Is there an exodus from indie back to AAA?
Despite a clutch of enviable awards, many concluded that the 2012 film Indie Game: The Movie, a documentary that followed a handful of thoughtful, industrious game developers working in near-poverty on video games that eventually made them rich, gave an unhelpful account of independent game-making.
As in most creative ventures, financial success is the exception. Moreover, the film’s implication that major game studios were holding their staff back from fame and wealth, if only these game-makers could be courageous enough to strike out alone, was misleading.
The narrative proved effective. Many were inspired to leave the relative security of a job in mainstream game-development to launch independent projects, with varying degrees of success.
It would be too much of a stretch to imply that, five years after the explosion of indie game development, we’re witnessing a widespread return back to large studio development. It is, however, undeniably true that, for every indie success story, there are scores of independently produced games that have failed to make a mark or to provide, for their creators, a viable new career. And as such, many are returning to more orthodox roles within established studios.
Likewise, with the democratization of game-making tools during the past decade, major studios increasingly receive applications from young developers whose first experience of making and releasing software was as individuals. Indie game-makers are increasingly occupying roles at major studios.
“After the chaos of releasing a game with an small independent team, there’s something soothing about the routine of going into the same office and seeing the same people day in and day out,” says Noah Sasso, creator of BaraBariBall, a competitive game that featured on the PlayStation 4 collection of absurdist athletic minigames, Sportsfriends.
"There are a lot of complicated and personal factors involved in being an indie. You have to be comfortable living with uncertainty. You have to have good connections in the industry. You have to be able to manage ugly realities, like the fact that most people need a regular income to survive."
In the summer of 2014 Sasso joined Iron Galaxy, the Chicago-based creator of Killer Instinct, which has also ported lauded fighting games such as Street Fighter III: Third Strike to contemporary consoles. Previously Sasso, like many freelancers, had a portfolio career: a string of freelance gigs supplemented by teaching posts and other odd jobs. While touring BaraBariBall around game events such as EVO and PAX, Sasso met Iron Galaxy founder Dave Lang. When Lang offered Sasso a job, the opportunity for security, as well as the chance to work with like minded and highly experienced competitive game-makers was, as he puts it, too good to pass up.
"There are a lot of complicated and personal factors involved in being an indie,” he says. “You have to be comfortable living with uncertainty. You have to have good connections in the industry. You have to be able to manage ugly realities, like the fact that most people need a regular income to survive.”
Many of these problems have been solved by Sasso’s move to a major studio, but there have been costs too. “I miss the flexibility of solving problems more slowly and more naturally,” he says.
Likewise, Sasso has had to learn a specialized kind of humility. “When you’re making a game with a large team, there are so many factors at play that unfortunately the decisions that seem like they would be most logical or the most fun aren’t always possible, and being able to roll with the punches with a bit of grace is important.”
Teddy Dief is a designer and programmer who, following the successful launch of Hyper Light Drifter in 2016, made a similar move to Sasso, joining Square-Enix Montreal as a creative director. Dief has previously worked in larger studios such as Gameloft, Disney and Microsoft, where he worked on the Kinect project. “I went indie to work on my own games, because I knew I wanted that creative influence that comes when you’re a part of a tiny team,” he recalls.
"If you average out indies, they make far less than AAA devs. Don't go indie for the money. Hell, don't go into games for the money."
But Dief rejects the idea that his recent move back to major studio is at odds with that aim. “I decided to come work with the studio as Creative Director because our goals aligned,” he says. “I wanted to make a certain type of game, and they felt it was a good match for their future interests. We got along well. The AAA environment is affording me a little extra scale, but I still very much value low-ish scope.”
Still, it’s the general consensus that indies benefit from more creative freedom and control, flexible working hours and a shot at greater financial rewards compared to those working at major studios. “I would agree with that consensus, except for the major financial rewards part,” says Dief. “There are outliers, and I'm lucky to consider Hyper Light Drifter one of those. But if you average out indies, they make far less than AAA devs. Don't go indie for the money. Hell, don't go into games for the money.”
