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How do I estimate a budget for a MMO?

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I have almost 0 programming experience and exactly 0 art and networking experience and don't plan on learning anything other then the overall general basics I need to know to design a game within a budget I can spend.  I know I know everyone has a idea and you will never beable to do this blah blah blah.  I don't care.  I believe strong enough in my ideas on game mechanics and revenue generation to spend the next year or two trying.  So the main questions for right now before I even begin making a game design document are...

 

What do I need to learn before it even makes sense to make a game design document and where can I learn it?  Keep in mind the budget for the game is not going to be known until after the document is done as I plan on using that to put the people and resources together to try to make this happen.  I'm hoping based on nothing really that 250k is a bare minimium to make something close to what I want in terms of gameplay.  If I just wanted to make a nintendo nes graphics level game with more advanced gameplay and mechanics and beable to handle 500 concurrent users in a persistant world do you think that would be enough money?  Assuming I'm paying a normal wage for all or most work (could probably get some cheap or free art at this level of graphics)?  If not how much would be needed and how much of that is paid labor for programming, art, networking vs licensing and hardware etc costs?  How much do costs go up as the graphics improve?  Think the exact same game but NES level to GTA 2 level graphics?  What would the extra cost be in $ or multiples of the original art budget?

 

What is the cost breakdown of making a MMO?  The massive multiplayer aspect is the most important part of this idea (other then my original ideas i'm not going to share).  How much of the cost does this aspect account for in terms of both extra programming and servers and bandwidth needed?  If I have a game that can handle 1000 concurrent users is that going to be significantly more costly then the same game that could handle only 100 users?  Does the size of the ingame world drastically effect the amount of servers or size of servers needed?  Does the maximum number of players that can be in a certain area at the same time or in the same "instance" of the game affect cost alot?  Would having gameplay that "instances" off small teams of players in certain areas be more cost effective?

 

Are there any patents that I'm going to have to be careful of violating or that basically every MMO has to pay a fee for using?  If so what is going to be the cost of licensing the basic patents to make a MMO? 

 

I realize some of these questions are mostly unanswerable without knowing exactly what the game design is but I'm just looking for very rough estimates atm to determine what to plan for in the game design and business plan.  Any examples of other sub $10 million MMO's and their production costs and features would be useful.  Any questions you can answer or new questions you think I should ask myself or helpful links you can provide would be appreciated.  I have no illusions of making a AAA graphic game and realize that getting any game done with little to no money out of pocket and 0 experience in the industry is completely unheard of so no need to make a negative post telling me that.  Thanks

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Forgot a very important question.  What would be a fair assumption for the cost per player per hour to host a MMO?  What factors effect this number?  Is this even a valid concern or is most of this cost going to depend on the cost of servers needed to support the max number of concurrent users?

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1. What do I need to learn before it even makes sense to make a game design document and where can I learn it? 

2. Keep in mind the budget for the game is not going to be known until after the document is done

3. I'm hoping based on nothing really that 250k is a bare minimium to make something close to what I want

4. If I just wanted to make a nintendo nes graphics level game with more advanced gameplay and mechanics and beable to handle 500 concurrent users in a persistant world do you think that would be enough money? 

5. how much of that is paid labor for programming, art, networking vs licensing and hardware etc costs?  6. How much do costs go up as the graphics improve?  Think the exact same game but NES level to GTA 2 level graphics?  What would the extra cost be in $ or multiples of the original art budget?

6. Would having gameplay that "instances" off small teams of players in certain areas be more cost effective?

7. Are there any patents that I'm going to have to be careful of violating

8. I have almost 0 programming experience and exactly 0 art and networking experience and don't plan on learning anything other then the overall general basics I need to know... 0 experience in the industry is completely unheard of so no need to make a negative post telling me that. 

 

1. You don't need to learn much to write a GDD. Just grammar and spelling and punctuation, and play lots of games and be able to describe functionality from the programmer's point of view (not the player's).  Read http://sloperama.com/advice/specs.htm and http://sloperama.com/advice/lesson13.htm and just start writing.

2. Actually, you can't write a budget from a GDD. You also need a TDD, an art list, and an audio list. And a staffing list.  From those docs you create a schedule, then the budget is easy. 

