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The truth about how AAA developers view indies
by Lee Perry on 04/30/13 05:01:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


First, allow me a brief paragraph to establish something.

I know a lot of developers.  While I'm currently independent, I feel qualified to speak about the 'average' AAA game developer.  I've worked on published games of various sizes for 20 years.  I've worked for six companies (both successful and not) in different cities.  I've been fortunate to work at a couple companies that have acted as incubators for talent that later spread to pretty much every major project you can name.  At Epic I routinely traveled to work with licensee companies around the world.  I've worked in nearly every discipline, or intimately with the departments of code, design, art, audio, marketing groups, all of it.  I'm active in quite a few developer forums.  I speak publicly when I can with other creatives.  I know a lot of devs.

 I don't say all that to be self promotional.  Hell, I'm not even an outgoing 'people person'.  The industry is always in motion and anyone who has stuck around for 20 years knows about a billion people, or they're extremely introverted and only know a few hundred thousand.  I say all of that to qualify my sample size for the one very clear statement I want to make with this post:

 AAA developers respect the hell out of indie developers.


 I can recall nobody in my career... none, zip, ZERO developers at AAA companies that offhandedly disregard the indie community or their outlets.  In a surprising amount of cases AAA devs envy indie freedom and current distribution options.  Many hope to cluster into small teams and make a run at it themselves.  Sure, many AAA devs are very happy with their careers, but looking down on indies?  No.  Don't believe it.





 Here's one truth about any developer you might think of as an old-timer (and again I feel very at-ease making this generalization).  We value people taking initiative, and above all completing projects as demonstrations of their commitment to developing games.

 'Back in my day' (yes, I said it) starting off in the early-mid 90's, there were no official routes to becoming a game developer.  There were basically no degrees, only one or two specialty schools focused on games, and they where honestly a novelty to most.  In the past, if you wanted to get into games you did so by making mods, making shareware, making WADs, making BBS games, making total conversions.  Hell, you even did so by making text adventures.  You got into games by doing your own projects on your own time, with your own initiative.

 More and more we started seeing people applying for positions who were coming from fledgling formalized programs.  They would bring in their new diplomas, wielded like a permission slip for job offers, but in a surprising number of cases they had no actual material to show, no free time passion projects, no collaborations with mod teams, no... proof of drive.

 To this day (even more frequently in fact) I get letters from parents asking if we have internships available for their college aged sons or daughters.  "My son goes to X college and wants to tighten up some graphics on level 3".  No.  No, no no freakin' no!  If a person does not have the initiative to write their own introduction email... I'll stop that rant right there.  Slow exhale... I digress.

 My point is that jobs inevitably went to the people who had passion and 'game'.  The applicant with a functional mod, a playable demo, character models they created on busted hacked software at 4 in the morning based on some design pitch they have... those were who we hired, those are who we ARE.  We hired people who -had- to make games because it was part of their being, and passed on those for which it was just an intriguing occupational option.

 To think that random AAA developers suddenly no longer respect motivated, self driven, creative, innovative indies who ship games and push the wider art form of gaming?  It's more than wrong, it displays an ignorance of the actual individuals who make up the industry.

 Quality developers have always, always, came from the same fabric that indie developers are cut from today.

 Indie ladies and gents, you might not know them personally (yet), but you simply could not ask for a bigger group of people cheering on your efforts than random developers working at places like BioWare, Epic, Bungie, 343.  They're eager to see what amazing things you come up with, what trends you initiate, and who takes off and launches a great IP.  Even huge companies like EA and Ubi, wait for it... are loaded with passionate developers a lot like yourself (EA was a stepping stone of several indie heavy hitters).

 (Quick side note: I'm not discouraging modern colleges.  There are truly excellent gaming programs out there now, the above is speaking of the past landscape.   My advice remains though, personal initiative is still critical!)




 If you're new to the industry or simply have never worked in AAA, please, revise any assumptions you have that AAA devs are widget makers who were hired after their parents wrote their cover letters.

 Aren't they all just cogs in a machine?  No.  Random AAA developer X might really just love rigging models (crazy, right!?  I know several), or love designing race tracks, or love facial animation, or lighting levels, or mo-cap, or UI design, or any other number of personally rewarding specialized tasks.  The fact that they work as a smaller component on a larger team that allows them to perfect their specific craft does not put them at odds with you creating an entire game by yourself.  They're just doing what they love, but they still follow and adore your work.  They still evangelize your bad ass rogue-likes and platformers to countless others.

