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AAA Envy
by Benjamin Quintero on 03/11/13 08:00:00 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.


[reprinted from..]

Hello, my name is Ben Quintero and I am an addict.  I am addicted to explosive gameplay, responsive and clever AI, and high production values.  I am addicted to ingeniously designed one-off puzzles as much as I am cutting-edge visuals.  I want the whole package in the games I play, but also in the games I create.  As you might know, the latter is often the issue.

Games today are developed by a countless number of team members; quite literally in the sense that some development studios will simply list the entire company because they don't actually know who worked on the product.  Above and beyond this is the long list of contractors and day-labor that probably didn't even make it to the credits but contributed their fair share of environment props and textures.  Some developers are almost bashful to even say and often skirt around the discussion of exactly how many people it took to make their game.

As an independent, it is demoralizing to see this trend.  What can one man do with his addiction except quit it all cold turkey?  After recently watching the Doom postmortem on Gamasutra and recalling statements made about Wolfenstein, about entire levels being made in a day, I can't help but feel like I was born about 20 years too late.  AAA games of today are very much about throwing in the kitchen sink; achievements, co-op, death match, bleeding edge visuals and special effects, face stabs, cut scenes, billions of weapons, more face stabs, and an insane library of animations and actions with unique rigs for every minotaur you slice open to every alien you stick a grenade to. *deep breath*

On the other side of this coin you have the more casual experiences, the Angry Birds and Cut the Ropes and something about an alligator in the sewers; yawn...  To be honest I have never found myself actively wanting to play anything in the top 25 on iOS.  As someone who really found his stride as a gamer on PC (and NES but come on who didn't own one of those) I've always enjoyed the deeper experiences.  Now, as a developer, I see each year that passes as another year where the gap widens in the kinds of games that I like to play and the kinds of games I am able to make.

screenshot01Though I had spent years making countless demos, mini games, and publisher pitches before this, 2009 was the year I finally decided to forget about publishers ship something.  In 2009 I developed an arcade zombie shooter before I knew zombies were a thing.  I just really liked Dead Rising at the time but hated the idea of getting pulled around a map, running errands under some artificial time limit.  I just wanted to kill zombies.  In spite of the fun gameplay and technical achievement of the games' dynamic lighting and shadowing engine, standing next to giants like Forza 3, Assassin's Creed, Uncharted 2, Resident Evil 5, Street Fighter 4, Modern Warfare, was I really going to even make a ripple in that ocean with a PC arcade shooter?  This was easily three years in development since I did everything from the code to the art and the sound design.

Game Play 01

Before discovering that XBLIG would ultimately turn out to be a failed experiment, I made a couple of games.  Again, I aimed for the kind of games I liked to play, not really the disposable experience I think people were paying for on XBLIG.  Though this game was still an arcade shooter, it was easily one of my more complex game designs.  Unfortunately this game fell flat for a laundry list of reasons.  Shooter fans didn't like the RPG progression. Others just played the hater card and called it a clone.  Most seemed to think that $3 was extortion and proceeded to piss on it.  The lack of exposure for XBLIG games was pretty much the nail in the coffin.  This and another XBLIG title added up to another two, maybe three, years.

Right now I am working on another title (not an arcade shooter) with an even more ambitious scope and a story to tell, but I must admit that my passion has waned.  In the span of the last seven years or so I've managed to "follow my dream" and develop a short list of games and even write a science fiction novel, and frankly it has only earned me a lot of hate mail and ascii art in the shape of a middle finger.  It does make me question who I am doing this for sometimes, but it also exemplifies exactly why I wouldn't care to make a game that I don't want to play for myself.

I read articles and blogs from other indies who are falling over themselves with excitement because they made a profit of $5,000 maybe $10,000.  That may sound like a considerable amount of money until you read the fine print; unemployed, living on spouse income or with parents, net profits don't account for any kind of salary to themselves and are over the period of as much as several years of sales across an array of platforms/ports.  These are not exactly encouraging numbers.  They are made even less encouraging when you understand the conditions under which that money was made.  I don't know what to think or say when an Engineer with a college degree is ecstatic that he almost made as much as a part-time high school kid flipping burgers.  At what point does it seem ludicrous to continue to follow your dreams?

It seems like the longer I take on a game, the more money I spend to develop it, the deeper I try to make it, the more spectacular the failure.  I can only guess at why that may be true, but I know the root of my ironic little problem is that I am trying to make the games I like to play.  I have no passion or even interest for mindless click-and-win games and not enough time in the day to make AAA games.  Hard place... Meet rock.

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Chris Clogg
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"To be honest I have never found myself actively wanting to play anything in the top 25 on iOS"... I actually love a lot of iOS games and your statement holds pretty much true for myself too. You've just got to find the right games (admittedly that is hard as well). Maybe it's also still quite young and just not enough good games exist. It doesn't help that the AAA games that do come to iOS just stick a virtual joystick on the screen and call it a day.