3. It depends on the scale and scope of the game, for one thing.

4. Probably not. Maybe this will be helpful: http://sloperama.com/advice/finances.htm

5. The largest cost is personnel salaries, and the most money is spent on programmers. 

6. Probably.

7. Yes, but it's best that you don't read any patents. Read the "Patent trolls" thread on this board: http://www.gamedev.net/topic/645267-patent-trolls-attacking-small-indie-developers/

8. Not having experience means your costs will increase greatly (you'll be spending a lot on the learning).

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Bearing in mind that we know almost nothing about your game, so any kind of estimates are merely conjecture...
Also bearing in mind that I'm just a hobbyist trying to go indie, and not in the professional game development industry...
 
Hosting costs are less than development costs. I did some basic back-of-a-napkin hypothetical calculations on server costs at the bottom of this post.

 

A 500 user concurrent MMO isn't really a Massively Multiplayer Online RPG, just a ORPG - an Online RPG. Though people often mix the terms up, to be 'massive' the term was coined for 100k subscribers, meaning more than about 5-10k active at once. The title isn't fully defined though, what makes a game 'massive' or not is up for debate.

 

500 concurrent users could probably be hosted (depending heavily on the nature of the gameplay of the game) at less than $1000 a month. I'm assuming a single one of your servers can run 50 users concurrently (optimized, and depending on the nature of the game, they could handle more), and so you'll need 10 servers running 24 horus a day, 30 days a month, at an Amazon.com-hosted price of $0.120 an hour.

 

For a simple 2D rpg only hosting 500 concurrent users... I would estimate a decent programmer (again, depending heavily on the nature of the gameplay of the game) could do a decent job on it by working full-time for two or three years. This means, paying a wage of $35k a year (far below the average programmer wage of ~70k a year), and hiring two programmers working full time, and taking two programmers two years to make, it'll take $140k for you to pay your programmers.

 

Toss in another 35k a year for two artists who, if you're lucky, also have musical skills, a quarter of a million dollars isn't too bad of an estimate for a simple 2D online RPG.

 

Ofcourse, you'll want enough cash to be prepared for things taking longer and for mis-estimations in project scope, and for extra "insurance" against accidentally getting a poor programming who you think is doing good work, who a year into the project quits and suddenly leaves you with the revelation that he was just fooling around not knowing what he was doing. So a half-million would be better. It definitely could be done with far less, but you'll have to really know what you're doing, understanding fully every development detail of the game (which you already said that you don't. You have the design down, which helps, but knowing the development itself would cut costs and reduce risks alot).

 

If you start to build and can't finish, you lose everything you put into it but don't get anything out of it, so a larger backup reserve is important.

Edited by Servant of the Lord

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Servant, you've been very optimistic here.

I've been involved in various "MMOs", none of which ever cut below .5M$. Bear in mind that these were established teams however.

The 'rate of 35k$' / y is edgy. If a programmer is willing to get paid this salary to work on the project, there's a good chance his skill level is not that of an average industry programmer. This would make the game significantly longer to make, and would cause more bugs, which in turn would require more dev to fix (and possibly actual QA time trying to reproduce 'random' issues).

 

The key element of note here is lack of experience. a Project relying upon a man with no experience in management (or making games at all), lack of understanding of what everyone on the team really needs to be doing, and more importantly, lack of experience designing games (resulting in poor quality documentation and lack of foresight) could be catastrophic. This is a wildcard here that could increase the cost by magnitudes here. I'm going to assume OP is more than meets the eye here (anyone able to raise 250K$ like that probably has a hidden talent).

 

 

On the other hand, you could target to have something 'minimal' to be playable as quickly as possible, and iterate on your original design based on user feedback:

pros:

- You get to build the RIGHT features (things people actually want)

- You get to earn money midway through production (users paying to play)

- You get to have a light original design which is much easier to have everyone focused on (and that really helps to mitigate complexity too early in dev)

Edited by Orymus3

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This has been discussed many times, we should probably add a FAQ entry on it.


How to estimate the cost of a big video game.

Analogy time! One way to measure a mountain is to count all the rocks. Look at each rock individually, determine the size, and add it to a tally. This is similar to how many people want to estimate the cost of a project: add up each estimated budget line item and add it to a tally. Another way to measure a mountain is to compare it to other mountains of known size. In project management this is akin to looking at the bottom line from other projects and approximating from their values. Unfortunately most people don't have access to the budgets of many major projects. Yet another way is to think of the mountain as a giant pyramid and compute the value based on those factors. This is fairly easy to do with projects since you can generally estimate the major factors based on easily discovered data.

