The game dev journey is quite an adventurous one. It sounds great to become a game developer, but you need to know there’s a tough road ahead. The game industry is not kind to those who serve it, but it can be rewarding to those who have a passion for it. All the long hours of crunching and dealing with complicated technical/artistic stuff can be taxing on your soul. But there are moments when you see your game working exactly as you planned, and then you feel all that hard work has paid off. When the game’s released, you will have a few weeks of blissful holidays if people love it. But make sure to make those few going weeks count. After that, you’re back on the grind…if you’re not already burnt out.
You have probably heard of the terms “indie” and “AAA.” They both involve game making, but one is like working on your small farm, and the other is like serving a big scary Feudal landlord. (This example has been chosen carefully!). There is also a lesser known “AA Industry,” which is basically an indie game that is too big or an AAA game that is too small.
At first glance, it might seem like the Indie industry is where it’s all at. You are your own boss, you have complete creative freedom, you don’t have to bust your ass for an artistic vision you don’t even care about, and most importantly, you take the lion’s share of the sale profit and not the greedy publisher. On paper, making a successful indie game is like hitting the jackpot. But that’s easier said than done. All you got to do is check out the “new release” steam page. There are hundreds of games there that are forgotten the moment they’re released. The Indie industry is a very high-risk high-reward kind of deal. If your game makes it, it can be such a huge trendsetter that it can even overshadow the AAA industry (like Minecraft). If it’s not… well, let’s say a shitpost on 4chan could have a higher cultural impact than your game. We’re not even going to mention money.
Both AAA and the indie industry have their advantages and disadvantages for gamedevs. But before we get to that side of the game dev journey, let’s go through some factors that distinguish AAA from indie games (from Gameopedia):
- Development Budget: AAA games have a production budget of 50 million dollars or more. Sometimes, it can reach hundreds of millions.
- Marketing Push: AAA games benefit from huge marketing campaigns. Sometimes the marketing becomes more expensive than the actual game.
- Team Size: AAA games have 50 to 100 people working on the game full-time. Sometimes the number increases to hundreds of people.
- Dedicated Publisher: AAA games often have a dedicated publisher that takes care of everything in terms of budget, marketing, and the boring legal stuff, but AA and Indie games have to look for one, or in the case of Indie games, self-publish.
- Graphics & Technology: AAA games look freaking gorgeous, or at least they’re supposed to. They’re pretty much made to sell cutting-edge hardware.
- Production Values (like voice acting): AAA games often feature the talents of celebrities for voice acting or motion capture.
- Franchising: AAA games are made in the hope of turning into franchises. This is why original IPs are few and far between in this field.
- Threshold for Success: AAA games have a very high threshold for success. They usually have to sell two million copies to break even.
- Streaming and Content: AAA and AA publishers make deals with YouTubers and Twitch streamers to promote their games. Indie games can also become huge in the streaming business (like Among Us), but it usually happens by word of mouth, not a planned marketing campaign.
- Esports: Although most Esport games have roots in indie games or mods, Esports is a high-profile business. So Esport games should be either AAA or be forced to become AAA (like in the case of Counter Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2).
Now that you know the differences between AAA and indie games, the question is: which path is right for you? What to expect from each one? Let’s go through three criteria that can influence your decision.
Specificity of Role
If you want to become an indie gamedev, you must be a Jack of all trades. Since the number of people working on indie games is usually 1 to 10, each member must take a huge responsibility to make the game work. Also, you need to be very self-reliant. For example, if you are a programmer on an indie game and get stuck on something, you don’t have many programmers around you to help you fix the problem. You ought to figure it out yourself.
An extreme example of this would be Eric Barone, the creator of Stardew Valley. This guy woke up one day and decided to make a video game inspired by his favorite childhood game, Harvest Moon. But he didn’t know anything about game development, and he had no interest in joining a team. So, he decided to learn how to code, draw, design, write, make music, and test the game all by himself, mostly from scratch. This extremely challenging task led to many years of frustration, financial reliability on others, and sleepless nights. But he managed to learn all those things and created a game that went on to make him a millionaire. He made more money through Stardew Valley than some AAA devs make in a lifetime. That sounds great, but how many people have the willpower and resources to do something like that?