But you're right, games have gone to insane levels of art both in quality and quantity (with teams of 200-300). However, there are a lot of engines out there though and the good news is that small teams can produce nice stuff; it really comes down to how many art assets you can make with your team size though.

As you say, you (were/are) a PC gamer, and as I am one too, I believe that there are many PC hits from the 90's and early 2000's that could be quite doable by smaller teams now (or for tablets) etc... maybe we just need to wait for that blossoming to happen? Personally I think there could be a lot more cool strategy games... stuff like Black & White, Age of Mythology, Warcraft, and so forth.

Jane Castle
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NEVER EVER try to tackle AAA as an indie. The odds are stacked against you and you will be in direct competition with large studios that have resources you can't even dream of.

A more realistic idea is to take a smaller game genre (say from the 90's as stated by Chris above) do a few unique twists to the game play and give the graphics a more modern (but within your budget) coat of paint. Make a game that stands out in some way from the derivative sequels that plague the AAA space.

As for AAA graphics, sure they are cool and I like you drool over them. However, as you well know stick to game play and favor that over AAA visuals, because in the end that is what brings in players. This is always a fine line, because you also can't have the visual fidelity of something that was made by a kindergarten kid and a box of crayons.

This is the case of the Legend of Grim Rock team. While they are nowhere near a AAA studio in terms of content, they still managed to make an enjoyable game within the scope of their abilities. To date they have sold 600K copies. For a AAA studio this a failure, but for a small team of 4 it is a qualified success. The reason is that the business model is different for a small man team than it is for a large AAA studio.
So take advantage of that business reality when making your game.

Also remember there is a market for different types of games. You like AAA games, well I am on the other end of the spectrum. I DO NOT like AAA games and avoid them. For me Legend of Grim Rock was great and money well spent.

Please don't take this post as me being a kill joy. I am just advising to stay away from AAA as it is unrealistic and not achievable by a one or even four man team.

Eric Schwarz
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Once you learn that graphics are abstract representations of game mechanics, it becomes a lot easier to not care about great triple-A graphics anymore.

Jane Castle
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I am printing your post and pasting it to the front of my monitor..... I'll even put your name under the quote.

Truer words have never been spoken.....

Eric Schwarz
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Include my avatar so you have a picture of a cute kittun to keep you happy and (in)sane. :3

Jane Castle
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lol! Your cat can watch me and make sure I am working.

Eric Salmon
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If the polish is what you love, then you should consider working at a AAA studio. Successful independents have something they have to make and we'd be happy making as much as a kid flipping burgers because it's doing something we love--the payment is just extra. A studio will give you the opportunity to make something you'd really want with the benefit of a higher paycheck.

The only alternative is to make your studio successful enough to tackle projects like that on it's own, which is going to be a long road (then again, if THAT's what you want, you should go after it). Just remember that all good games have a solid foundation in their gameplay first--if you stripped out the bells&whistles Call of Duty would still be fun to play--and the truth is that most of these companies built themselves by iterating on titles that had simple but good gameplay and became franchises, which have continuously added more polish because each time the foundation was already there from the last title. Polish separates amazing games from great games, but gameplay separates great games from bad games and everywhere in between.

t b
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I like Keith Urban's answer to this question - of course, he was talking about being a musician, but I think that's similar to being an indie dev:
Q: "What would you do if you couldn't do this for a living?"
A: "I'd do this for not a living"

It sounds like you are in a down part of a cycle, and I hope you find your passion waxing soon.

Mike Murray
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Having read the article on Kenji Eno earlier today, maybe you need to step away from games for a while?

t b
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edit - accidental repost

Vu Nguyen
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what are his XBLIG titles? I'll try them out. though the zombies one... ugh, yet another zombie game...

Jane Castle
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Ashland's Retribution is the next game. Check out the youtube video:

The zombie game seems to not have been completed or released except for a demo on his webpage.

Benjamin Quintero
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Vu, I agree with you more now than I did then. You have to remember that 2009 was really on the edge of when gamers kind of rediscovered zombies and games like Plants vs. Zombies really started to merge the niche zombie fans with the mainstream/casual zombie fans. It really just started blowing up, but to be honest I didn't see it coming (I started work on this game like 3 years before all of that).

My game actually got a lot of praise at the time and saw over 100k downloads in the first few months. It was a free game that I had hoped to build interest in but I didn't realize that a bunch of other studios (large, funded studios) were working on similar ideas, shipping around a year after my game and with uncanny similarities. But what can ya do; right? It was an awesome experience to watch it blow up on the web, even if I didn't really make a dime on it...

It was a free download with option to donate... and well.. of 100k+ people I think like 2 ever ponyed up some cash. It was flawed to assume people's good will =).

