The Most Expensive MMORPGs Ever Developed
Most of us know that developing an MMORPG is lengthy and expensive endeavor, especially for Western companies. South Korean and Chinese companies on the other hand, seem to be able to develop these games on much tighter budgets, but even so, some of the most expensive games ever developed are MMORPGs. The reason MMOs cost so much to develop is that they're complex pieces of software - much more complex than traditional offline or even multiplayer games. Designing and programming a game that supports tens of thousands of players online at once, isn't easy. World of Warcraft for example has over 5.5 million lines of code, 1.5M+ art assets, 70K+ spells, 27 hours of music, and over 10K quests! Even after the game is finished, the bills keep rolling in; MMOs need to be constantly updated, patched, and moderated. Anyway, the point is: MMORPGs are extremely expensive to develop.Interestingly, there aren't many old MMORPGs on this list. There's clearly been a lot of inflation in video game development, especially MMO development.
Note: This list looks strictly at "Development costs", not "Total costs", which typically include marketing budgets.
Most Expensive MMORPGs Ever Developed
Star Wars: The Old Republic
Development Cost: $200 million
Not only is Electronic Art's Star Wars: The Old Republic the most expensive MMORPG to ever be developed, it's also one of the most expensive video game to ever be developed. The game launched in 2011 and was developed by famed RPG developer BioWare. Electronic Arts gained control over the game after purchasing Bioware back in 2007 for a whopping $775 million. MMOs are clearly big business and without the EA acquisition, Bioware likely wouldn't have been able to afford to throw $200M at developing the game. Why did Star Wars: The Old Republic cost so much to develop? Because Bioware spared no expense. The game has an extremely well developed storyline, more so than all previous Bioware games combined, according to the studio itself. Bioware employed 12 full time writers for over 2 years to produce the game's dialogue. The game also has over 200,000 lines of voice recorded dialogue, making it the most voiced over "project" ever. Despite not being able to dethrone World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic was still a success for Electronic Arts (generates ~$100/m a year in revenue according to SuperDataResearch). The game originally launched as a traditional pay to play subscription game, but later went free to play.
Elder Scrolls Online
Development Cost: ~$200 Million (Estimate)
Originally launched as a pay to play subscription based game on April 4, 2014, The Elder Scrolls Online dropped its subscription on March 17, 2015 to become a buy once play free game similar to Guild Wars. The game cost a rumored $200 million to develop, but this figure has never been confirmed by ZeniMax Online Studios (The game's developer) or Bethesda (The game's publisher). Given the skyrocketing cost of MMORPG development, the $200 million figure doesn't seem like a stretch.
Development Cost: Budget $140M Industry Estimates: $100-$400M. See source)
Although not marketed as an "MMO" specifically by Bungie or Activision, Destiny features many characteristics of an MMO. According to industry sources, the game cost Activision upwards of $500M, but that figure includes marketing expenses. The $140M figure is cited in this document between Activision and Bungie for the development of Destiny.
Star Citizen (In-development)
Development Cost: $200+ Million (and counting)
Despite not being released yet, Star Citizen is one of the most expensive MMORPGs ever to be developed. The game raised a whopping $87.5M as of August 22, 2015 and those funds have been spent towards developing Star Citizen, according to the game's founder, Chris Roberts. Star Citizen is the only crowd funding MMORPG to make this list and is one of the largest, if not largest, crowd funding campaigns ever. Despite raising significantly more money than originally expected, the game is behind schedule and already missed its first release date. The game is now expected to launch in 2017.
Final Fantasy XIV
Development Cost: $120M (Estimate)
Despite a disastrous launch so bad that the game had to literally shut down and be re-developed, Final Fantasy XIV has rebounded from its lows and is actually doing quite well now. Producer Naoki Yoshido revealed in July, 2015 that the game had a total of 5 million paid subscribers since its initial launch, which translates into roughly 800-1.2M active subscriptions, which makes it the second most subscribed MMORPG after WoW. Square Enix never spelled out the game's total development costs, but given that Final Fantasy 13 cost ~$65M, $120M for Final Fantasy XIV seemed like a good estimate, especially considering the game had to be re-developed.
Development Cost:Over $100 Million
Firefall was one of the most hyped MMO releases ever since it was first announced. The company behind it, Red5 Studios, was made up of Ex-Blizzard developers and promised a unique mix of FPS and MMORPG. After a luke warm launch in 2014, the game's playerbase numbers started to decline rather quickly. According to an interview with the CEO of The9, the Chinese gaming company that owns Red5, over $100M was invested into the game.
Tabula Rasa (Shut Down)
Development Cost: $100M
Tabula Rasa was NCSoft's biggest financial disaster - costing the company a bit over $100M. The game launched on November 2, 2007 and shut down on February 28, 2009 after earning less than $10M. The game was designed by the godfather of modern MMOs - Richard Gariott, who had previously designed Ultima Online. Tabula Rasa was an ambitious title that blended traditional MMORPG gameplay with first person shooter elements.
