Why Are Games So Expensive?

Games are expensive, there are no two ways about it, but there are a number of reasons why they are so expensive and why the price keeps increasing. Whilst knowing why they are expensive won’t make it any easier on the wallet, hopefully it will make it more bearable when you know where the money is going. For the most part, indie games and games with small production teams will remain cheap due to their low overheads, so this breakdown will mostly be focused on the more expensive AAA games.

Games Are More Complex Than Ever

The short answer to the question of why games are so expensive is that games are much more complex now than they have ever been, and that is likely to continue into the future. Even the biggest games of the early generations could be done by a handful of people, a modern AAA game can require a team of hundreds working for years. A great example of the difference between old and new games is Final Fantasy 7. The original game was one of the most expensive projects at the time, taking between 100-150 people a year to make at a cost of $48 million. In comparison, the Final Fantasy 7 Remake took 5 years from the first trailer to release, at the estimated cost of $200 million or more, and only covers a fraction of the original game.

FF7 vs the remake, a much more expensive game.
Final Fantasy 7 – Original vs Remake

The reason for this is partly due to the size of the games, the level of detail, and the fact that games require more specialized roles to further increase the quality of what is produced. As games get more visually realistic, more bespoke assets are needed to make environments seem real, whilst a plain barrel might have been used across the game previously, they may need to be changed based on the type of environment they are in.

More Tools And Programs Are Needed

Due to the complexity of the games, a whole host of tools are needed to produce the quality expected today. From engines able to produce accurate lighting and rendering, to fairly new programs such as the Substance Suite which allow artists to create more realistic materials. There are also lots of third-party tools to help do tiny things that can easily be skipped over, such as tools to manage reference material or correct the face normals, the technical stuff that the end-user won’t notice unless it’s broken.

Substance painter - a fairly new game development tool.
Substance Painter – Algorithmic

Whilst some of the smaller tools are free to use, most of them, especially the big programs, come at a cost, either a subscription paid throughout the development, normally per person, a large upfront cost, also normally per person, a cost based on how many platforms the game will be released on, or a cost based on the income of the released product. Whilst it is possible for a big company to recreate most of the tools, some would take years and cost much more than paying the up-front cost, either way, there’s a lot of costs involved with programs.

Higher Skill Levels And More Specialized Roles

Due to how complicated games have become, people need more and better skills than they would have previously. The majority of new game developers will have a university degree (but not all of them) as it is skill labor, so as the experience and knowledge goes up, so does the cost of employment. Couple that with the fact that teams are bigger than ever, and the price rises exponentially.

Programmer working.
Photo by ThisIsEngineering from Pexels

Another part of this is specialization. Gone are the days where you would have a handful of programmers and a handful of artists in a room. Now you need graphics programmers, material artists, character artists, creature animators, the list goes on. Each role needs specialists because of the enormity of the task and the level of difficulty. Specialists are often highly sought after as there are not many and in high demand, this again pushes up the price of employing and maintaining these employees.

Outsourcing Work

Outsourcing work is generally considered cost-cutting, usually hiring people in a country with lower wages as a way to offset the cost, and that is certainly something that happens with bigger titles. Outsourcing is also used for highly specialist roles. Whilst big companies may be able to produce the majority of their work in their studios, for a lot of companies it is either not feasible or too expensive to set up all of the equipment and hire all of the specialists, or if a company that focuses entirely on industry-leading work it makes sense to outsource work to the best.

Teaching work.
Photo by Jonathan Borba from Pexels

Whilst practically any work can be outsourced, the most common areas are the most complicated or difficult to get right, or the ones that require custom equipment or technology. An example of this is characters, which are becoming increasingly realistic, facial animation systems to simulate the intricacies of the muscle movements and creases, and motion capture, both of the body and the face. There are companies that can do all of these things, but the jobs are becoming so complicated that each of these roles has entire companies built around doing them.

Character Art

Whether you outsource the work or not, if your game involves characters that lean towards realism things have gotten many times more complicated than they used to. Older games, or sometimes modern games with a cartoon-like style like Nintendo games, only have to worry about the model and some basic textures, so it’s fairly simple. Perhaps a game has something unique such as a rendering style, but these are normally universal throughout the game so don’t need much individual work.

Horizon Zero Dawn - a fantastic example of character art.
Horizon Zero Dawn – Guerrilla Games

Games that tend towards realism, however, have to worry about such tiny details that go mostly unnoticed to the average player, to get that final image quality we are now used to. This includes things like skin bumps for pores on the face, defining how the light travels through multiple layers of skin (subsurface scattering), wrinkles that only appear when the face is moved in certain ways, or the refraction of the lenses of the eyes.

Facial Rigging

Gone are the days where AAA games can have a character with a flapping mouth, or going even further back, having no mouth movement at all. As the characters look more realistic, we expect them to move more realistically too. Having high-quality art but bad animation is a sure-fire way to find yourself in uncanny valley. There are multiple ways to set up a face for animation, traditionally it was done with ‘bones’ one controlling the head and the other the jaw. This is still often used, albeit with dozens more bones used for each part of the face.

Last of Us 2 - Well utilized facial rigging
Last Of Us 2 – Naughty Dog

A newer technique and one that is used for the most up-to-date and impressive games, is something called ‘blend shapes’. This technology has been around for a long time but has become much more powerful recently. This involves making a head in a neutral pose, and then making lots of heads pulling different facial expressions, such as left eyebrow raise or right cheek puff, these are then blended together using a complicated process to create expressions similar to ones we pull today. Many high-end characters can have 600+ of these heads that it blends between, a not-insignificant amount of work, which comes at a cost.

Motion Capture And Facial Animation

The next step of utilizing all of this impressive character tech is the animation. Much of this these days is done using motion capture, which is also used for body animations. These then have to be cleaned up by animators to remove some of the rough edges and add a little flair. This requires a motion capture studio, the technology to translate the motion capture information into something that the rig can recognize which then drives the facial animations.

God Of War - Fantastically subtle facial animation in games.
God of War – Santa Monica Studio

One of the big limiting factors for most small to mid-sized companies is needing a mo-cap studio to record these animations. You need a large space and lots of equipment and unique tech to be able to have them in the studio, you also need actors to portray them, whether someone like Andy Serkis in Enslaved: Odyssey To The West who is mostly known for their incredible motion-capture performances or Rami Malik in Until Dawn, bringing a famous face to a game to help with sales. Much like movies, depending on the actor this can be one of the biggest expenses on the project.

Is It All Worth It?

We’ve only looked at one very specific pipeline in this article, but there are similar stories in all of the professions. Couple this with inflation and it’s no wonder the prices have gone up. In fact, the profit margins are much smaller per sale now than they used to be, so it’s surprising they are not higher. This might seem outrageous, games are barely affordable as they are now, and I agree with you. In fact, this is a large reason why you see games increasing focusing on DLC, ‘live services’ and microtransactions. They know the public will not stomach the increased costs, so they make the money elsewhere.

But now we know why games are so expensive, we have to ask, is it worth it? Many people will say the graphics don’t need to be so good and that the games industry is chasing the next best thing rather than giving people what they want, and there is a fair point there. But pushing the boundaries of games is how they improve and how we get to where we are today in such a short time. Graphics have been known to make or break games, so they are more important than they are often given credit for, and for me personally, they are an essential part of the modern gaming experience.