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AAA devs get back to making games, not products

"It was not the way I envisioned creating video games," says Simon Darveau. He'd been with Ubisoft for half a decade, where he worked as a game designer on the Assassin's Creed series. Being a AAA developer on an established franchise certainly had its perks--a decent salary, a secure job. But it also meant having an increasingly specialized role in the development process, resulting in less and less creative input. Darveau wasn't satisfied.

"Right now [AAA development] is more of a production paradigm, where you know how to reproduce a similar formula," he says. "This was not the dream I had during my childhood. What I had imagined was more like creating something with a team of passionate people who are defining, with their hands and with their talent and with their creativity, what the game will look like." And so, in 2012, Darveau quit his job.

Darveau is one of many developers with years of AAA experience who've set out to form an independent studio. A quick glance through the rosters of development houses such as Klei Entertainment (Mark of the Ninja), Red Barrels (Outlast), and The Fullbright Company (Gone Home) reveals that many of their devs have 10+ years of experience, with backgrounds spanning a range of AAA studios and projects. Not so long ago, we associated independent studios with untested developers looking to break into the industry. Now experienced devs are abandoning the big-budget scene in droves to head up their own operations.

After leaving Ubisoft, Darveau put in motion a plan to launch his own studio, Spearhead Games, with the help of his long-time friend Malik Boukhira, who at the time was design director for Dead Space 3. "When we started, we had nothing but a game pre-prototype, and I was living in Malik’s office almost like a cat," he says.

The two pitched their concept--a cooperative puzzle game called Tiny Brains--to developers in the Montreal area from Boukhira's living room, in hopes of bringing on more talent. The first hurdle, they knew, would be in convincing others to leave the comfort of their AAA jobs and join up.

"We had this objective to align our game with the next-generation launch, so we had to build a team very fast," Darveau says. "We had a year to find a studio, build a team, develop the game, and ship it." The prototype had no graphics, and Spearhead didn't even have an office, but the barebones pitch worked. Within weeks, Spearhead Games comprised about ten members, and development on Tiny Brains began in earnest. "It was surprisingly easy," Darveau recalls.

Wait a second. Getting a group of people to willingly leave their salaried positions--ones with health benefits and reasonable job security--to join an unproven studio with no office space was surprisingly easy? What the hell is going on in the AAA scene to make developers feel this is a worthwhile move? Darveau says that many, like him, simply grew tired of the assembly-line process involved in making the huge games that so many people know and love.

Consider this: By the end of the seventh console generation, we'll have seen at least nine Call of Dutys, six Assassin's Creeds, five Battlefields, and four Halos. These franchises are all backed by hundreds of developers and multi-million dollar budgets, resulting in obscenely high production values. But as games get bigger and bigger, the roles of their developers become more and more granular. Every subtle character animation, every plume of smoke, every echoing footstep is the result of months of work by specialized teams--and while many of them no doubt love what they do, some find the cyclical nature of iteration to be stifling.

"At the end, you feel like you have your name on something that was marketed and treated like a product--that it was not the outcome of people," says Raphael van Lierop, founder of Hinterland Games. "It just feels like this really polished piece of glass that’s perfect, and you can’t see anything about it that’s wrong… and yet, it doesn’t have any personality as a result."

van Lierop's been making games for some 13 years. In his early days, he built up contacts in the industry by working as a freelancer, often taking on technical writing and documentation projects. This eventually landed him a job at Relic, where he started his career as a developer on Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War.

"Even back then, I already had a feeling, like a lot of people, 'Someday I’m gonna have my own studio,' but I didn’t really know what that meant," van Lierop says. "And, of course, you’re really naive in thinking you can do everything, and you quickly realize that the learning curve is just so steep."

van Lierop stuck with Relic for a number of years, leaving shortly after shipping Company of Heroes to co-found a company called Radar, which specialized in third-party development of original IPs. Afterwards he jumped around a bit--including a stint at Ubisoft Montreal to work on Far Cry 3 in pre-production--before eventually heading back to Relic, where he shipped Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine as game director. After the project wrapped up, he started to feel a bit restless with AAA development, and gave some serious thought to his next move.

"I saw a lot of colleagues and friends who were just jumping into this gold rush of iPhone games and little independent studios,'" he says. One such colleague was Jamie Cheng, founder of Klei Entertainment, who van Lierop had worked with and befriended at Relic.

"We had lunch together and I told him about my plans and what I wanted to accomplish, and he was like, 'You know what’s so funny is: all these years you’ve chased the legitimacy of working on these big AAA games so that you could have your own studio, whereas I just went into an area of the industry where it didn’t really matter if you had a lot of experience or not. You just go and make a cool independent game and that’s the only thing that matters.' And it was this moment for me where I was like, 'Oh shit, he’s totally right.'"

Like Darveau, van Lierop gave up AAA development and formed an independent studio. Founded in 2012, Hinterland Games is based in the rural countryside of northern Vancouver Island; van Lierop fondly describes it as being "literally on the verge of the wilderness and figuratively on the edge of the industry." Its first project, a disaster survival game called The Long Dark, is currently active on Kickstarter, and, at the time of this story, has just surpassed its halfway mark for funding.

van Lierop admits that having complete creative freedom comes at a price--access to resources, the uncertainty of success--but says that the passion his team has for the project is an incredible inspiration. There's a sort of satisfaction gained from knowing that his teammates (again, all with AAA backgrounds) are willingly, excitedly pouring everything they have into bringing an idea to life. Everyone at Hinterland is happy that The Long Dark is beholden only to themselves and to the gamers committed to its creation. It's more personal that way.

Such an opportunity is enticing because it hearkens back to "the way the industry used to be," van Lierop says.

