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The Widening Gap: AAA & Indie Development Philosophies


Tomorrow Corporation’s recent announcement of the success of Little Inferno, having sold 250,000 copies, has got me thinking a lot about its counter news story, Square Enix’s list of their fourth quarter failures – Tomb Raider (3.4 mill), Hitman: Absolution (3.6 mill), and Sleeping Dogs(1.76 mill) – despite each of the game’s figures dwarfing Little Inferno’s sales by ludicrous margins. It’s almost unfathomable for me to consider this discrepancy.

I preface my conversation on the basis that I am no Michael Patcher (though some would say that’s a good thing). I am no sort of trained business analyst. My views are informed about what I see in the industry and what I read, so take my perspective for what it is. But I would highly doubt anyone else would look at these two stories together and not get frontal lobe whiplash. How exactly is it that Tomorrow Corporation can claim its fireplace simulator which has only sold a quarter of a million a success when the behemoths of industry fail in their pursuits and sell 15 times as much as Inferno?

In all honesty, it isn’t really that hard to explain. Tomorrow Corporation boasts a staff of three, whereas Square Enix (and other big publishers) craft development teams of 200 plus; obviously, there’s a lot more mouths to feed. It’s great that such large quantities of people are getting work, but that still causes financial burden to the AAA developer and publisher. That’s not to even mention the development of cutting-edge graphics technology, to which such a financial risk must be countered with a multi-million dollar marketing campaign to try to make sure the consumer is aware of your financial investment. When you just look at it, it’s not hard to see why the independently developed Little Inferno gets to claim an easier victory. In fact, you could almost say that Little Inferno is an apt metaphor for the AAA philosophy: burning itself out through excess.

But when you think about it, the story seems all wrong. Aren’t the independent devs the ones who are supposed to be scrounging for every dollar they can find? I mean, they’re supposed to be like the gaming industry’s starving artist, aren’t they? Well then why does it seem like the only one starving these days are AAA developers? I realize that not all indie studios are rousing successes, but when you see success stories the likes Team Meat, or Supergiant, or Dennaton Games, it clashes with what you hear on the opposite side of the industry. Not only have development teams been steadily downsized by publishers over the past several years, but publishers themselves have been collapsing while indie development grows. THQ has sold more games than Tomorrow Corporation will likely ever sell in its lifetime, but THQ could not withstand the financial pressures of the AAA industry.

What makes things stranger is how rapidly this all seems to be happening. Deus Ex: Human Revolution sold 2.18 million copies between its release in 2011 to November of that year. This was considered successful at the time. But in 2013, Tomb Raider shatters those figures in a month, but is deemed a failure. Resident Evil 6 suffered the same fate, and the Dead Space franchise is on hiatus due to what EA considered poor sales figures for Dead Space 3. For as much as it puts out, AAA development really does seem to be grinding its gears in the background, starting to fear its own productions will start hemorrhaging money.

Meanwhile, games like Hotline Miami and The Binding of Isaac are doing so well that they are getting adopted onto mainstream consoles. These two games buck about every norm of AAA philosophy. They are not graphically flashy. They do not cater to wide audiences. They feature themes in games that are wholly unmarketable from a cultural perspective; Binding of Isaac suffered for that very reason in its restriction from Nintendo’s eShop, though since then, Sony has opened its door to them, and Dennaton Games as well. And it’s not that these games shouldn’t be this successful, but when comparing them to the likes of AAA developed games, they shouldn’t appear so much more successful.

The heart of the matter seems to be in a growing separation of development philosophy between AAA development and indie development. And it’s not to say that the philosophies are vastly different. Both take place within the context of capitalistic intent, to make a product and sell the product at a profit. But AAA philosophy seems completely broken in its utilization of capitalism. The philosophy seems to be to throw as much money into a project as possible, but only in the ways to see the return of investment and not on a personal vision of the game, the identity that can draw in a consumer. The goal has become to flatten the identity of the game to garnish the broadest sense of appeal and lose the risk of not appealing, the great “greyification,” as I’ve come to call it. Irrational Games and Yager Development certainly seem the strange beasts in the AAA industry these days, considering what they explore in games like BioShock Infinite and Spec Ops: The Line. It’s not like AAA development is the first to take part in greyification – it’s a natural part of capitalist endeavors, to be able to sell to as massive an audience as possible. But while their audience is massive, their returns are paltry, at least according to them.

Again, indie philosophy is in tune with capitalistic endeavors, but their pursuits seem to utilize capitalism in all the right ways. Perhaps their greatest advantage comes in the way they treat the consumer. Speaking from personal experience, when DLC Quest recently released on Steam, I contacted Going Loud Studios to ask if they were by any chance giving Steam codes to people who had purchased the game on Desura, letting them know that I obviously would understand if they weren’t. Their reply: a Steam code. No questions asked. No excuses. Just a Steam code and a thank you for my participation in their game. I thought to myself about what kind of hassle it would be to get the same treatment from an AAA publisher, especially considering the fact that its digital content. EA certainly wasn’t willing to honor refunds for Sim City, and Ubisoft has consistently demonstrated an antagonistic relationship with digital consumers. One could also use Anodyne's recent success for an example of consumer-friendly capitalistic strategy. Its makers literally give the game out for free as a torrent and then ask for donations from those who enjoyed it. All in all, buying an indie game just seems more worth it and rewarding from a consumer standpoint, not only because its makers treat their consumers better (well, most of the time anyway, Hammerpoint, cough), but because it feels good to be a part of something that will likely be considered successful in the future, at least creatively if not financially.

My intent here is not to make the AAA industry out to be bad guys, or say that indie devs are just soooooo much better, or that AAA development is doooooomed or the like. I love playing AAA games. I love their bigness – their lavishness. And, again, without it games like BioShock might not be around. But perhaps that’s part of the issue; their bigness. Capitalism often pushes the “go big or go home” ideology, making the grandest experience you can. But all that bigness does come at a high price, and for AAA development that price isn’t nearly justifying itself. I adore the beauty of a fine crafted AAA game environment, but I realize that there are people needing to put food on the table. I don’t want AAA developers to sacrifice themselves on the spiked-bed of graphics perfection. If we want everyone to win, there’s going to have to be some acceptance of the financial limitations from the AAA publisher and the AAA consumer.

If AAA development is going to regain the success of its past, it is going to require a serious consideration of their philosophy. Indie philosophy, on the other hand, appears to have a pretty good beat on itself at the moment, with the exception of some of its more polarizing figures. Furthermore, its growing success and popularity should erase any of the mounting anxiety current AAA philosophy evokes. People like to talk of an industry collapse, but if that was to happen, it would likely only be on the AAA side of the industry. Indie development and games would still be around, and the leaders of the indie world would then eventually become the next generation of AAA developers, hopefully bringing their own philosophy to the bigness of AAA games. Rather than come to that, however, I would prefer to see AAA publishers rethink their philosophy, hopefully in a way so that all of us can win. Maybe that’s optimistic to hope for, but it’s not beyond impossible.

What are your thoughts, Dtoid community? Do you see the AAA and indie philosophies growing further apart, or do you see them as more similar than would appear?
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About NickCullone of us since 5:02 PM on 12.16.2009

Married, working, gaming in Kentucky. I heart you, reader.
Steam ID:toddestroy


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