You should be able to find a list of comparable games to whatever you want to make. It doesn't need to be exactly the same, just approximately the same size, scope, and distribution. You may envision that you want a game similar to <game1> and <game2>.

Very rarely you can go online and with some careful searches discover the exact cost of your similar games. That is method two from above. You may discover that <game1> was $43M and <game2> was $38M, so you can make a rough estimate that your game will cost around $40M.

Usually you aren't that lucky. So you need to figure out the approximate dimensions of the project and do some multiplication, per method three above.

Go to sites like mobygames and get a list of the credits. Just count the number of programmers, artists, modelers, animators, designers, producers, and other major team members. That is the number of developers.

Then look up how long the game was in development. If you can't find it directly, look up other games by the team leads and compare the most recent previous release. Often it will be 12, 18, 24, or rarely 36 months. This is the months in development.

Next look at the country of origin. In the United States for all but the most expensive regions, the cost per development month is about $10,000. This is not the salary of a developer per month, but an estimate of the costs it takes to employ a developer; it a broad estimate of salary, equipment, software, facilities, support staff, taxes, insurance, and other costs. In other nations you will need to find the number unique to you.

Then multiply the three values. For a small mobile game: 5 developers * 3 months * $10,000 = $150,000. For an annual sports game: 30 developers * 12 months * $10,000 = $3,600,000. This is the production costs.

Production costs are like the height and width of the mountain; it is a triangle. There are other dimensions. Fortunately these are usually relative to the main development costs.

Before production the games need to be pitched, be fleshed out and designed, tested for legal requirements, the market researched, and more. After production is complete the game is not magically in customer's machines; there are many post-production tasks such as marketing the game, getting discs pressed and boxed and shipped around the world, or getting distribution agreements with online retailers, getting marketing agreements in place, processing all the money, and so on. Generally development costs are 1/3 of the total budget of a game, so multiply the production costs by 3. This is the total spend.



Now that you know roughly what the cost of your game will be, you can compare the total costs to other games of known development costs as a sanity check. One-off mobile games often have a budget of $50K-$150K. Large mobile games often have a budget of $500K-$1M. Many "rummage bin" console games have a total spend of $3M-$5M. Many of the annual updates and cheap remakes have a total spend of around $20M-$50M per platform. Big AAA games that span multiple platforms have a total spend of $50M-100M. The very large blockbuster MMOs have a total spend that starts at $100M just to break in.


Professionally built games are an expensive business.

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@Orymus3: I am being a bit optimistic, yeah.
 
It really all depends on the nature of the game. I was part of a small orpg hobbyist project, programmed by a single programmer (the program lead), and though we never finished the project, it was fully playable and almost feature-complete. We worked on it, as hobbyists, in our free time. We worked on and off over several years - from 2006 to 2010, with large gaps of inactivity sprinkled throughout.
 
The lead developer did 100% of the programming, but often didn't have time to work on the project because of real-life.
I was the lead artist (and a mighty poor one, back at that point in time), lead map-maker and world designer, and one of the two scripters.
We had a third developer who also helped with scripting and map making inbetween his college classes.
This was our team of three.
 
From time to time we had others do a spot of art here or there, and someone made the GUI artwork, but it was mostly us three.
 
Mostly, we all just messed around, but we had a decent-sized game world, functional combat, guilds, guild halls, PvP areas, non-PvP areas, hundreds of items, fully-scripted mini-event-games inside the game (player races, treasure hunts, and others), quests, skills (ranged, DoTs, AoEs, buffs, de-buffs), equipment with special effects, an auction hall, and a few other things as well.
 
We never promoted the game (since it wasn't finished), but we had a tiny active community of a dozen players, sometimes reaching as high as twenty. Without even announcing the game anywhere.
 
With a focused team of four (two programmers - who both also script, two artists - at least one of who can make music), working full-time, and getting paid to do so, I think it's within the realm of possibility.
 
The challenges are:
Reasonable featureset - not too extravagant in scope.
Having the game design mostly locked in place - so things aren't changed halfway through development.
Finding people who have skill and are willing to do the work full-time at around that price.
Managing the team, leading them, coordinating them, coordinating and organizing what still needs to be done, keeping the team focused and motivated. (This is much harder than it sounds if you don't know what you're doing - 'managing'/'leading' is not the same thing as "telling people what to do". It's not the "idea guy" position, it's an entirely different skillset)
 
None of those are insurmountable. For half a million ($250k as your employee wages and additional contracting work as needed, plus another $250k for when the project goes longer than expected), I think it's possible. You just have to know what you are doing, which the OP already said he does not.
 
