Monday, April 29, 2013

The truth about how AAA developers view indies.

I'd like to contribute something very specific on the topic of "AAA vs Indie" developers.

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.


  1. Very well put Lee! Couldn't agree more, as a person who's been both AAA and indie. There isn't just a 'mobile' camp or 'console' camp... we are all game makers, and are excited by good games of any stripe.

  2. Thanks for writing this Lee, it holds true for so many of us. :)

  3. As an Indie dev I appreciate this :)

    Although I have to say that I've met AAA devs that where dismissive of me when I mentioned I was an Indie ...
    At least, until I mentioned that I also did some more AAA-esque experimental stuff now and then, for fun ...

  4. Wow... really good article! I totally agree with you. It really doesnt matter if you are AAA or Indie, in the end its only a matter of the circumstances around you. All good developers are created of the same material... passion!. Programming with passion til 5am, with no tools... only C, and a notepad! Greeeat article indeed! :).


  5. totally awesome article! I agree with graduates not having their own projects to show off. I give anyone 100x more respect whenever they have a published game on any platform that they worked their ass to get on to. No matter what the quality of the game is, it means they had the drive to ship and finish their game :)

  6. I'm an indie myself, and this article helped me clarify my thoughts, so thank you. I worked a few gigs at larger studios myself, too.

    I still really dislike triple-A studios.

    I love the people *in* the studios, and I love many of their games, and I'm super respectful of their work and how amazing they are. I buy drinks for people at GDC when I find out they worked on a particular title I really liked.

    But the studio itself, as a corporate entity, often makes gigantic errors and questionable business choices (EA spouse, misogyny, racism). Sometimes it's hard to separate the employees of these companies (even from completely different game projects) from the "market forces" that help shape these decisions, and is still something I struggle with today.

    Of course, indies are not immune to producing horrible crap - it's just easier to say "that game? that is the representative thoughts of X and Y people, and yes, they do stand behind that."

    With triple-A, it often seems that no single individual is actually accountable for the corporate machine over them, and that makes it terribly frustrating. I have to point fingers at *everyone* for egregious behaviour, even the innocent!

    This article helped paint the more human side of the picture though, and I'm glad you wrote it. Thanks. I'll keep buying pints. :)

  7. Is this article in response to another article, or to some comments being made online somewhere? Because I haven't personally encountered anyone saying that AAA developers don't respect Indie developers. If it's out there, I'd like to be aware of it.

  8. Former AAA, now Indie. Totally agreed. Seems like so many of us are simply waiting to find a few guys and go it on their own.

  9. Thanks for the article! I really enjoyed it and I'll be sure to spread it around :)
    I think the most enlightening part of this is the question of who or what is this powerful force that is keeping all these very talented developers from creating the games they truly want to make?
    I think I'll look more into it!


  10. I certainly can't guarantee you'll never encounter a random AAA dev who is a douche, haha, it's a big industry with it's fair share of socially challenged people ;)

    There were several articles I've seen that were based on this perceived divide. But I don't want to turn this into a giant back and forth with anyone in particular, I just wanted to make that one point.

    Don't get me wrong, there is PLENTY to dislike about working in AAA games, and things wrong with what comes out of some AAA companies. I understand the dislike many people have of the blockbuster mentality... I just wish all those discussions happened above belt, so to speak, and with respect to the viewpoints of the people and motivations behind both sides of the story.

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  12. I'm a student at the SMU Guildhall, and like many of my peers, I'm keeping my ear the the ground looking for job opportunities.

    One thing I notice on nearly every jobs listing is, "Must have shipped at least [x] AAA titles."

    While there may not be the same level of animosity as some of us on the outside (or just inside the border) imagine, there is a sense that the barrier for entry starts with working AAA in order to prove you deserve to work AAA.

    This is, however, no different than many other industries. One of the longest running complaints in the workforce is, "We need experience to get jobs that will get us experience."

    Of course, as Gearbox and Obsidian made clear in a recent SXSW talk: sometimes indie and AAA are the same thing.

    Ultimately, there are all kinds of misconceptions right now about what it means to be indie or AAA, and for those of us excited to work on EITHER side, sometimes the intellectual distinctions matter less than the professional ones.

    Either way, this article was a refreshing take, and one I'll be passing on to my peers.

  13. Hi Lee, i'm currently a student at a small community college up in northern california, getting ready to pursue a BS in software development. So far i've taken a few programming classes, mostly java and I never thought that programming would become such a passion for me until now. The more I think about what I want to do, I look at small studios such as Uberent who are developing Planetary Annihilation, mojang and smaller indie studios who pitch kickstarter campaigns. Having the opportunity to gain insight from individuals in software development such as your self has been a great opportunity. Thank you for your words.

  14. Thanks a lot for providing this information. My brother who has completed Bachelors in Computer science Engineering and have a good knowledge in Programming. He is interested in Game Developer and now he is doing it as a part time. He has a great passion in game developing and he earns well too. I will take forward this blog to my brother, so that he may get an idea of it. Keep up the good work.