StarCraft II breaks the bank

Dan Stapleton at

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Update: The Wall Street Journal has retracted the story which claimed StarCraft II cost $100 million to make. It turns out that number was in reference to World of Warcraft, not StarCraft. Blizzard has declined to say how much they've spent on StarCraft II, but even though it might not be a nine-digit number, it's a hell of a lot.

If you Google “things that cost $100 million” right now, StarCraft II tops the list.

It’s all due to a Wall Street Journal story which claims that Blizzard has spent around $100 million on development, which would make it one of the most expensive development projects in gaming history, on any platform. From what I’m told (developers are shy about sharing hard numbers), that’s five to 10 times the typical budget of a major game, with only a few extremely ambitious and groundbreaking games coming close to the $100 million mark. (GTA IV is the only other one I’ve ever heard of to do so.)

It sounds like an absurd amount of money—like something Dr. Evil would demand. How could anyone possibly spend that much money on a game, much less one that doesn’t push any technological boundaries and does its best to replicate the gameplay experience of a 12-year-old game?

After talking to various developers around the industry, I believe that number. Blizzard spent a decade actively developing the game (they may have scrapped what they had and restarted at least once during that time, before they officially announced it in 2007) and that means paying a team of ace developers the whole time. That adds up faster than you'd think, and back when the game was first announced, Blizzard told me that they had a team of 40 working on the project. That number can only have gone up in the past three years.

And that's just the guys who are making the actual game part. There are other costs, including the upkeep on Blizzard's swank Irvine, California office space, which doesn't come cheap. There's also a cast of dozens of voice actors. But a huge expense, possibly bigger than the development costs themselves, are the stunning, world-class rendered cinematics for which Blizzard's games are known. You'd be shocked at how much those things cost to make. Run-of-the-mill cinematics can cost millions. A full game worth of Blizzard cinematics? Tens of millions, easily.

The announcement trailer showing Terran Marine Tychus Finley putting on his robo-pants.

This TV ad shows clips of a ton of amazing-looking cinematics.

There’s also the cost of the development of the new Battle.net 2.0, which may or may not be included in that grand total.

Doing some simple math, that $100 million price tag means Blizzard has to sell almost 1.7 million copies at the full $60 price just to break even. (And that's assuming that Blizzard would see every dime of those sales, but retailers need to take their piece of the pie, after all.) Given that games on the PC rarely sell that many copies in their entire lifetimes, it seems like a tremendously risky proposition.

[MPU]

Of course, this is Blizzard we’re talking about here, and StarCraft. To date, StarCraft has sold more than 11 million copies, and Blizzard’s other recent games have moved a million copies in a matter of days. In that context, spending $100 million to make a stand-out product seems like the safest bet in the world.

Whether you’re excited about StarCraft or not, data like this should make you scoff in the general direction of people who claim PC gaming is on the decline. Between this news and EA confirming that Star Wars: The Old Republic is its single most expensive development project ever, no one has ever spent as much money on PC-exclusive games as they are right now. The fact that giant companies like Activision and EA are willing to make those investments shows a huge amount of confidence in the platform.

So now the question is, is StarCraft II going to be $100 million worth of fun? Just one more week ‘till we all find out. We'll be covering the launch on July 27.