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Sony court blunder reveals $200M cost of The Last of Us 2, Horizon Forbidden West

Microsoft and Activision Blizzard’s FTC hearing is pulling back the curtain of the highly secretive industry

Ellie with lights behind her in The Last of Us Part 2 Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

The video game industry is notoriously secretive, capitalizing on hype that makes every announcement a big surprise. Much of video game development is kept under wraps in part to keep fans engaged and excited over every piece of news, but the secrecy also comes from how much games can change in development, and the importance of studios hiding their work from competitors. We very rarely know how much a video game costs to make; we just know that it takes more and more money as games get bigger — maybe “irresponsibly large,” as Bethesda’s Pete Hines said last week.

Microsoft and Activision Blizzard’s legal battle with the Federal Trade Commission is pulling back the curtain on that development, to some extent. Court documents from the companies have largely been redacted, but there’s usually plenty to glean from what isn’t. On Wednesday, a badly redacted document from Sony Interactive Entertainment showed actual numbers for both Horizon Forbidden West and The Last of Us Part 2’s development. And they were expansive: Horizon Forbidden West cost $212 million over a five-year period with 300 full-time developers. The Last of Us Part 2 cost $220 million, Sony said in the documents, over roughly six years with 200 full-time employees.

The documents have been pulled from the FTC hearing’s evidence list as of Wednesday, but The Verge’s Tom Warren tweeted a snippet shortly after the documents were uploaded. The numbers likely don’t include Sony’s marketing budget for each game, but the company’s lawyer noted that “marketing costs for AAA games are large, even for established franchises.” It’s unclear, also, whether the number includes outsourcing costs. It’s common for video game studios to outsource big portions of development. That means the individual costs for both Horizon Forbidden West and The Last of Us Part 2 is likely well over the given figures.

The rate at which video game costs are growing seems unsustainable. Earlier this year, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority put out a 418-page report — also related to the Microsoft and Activision merger — reporting that games over the past five years have had average budgets between $50 to $150 million. Games currently in production, with release schedules set for 2024 ot 2025, cost more than $200 million on average. One publisher suggested that the combined development and marketing costs for its game, the name of which is redacted, topped $1 billion.

These higher costs may make some companies less inclined to take risks, and more inclined to rely heavily on established properties that already have an audience, as former Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Shawn Layden said in a 2021 interview with Bloomberg. Sure, sequels and reboots are fine, but an industry that takes fewer risks is a boring one — and bad for games and development as a whole.

Microsoft’s FTC hearing continues this week as more experts and gaming executives, including Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, take the stand. The FTC is looking for the judge to temporarily block Microsoft and Activision Blizzard’s $68.7 billion merger. The decision will determine whether the deal will be paused until the FTC case is concluded.

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