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How Much Does it Cost to Develop a Successful City-Building Game App?

Discover how to make a successful city-building mobile game – and how much it will eventually cost you!

Andrei Klubnikin, Blogger

August 15, 2017

6 Min Read

How Much Does it Cost to Develop a Successful City-Building Game App?

Inspired by the success of the SimCity franchise, app entrepreneurs craft hundreds of city-building games that barely crack iOS/Android downloads charts and soon pale into oblivion. What is the median mobile game development cost for an app like SimCity and how to make your game a commercial success? Read on to find out!

City-building game development: aligning expectations with reality

Originally launched in 1989, SimCity has evolved into a complex universe, a self-sufficient organism powered by Artificial Intelligence algorithms where every process and resource is modelled to a point where you could watch electricity being delivered to homes. It’s no wonder SimCity BuildIt (a freemium game for iOS/Android which was released in 2014) still generates $ 2 million in monthly revenue.

However, you shouldn’t try to create a SimCity clone in the first place; pull a Tribez instead.

Despite a fairly simple gameplay (you become a chief of a Stone Age tribe and lead it to prosperity), the Tribez is a visually-reach gaming application with multiple upgrade options.

What makes it different from a full-fledged simulation game like SimCity?

Consider this. You’re playing SimCity and decide to put up a nuclear power plant. All goes well until an earthquake generates an enormous tsunami wave. Your plant is demolished, and the nuclear waste contaminates soil and groundwater. The inhabitants of your city leave or succumb to radiation sickness. Factories and shops shut down. The roads crumble. The city falls into ruin.

SimCity’s engines can evaluate the aftermaths of a single event and model appropriate scenarios – and that’s why a SimCity clone would cost you millions. Besides, a newbie doesn’t stand a chance against an AAA-class game like SimCity, so you should make do with something simpler.

How Much Does it Cost to Develop a Successful City-Building Game App?

How much does it cost to make a city-building game app?

Graphic content, coding and plot development will consume up to 95% of your budget.

Game graphics

Although city-building games typically use 2D images only, they feature thousands of characters, objects and scenes.

Every character should be animated – even if these animations will be limited to moving along 8 preset trajectories, clapping hands in a theatre and raising glasses in a bar. Multiply each character by 30 animations, 10 angles and 10 frames.

Also, you should breathe life into buildings and playing fields in order to illustrate construction, demolition and upgrade processes. Don’t forget about still imagery comprising icons and game admin UIs. Now you see where the overwhelming amount of graphic content comes from.

All in all, the creation of high-quality visuals takes up to 70% of the entire game dev time and costs about $ 250-300 thousand.

Coding and game optimization

Any user who plays a city-building game for a couple of weeks ends up with hundreds of people, buildings and other assets living their own lives. The city becomes a self-organized entity; it should be able to manage itself with little to no interference on a player’s part and consume as little processing power/storage as possible.

And that’s what the “game optimization” term refers to.

In order to deliver the ultimate user experience, developers often draw graphics in black and white (they consume up to 400% less GPU resources) and limit the monochrome palette to just 15-20 colors. Then they create an algorithm which assigns colors to these shades of gray (for instance, “gray 10” will stand for “navy blue”) and render images accordingly.

When it comes to the actual coding, you can either take the native approach and create a separate codebase for iOS/Android or use a cross-platform game dev solution like Unreal Engine or Unity. In the second case, however, your vendor will have to conduct a performance test to determine the upper limits of the game upgrades (we’ve got tons of graphic content after all).

The mobile dev part comprises 30% of a city-building game development project timeline and will cost you some $ 100 thousand.

How Much Does it Cost to Develop a Successful City-Building Game App?

Story development

According to Pavel Shylenok, CTO at R-Style Lab, the casual games market (any city-building game is casual by default!) changes every two or three years. In the early 2010s, for example, users were going crazy about epic fantasy games taking place in medieval villages inhabited by dwarves, elves and fairies. Today, the general public interest has shifted towards cyberpunk and space wars.

We do not encourage you to follow trends blindly; instead, you should conduct a proper market research beforehand to find out what type of content will resonate with your audience.

Pavel also recommends that you create a gameplay with mass market appeal (and continue to expand its outreach after the release).

With so many town-building games out there, however, you can’t put out another Tribez clone, sit back and relax. And we finally come to your monetization strategy (or lack thereof).

Although the Tribez’ users can receive resources from other players or share their achievements on Facebook, city-building games do not normally rely on the multi-player component (aka “competitive spirit”) to maintain user engagement.

Here’s what will increase your chances of success:

  • High-quality visuals;

  • Original (and ever-evolving!) gameplay;

  • Flexibility (engagement on demand).

We’ve already told you about graphic content and game plot; what does “engagement on demand” mean?

Modern simulation games often incorporate certain puzzle/strategy game elements, enabling players to occupy new territories, simultaneously construct several towns and unlock gameplay faster using artefacts and in-app currency.

For example, you set up a town and develop its infrastructure. At a certain point you realize you’re ready to build new settlements; the current level of tech development, however, prevents you from travelling by sea or flying to another planet. You’ve got two options here: play the game for two more weeks and upgrade to the next level automatically or purchase an artefact giving your ship “a following sea”.

A city-building game may also include time management or resource planning features; however, these features should be available on demand (and probably on a fee) – otherwise you will alienate city simulation game lovers.

Gameplay development (including soundtrack and voice-over work) will cost you another $ 50 thousand.

How Much Does it Cost to Develop a Successful City-Building Game App?

How much does it cost to develop a game app like Tribez: summing it up

In the end, we’ve arrived at an impressive figure – $ 400-450 thousand! Does it mean you can’t embark on a game dev project unless you have a half a million dollars in your pocket?

Provided you address a reliable Android/iOS app development company, you can build a game on a smaller budget ($ 300 thousand). Once you release it to the market, you’ll be able to gather user feedback, decide on the game’s feature set and upgrades and proceed with the development.

Bring something new to the table and invest in graphic content – and success will follow.


The costs cited in this article are based on the average Eastern European mobile developer/designer hourly rates

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