as its predecessors, the game is being actively expanded upon over 10 years after its launch.
That estimated budget of $241 million sure seems to be paying off well after Lucasfilm’s merger into the Disney family of properties.
Collectors throw out absurd amounts of cash to obtain rarities for collectibles of anything imaginable — the passion of a gamer is no different. Some of the highest prices for a collectible have been seen with video games.
Landmark titles for Nintendo dominate the upper echelons of auction records for unopened originals copies, with price tags like:
$2 million for Super Mario Bros (1983) for the original Nintendo Entertainment System
$1.56 million for N64’s Super Mario 64 (1996)
$870,000 for the original The Legend of Zelda (1986)
Setting the Standard
Video games get pricey fast and while this list features some incredible landmark titles, there are even more landmark games that didn’t see a tenth of the budgets featured here but that changed the medium forever.
Current trends like F2P multiplayer games have resulted in billions of dollars in revenue and an increase in esports awards for competitors. Fortnite, for instance, has pulled in an average of$5 billion annually from 2018 to 2021, with more or less the same expected for 2022. Minecraft has sold over 238 million copies total, second only to the decades-older Tetris.
The term video game means many different things to different people. Some only play award-winning single-player story games. “Games as a service” models ranging from MMOs like World of Warcraft to F2P with sizable microtransactions like Fortnite, Apex, and Overwatch 2 bring in solid income year to year. The trade-off, though, is often bouts of controversy and criticism of predatory business practices. Corporate greed has hurt many games and some of the games discussed here are evidence of this greed.
Every individual player – including parents of young and impressionable children – must cultivate proper impulse control and an ethical approach to consumerism. To use a restaurant as an analogy, some current developers offer the cheeseburger experience but charge you extra for ketchup, mustard, lettuce, and tomato. It’s up to the individual gamer to reward the restaurants that put out the best food for the best price.
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