Indie, AAA & How Developers See The Future
To discuss the gap between indie and AAA, as well as what the future holds for the industry we spoke to Gone Home developer Steve Gaynor, Far Cry 3 and Child of Light creative director Patrick Plourde and Molleindustria’s Paolo Pedercini.
The days where you could easily distinguish between indie and AAA are coming to an end.
The small one-person niche projects with which the term ‘indie’ has come to be associated aren’t going to disappear, of course, but a new breed of indie games are now emerging.
Take the recently revealed No Man’s Sky as an example. It is clear that in terms of scope, complexity and visual prowess, No Man’s Sky aims to offer the kind of experience that players would usually expect to get from a much larger development studio, funded by a big name publisher.
In terms of sales and mainstream reach, too, indie games are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from their big budget counterparts, with the likes of Minecraft now every bit as ubiquitous as Call of Duty.
How can the rapidly receding gap between indie games and their big-budget counterparts be accounted for? Will the line between indie and AAA continue to blur and what does that mean for the future of the videogames industry?
We spoke to The Fullbright Company’s Steve Gaynor, Child of Light creative director Patrick Plourde and Molleindustria’s Paolo Pedercini to address those questions.
Indie, AAA & The Death Of The Mid-Tier Developer
For Gone Home developer, Steve Gaynor, the blurring of the line between indie and AAA can partly be attributed to the death of the mid-tier developer.
“In the economic downturn in 2008 -2010/11, we saw so many mid-tier game studios close down,” Gaynor told NowGamer.
“At the same time we saw prominent indies making their first breakthrough games – Braid, Amnesia and Supergiant’s first game, Bastion.
“There was this movement of those first time indies rising to prominence and also these mid-tier developers commercial developers unfortunately shutting down,” Gaynor continued.
“When you look at the second game from some of those indies, when you look at Jonathan Blow going from Braid to the Witness and when you look at how the guys from Frictional teased their next game, Soma, with really high production value live-action trailers, that definitely feels like there are indies that are stepping up to fill the gap between the solo project and GTA, or whatever, and I think that’s really exciting.”
However, the blurring of the lines between AAA and indie isn’t just about the indie scene growing to fill the gap left by the death of the mid-tier developer.
In the same way that the games being made by some indies are starting to more closely resemble big budget videogames (in form, if not content), large publishers are starting to emulate the indie scene, putting together small teams to make more focused, niche, downloadable titles.
Ubisoft’s Child of Light, a sidescrolling JRPG, is one such example.
Child of Light creative director Patrick Plourde told NowGamer that he sees a future where small downloadable titles will become an increasingly vital part of the industry.
“I think that AAA is going more and more the way of the Hollywood Summer Blockbusters; a couple of games with incredible production values will compete for that slice of the market.”
“Only a couple of studios are going to be able to compete so I believe this situation will open the door wide open for other smaller, more focused productions to capture the spotlight,” Plourde explained.
While perhaps not sharing the same thoughts on the role of large publishers, Molleindustria’s Paolo Pedercini, creator of the likes of Unmanned and The Best Amendment, sees the games industry taking a similar trajectory as to that outlined by Plourde.
“I think, while independent developers are getting more mainstream success and getting bigger, the old guard of AAA game companies are essentially resigned to target a very profitable niche market: gamers that spend a lot of money for FPS, sport, RPG, and racing games.
“Some of them will be influenced by indies and will try to make slightly more ‘mature’, or mature looking games,” Pedercini continued, “but big budgets are incompatible with bold ideas.
“The good news is that we don’t need them to make games.”
Indeed, Pedercini highlights an important point. Just because the lines between indie and AAA are becoming increasingly indistinct in terms of presentation, scale and sales, that doesn’t mean that indie will imitate AAA when it comes to ideas and creativity.
Indie & AAA – The Impact of Digital Distribution
On the contrary, digital distribution means that making games that are ‘different’, or that deal with subjects that aren’t normally tackled by videogames, whether that be political, social, or cultural, has become financially viable in a way it wasn’t in the past, as Gaynor can attest.
