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Harold Ryan served as president and CEO of Halo and Destiny creator Bungie for 15 years before founding multi-studio AAA game company ProbablyMonsters.
As a developer, AAA games have always been my passion. I know it is a space where I can put the focus on the team and in the end, maximize the impact of everyone's efforts. The highest level of quality can be achieved by an excellent team that’s given time to polish, with their work presented with greater exposure to a global audience.
At their best, AAA games can be a generation-defining experience with an oversized cultural impact. They have the power to inspire and influence gamers to become developers—achieving that level of impact is what keeps me engaged in building AAA games.
Over my career, I have gotten to lead teams working most notably on the Age of Empires, Halo, MechWarrior, and Destiny franchises. I look at large scale console and PC projects from the perspective of those who make games—what benefits do AAA games offer developers, and what are the downsides they can also present?
I’ve put a good deal of thought into how we can make the entire AAA process better for developers, and we’ll look at how development studios can be optimized to get the best results from AAA scale. I’ll also provide some suggestions to help you judge if a particular AAA project is right for you, should the opportunity present itself.
Most developers recognize that AAA games are important for gamers and developers, but let’s talk about why this is so:
Aside from its importance to the industry, AAA project scale can provide unique benefits for developers.
AAA project scale provides a level of stability and budget that can (and should) support best-of-class benefits, recruiting, and employee development. This means players can get a game built by developers who had access to full medical and dental care, sick leave, vacation time, parental leave, and flexible work schedules—benefits they deserve. Stability and security are important for everyone (game developers included), and that’s why at ProbablyMonsters we plan and manage to a year of stability for new hires. This includes 18 months of funding for incubation with a smaller team, and a year of initial funding for the larger team in full development. From the first concept, that is a 2.5-year plan and funding for the core team—that’s our business case we present to our teams from the start. Without a AAA investment level, we would not be able to offer this kind of predictable stability to our teams.
AAA projects can also offer career development that goes beyond just learning on the job—AAA studios have more options to put their scale and funding to use for mentored and structured career growth. Training, leadership coaching, and access to experienced HR and recruiting teams help teams grow while focusing on bringing their games to life. I strongly believe it’s important to provide the resources to help developers grow and evolve in a structured way. Time and funding can help everyone to better shape and grow studio culture, contributing to healthier team dynamics. It takes a lot of intentional investment to build teams with a people-centered culture. An inclusive, trusting, and respectful work environment can be difficult to deliver in a smaller team where every resource must go to building the game. Being able to take the time to step back and wait to fill a critical role to the benefit of team culture is a challenge in and of itself that takes time and resources to accomplish. Short budgets and short timelines often constrain projects. Ensuring teams have the flexibility to build and iterate on their team is a priority for me.
AAA projects also offer the ability to work with top talent across the team—the best of the best. Beyond the core development team, this can mean strong QA, finance, legal, IT, HR, and facilities teams—a support structure that extends to negotiating with publishers and vendors to protect developer interests. AAA projects often enjoy top tier partners in distribution and marketing that can help your game reach more players (distribution and awareness are key to success).
AAA projects more predictably reach millions of players. As a developer, you only get so many chances to ship a game you’re proud of, and when you get that chance, you want it to matter to as many people as possible. Shipping a successful AAA game is a great way to get recognition from your friends, family, and the industry.
A game budget should provide the resources to not just make the game but stay engaged and evolve the game, listening to players. Community engagement has been important too, but is now critical in an age where nearly every game has a connected and evolving life as a service. With AAA funding, you can afford to support your game with new content and improvements/adjustments for months if not years, while still providing a stable career for your team.
AAA games present the chance to thoroughly test your game before shipping. While finding every defect isn’t possible, shipping a game that can stand up to days of continuous play without disconnecting or losing a player's progress can go a long way toward building lifelong fans of your work.
So far, we’ve looked at a few key positives AAA games can provide their teams. But what are a few key potential downsides to working on AAA projects? Let’s dig into this a bit with a list of potential problems you should look out for.
A large budget and team don’t guarantee a good development strategy. Feeling the pressure to deliver for tens or hundreds of fellow developers and millions of fan is a real pressure for AAA game development. Take it on yourself to know the plan and schedule before committing. Too often AAA game development can lead to “crunch”—look for a management team with experience and a willingness to talk about work hour expectations upfront.