"I think that for a lot of [devs], it’s wanderlust. Not looking at [design] anymore like it’s just a job, or it’s just another product that you’re making, but to remember those experiences that we had when we started that inspired us to make awesome games--trying to go back to that and find that again," van Lierop says. "Working with small teams is really a big part of that."

Darveau's thoughts are similar: "This is the reason why I joined the industry in the first place: to create, to innovate, to build something that will really please the people." For him, the experience of putting together a team and creating the game they set out to to make is worth every risk, even if it ultimately results in failure. "This was the experience I wanted to live," he says. "No matter what happens in the future, I am really proud that I had the chance to live it at least once, for one year."

Spearhead Games and Hinterland Games are just two players in a rapidly expanding list of independent studios. AAA titles will continue to play a pivotal role in the industry, no doubt, but the increasing success of smaller development houses--and the staggering number of AAA developers leaving to join them--suggests that both gamers and game makers are ready for something different. The future of gaming will be driven by a wave of "new design," Darveau says, and it's the smaller teams, the ones flexible enough to adapt on-the-fly and make decisions quickly, that will be its genesis.

"Somehow it tells me everybody knows, at some level, that the industry is about to change, that a revolution is about to occur in a huge way," he says. "People maybe won’t say it like that, but they can see it--otherwise they would not have acted, and they would not have done something as insane as quitting a lead position on a AAA project with a super-safe job to join the little two guys that are pitching a game in their living room. Right?"

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8 comments

  • SixSpeedSamurai - October 7, 2013 8:10 a.m.

    It's a business for the big companies, just like anything else, they will exploit a popular franchise to it's fullest. I don't blame these developers for wanting to spread their creative wings.
  • drachehexe - October 5, 2013 7:20 a.m.

    I think this is more about ego than quality game making. That need to be in control, the need to be relevant. I understand it's hard to do in a big studio on a big AAA title but that doesn't mean they're bad. These so called "products" he's complaining about making are excellent "products". The Assassin's Creed and Mass Effect "products" and even the Call of Duty and Battlefield "products" are quality entertainment and there's nothing wrong with them just because this guy doesn't get the creative input he desires to satiate his ego. I like what the indie scene has done for gaming but regardless of how an artsy retro or cute and clever gimmick is and how well or not it is pulled off they tend to be on shot experiences and easily forgettable. Also that no matter how hard you try the indie market is full of more clones than the Star Wars saga. While this is good for helping keep the industry alive, it doesn't necessarily make the industry "better". I get wanting to work on smaller games where you have more creative input and control. But this is nothing more than him satisfying his desires to fulfill his ego rather than any industry shattering future that may happen.
  • Arobadope - October 5, 2013 12:52 p.m.

    Sorry, but AC has been on steady decline, ME has been a mixed bag since it was started, CoD has also been a mixed bag, and Battlefield has been a mixed bad as well. Sure review wise these games did great, but if you're going to always trust reviews then I have a long list of games you probably skipped because reviewers failed at playing the game. It's not really an ego thing, he's actually right. The formula to every game mentioned is the exact same, and it gets old, fast. I agree with your paragraph about indie games, while there are great indie games that pop up, a lot of them are very very....'meh' like you said. If indie games do start to see better profits though, it could make the industry better and be a nice in between for AAA titles and bargain bin titles.
  • drachehexe - October 5, 2013 2:54 p.m.

    I love the AC series, I love ME (ME2 is one of the best games ever made). I don't play CoD or BF much but they are solid franchises in their own right. They are big, beautiful, and full. Combine the level of content, detail, and visual appearance of even the mediocre AAA titles and you get so much more that you could ever get from the hands of a small studio. The Last of Us could never have been made by a studio of 20 or even a 100 people. While I can appreciate the more friendly concept of the small studio, where everyone has input and recognition to achieve a vision none of that means anything when it comes to the final product. This article and the gentleman in particular seem to be trying to suggest that the way a video game is made is more important than the game itself, which is untrue. A bad game is bad no matter what warm fuzzy family feelings and trials and tribulations and talent is behind it and a great game is a great game even if was derived from a cookie cutter corporate formula. In the end gamers only care about how much fun they have playing the game, not how it was made.
  • Arobadope - October 5, 2013 3:52 p.m.

    I agree with you about Last of Us, I am not saying AAA games should go away, merely that a lot of them have run into a formula. Based on what kind of gamer you are, that gets boring. I should be clear and say that I am not saying you are wrong for liking these games or thinking they aren't great games (that's a stupid thing to do on my part), I am just relaying what has been, in my own experience, the general consensus. Obviously you and your friends and the people you talk to might all be gassed for these games and love them to death, so your experience would be different from mine, simple as that. Now that I've made sure that's clear, I'll move onto your reply. I think something can be said for a game that is made in a more open creative environment and a smaller dev group, compared to a bigger one, especially if the devs involved have more fun making that game. So i do think something can be said for the way a game is made that correlates to the game itself. You're right, a bad game is always bad no matter what, and your entire paragraph is right. I do still think that a dev team that enjoys working on a game though produces better content than a dev team who doesn't.
  • Pyrusick - October 7, 2013 10:33 a.m.

    Ego is such a negative word. It's pretty normal to want something to be proud of. He's not proud of his current situation so he wants a new one. To think that you should just let go of those desires, that you should just stop wanting and stop reaching, is lazy and pessimistic. Laziness and pessimism don't change things either.
  • drachehexe - October 7, 2013 11:04 a.m.

    I'm not saying he shouldn't have done it, or shouldn't feel that way. He wasn't happy with his job and left it. We all should do that if we don't liek our jobs. I'm just say don't think you're doing anyone else a favor, especially us gamers, by what you're doing to make yourself happy.
  • antiAntag0nist - October 4, 2013 6:41 p.m.

    Great article Mr. Taljonick

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