“I think that digital distribution and the place that digital distribution and social network stuff, the whole realm of an online audience for core games, has gotten to in the last couple of years has been instrumental to me realising that we could do our own thing without being part of a larger organisation,” said Gaynor.
“I think it is because of the creative freedom that it gives you, along with some amount of insurance that if you do a good enough job, you can actually find an audience of people that will buy your game and you can pay rent that way. Which was nowhere near the same level of viability three, four, five years ago.”
“That framework being in place is the reason we can make a game like Gone Home,” Gaynor continued, “and, if it wasn’t, it would be like, ‘how does a game like that even exist’? ‘How are we going to make this and not starve’?”
But, again, digital distribution isn’t just shaking up the industry by making small indie projects financially viable.
Digital distribution is starting to have an impact on the kinds of games that large publishers are willing to put out too, purely as a result of the fact that there’s less risk associated with a digital release.
In that sense, Plourde argues that digital distribution is also helping to foster creativity in big publishers.
“In retail, it’s really difficult to stand out. If you are not showcased at the front of a store it’s nearly impossible for a game to find its public. So publishers tend to go with tried and true concepts,” Plourde explained.
“Digital allows us to remove this barrier. When you are working on a digital game, the important thing is to stand out by being original,” Plourde continued.
“The risk is to not take risks. It’s a virtuous loop that is embraced by more and more players, and as a creator it’s really great to harness that creative freedom.”
Indie, AAA & Development Tools
Equally important if we want to understand why the gap between indies and AAA is blurring is the emergence of development tools that allow small teams to make games quicker.
“We made Gone Home with four people and we did it in a year and a half,” said Gaynor.
“The three prongs of the technological underpinning for why games like this can get made now is Twitter, Steam and middleware – like Unity, or Gamemaker, or RPG Maker or Adventure Game Studio.”
“Having something like Unity to be there, well, it jump starts the ability to get something playable and see how it feels to play the actual game we want to making and not just like lay all the groundwork ourselves of just getting anything up on screen,” Gaynor explained.
“I think the fact that Unity is becoming hugely successful and being the engine that so many games you play use, including our own, its an indicator of where the industry is moving to as a whole.”
Perercini also recognises the impact that digital distrbution and flexible creation tools have had when it comes to bringing a diverse array of games to a large audience, but he does urge caution when it comes to hailing the coming of the digital age as some kind of utopian democratisation of the games industry.
“At this point we all recognise the impact of digital distribution, tools and frameworks that are allowing independent developers to thrive and reach an increasingly larger public,” said Pedercini.
“We are certainly seeing more and more interesting, original and meaningful games every year. My argument – as I expressed in my Toward Independence talk – is that corporate digital distribution channels replaced publishers as ‘the Man’.”
“They are excerpting a degree of control over the content (in the case of the Apple store disturbingly so),” Pedercini continued, “and they essentially externalise the entrepreneurial risk to indies while profiting from every sale by simply sitting on a huge digital pipeline.”
“You don’t need Steam to distribute a game, you can easily set up your own store. Yet, you need to be on Steam to be successful because gamers are suckers for its Walmart-like vibe.”
Indie, AAA & the Future
The creative boom that digital distribution and flexible development tools have fostered, and which has allowed indies to grow into the space left by the death of mid-tier developers, has undoubtedly been great for gamers in giving us access to a geater variety of games.
That digital distribution and the indie space is also increasingly influencing the type of games that are being released by large publishers, seemingly convincing them that there is money in niche ideas, is good news too, diversifying as it does the games that we have access to.
In that sense, the blurring of the divide between indie and AAA is a fantastic thing.
However, as indie games grow in scope and size, more closely resembling AAA titles, the danger is that those games will start to emulate the tendencies to which they were previously an antithesis.
As Pedercini points out, there is also a concern that about the role that digital distributors like Steam are starting to play as kingmakers, regardless of the role that those platforms have played in undermining the conservative tendencies of large publishers.
This means we should be cautious about hailing the blurring of the lines between indie and AAA and the factors that have prompted it unreservedly.
For now, though, the creativity that the receding gap between indie and AAA has fostered looks to be a positive thing for gamers and developers alike.