The length of time and scope of role on the project is not for every developer. If you like to build and ship quickly, longer lead times may not work for you. Two to three years to hone your craft and your project as a part of a great team can be fantastic, but conversely, with a large team and long timeline dependencies may mean you have to finish tasks to hand them to another group long before the game is done.
The size of the team can be overwhelming for many developers. Some developers aren’t comfortable in that environment. There’s a certain scale needed for AAA games, but I try to optimize this through a limit of 120 people on a team so that everyone can know each other. Managing team size allows for better communication and transparency, helping to foster a positive culture. As a team leader, I highly value knowing the people on the team, including their needs at work and in their personal life. The ability to leverage the power of the team and company to help individuals in times of need is greatly increased when the decision-makers in a company know the individuals on the team. Once you lose the ability to know and understand everyone on your team intrapersonal empathy and the ability to work as a team often get lost.
Visualization of Dunbar's number (Credit: bu.edu)
You’ll be working in the limelight, associated with a large organization—internally or externally in the form of a major publisher. This means high expectations and reliable delivery of milestones to an external spec. With the investment involved, you should expect scrutiny from management, players, and media. Again, this is not for everyone.
On large teams, the leadership team can often lose track of what each person contributes. To protect yourself on a large team, I recommend ensuring that all expectations you have of compensation are in writing with predictable monetary results. If you expect it, get it in writing. Once you understand your compensation, it should pass a simple test: “Is your compensation a fair trade for the requirements of your job?” Larger teams and companies often have variable bonus plans based on some form of review. While I often advise against variability in expected compensation, should you be faced with a review based bonus plan I recommend working with your managers and peers to keep a consistent understanding of if you are Meeting, Exceeding, or Below Expectations rather than waiting for the timing of your team’s review process as a single point of understanding.
The scale of AAA game investment often leads companies to look to protect their investment. In some cases, this can lead to the company losing touch with doing the right thing for their employees. As a developer, signing on the dotted line for a major project can come with restrictions that can get in the way of you being able to practice your craft freely. Non-competes, Non-solicits, and Moonlighting clauses often come up as part of AAA game development. The new job feels like a perfect fit and you’re going to see it to the finish line, so no problem, right? Circumstances often change; sometimes the project or maybe the team is not a great fit. I never require such agreements of my employees as I believe developers should work where they want. If you leave, you give up your paycheck, but you shouldn’t give up your right to work elsewhere—be wary of non-compete clauses.
The scale of a AAA project makes it more likely that you’ll have a big publishing partner. Be sure the structure and makeup of the studio and publisher work for you. When you have a publisher, there’s an intermediary between you and your player audience. I’ve structured ProbablyMonsters as a buffer to help with publisher negotiations and to provide employment security and a “creative cocoon” where developers can flourish without having to fit into a corporate box. That’s my solution, but it’s not the only one—publishers and developers can work well together if the process is well managed and mediated.
While this article has focused on AAA games, I want to reiterate that AAA and indie games complement each other. Both are healthy and necessary for the industry and gamers. While AAA games feed the largest number of gamers and drive the industry’s big ambitions, indies can bring in new development talent, players, and ideas. It’s not a zero-sum game.
Looking ahead to the foreseeable future, AAA games are likely to continue as the blockbusters that drive the industry. They offer recognition (which attracts top talent), epic entertainment experiences (which attracts large audiences), and access to new tech and major innovations. Games and gamers will continue to evolve, but the scale and scope of AAA will continue to be essential to providing great opportunities for developers.
For developers who specifically want to focus on AAA projects, what I’m trying to create now is a new space that minimizes tradeoffs. I want to provide opportunities for teams to learn and grow in a stable and innovative environment leading to rewarding long term careers, something I see as a huge win for game developers.
Big games can provide the resources, stability, and senior talent to make the games we aspire to—the reason we came to this industry. My goal is to harness this potential to create great careers for AAA developers so they get an environment in which they can thrive and the support to innovate in a lifelong career. Amazing games and inspired game developers are my passion and the reason I’m excited to go to work every day.
I wish you the best of luck in your journey to find the right project and team to thrive. From indie to AAA the industry is full of opportunities to bring your dreams to life!