Salary, security and the companionship of co-workers are clear incentives for any indie interested in joining a major studio. But there are benefits for the employer too. Anyone who has taken a game from idea to release has a first-hand appreciation of the various disciplines and requirements involved in launching a game today.
Conversely, young designers, artists and programmers who have cut their teeth in a large commercial team are more likely to have had a cloistered experience. “Someone who has spent five years working on a half dozen smaller projects, whether they are independent or otherwise, has had opportunities to learn from mistakes, correct assumptions, try on different roles, in a way that someone who has worked on a single game for five years has not,” says Sasso.
Dief agrees: “They’ve seen how all the pieces fit together because they had to mash every single one of them together with their own blood, sweat, and tears. They have a perspective on game creation that you can’t get any other way.”
"The culture clash experienced by an indie joining a major studio (the stricter working hours, new tools and processes) must be addressed with care."
Freed from the commercial pressures to infuse their games with a wide appeal (with much lower overheads, an indie game-maker can aim for niches) they’ve also likely had the chance to be more experimental. But while a generalist with an experimental temperament may add some useful spice to a major studio project, they pose risks too.
Being able to work efficiently as part of a large team requires a raft of particular skills, ones that take time to develop, Ricky Haggett, developer of Hohokum, told me. “This can make it both harder and riskier to parachute an indie into a higher-level role at one of these places.”
The culture clash experienced by an indie joining a major studio (the stricter working hours, new tools and processes) must be addressed with care. “There may be things indies are used to that major studio isn’t used to supporting,” says Dief. “Maybe an indie loves going to Fantastic Arcade every year, and considers that trip a crucial part of their annual routine. The AAA employer might want to respect that rhythm, and the two have to negotiate to make sure they can take vacation at that time to preserve that priority.”
At Square-Enix Montreal, Dief has seen the benefit of fostering a team that has a mixture of developers who have come from indie game development and those who have been brought up within the studio system. “I also work with people who have shipped multiple blockbuster console titles who, as a result, have specialty expertise I'll never have,” he says.
"I think the indie vs. studio binary becomes less and less meaningful every year. In the end the goals and motivations of the people you work with are more important than the size of the team."
Dief worked for years at Glitch City, a co-op space he co-founded in Los Angeles’ Culver City. An open plan office space, with a lively décor, Glitch City is home to around a dozen people, all of whom work on different projects. It’s this sense of being together with people working on different things that Dief most misses from his current set-up. “I learned a lot from that, and I push to meet and share with other devs in my city now.”
That loss of environmental freedom has, for Dief, combined with an increased sense of responsibility to others, something that indies who work alone often do not have to consider. “The team I work with trust me to make decisions that affect all their lives,” he says. “I feel the weight of that responsibility. It’s intense.” Since Dief joined Square Enix Montreal, he’s found that he needs to protect his time. He keeps a daily faux three-hour meeting in his shared calendar in order to ensure he has time to do “deeper work.”
While Square Enix Montreal is a forty-person studio, Dief’s immediate development team consists of just seven people, a size that’s much closer to a typical independent team than the battalion of staff required to make a contemporary blockbuster. It is, Dief believes, the ideal size for an indie game-maker moving to a larger studio. “I love still getting to talk with the whole team every day,” he says. “That just doesn’t happen when you get into the bigger numbers. I want to see every team member’s handprint clearly in this game, and that gets really hard to preserve when you get bigger and bigger and more specialized.”
This set up of a smaller, indie-like team working within a multinational corporation is perhaps evidence of another paradigm shift in modern game development. “I think the indie vs. studio binary becomes less and less meaningful every year,” says Sasso. “In the end the goals and motivations of the people you work with are more important than the size of the team.”
There may be other practicalities bearing down on game-makers, however, especially in America. In the Trump era, all signs point to it being more difficult for freelancers and independents to secure healthcare coverage. A job at a major studio could provide a crucial safety net, especially for older game-makers. Beyond these utilitarian considerations, Dief broadly agrees with Sasso. It’s important, he says, to not get too caught up in the old definitions. “There’s some culture clash, but ‘indie’ and ‘blockbuster’ are ultimately not labels that stick to people. They just stick to studio structures, entities we can all move into and out of over the course of our careers.”