 When someone claims those specialized developers are not furthering the industry, that they're not contributing to the advancement of our art form, that they're "in the way"... simply because they value something other than, say, narrative specifically.  It's a cancerous, judgmental sentiment in my opinion.




 Often there is an undercurrent of standing up to 'the man' with any intrinsically artistic scene.  It's easy for someone new to game development to hold up EA or Activision as such an 'authority'.  But they hold no sway over you and your ability to design whatever you want as an indie.  I ask you to refrain from holding up 'AAA' as the same oppressive force as 'market forces'.  The only 'man' out there limiting your ability to create the game you want to make, is the situation where not enough people buy your game, know about your game, support what you're doing, or validate your work.  I know firsthand (all AAA devs do) those are harsh mistresses.

 Making games is tough, often disheartening work.  At times it feels like there are unseen forces working against you.  There's platform issues, unwelcome influences, business trends, roadblocks and complications every single day, and it doesn't stop.  I set out personally to create 'my own' games 20 years ago, but I can't honestly say I have made a game that is "mine" yet due to the broad array of factors involved in simply finishing a game and putting it out there.

 But know this.  While it may feel like there is some powerful force waiting for you to fall on your face, while it feels like your ability to create what you want is being actively oppressed sometimes... hear what I'm saying as someone who lived on the other side of that fence for most of his life... it is not coming from your AAA brothers and sisters.



 It feels as if we are being bombarded by people trying to pit developers against each other; don't fall for it.  Don't get sucked into the negativity.  Don't assume we have high school class systems among developers.  Don't assume any of us, indie or AAA, fit the stereotypes that make for dramatic stories about cultural battle lines.  Don't let others shape your opinions; reach out to all kinds of devs online or at gatherings and see how easy it is to find a supportive comrade (spoiler: it's not hard).

Lastly, especially if you're a games journalist, please, don't propagate or encourage these divisive personal stereotypes; there is nothing constructive or genuine about it.

Thanks for reading.

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mike madden
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Sounds like very similar roads traveled in respect to the timeline. Loved the article, and really appreciate the sentiment within.

Thank You for sharing Lee. If we ever bump into each other, first beverage is on me.

Elisabeth Beinke-Schwartz
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Great writeup! This has been my experience as well, especially with other designers (us designers seem to love good indie games).

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I have work for a small amount of time in the industry and I can say by 2008 this was simply not accurate. There was 3 split in the industry for the same reason: indie, casual and social (not in that order). Now remember how these game where looked down, and some time deride for not being true game, and all the drama that was about how they were awful. With indie game, if it was made with program such as: game maker, rpgmaker, etc... any of those nicknamed dumb maker you have to grew up out to be a "real developer" that makes "real game" heck even unity3D or blender werenot real serious program! There was a clear atmosphere of condescence that have dispel since them. But saying it wasn't there is hugely exagerate.

Jonathan Jennings
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I do remember in my classes making really early games and professors passed on to us from their industry contacts that they wouldn't be too impressed with games made in game maker. because they were using "real" game engines. you might very well be right. i guess what is accepted as a game now has been broadened in terms of spectrum though . i mean who could have imagined a game very similar to worms that utilized touch controls would grow into the massive marketing giant that angry birds is ? but it definitely makes sense that this could be a more modern view of the game industry.

Ursula Brand
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Wonderful article! From my experience this is true for (almost) all people working in the industry and not only for developers. I think most of us are here because we love games. If a game is good, we play it. And if a small, independent studio comes up with a game that we all love to play, we have nothing but respect and admiration for it.

Christopher J
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Well said! I work for a Triple A machine, have for almost 10 years now and I envy the Indie!

Kenneth Blaney
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It is almost like the AAA and Indie labels and meaningless and indistinct entities that say nothing about those to whom they are applied. :D

Ramin Shokrizade
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While I've spent the last 14 years meeting developers as a journalist, it has only been in the last couple years that I've had the honor to actual step inside of studios and work with designers to make games. I've visited a lot of studios in a relatively short period of time. I think Steve Jobs best summed up my perceptions in his famous 2005 Stanford commencement speech:

Absolutely worth watching if you never have. When he talks about "staying hungry and staying foolish", this is exactly what I see when I visit indie studios. Some are more foolish than others, but in all cases a lot of lessons are being learned rapidly. By the time you "make it" at a AAA studio there is a lot more money involved and I think the larger studios become more risk-adverse. Thus while they admire innovation, to some extent they either fear it or are just not permitted to dive into it.

