Grand Theft Auto 5′s Staggering Budget: $250 Million
By now you might have heard it, but in case you haven’t, prepare to have your socks blown through your bank account. Grand Theft Auto V cost a reported $250 Million to produce.
That news comes courtesy of a report in The Scotsman, and while the source of those numbers isn’t disclosed in the article, given the five-year development and the previous $100 Million budget for Grand Theft Auto IV, it’s probably fairly accurate.
It sounds like a lot of money, and it is. To put that in context, that’s more expensive than almost any major film production ever. Only Pirates of the Caribbean 3, at $300 mil, bests it. (Though in fairness, World War Z reputedly cost far, far more than the $190 million budget officially reported.*) It’s an absolutely staggering figure for any genre, but especially for video games, which as the thriving indie scene demonstrates can still be made on a shoestring. Undoubtedly, it will pay off hugely for Rockstar. Analysts are already predicting that GTA V will rake in more than a billion dollars in the first year.
If these predictions come true, it’ll be an impressive achievement for Rockstar in a long list of them. But to be honest I find it kind of scary. An investment this size, seeing such an enormous payoff, will make a lot of people rich, but it might also, finally, make that kind of success feel standard.
Once upon a time (say, pre-2006), the GTA series was part of a small category of games whose success was actually shocking. We’d seen specific consoles achieving enormous cultural significance – people still like to call those who gamed back in the 80s and early 90s the Nintendo generation. But until GTA III, we hadn’t really seen a game simultaneously codify an entire genre and become a cultural metaphor, while also enjoying ginormous sales that completely transcended subculture. And all without also being associated intimately with its specific console**.
Even after, there were only a few games in the same club. World of Warcraft, the Sims and a few others – feel free to name them in comments – for instance. Throughout the 6th generation, there wasn’t an expectation that a video game needed to sell like GTA in order to be considered successful. That began to change early in the 7th generation, once Modern Warfare came on the scene. From that point on, the blockbuster mentality began to creep in and since then, we’ve seen major publishers placing unrealistic metrics and goals on everything from broad-appeal shooters to niche-market survival horror games.
Already in 2013, we have two examples of how that mentality has infected the industry. Square Enix has had two healthy hits in the last year, the modest success of brand-new franchise Sleeping Dogs, and the best-ever series sales for Tomb Raider. In any other environment, these games would be crowed about and celebrated. Instead, the company considers both games to be disappointments, concerns so grave the company’s CEO resigned over them.
The culprit behind that disappointment is almost certainly the return on investment demanded by the publisher due to each game’s (presumably) high budgets. We don’t know how much Square spent on Sleeping Dogs, say, but we do know that Emma Stone and Lucy Liu’s voice talents didn’t come cheap, despite the fact they each appear in the game for all of about 10 minutes of gameplay. Sleeping Dog would have been the same game if they’d just hired less expensive voice talent, but one can’t help but think that chasing after Rockstar – SD is an open world crime game after all – convinced Square that famous names were needed to sell the game.
Also worth mentioning is the fact that Star Wars: The Old Republic met and then exceeded Electronic Arts’ measure of success – one million subscribers – but was still considered a disappointment. Largely because the game’s reported budget was between $150 and $200 million.
Most games will never come close to the sales enjoyed by the GTAs and Call of Dutys of the world, and that’s fine. Unfortunately, the industry is increasingly built on the expectation these types of sales figures are a possibility. Electronic Arts’ assertion that Dead Space 3 wouldn’t be considered a hit worthy of another sequel unless it sold at least five million copies (it didn’t, btw) is one of the more egregious examples of this trend, but it’s excessively common. And that is, for better and more often for worse, is partly the fault of Rockstar’s enormous success.
Like everyone else, I’ll be playing Grand Theft Auto V and thus, contributing to that game’s eventual billions-of-dollars sales, and it’s going to be a lot of fun participating in what will surely be the pop culture moment of 2013. But
while it’s been great fun watching video games go mainstream over the last decade, it would be a shame for that transition’s final outcome to be the end of any risk-taking.
Forget supposed spikes in crime, the “negative influence” of gaming on kids, or inappropriate content. The most terrifying outcome of GTA V’s success would be for extravagant spending to become mandatory.
* It’s worth noting that the GTA V budget likely includes marketing costs, while those film budgets are pre-marketing.
** This became especially apparent once GTA’s exclusive license with Sony ended.