The truth about how AAA developers view indies
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.