Creating a AAA Indie Game

Comic-Con 2011: A panel of indie developers discuss what it takes to break into the industry on their own.

Who Was There: Thatgamecompany founders Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago (Journey), Minority cofounder Vander Caballero (Papo & Yo), Mike Burns from Fueled Entertainment (Sideway), and Ulf Andersson from Overkill Software (Payday: The Heist).

The indie dev panel.

What They Talked About:One of the first panels to kick off Comic-Con 2011 was about creating meaningful indie titles in a climate where shooters sell and everyone else talks about social gaming. What the panelists had in common other than the fact that they were independent was that their publisher was Sony. The games that they are working on are all extremely different, but they all approached their projects with specific goals in mind.

Thatgamecompany's upcoming title Journey is its first online game, focusing on the player's purpose in the sandy universe and discovering the world's history. Papo & Yo is about Caballero's love/fear relationship with his father, who struggled with alcoholism. Burns explained that Fueled actually comes from a background of online advertising, so their approach is a more business-oriented one, focusing on creating an IP for a target audience. Andersson from Overkill just happens to enjoy the ever-popular shooter genre, but after coming from a large company that likes to hold too many meetings, his approach is fewer meetings and doing what he wants to do.

After the initial introduction, the developers talked about how they started their own studios. Santiago and Chen come from a background in film, having studied the medium at the University of Southern California. Santiago was originally in theater, but after taking a course on the history of game design and going to the Game Developers Conference, she started working in games. Chen's student project, "Cloud," was an unexpected hit on the Internet, and he explained that after receiving so much fan mail it was like a calling to go into game design and continue creating. He also highlighted the fact that you can start a game company without anything, but as long as you have a good idea and passion, you can convince people to give you money.

For Caballero, he worked at EA initially and acknowledged the perks in working for a corporate giant, such as large teams and good pay, but he added developers there can't create the games they like. Having come from Colombia where violence hits a bit too close to home, he didn't want to spend his days creating violent games and instead wanted to focus on storytelling by making it a deeply personal experience--a painful one, but also liberating.

Burns focused more on the business side of creating games. At the end of the day, a game has to sell if the studio hopes to continue to make more. Passion can get a developer only so far, he said. His focus was figuring out what kind of audience he wanted to target and then developing an IP for that audience in hopes of branching out the property later on. He stressed how important it was to have a viable business model and that there needs to be an audience to consume it.

Andersson has been working on games since he was 14 and has spent time working for bigger game developers. He joked about being in meetings and having smaller meetings within those meetings to the point where he said that everything "turns to s*** pretty fast." He lamented that even though developers work on bigger IPs and even good IPs, they still can't really do what they want to do and make it great within five months.

"Doing your own stuff and owning your own IP is your way to go," Andersson said. "The market today is really good with that."

He also doesn't lose sleep at night knowing that he's in control of his own project.

Burns touched upon (multiple times) how Sony has been an incredibly supportive publisher that lets indie developers stick to their original ideas. Not all publishers provide the same courtesy.

Chen's original vision for his MMO game.

The panel later touched on Journey, and the audience was shown early paintings by Chen, who initially wanted to make a massively multiplayer online game without the verbal communication. They acknowledged that an MMO from That Game Company is likely never going to happen, but Journey takes some of those nonverbal communication ideas and puts them into practice.

Takeaway: All it takes to start a company is to have a good idea and know how to pitch it.

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Discussion

21 comments
slainta
slainta

"Burns touched upon (multiple times) how Sony has been an incredibly supportive publisher that lets indie developers stick to their original ideas". Hell to console wars. This is what makes the difference!

Decessus
Decessus

@Darth_Vader1_4I disagree with your definition of what a "AAA" game is. Neither Modern Warfare 2 nor Black Ops are what I would consider innovative technically or artistically. However, I don't think you would find many people who would not call them "AAA" games.Game classifications such as "AAA" have more to do with the amount of resources involved in creating the game, the amount of marketing and hype the game receives and the expected return on investment.If you were to compare it to the movie industry, it would be similar to the difference between a summer blockbuster, a normal theater release, an independent movie release, and a straight to DVD release.

Decessus
Decessus

@Sophia Thanks for the response.If you're looking for ideas on future articles for Gamespot, I would certainly be interested in one that went more in depth into the independent developer area. Is Sony really more friendly to independent developers? What kind of impact has Microsoft's XBLA had on the independent developer studios? Will Nintendo increase their support for independent developers with the release of Wii U?I think there are a lot of different angles that could be expanded upon and would make for some very interesting articles.

servb0ts
servb0ts

i'm buying journey regardless, i've stop caring for reviews years ago lol.

Darth_Vader1_4
Darth_Vader1_4

@ Sahle123 I don't know exactly what an the term "AAA" means, but, from what I've gathered, an AAA game, is a blockbuster game. An AAA is a game that is usually build upon a unique and/or innovative idea, and is also very well made, from both a technical point of view and an artistic point of view. An AAA game boasts depth, longevity and loads of fun.

Sahle123
Sahle123

Can anyone here define or tell me the requirements of an 'AAA game?'

smiffy555
smiffy555

Just make a CoD clone. There, now you are rich.

jm3811
jm3811

I find that quite insulting for the indies to be labelled with credit rating capitalistic big corps crap concept such as these three letters. Looks like the web community has found a new word to play with.

Sophia
Sophia

@Decessus - thanks for pointing that out. This was intended to be a Journey panel run by Sony, so they invited more Sony published titles (for obvious reason) so it never went into why one publisher was better than another. But Burns did point out that Sony has been very supportive of indie devs and has never asked them to change their game.

ghost870
ghost870

@KaBo0m You don't pronounce the A's. You say "a triple A game" even though it's spelled "a AAA game". So they did right. It's an odd quirk, but the English language was never known for its simplicity.

Silos911
Silos911

Great article Sophia. I didn't think a panel like this would necessarily get the attention of Gamespot, if I was at comic con I would probably miss it with how many other things are going on. Thanks for writing about this.

zync-
zync-

I like Journey is so sweet, beautiful, and smooth.

Sohereiam
Sohereiam

@grbolivar it basically means a extremely high grade like this: D, C, B, A, A+or AA, A++ or AAA. Hope that helps

Decessus
Decessus

I was a little disappointed with this article.It started off by talking about how the thing the three developers had in common was that their publisher was Sony. Reading that had me wondering why Sony was a better indie publisher than Nintendo or Microsoft, but they never came back to it at all.

zidan4000
zidan4000

Amnesia the dark descent was almost an AAA game with its scary setting and original idea for horror games , the guys just didn't have enough money to advertise the game otherwise it would have been a great hit.

grbolivar
grbolivar

Can somebody explain to me already what a "AAA" means???