This is what I find so exciting about the great "old guys" coming into the online space anew. Guys like Sid Meier, Richard Garriott, and Chris Roberts. They have all that talent and experience, but with the environment being new to them they have the opportunity to re-experience their hunger and foolishness. Of course all these guys were "indie" themselves at one time.

Brian Bartram
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I love this article. Thank you for writing it. - another AAA dev.

Patrick Roeder
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Ah yes...passion, drive, and initiative... The sweet, sweet nectar that we have let control us over the years. The secret ingredient that makes us both strong and weak. The mantra that makes us whistle while we happily work ourselves into the ground. If we aren't happy letting a bunch of bureaucrats strip mine this resource, we willingly depose ourselves from it while we whittle out our personal, high stakes dreams. Looked down upon if we don't eagerly offer it like a fattened lamb, damned when we do. Our passion is our curse.

sean lindskog
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Good article.
I think that indies tend to be more biased against AAA devs than vice versa, since some indies have a sort of anti-corporate and creative moral high ground.

I've worked on both sides of the fence too, and you'll find amazing and talented people wherever you go.

James Yee
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Yeah that's what I was thinking Sean. I've always thought it was more Indie Vs. AAA not AAA vs. Indie. I.e. the Indie guy hates AAA guy but AAA guy doesn't even care about indie.

Not sure where this article came from but cool none the less.

Lee Perry
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Sadly, I've ran into this in a handful of cases, but I've always wanted to write this as a sort of "you don't need to be that way" rant.

Travis Hoffstetter
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Great read!! I can't count the number of times I've heard people talking about going indie, especially during crunch.

Kujel Selsuru
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Good article in general but I'd like to dispel one misconception, most of us indies don't hate AAAs, we do hate corporate molestation of our work, which is often why we're indie. We like the AAAs and their games but we don't want to suffer under a corporate dictatorship to practice our craft.

I think developers indie and AAA would love to see a world were we can all make the games we want and still feed our families without sacrificing freedom, income, or anything else. I do think we can easily co-exist but it wont happen over night.

Harsh Singh
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I was into business development in one of the gaming company during start of my career. Though I was not into development side but often we were supposed to interact with developers to make sure everything is on track. That was the time when I was very much busy exploring my Indie career. Reason being, I wanted to be in development side but there were very few opportunities (in India gaming is still niche as career path and that was the time of recession). Believe me, during my job whenever I used to meet any indie developer or for that matter any entrepreneur, some how automatically I used to get in huge regards for them. More often I have spoken to these people about how they landed up doing their own business, their stories etc etc. And these small talks have always motivated me to do something of my own. Today I am a product manager in one of the leading website in India, but on the other side I am still working as Indie developer. Till now I have released 2 game and an app. All in all what I want to say here is that it's not just the AAA developers who have regards for Indie but also people who aspire to be game developer. You can also say an Indie inspire an Indie. Some of you might think why I am saying so? It's because I used to see them as people who have broken the clutter and have fought their way to success (not necessarily monetary but achieving their self actualization) and I believe that's why AAA dev also regard them.

Steve Fulton
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This article made me happy today. Thanks.

Bob Johnson
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Good read.

Gal Kfir
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I enjoyed reading every word in this article. Thank you, Lee.

Mike Murray
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Great read!

Benjamin Quintero
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I always got the impression it was the other way around. Ive seen much more AAA hate than hate for indies. There is a place for both but I think indies tend to scream a little louder about how much the other guy sucks... Hopefully we are almost past the growing pains.

Kristafer Vale
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Great article! As a AAA developer of 3D animated feature films and a Indie developer of a game, I can't tell you how much everyone I work with "at the day job" constantly provide me with encouragement and cheers as we try to break out and do our own thing.

Everyone I've ever met in the industry totally echoes your sentiments, that it's not nearly this Big Brother conspiracy as it is market trends and players voting with their wallets that dictate a lot of the perceived lack of creativity or innovation at the AAA level. The simple fact of the matter is if you are a company about to spend 20,50 100+ million dollars on a game you can't afford to chance losing that on some cutting edge mechanic that could potentially never find its audience. However, everyone inside those walls is just as excited to see a Fez or Minecraft take off and do well because it breathes new life into the industry as a whole and ultimately widens the audiences tolerances to new and innovative ideas in future games.

Matthew Bockholt
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I've always felt that the games industry was unique in that it has a "We're all in this together" community feeling. I appreciate your comments that help support that ideal.

Mark Kilborn
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Love it. I work in the AAA world but love indie games and have tremendous respect for their creators. I play more indie than big budget games these days.

