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I am doing a project and I have a few questions about game development/maintenance costs.

For a MMORPG like Second Life, how much does it cost to develop and maintain? Maintain as in servers' operational costs, hiring of engineers and developers to patch the game regularly, etc.?

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Fairly close to Develop an MMO?, or at least some of the Answers there, apply to here. –  Cyclops Apr 15 '11 at 13:38
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-1, this isn't something that's easily answerable. It heavily depends on the variables at play. Like how many users, what tech the game is based off of, how many concurrent users per server your game can support, where in the world the servers and devs are located, that kind of thing. –  Tetrad Apr 15 '11 at 14:29
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It's a question worth answering, regardless of the "ease'. Man up, tiny. ;) –  ChrisE Apr 15 '11 at 16:42
    
(I'm working on answering it now, no worries) –  ChrisE Apr 15 '11 at 16:49
    
I do think we already have an answer to this question somewhere here, however. –  Kylotan Apr 15 '11 at 17:46
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migrated from stackoverflow.com Apr 15 '11 at 13:33

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3 Answers

Easy answer

The cost of running an MMO? In United States Dollars?

ITS OVER 9000 (dollars)!!!!!

Useful Answer

Scope of question

So, dividing your question up into chunks, you seem to want to know about the costs of:

  • Development (making the game)
  • Marketing (making people aware of the game)
  • Infrastructure (base cost of server hardware and supporting infrastructure)
  • Infrastructure maintenance (recurring costs in electricity, parts replacement, rent, etc.)
  • Operating expense (cost of patches/updates/moderation)

For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to play a little bit fast and loose with the numbers here--these will be mostly back-of-the-envelope informal estimates, informed by common sense, my engineering background, and my location.

I'm going to err on the side of being a small developer, and I'm going to bend rules to get you your MMO. You should thus consider this to be a very conservative economic assessment (you will probably end up spending more) and a very liberal social assessment (you might end up in prison with some of my shortcuts).

I'm going to avoid assuming supermen developers and exotic product designs, and instead assume a conventional MMO such as Asheron's Call or WoW and merely highly-motivated developers (which is still a generous assumption).

Project scope estimate and assumptions

So, let's throw out some numbers to get started. These may or may not be reasonable, but they give us a place to begin.

  • Development time: 2 years. (this is about how long Minecraft has been in development, and about the total amount of time it took to create Project Volucris, an MMO based on Xenimus)
  • Development rate: Full-time work. (you aren't working full-time, you aren't working)
  • Running time: 4 years. (people still play Asheron's Call and Ultima, so not unreasonable)

Cost the first: Development

So, let's consider the costs of development. I'm going to keep a running total for you.

People

So, we know that zero people will get no work done. Minecraft was done by 1 guy, WoW by hundreds. We expect to fall somewhere in that range. We support specialization, so we expect to have people dedicated to one field (some overlap, perhaps). We need at least one coder and one artist. This, however, will be an MMO, and so we need someone to babysit the servers; add a sysadmin.

Except, this doesn't cut it. You want some amount of redundancy in case somebody gets sick, so double all of those. Especially for programmers, you really need somebody to call you out on design decisions and motivate you. So, 6 people. More artists are better (content creation really does scale linearly!). So, 8 people. A third programmer wouldn't be a bad idea either, especially if you need to farm out grunt work while doing design. So, 9. And a tools programmer is going to be really important--but let's pretend that could be your second sysadmin.

So, 9 people. Let's assume they are motivated/deluded into doing this for two years, and so are willing to work at minimum wage for the duration of the project. Living wage where I live is roughly $18k a year; these guys are also all-star developers, so let's given them a $7k bonus on top of that.

(Incidentally, this is paying them peanuts compared to industry work)

(also incidentally, this is assuming we are treating them as contractors, and so have avoid the full cost of things like health insurance, HR overhead, etc.)

9 people x $25k per person per year x 2 years development = $450k

People Cost: $450 000. 00

Grand total: $450 000. 00

Software

Operating systems

Let's save our money and use Linux for everything, and assume that we can test on our home machines, or that the users can magically provide beta-testing for us. Or, even better, that we pirate copies of Windows or OSX, or scavenge license keys off discarded equipment.

*OS Cost: $0 *

Art tools

Let's use the GIMP or Paint.NET for our 2D art, and Blender/Wings/Sculptris for our 3D art. Or, we can get Adobe CS5 and 3DStudio Max 2011 with the PirateBay discount. The end user doesn't know/can't tell, and we can probably mask the origin of the assets from inquiry.