Kenneth Baird
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I've been struggling with this very set of problems. Artwise I think a one person show needs to find a lofi solution similar to pixel art. I only really ever do 3D games, so for me the answer has been cell shading with mostly solid colors, and definitely skipping on the normal mapping.

Graphics haven't really been my problem though, my games just haven't had the "soul" yet since I started working on my own.

Benjamin Quintero
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Everyone, thanks for the comments.

@Jane, I never really intended to compete directly with AAA games, but there are things that are just better in many high production games. I've played lots of indie PC games and they all have something dear and something very flawed. My envy of AAA has less to do with just pushing more polygons on the screen and more to do with the breathe and depth of the experience and the polish of the controls and mechanics. As you said, there is a fine line between acceptable art and kindergarten crayon art. The line of what is acceptable continues to climb however, and that is part of the problem. Atari sprites were like 8x8 pixels, NES sprites 16x16, SNES 32x32, and now? You just have to look at games like Shank or Skull Girls to see where sprite graphics are headed. Graphics aren't everything but the number of VVVVVV games to make headlines I can count on one hand... =( As important as gameplay is, most members of the press would flat out admit to being a little shallow about the types of games they give their attention to. With so many games fighting for attention, gamers and press have the freedom to have their cake and eat it to; amazing visuals AND gameplay.

@Eric, Though it is true that you can go work for a AAA studio and be a part of a small village of developers, you then become just a line in the credits. You lose your identity and ultimately are working on a vision created by someone else who themselves are likely answering to someone from focus testing. As team sizes grow the personal expression of individuals is often squashed with the exception of a few rouge snippets of code. I worked in AAA, and I would go back to it if the conditions were right, but I know exactly what I would be signing up for as well.


The library of games today is so large that it is difficult to not be compared with the most successful of each genre. Want to make a shooter? How does it stand up to Call of Duty? What to make a 3rd-person action game? How does it stand up to Gears of War? RTS? Starcraft. Dungeon Crawler? Diablo / Torchlight. Side-scroller? Metroid/Castlevania/Metal Slug/Mario. Physics game? Portal/Limbo. Time manipulation? Braid. The list goes on. The game market has reached a point where people don't care if you are indie or AAA they just know what they like but this is a double edge sword. There is a balance of defining your game as something new without losing your audience for being too different. But of course the more familiar the game the more likely you are to be compared. I don't know if there is an answer to that, but I know that trying to beat AAA at their own game is not the answer.

Jane Castle
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Of course then there are the exceptions such as MineCraft and FTL which in my opinion have ridiculously poor graphics but still are successful products.

Also comparing to the best is also subjective. For example, Torchlight while successful, in my opinion does not deserve to be put on the same level as Diablo as you have done in your post. The polish and depth of Torchlight is nowhere near as close to Diablo and yet it still sold well. So in this case your argument may or may not be valid as it is very subjective who you compare against and who is doing the comparing.

The same can be said of side scrollers. There are many games that are successful in this genre that can't hold a candle to Super Mario, Castle Vania etc. etc.

I do agree with you though the level is continuously rising. But this is true in all tech related endeavors. Otherwise we would all be sticking to making horse shoes.

My advice is make the best game you can make and with the best graphics you can muster and\or hire talented artists. If the game still does not do well then make another one that is better than the last and continue.

Eric Salmon
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Agreed, you'd have to trade creative freedom for the resources to make any AAA game (even if you established your own AAA studio, you'd be subject to the whims of investors and publishers barring an extremely successful crowdfunding endeavor).

Genre fatigue is definitely a concern, but don't forget all the places you have an advantage (price being the huge one) over established titles. Most independent gaming successes are a result not only of the end product, but of the idea and motivation behind the entire company (this is actually true in many industries, Apple being an easy example). People will forgive poor graphics for indies in particular, but they're also more forgiving of everything in general if they buy into the personal mission of the company--the freedom of expression of Mojang or the emotional aesthetic of Thatgamecompany. The honesty and devotion to that idea will shine through, and people will buy what you do as much for why you do it as how you do it. A lot of AAA titles are missing this (two I can think of quickly that had this in spades are the MGS series and the latest Twisted Metal by the original team), and it really helps set you apart.

Of course, having such a concise personal mission for a company is a topic in itself, and if I had mine I wouldn't be reading articles.

Linh Ngo
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We're just a two-man team, but our 3D space game is starting to rival a much larger company in the 3D art department. How? We're leveraging the Unity asset store. We have become adept at integrating the latest and greatest 3D assets. And I must admit, the enhanced visuals do help with immersion. Whereas the larger company has its own dedicated engine, we have Unity and an army of hungry devs making assets keeping us ahead of the technology curve. We don't need a shader expert on the payroll, they're in the asset store. This nimbleness is difficult for large companies with proprietary engines.