The Witcher 3's Development Was Cheaper, But Still in AAA Territory

Don't believe everything you read on the internet. Or do believe it, but put it in the right context.

Analysis by Mike Williams, .

The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is a resounding success. In an open letter to fans, CD Projekt Red co-founder Marcin Iwiński revealed that the title has already sold 4 million copies worldwide.

"Since day one, you have given us tons of positive feedback and support -- the sheer volume of emails we've gotten since launch simply congratulating us for our efforts is both epic and heartwarming, and I wish every developer comes to have such a fantastic community," wrote Iwiński.

"I'd also like to take this opportunity to thank the four million gamers worldwide who bought The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in the first two weeks from launch," he added. "Four million RPG fans spending their hard-earned money on our game is a sign that we did something right, and you can be sure that we'll harness all that positive energy and make the upcoming expansions worthy of the grand adventure that you're telling us Wild Hunt already is!"

That's awesome and The Witcher III absolutely deserves it. It's a great game bringing the effort and vision of a Polish author and development studio to the world. After playing the title, I'm very much looking forward to Cyberpunk 2077 and the RPG experience CDPR is crafting there.

The Witcher III is every bit a AAA experience. What surprises people is how cheap The Witcher III's development seems compared to other AAA titles. A post on Reddit yesterday compared the budget of The Witcher III to those of Grand Theft Auto V and Destiny, with the question of "Who Spent It Better?" (Image to left.)

Right off the bat, this is an apples to oranges comparison. The $500 million figure comes from comments made by Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick during a talk last year. That number isn't for a single title, that's the combined costs for the franchise. That's getting the game off the ground, marketing, and further content. Bungie has a 10-year plan for Destiny, and the $500 million is the initial amount to establish a strong franchise encompassing four games.

"For marketing you'd have to ask Activision people, but for development costs, not anything close to $500 million," Bungie COO Pete Parsons told I think that speaks a lot more to the long-term investment that we're making in the future of the product. We sat back, long before we even came to our partnership with Activision, thinking about, 'We wanted to tell a story over ten years.' We wanted each one of these things to have its own beginning, middle, and an end, but we really wanted to step back and we can do it."

This is what £170 million gets you.

The Grand Theft Auto V number is comes via an article about Rockstar Games published by the Scotsman. The exact number given was £170 million, which translates to $262 million with today's currency rates. That makes GTAV the most expensive video game to date and more than twice the budget of its predecessor. Of course, there's no direct corraboration of that number for the developer.

Taken in those terms, The Witcher III is cheaper than those big titles, even when you remove the incorrect budget numbers in the image. According to Polish daily newspaper Puls Biznesu (Business' Pulse) in 2013, CDPR CEO Adam Kiciński estimated the game's total budget at over 110 million zł (Polish Zloty, $30 million). Of that total, 45 million zł ($12.2 million) was production budget, while another $25 million was going straight to marketing. A story published yesterday at put the final production budget a bit higher: over 120 million zł ($32.4 million). In addition, $35 million was spent just for marketing, making the final total roughly $67.4 million.

If you're concerned about the fact that marketing the game cost as much as the game itself, that's pretty normal. VentureBeat reported on a 2009 speech by EA chief creative officer Rich Hilleman, where the executive admitted that EA spent two or three times the production budget on marketing. Big business believes that if you want you game to succeed these days, you have to get it front of consumers. That means lots of ads.

We have no clue exactly how much Destiny costs.

Either way, $67 million is within spitting distance for a AAA title these days from the scant numbers that are available. (Companies like to keep budgets under wraps.) An Activision contract showed that Bungie was authorized a budget of $140 million for Destiny. Watch Dogs cost over 50 million ($68 million at the time) according to executive producer Stéphane Decroix. Disney Infinity 1.0 was reportedly $100 million. Crysis 3 cost more than $60 million, according the Crytek's CEO.

So CD Projekt Red was in the same ballpark, but The Witcher III's costs benefited from location. AAA game production budgets are based on paying a huge number of developers a worthwhile salary, which changes based on where your studio is located. Living costs aren't the same in New York and North Carolina, and they certainly aren't the same in the United States, Canada, or Poland. A Gallup poll in 2013 put the median household income for the United States at $43,585 and the United Kingdom at $31,617. Poland? $15,338.

Moving on to just game developers, we have the annual Game Developer Salary Survey over at Gamasutra. For the U.S. in 2013, game developers made an average of $83,060, while Canadian devs made $71,445. Develop ran its own UK salary survey, coming up with an average salary of £29,358 ($46,591 at the time). Polski GameDev offered up its own infographic showing local salaries broken down job type. The average salary overall? 4,458 zł per month ($1,446 per month at the time). Total annual average salary? $17,352.