Halo MMO (Cancelled / Never Releases)
Development Cost: $90 Million
So apparently a Halo MMO was in development by Ensemble Studios, the Microsoft owned studio that developed Age of Empires. Ensemble Studios was shut down by Microsoft after the completion of Halo Wars, and one project that died with them was the Halo MMO, after spending a whopping $90 million in development. The motivation behind the game's development in the first place was to take a piece of the pie from Blizzard Entertainment's enormously successful World of Warcraft. Oddly, the Halo MMO that Ensemble was working on was code named "Titan", the same code name that Blizzard's next-gen MMORPG had before it was shuttered.
Development Cost: $80 Million
Defiance is the only MMORPG that launched alongside a TV show bearing the same name. The game is developed and published by U.S. based Trion Worlds and launched in April, 2013 for PC and later released on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.The TV show may be a bigger hit than the game, as the third season premiered on June 12, 2015.For those that haven't heard of Defiance, it's an open world free to play co-op shooter set in the distant future. It's one of the few third person shooter MMORPGs out there and actually plays a lot like Borderlands. Defiance launched as a buy to play game, similar to Guild Wars / Guild Wars 2, but later went fully free to play.
Development cost: $78 Million
Kingdom Under Fire 2 is the first South Korean MMO to make it to this list. It features Dynasty Warriors inspired action combat along with persistent territorial battles. Guilds can capture territory, build citiies, and upgrade them.The game is available for both PC and PS4 sometime in late 2017.
Development Cost: $50-70M
Rift, which originally launched as Rift: Planes of Telera, is a fantasy MMORPG developed and published by Trion Worlds. The game originally launched as a pay to play subscription based MMORPG in March, 2011, but later went free to play. Rift was Trion's first commercial product and the game's success led to the company licensing ArcheAge and developing Trove.
World of Warcraft
Development Cost: $63M
Blizzard's World of Warcraft took a whopping $63M to develop, but that's only the original game. If you include the cost of updating and maintaining the game, you'd need to add another $200M to this figure. This may seem like a lot, but given the game's popularity and monthly subscription price, World of Warcraft is one of the most profitable MMORPGs in the world. Given how long the game has been operating, it's probably THE most profitable MMORPG in the world. WoW earned a bit over $728M in 2014, only to be out-earned by Dungeon Fighter Online from Nexon.
Development Cost: ~$61M
Bless is a fantasy MMORPG developed by the Korean studio Neowiz Games and is the second Korean MMORPG to make it to this list. The game features a gorgeous persistent open world with no zoning (similar to Revelation Online / Black Desert Online).
DC Universe Online
Development Cost: $50M
As the name implies, DC Universe Online is an MMORPG set in the DC universe made popular by DC Comics. DC Universe is an interesting game to make this list because it was developed from the get-go as a free to play title, whereas most other games on here started as a traditional pay to play game. As we've learned with the closure of Infinite Crisis, just because a game has a popular franchise behind it, like DC Comics, it doesn't guarantee the game success.
The Secret World
Development Cost: $50M
Funcom's epic story driven MMORPG The Secret World makes the list. Anyone who has ever played The Secret World shouldn't be too surprised this made the cut, as the game is incredibly polished. It's one of the only MMORPGs set in a modern environment, which helps differentiate it amongst the countless fantasy themed games out there. The game uses a buy to play model, similar to Guild Wars, where players are only expected to pay once for the base game. The Secret World launched in 2012 and the game's twelfth content update, Issue #12, launched August 22, 2015. For those that haven't played it, definitely check it out. It's an MMO experience like no other.
Development Cost: $50M-$100M
Although not an "MMORPG" APB Reloaded is an MMO. More specifically, a third person MMO shooter. It launched in 2010 by Realtime Worlds and quickly flopped. The game was then purchased by GamersFirst (K2 Networks) and relaunched as APB Reloaded (Previously known as APB: All Points Bulletin). The game originally launched as a buy to play title, but went free to play after the GamersFirst relaunch. GamersFirst later acquired numerous other MMOs and relaunched them as free to play games, including Fallen Earth. Since going free to play, APB has been much more successful. K2 Networks netted quite a bit of profit from the acquisition, as they only paid£1.5 million for the game, which cost $50M to develop.
Titan (Cancelled / Never Released)
Development Cost: $50-$70M
Blizzard Entertainment's cancelled MMO Titan cost the company anywhere from $50-$70M before it was cancelled. The game was never officially announced and "Titan" was simply a code name. Little is known about the game except that Blizzard had been working on it several years.
This list will be updated from time to time with additional MMOs.
Due to the nature of development costs for specific projects not being outlined in public financials, these numbers are based on reports from industry veterans, analyst Q&As, reputable newspapers, and other sources. See the sources section below: