Indies != AAA developers.

So I just read this article about why developers go from AAA to Indie, but not the other way around.

You can read it here. http://venturebeat.com/2014/07/18/why-triple-a-devs-are-going-indie-and-why-indie-arent-going-triple-a/view-all/

I think that as far as it goes, it’s on the money, but I don’t think it really covers some of the real reasons.

The reality is that publishers like Activision and EA are FAR more risk averse than their Hollywood counterparts. They are far more market research driven than Hollywood will ever be. Given that, they will never give the creative control necessary for someone like Cliff B. to persue exactly the game he wants to make.

Nor will a lot of the current Indie Auteurs out there – people like Phil Fish or Jonathan Blow – be given that opportunity due the incredibly bad professionalism they project. It’s an unspoken truism that the reality is that Ubisoft is never going to give Phil Fish a multi-million dollar budget and just say “run with it” because he’s inherently uncontrollable. More to the point, he’s a loose cannon and so are most of the indies out there.

Again, as something most people won’t or can’t say – the reason a lot of them are indies in the first place is not some love of the indie lifestyle – no one enjoys eating Ramen Noodles day in day out – but because quite a lot are inherently unemployable anywhere else. Most are unmanageable, have ego’s beyond belief and don’t really have the ability they imagine themselves to have. Of course most will deny that if asked – “Oh, I’m far happier being indie” but the reality is that, for a lot of them, they understand at a gut level they would never survive at the AAA level, nor be given the opportunity to do so. If you say you actively don’t want the opportunity, then you can’t be faulted for not being offered it.

Being Indie is a skill set that does not scale. The whole point of being indie is to remain small and not have fifty people reporting to you. It means you are where the rubber meets the road of development, not viewing it from an ivory tower.

Another axis to consider is attention span. Indies, by definition, don’t spend three years on a game, doing the same thing all the time. They generally have an “A.D.D.-by-video-game-standards” attitude, where they want to be finished with what they are doing in six months and then onto the next idea they already had. There’s a lot of Shiny Object syndrome in Indie Development, and I can’t for the life of me decide if that’s good or bad. It’s good because lots of new things are constantly being tried, which expands the possibility space for what an Indie Game can be, but it’s bad because no one appears to have the discipline to actually polish something to the point where it’s a completed and good looking game.

Now the article does make mention of a couple of things – financial reward and creative control but it makes no mention of risk. It’s worth mentioning that the financial reward aspect is important. When you have to sue Activision for the $35m bonus you were supposed to get – but didn’t -, is it any wonder that most would prefer to have their hands on the purse strings directly? The reality is that for anyone other than the chief designer or Exec producer, there’s little hope of ever taking home “Fuck You” money from a project you’ve built for one of the large publishers. Activision didn’t get the market cap they have now by giving all the money to the team making the games, and nor would they want to. Why give that money to individuals who then have nothing pushing them to continue making those games for you?

In terms of risk, the fact is that for the individual small indie, the amount of risk in failure is usually measured in the impact for four or five people. If you fail at that AAA level, it means the loss of millions of dollars and possibly / probably the loss of a LOT of people’s jobs. People you don’t even know. People who didn’t choose to follow you, but are there because that’s what the company told them to do. That’s a HUGE thing to put on the shoulders of someone who isn’t used to it.

At the Movie level, directors can do that because the fact is that everyone under them knows this is a short term gig and will be moving on regardless; a failure at that level means they were still paid for their time, which everyone understood going in. A failure at the AAA game development level means that people are out of a job, unpaid and looking for a new one, potentially having to move across the country to do it.

Then there’s the other aspect of risk – or more accurately, fear. Fear of failure and ridicule. You can be a very successful at the indie level and still have a lot of failures and still be able to go to GDC and hold your head up high and not have people snickering when you leave the room.

You fail at the AAA level and that’s all you have to look forward to. The more of a personality you are, the more that’s likely to happen. Just ask George Broussard or John Romero about how that feels. The fact is that lots of Indie developers wouldn’t have the skill set or the desire and would be far to scared to take on a AAA team. They don’t have the team management skills, nor the ability to either inspire or pass on their game vision to the entire team, and they aren’t used to the concept of even having to try.

Lastly, there are dependency problems that Indies have with AAA developers. With AAA development, there are a TON of failure points, and often, as a AAA developer (even at the Exec Prod level), there are outside influences that you simply cannot affect. Marketing, for example. They decide the campaign they want to do, and you just have to sit there and watch. A bad campaign can be disastrous for a game that one hundred people have sweated blood for two years, and there is nothing you can do about it. AAA development has a lot more moving parts than a small indie game, and for an indie – who is used to handling marketing (in as far as they talk to the editors of all the gaming websites directly), having to outsource that to a group you have zero control over is a shock.

For the record, I’ve done both, and it’s definitely a different skill set for indie from AAA development. As someone who wants to be more self sufficient, not less, then Indie is definitely more towards my sensibilities. But everyone is different. There are definitely some Indie developers I know who could handle AAA – Robomodo is a case in point. They’ve handled some very large Tony Hawk projects for Activision-  and they are ready for it in terms of executive and corporate culture.

But the majority of indies who could handle it will almost certainly never get the chance, because their mentality is not indie enough to actually have the kind of success you need at the indie level to get noticed and move up. Indie is all punk rock, ignoring axis because you don’t have the bandwidth (e.g. Pure single player because you don’t have the programming ability to handle multi-player etc) and AAA development is trying to do everything right because so many other parts are dependent on it all working as a whole.

The fact is, there is a reason why Indies aren’t moving to the major leagues, and it’s because the things that make them successful at the indie level would NOT translate to success at the AAA level. And I think most indies, consciously or unconsciously, recognize that.

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