Optimistic? Yes, definitely. But still possible. I just wouldn't risk my imaginary $500k on it. smile.png
 

The key element of note here is lack of experience. a Project relying upon a man with no experience in management (or making games at all), lack of understanding of what everyone on the team really needs to be doing, and more importantly, lack of experience designing games (resulting in poor quality documentation and lack of foresight) could be catastrophic.


Agreed - that pretty much sums the entire situation.

Edited by Servant of the Lord

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Assuming you get people willing to work for royalties, that are somehow skilled and reliable (motivated and loyal), you could even technically do it for much less. However, this is quite unlikely.

 

@Servant: Sad story. Any somewhat completed game deserves to be put out there.

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The key element of note here is lack of experience. a Project relying upon a man with no experience in management (or making games at all), lack of understanding of what everyone on the team really needs to be doing, and more importantly, lack of experience designing games (resulting in poor quality documentation and lack of foresight) could be catastrophic. This is a wildcard here that could increase the cost by magnitudes here. I'm going to assume OP is more than meets the eye here (anyone able to raise 250K$ like that probably has a hidden talent).

 

That says it all. Without working in the industry, or creating multiple indie games yourself, you can't even imagine the leadership challenges you're going to face doing this. You'd need to hire a project manager/producer to handle the project for you.

 

A good example of a MMO that I could make alone, in under a year, is "Realm of the Mad God". The original class sprites were from a roguelike contest, and the game generates worlds algorithmically. I'd say that's a decent end goal for your $250k to take you, if everything went perfectly. Another problem not mentioned, is you have no idea who to hire and how to hire them. You wouldn't know what quality of employee you'd be hiring.

 

Sloper has some FAQ entry on how worthless game ideas are, so there is no use using the same obscure "I have this amazing idea but I'm not going to share it". Just describe what you are trying to make and I'm sure someone here can give you a realistic budget.

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A good example of a MMO that I could make alone, in under a year, is "Realm of the Mad God".

MMO has a meaning.  That isn't it.  The term MMO was coined to describe online games with more than 100k active users.

 

Online games? Sure, those are easy enough. The Multiplayer and Networking Forum FAQ has an example making a simple online RPG in just a few hours.

 

Massively Multiplayer Online game? Those are difficult and expensive. You might be able to pull together a game with a hundred or even a thousand concurrent users without too much difficulty. To enter the realm of 100k+ active players you need some significant architecture to back it up.