Matthew Burns
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Great article! Thank you for posting it. I do believe there is mutual respect on both sides.

Rich Levine
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Well said. I worked in games starting with Mattel Electronics in the 1970's and later Imagic, Cinemaware, Digital Pictures, and Microsoft -- as well as games in other non-game companies. While I don't think there is
an issue between AAA and Indie developers, I do think there is a natural separation between specialists and generalists. Indie and often startup developers tend to be generalists, while AAA developers -- as pointed out in the article -- are more often, but certainly not always, specialists. In the 1970's, except for perhaps a few, most persons I worked with in games were generalists. While some are able to cross over, it can be difficult to do so. A generalist usually has to put on many hats, not having the time to focus on a special interest, such as building an AI engine. A specialist, whether an expert in creating 3D graphics engines or in writing for games, does not always have the time to learn the variety of skills a generalist has. This is not usually a problem, as I would think that many developers feel more comfortable as a generalist or as a specialist depending on their abilities, desires, and personalities. As Mathew said, I think there's mutual respect on both sides.

Luis de-Leon
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Thank you.

Yiannis Koumoutzelis
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While currently starting independent, i don't know how this nice and true article came about. I am sorry to say it is the other way around. Many "traditional indies" use this situation to brag and claim "victory".

All these games we see today on mobile and steam would not have surfaced, if there wasn't a generous infusion of AAA developers designers and managers in the so called "indie" scene due to unfortunate events the last many years.

Josh Foreman
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Couldn't agree more. I have a very similar background. (Started in the mid-90's, worked on many projects at many companies) Every time someone asks me about getting into the industry I tell them to start making games immediately. Go online, find people who do the parts you can't, and team up.

Where I work there is actually a little indie game group for people like me who do AAA by day and indie by night/weekends. I hear that's becoming more common.

Yiannis Koumoutzelis
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Blackjack Goren
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I appreciate the purpose of this article, though I'm afraid in trying to put AAA developers under an agreeable light to indies and certain game writers, it accidentally paints AAA devs as envious of the indies's "independence."

Unlike the author, I will not speak for other people on this matter. I respect those who make great games regardless of their team or budget size, but I certainly don't envy indies. The games I really want to make are not the ones that can be developed by just a handful of people, let alone by myself. The games I dream about and make me get up in the morning to go to work are those that can only be achieved by the collaboration of a great number of talented, specialized people.

I understand the popularity of games like Braid, but the experiences I want to help make are not the relatively simple games that indies can make. I would not trade the position of creating memorable, ambitious AAA games for anything, if I can help it. Being "on my own" is worthless to me if I can't make what I want.

On the other hand, as a player, I enjoy several indie games for various reasons, and the more variety we have in games the better. If you're an indie and you happen to be making the kind of games you want, then more power to you.

Lee Perry
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I apologize if it read that way. I know a good portion of people are envious of various aspects of being indie... who wouldn't love the creative freedom or some other particular aspect. I didn't mean to paint a scene of "every AAA dev wants to be indie secretly". Thanks for reading though.

Steven An
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Nice article. If the GDC awards were any indication, I don't think there's any real AAA vs. indie hate at all among developers.

I think it's sort of human nature to draw lines and be in opposition to something. We're all guilty of this at some point. The reality of it is, however, is that there's room for everyone, and it's pointless and immature to judge. Just do your thang - no one's stopping you.

Michael Wenk
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"My point is that jobs inevitably went to the people who had passion and 'game'. The applicant with a functional mod, a playable demo, character models they created on busted hacked software at 4 in the morning based on some design pitch they have... those were who we hired, those are who we ARE. "

I wonder if you see the trap in that mentality. The people you don't hire, the ones that don't have the "drive" are arguably more similar to the average customer, especially if you're attempting to be main stream. By ignoring that, and staying homogeneous, you're likely going to ingrain that prejudice in your end product and thus turn people off.

You see that in games where the developers seem surprised that the players don't find it as fun as they do. The developers usually make excuses, thinking its the silly customer who doesn't understand the developer's "grand vision".

I found the article good, but that kind of bias in games is scary, especially from the business side of things.

Lee Perry
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Definitely a valid point. Again though, the process I described above was generally the sentiment more so a while back when gaming was more of a pure gamers market. Sure, that could have contributed to what games we were making, but often even when you're interviewing someone, you're not the person picking which projects you do. When you're working on a "gamers game" and two candidates come across your desk, and one made a mod on his own (using your tech even), the decision gets simpler.

Great observation though, especially more and more relevant with games being more about wider markets and appeal.