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

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.

The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is a resounding success. In an open letter to fans, CD Projekt Red co-founder Marcin Iwi?ski 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 Iwi?ski.

"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 Kici?ski estimated the game's total budget at over 110 million z? (Polish Zloty, $30 million). Of that total, 45 million z? ($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 z? ($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 z? 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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Mike Williams

Reviews Editor

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.

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