On the contrary, in the AAA industry, each project is big enough to have you work in a specific field. For example, if you make a linear action-adventure game, you might have a level designer. But if you make an open-world RPG, that role might be divided into two: 1. Quest Designer 2. Open World Designer
These two pictures, taken from Mark Brown’s “How to Become a Game Designer” video, explain how roles become more specific as the games get bigger:
The specificity of your role in the AAA industry is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s helpful to be able to focus on one thing and polish and improve it to perfection. You might have someone whose only job is to think about the UI and how to improve it. That’s a very manageable task. On the other hand, it can get boring after a while and cause burnout. In the AAA industry, you never have access to the whole picture, and you’re basically just a cog in a machine, so you might not feel too connected to the game. But in the indie scene, everyone involved has a huge impact on the final product. Even though they might have a bigger chunk of the workload and need to be flexible, they would feel better about their work because of how impactful it is.
Some devs transition from indie to AAA, and some from AAA to indie. It’s not like you have to get stuck with one. If you are looking for a proper job and want to interact with people who can show you the ins and outs of the industry, it’s better to start with an AAA or AA studio. The best place to start is either the customer service or the QA department because they have the lowest requirement for entry. You might feel like a pawn for a while, but the experience you’ll get and the connections you make will be worth it. If you want to work in the game industry, you have to know people. Connections are your most important asset, and you can make tons of them in the AAA industry.
If you’re the kind of guy with a strong vision and need a large amount of creative control, and if you have a high aptitude for self-learning, it might be better to start with making indie games. The chance of making money is much lower, but if your indie game becomes a hit by any chance, you have taken a shortcut to success.
The most apparent problem with working in the AAA game industry is that you have to physically exist in a place where the AAA gaming industry exists. This includes places like Japan, California, New York, Paris, and London. Although since Covid 19 Lockdown and the normalization of remote work, this limitation has been eased for some occupations (like artists). But still, most of the actual work is done in a physical space surrounded by colleagues. If you don’t have the means for immigration or it’s just too risky for you, then tough luck.
The indie industry doesn’t have that problem. A great indie game can theoretically come from anywhere on the planet, as long as there’s electricity and an internet connection. Friends usually form indie studios, so they have more freedom to stay together. Even in some cases when they’re not together, they can make it work. For example, Yacht Club Games, the studio behind Shovel Knight, was formed by five people. Four of those five were working in a studio apartment in Valencia, California, and one telecommuted with them through a laptop and a webcam because he had to be in Chicago. There are many ways to accommodate each other when you’re an indie studio, but the AAA industries expect you to be at your post on time, ready to work for the greater good.
Marketing is by far the biggest setback indie games face. There’s a good reason why the marketing budget for some AAA games is higher than the game’s budget. We live in a time and age where people’s attention is the most valuable commodity.
If you work in the AAA industry, you don’t have to worry about marketing one bit. They have dedicated marketing teams who will ensure millions of people see the UI you have designed. But if you are an indie dev, you have to have ideas about how to market your game.
The most effective way of advertisement for indie games is word of mouth, and there’s no way around it. However, it doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about it. Most successful indie games are based on something popular and nostalgic gamers yearn for, like an 80s platformer, 90s shooter, etc. Its absence can be felt in the AAA market. Successful indie devs base the template of their game on this popular but absent concept and then add their twist to it. For example, Eric Barone, the gamedev mentioned earlier, went to Harvest Moon fan communities on the internet and talked about his game there. That’s how he managed to attract attention initially.
There are tons of communities like that all over the internet, dedicated to niche and not-so-niche games and genres that the AAA market cannot or does not want to make for whatever reason. People will welcome it and spread the word if you have something to show. Remember, the AAA industry is a big bad wolf, but algorithms rule it; it must adhere to tried and tested formulas. As long as it exists in its current form, it will constantly be blindsided by its conservatism. So when it comes to creativity and intuition, indie games have a considerable advantage over the AAA industry. Use that leverage to your advantage, both in development and marketing.
As an indie dev, it’s important to build a community of fans long before the game’s release and keep them engaged with the whole process of making the game through constant updates. Their feedback helps you to stay motivated and creates a buzz around your game as it gets closer to the finishing line. If these dedicated fans like what you’re doing, they will spread the word about your game, something that your indie game desperately needs.
All and all, If you’re looking for an easy path, then the AAA industry is where you should start. It has job security, you know what you exactly need to do, and there’s no need to constantly improvise and sacrifice your health and financial state to make it work, at least not when you’re a low-level worker.
If you have a strong vision, an extensive skill set, an iron will, and a high aptitude for learning and improvising… screw it. If you’re a renaissance man, then you might want to start with making an indie game. But please, do all of us a favor and if your indie game becomes a hit, don’t become a sellout.