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Why it costs at least $5,000 to release an indie game on Xbox One

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Developer Jamie Fristrom was put in the weird position of asking Sony and his Kickstarter backers for permission to delay his upcoming game Energy Hook so he could release Sixty Second Shooter Prime on the Xbox One.

Both groups of people were fine with it, and Fristrom moved ahead with the project.

The game has since been released, and Fristrom has opened his books to show what it costs to create a game for the Xbox One on the smallest budget possible. This candor gives us an interesting look at operating on the Xbox One, and is even more evidence that creating and releasing games is much more expensive than you think.

The real costs of porting a game

"Now, I'm one of the cheapest game developers I know. I've been indie for almost nine years now and am still in the red, so I've gotten to a point where I'm loathe to spend another penny," Fristrom wrote. "Add to that I really had no idea how a game on the Xbox One would sell. So I wasn't even willing to hire an artist for Sixty Second Shooter Prime (which could very well have hurt sales a lot as my logo screens were made by, well, me) so you can figure that when I approached the project I was doing it just about as frugally as possible."

This is the breakdown of cost for the game, line by line:

  • Maintaining the Sixty Second Shooter URL: $19
  • Sending the second dev kit to Brett Douville: $63
  • Hardware (USB and video cables and the like): $72
  • Video capture device (for making trailer): $181
  • Localization (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese): $729
  • E&O Insurance: $2037
  • Foreign ratings boards (PEGI, USK): $2042

The total came to $5,143, out of pocket, to port the game from the PC version to the Xbox One. Some of these line items are a little strange, and I asked Fristrom to explain them. What exactly is E&O insurance?

"I'm actually not the best person to ask about E&O Insurance, but as I understand it it's insurance that covers us in case we make mistakes," he told Polygon. "Maybe we put some art, code or game mechanic in our game that we thought was public domain but is actually copyrighted, and we get sued — that's when E&O is supposed to kick in and protect us."

That insurance is one of the more expensive items on the list, but it's required by Microsoft. "It's in the contract. And it's not just any E&O Insurance — it has to cover IP and copyright violations, so the cheap E&O Insurance you can easily find online doesn't qualify. I went through an insurance broker (Parker, Smith and Feek) and found the cheapest insurance that would qualify," he wrote.

This is the life of a developer without a publisher: You not only have to make the game, but you find yourself comparison shopping for insurance in order to publish on the Xbox One. The amount of things you have to do yourself when you're indie can seem endless, and they're not things many people think of when they imagine the life of a game developer.

There is also the cost of getting rated, which is mandatory. "Again, Microsoft requires this — if you want to release in a given territory, you have to get your game rated by the official ratings boards of that territory," Fristrom explained. "It's sad but true, getting your game rated in some territories can be a lot more expensive than simply translating your game to that territory's language! I spent about $700 on localization, all told, and spent nearly $2000 on getting my game rated by PEGI and USK."

This is the life of a developer without a publisher

He skipped Australia and New Zealand, as it would cost $2,000 per market to get his game rated. If you've ever wondered why certain games aren't available in your region, it could be because the developer literally couldn't afford to give it a rating. The extra $4,000 to release in those markets is a large amount of money for a smaller developer, and you have to balance that with the hard reality that you might not make it back in sales.

The real question was whether it was worth it. Fristrom had to delay work on his other game, and pour cash into the Xbox One release.

"Yes, the game has already sold well enough to recoup the cost and I'm pretty sure I made a living wage for a change," he told Polygon. Making money, it turns out, costs a pretty large amount of money.