Polish developers make far less than their North American counterparts, meaning the overall cost of the Witcher III is much, much lower. That doesn't change the fact that the game was crazy expensive for Poland. So CD Projekt Red did amazing work on The Witcher III for far less than some other studios, but unless we're going to move all of our major development houses to Poland, the comparison simply doesn't work out.

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Comments 12

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  • Avatar for Mikki-Saturn #1 Mikki-Saturn 3 years ago
    Good article. You explain it well. People get really confused about money, for some reason. But yeah, unless you want every developer to outsource production to cheaper labor markets, you can't really make this comparison.
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #2 kidgorilla 3 years ago
    I wonder if Poland has the same tax benefits for game developers that other countries have. That might have kept things on the cheap for them, too, but those salaries seem pretty low for 200 people during crunch.

    Then again, CDPR is a company that's very cool with their fans. Maybe they're cool with their employees, too, and limit crunch.
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  • Avatar for DemiurgicSoul #3 DemiurgicSoul 3 years ago
    @Mikki-Saturn Outsourcing production to cheaper labor markets probably happens more than we realize already. Great article though. Most people (and even other gaming news sites) usually don't look at the context with this type of thing. They just post the numbers and call it a story. Great job Mike.
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  • Avatar for DemiurgicSoul #4 DemiurgicSoul 3 years ago
    Deleted June 2015 by DemiurgicSoul
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  • Avatar for Mikki-Saturn #5 Mikki-Saturn 3 years ago
    @DemiurgicSoul Oh for sure. I just mean, I think most people generally think of that as bad. So presumably we wouldn't want that to become the norm.

    But actually, that said, I guess I have a pretty philosophical attitude towards outsourcing. I'm not sure that I would be prepared to call it bad categorically.
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  • Avatar for pdubb #6 pdubb 3 years ago
    They took our Jerbs!
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  • Avatar for ChairmanYang #7 ChairmanYang 3 years ago
    Two complications you should mention:
    1. CD Projekt Red doesn't only use cheap Polish labour; some key positions have to be filled by high-skilled foreigners from the US and elsewhere, and these people won't come unless they're paid rich-country salaries. In other words, CDPR doesn't benefit from low salaries as much as you might expect.
    2. Rich-country game companies like EA and Ubisoft have many studios with tons of manpower in countries with cheap labour like Romania and China. In other words, "American" AAA developers benefit from low salaries more than you might expect.
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  • Avatar for MHWilliams #8 MHWilliams 3 years ago
    @ChairmanYang CD Projekt Red has foreigners, but those positions are most likely paid a good salary for Poland (not the US/UK) and offered back-end money (as an example, Infinity Ward had/has such a bonus structure). That said, most workers are still from Poland, so overall studio costs are down.

    Your correct on the the latter part. Those studios do a lot of the back-end work on titles like FIFA and Assassin's Creed. Those bring costs down, even if they're not as great as having the entire studio in those areas. Wargaming and CCP Games are two more studios that benefit from growing out of cheaper countries.
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  • Avatar for gamer1234cv #9 gamer1234cv 3 years ago
    Cool games are like movies now.
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  • Avatar for snakeEyes799 #10 snakeEyes799 3 years ago
    $15 million for the Witcher with tons of content along with free DLC and an estimated $140 for Destiny with all paid DLC? What is worng that picture? I know a lot of people like Destiny but I was very disappointed wilt lack of content. Can someone explain??
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  • Avatar for apoc_reg #11 apoc_reg 3 years ago
    How ridiculous that such a fantastic, gorgeous and well crafted game could cost (in relative terms) bugger all to make.

    Maybe we'll see GTA VI - Krakow edition so they can make that for 20 mill!Edited June 2015 by apoc_reg
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  • Avatar for hal9k #12 hal9k 3 years ago
    Very interesting article, and a great point about taking other factors such as marketing and different production costs in different regions into account. Not to be down on Destiny (I haven't played it, so I'm in no position to judge and it sounds like it has its pros and cons), but a half-billion dollar investment in a 10 year, 4 game franchise does sound like hubris. It reminds me of 3 words: "Fabula Nova Crystallis" ("Too Human Trilogy" would also suffice).
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  • Avatar for anfit #13 anfit 3 years ago
    A Pole here: wages in Poland are low, but IT pays well (up to 2-4 times the national avg). Actually, in PPP terms it can be better to be a programmer in Poland then in Germany... This means I would not underestimate the personel costs at CDPR - you just won't get programmers for PLN4k around here. The important bit is elsewere: pay a first world wage a person in a middle or low wage country, get a really devoted employee. That's one hell of a motivation.
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