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      - You must have done your research. This includes knowing your personal financial goals and how the prospective offer changes, influences or diminishes those goals.
      To the first point, the more experience one has, the better. If the candidate is a junior employee (roughly defined as less than 3 years of industry experience) or looking for their first job in the industry, it is highly unlikely that a company will entertain a conversation about sign-on bonuses. Getting into the industry is highly competitive and there is likely very little motivation for a company to pay a sign-on bonus for one candidate when there a dozens (or hundreds in some cases) of other candidates that will jump at the first offer.
      Additionally, the candidate must have confidence in succeeding at the desired role in the company. They have to know that they can handle the day to day responsibilities as well as any extra demands that may come up during production. The company needs to be convinced of their ability to be a team player and, as a result, is willing to put a little extra money down to hire them. In other words, the candidate needs to reduce the company’s risk in hiring them enough that an extra payment or two is negligible.
      And finally, they must know where they sit financially and where they want to be in the short-, mid-, and long-term. Having this information at hand is essential to the negotiation process.
      The Role Risk Plays in Employment
      The interviewing process is a tricky one for all parties involved and it revolves around the idea of risk. Is this candidate low-risk or high-risk? The risk level depends on a number of factors: portfolio quality, experience, soft skills, etc. Were you late for the interview? Your risk to the company just went up. Did you bring additional portfolio materials that were not online? Your risk just went down and you became more hireable.
      If a candidate has an offer in hand, then the company sees enough potential to get a return on their investment with as little risk as possible. At this point, the company is confident in their ability as an employee (ie. low risk) and they are willing to give them money in return for that ability.
      Asking for the Sign-On Bonus
      So what now? The candidate has gone through the interview process, the company has offered them a position and base compensation. Unfortunately, the offer falls below expectations. Here is where the knowledge and research of the position and personal financial goals comes in. The candidate has to know what their thresholds and limits are. If they ask for $60k/year and the company is offering $50k, how do you ask for the bonus? Once again, it comes down to risk.
      Here is the point to remember: risk is not one-sided. The candidate takes on risk by changing companies as well. The candidate has to leverage the sign-on bonus as a way to reduce risk for both parties.
      Here is the important part:
      A sign-on bonus reduces the company’s risk because they are not commiting to an increased salary and bonus payouts can be staggered and have terms attached to them. The sign-on bonus reduces the candidate’s risk because it bridges the gap between the offered compensation and their personal financial requirements.
      If the sign-on bonus is reasonable and the company has the finances (explained further down below), it is a win-win for both parties and hopefully the beginning a profitable business relationship.
      A Bit about Finances
      First off, I am not a business accountant nor have I managed finances for a business. I am sure that it is much more complicated than my example below and there are a lot of considerations to take into account. In my experience, however, I do know that base compensation (ie. salary) will generally fall into a different line item category on the financial books than a bonus payout. When companies determine how many open spots they have, it is usually done by department with inter-departmental salary caps.
      For a simplified example, an environment department’s total salary cap is $500k/year. They have 9 artists being paid $50k/year, leaving $50k/year remaining for the 10th member of the team. Remember the example I gave earlier asking for $60k/year? The company cannot offer that salary because it breaks the departmental cap. However, since bonuses typically do not affect departmental caps, the company can pull from a different pool of money without increasing their risk by committing to a higher salary.
      Sweetening the Deal
      Coming right out of the gate and asking for an upfront payment might be too aggressive of a play (ie. high risk for the company). One way around this is to attach terms to the bonus. What does this mean? Take the situation above. A candidate has an offer for $50k/year but would like a bit more. If through the course of discussing compensation they get the sense that $10k is too high, they can offer to break up the payments based on terms. For example, a counterpoint to the initial base compensation offer could look like this:
      $50k/year salary $5k bonus payout #1 after 30 days of successful employment $5k bonus payout #2 after 365 days (or any length of time) of successful employment In this example, the candidate is guaranteed $55k/year salary for 2 years. If they factor in a standard 3% cost of living raise, the first 3 years of employment looks like this:
      Year 0-1 = $55,000 ($50,000 + $5,000 payout #1) Year 1-2 = $56,500 (($50,000 x 1.03%) + $5,000 payout #2) Year 2-3 = $53,045 ($51,500 x 1.03%) Now it might not be the $60k/year they had in mind but it is a great compromise to keep both parties comfortable.
      If the Company Says Yes
      Great news! The company said yes! What now? Personally, I always request at least a full 24 hours to crunch the final numbers. In the past, I’ve requested up to a week for full consideration. Even if you know you will say yes, doing due diligence with your finances one last time is always a good practice. Plug the numbers into a spreadsheet, look at your bills and expenses again, and review the whole offer (base compensation, bonus, time off/sick leave, medical/dental/vision, etc.). Discuss the offer with your significant other as well. You will see the offer in a different light when you wake up, so make sure you are not rushing into a situation you will regret.
      If the Company Say No
      If the company says no, then you have a difficult decision to make. Request time to review the offer and crunch the numbers. If it is a lateral move (same position, different company) then you have to ask if the switch is worth it. Only due diligence will offer that insight and you have to give yourself enough time to let those insights arrive. You might find yourself accepting the new position due to other non-financial reasons (which could be a whole separate article!).
      Conclusion/Final Thoughts 
      When it comes to negotiating during the interview process, it is very easy to take what you can get and run. You might fear that in asking for more, you will be disqualifying yourself from the position. Keep in mind that the offer has already been extended to you and a company will not rescind their offer simply because you came back with a counterpoint. Negotiations are expected at this stage and by putting forth a creative compromise, your first impression is that of someone who conducts themselves in a professional manner.
      Also keep in mind that negotiations do not always go well. There are countless factors that influence whether or not someone gets a sign-on bonus. Sometimes it all comes down to being there at the right time at the right place. Just make sure you do your due diligence and be ready when the opportunity presents itself.
      Hope this helps!
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