*Art tools Cost: $0 *

Code tools

We can legitimately use GCC/Visual Studio Express/Eclipse for free. If we really need to have the fancy ultimate/pro/whatever editions, back to the Bay--just remember to strip your executables afterwards.

*Code tools Cost: $0 *

Software Cost: $0. 00

Grand total: $450 000. 00

Hardware

Development Hardware

Let's not assume that you need insane next-gen tech, and let's not assume that you ask everyone to just bring their home machines to work. So, a couple of minutes on TigerDirect show several systems for under $500. I'll assume you spend a full grand anyways, which could be for storage, RAM, video card, or whatever helps that particular developer.

$1k per box per developer x 9 box-developers = $9k

  • Developer Hardware Cost: $9 000. 00 *

Server Hardware

IBM has some great hardware for many tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands!) of dollars. Let's Google this, and use cheap normal components. Let's again use the $500/box metric from above.

Second Life has over 2000 servers. We'll use that, since you asked for Second Life as an example.

2000 servers x $500 per server = $1 000 000. 00

  • Server Hardware Cost: $1 000 000. 00 *

Hardware Cost: $1 009 000. 00

Grand total: $1 459 000. 00


This is before you have marketing (zero to millions, depending), maintenance, or anything else. This is just development and the server hardware costs. If you want me to continue this analysis, please mention it in the comments.

MMOs are expensive to make.

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Good answer, except for the PirateBay parts ;P . –  Mike Lentini Apr 16 '11 at 14:41
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Speaking of network traffic, this estimate didn't even account for a place to put those 2,000 servers and the bandwidth required - it would be through the roof. –  Ricket Apr 16 '11 at 15:28
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This has got to the single most "optimistic" budget I've ever seen. The going rate for good programmers in the Bay Area is 3-4x that for salary alone, even without health coverage (which is questionably legal in some states) there is a still a hefty overhead for the company (ex. payroll taxes). It is also not unheard of to drop $20k on a single server for things like databases, normal game machines are more generally around $5k, but it depends on the perf characteristics of the game. The schedule is way off, 24 months for a AAA title is insane (I say having done it before). –  coderanger Apr 17 '11 at 7:22
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@coderanger: Agreed. I'm being exceedingly optimistic here, mostly to show how expensive it is even if you are wearing rosy glasses. –  ChrisE Apr 17 '11 at 7:47
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This was a big WTF from the Second Life article: "At peak usage that means that each server is handling about three users." THREE??!?! My iPhone can handle that. –  z8000 Jun 4 '11 at 3:03
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This is one of those questions where one has to response with another question: That depends on what you want to do.

An MMO can be a mega-multi-million dollar production effort that requires vast server farms to run, or it can be a lean clean web based game that runs on a single Amazon S3 instance or uses Google Application Engine.

Whatever your approach, you have to have a solid business plan. It's going to cost X per month to run your servers, and so you had better be bring in X + P (P = profit) every month from subscriptions unless you like losing money. And don't forget that P is going into paying back your development costs. $50 million to build an MMO that grosses $100 a month isn't going to work.

Do read this article...

http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/issues/issue_75/431-Boutique-MMOGs

It doesn't go into cost details, but it goes into mindset.

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The biggest cost of any software project is the wages for the workers.

Imagine a team of 30 developers: maybe 8 coders, 8 artists, 8 designers, and 6 support staff. If they earn an average of $75,000 each, that's $2.25M per year. Imagine you develop for 3 years before release, then that's nearly $7M you have to find up-front.

Do you need 30 developers and 3 years of development? Maybe, maybe not, and maybe that's not enough. It depends on what you need to make. The best thing you can do is find a company that has made a game similar in scope to the one you want to make, and find out the size of their development team and the length of time they spent developing it - these figures are usually public. Then multiply those by the average wage and you get a ballpark figure.

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Salary isn't a good metric for determining per-employee costs. You also have to factor in payroll tax, health care costs, their percentage of shared resources (rent, non-project based support staff like IT), equipment and software costs, etc. In my experience, standard rates in the US fall somewhere in the 10-15k per head per month range. –  Tetrad Apr 15 '11 at 20:09
    
I know costs are nowhere near that high per person here in the UK, but then salaries are a bit lower too. My point was more that this is a lower bound - hopefully everybody will realise there are more costs than salary alone. –  Kylotan Apr 15 '11 at 20:49
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