Developer Dilemma: AAA Adjusting to Indie Life
BioShock and Dance Central designer Dean Tate is going indie, but does his AAA experience actually hurt his chances?
The AAA world has lost another developer to the allure of independent development. Dean Tate, the design lead on Dance Central and a senior designer on BioShock and BioShock 2, is nearly ready to launch his first iOS title, Captain Bubblenaut, with the help of MIT Game Lab's Owen Macindoe. And while the usual indie enticements--creative control, opportunity for financial gain, and job satisfaction--have played a part in the decision, his first reason for going indie is feedback.
Sure, BioShock and Dance Central may ultimately have more comments, critical writing, and awareness among gamers than the Unreal and Starcraft mods that got him into development in the first place, but Tate told GamesIndustry International that he preferred the timing of the feedback he used to get.
"The thing I really enjoyed about that period in my career was the feedback loop between myself and my audience was incredibly tight," Tate said. "And I found that very satisfying, the fact that I didn't have to keep what I was working on a secret if I didn't want to do that. I had this back-and-forth relationship with my audience. I felt like since moving into AAA, I spent 10-12 years there, in this place where for the vast majority of the time I spent working on games, I wasn't able to talk to the audience. I wasn't able to engage with them."
And as bad as it was working on something that wouldn't be announced for years, in a worst case scenario, projects could get cancelled or changed, and as Tate said, "You end up working on stuff you're incredibly proud of that nobody ends up seeing."
This is where the Captain Bubblenaut story might seem a little unintuitive, because Tate and Macindoe have been working on the game for three years, and only announced it this month. (Tate did say that the pair had at least been able to show it to friends and colleagues and garner some of the feedback he missed in AAA development over that span.) And while Tate acknowledged that the mobile gaming market has changed drastically in that time, the design of Captain Bubblenaut--a broadly appealing one-touch controlled game that seems to blend bits of Tiny Wings and Katamari Damacy--has not attempted to change with it.
"It's not clear to me that a game of its type can survive in the current climate of the mobile space," Tate said. "For Owen and I, the one thing we have going for us is that we know we've built something of an incredibly high quality. And we sort of have to have that hope and faith that it counts for something. We're in a space where in mobile your chances for success are somewhat random, and for us almost completely random. The one thing we have to have faith in is if your game is good, it's fun, it's of a high enough quality that's doing something new, interesting and unique, that it has a chance of finding an audience."
"I spent a lot of time in my AAA career working on much darker fare, like BioShock, the SWAT series, shooters... Working in that creative space is not something that comes naturally to me."
Of course, that ability to defy what's fashionable in the market is one of the reasons a developer might want to go independent in the first place.
"I spend less time thinking about what the market might want and working backwards from there to come up with the design, and more time just thinking about core themes or design tenets that I think would be fun for an audience, regardless of who that audience is," Tate explained. "As a designer, that's all I have. I have the ability to build games of a high quality that do something new and interesting, that have something mechanically unique to them. That's the one key skill I know I have that is more marketable than my ability to work out which way the wind is blowing in this segment of the market right now. I don't trust myself to do that. I do trust myself to make good games."
Working on a two-man team means Tate's games can sell far fewer copies and still be very successful, but it doesn't mean he's stopped thinking about the audience for his work. At heart, he said he wants to make games for a broad audience, and cited old school Nintendo design as a model. Games like Super Mario Bros. had wide appeal, but they were enjoyed by a hardcore audience as well.
"That's where I want to be, but that's an incredibly hard place to be," Tate said. "It's tough. Especially for my first project, I'm going to place more importance on it being successful than what I do later, because if it is successful, that gives me more freedom the next time around, financially - which perhaps means I'll focus more on a core audience."
Tate noted that the core audience is also much more inclined to provide him with the back-and-forth dialog he missed so much during his AAA days. Ultimately, he said he's still trying to figure out exactly where his next game will sit on the spectrum of core appeal versus mass market appeal. But even if it skews toward the core, don't expect the same sort of experience he helped craft in BioShock.
"I think that Captain Bubblenaut will give people an idea of what I plan to continue doing in terms of tone and style," Tate said. "It's a very light-hearted game. It has this internal message to it that's positive and good for the world...My future games will be similar in style. They'll be positive games. I spent a lot of time in my AAA career working on much darker fare, like BioShock, the SWAT series, shooters... Working in that creative space is not something that comes naturally to me. If left to my own devices, I would not make something dark or sinister."
Even if the games are bright and cheery, Tate recognized that the process of making them will likely be no less stressful. However, they may be a different kind of stressful. Tate said that when he was in a leadership position at Harmonix, much of the stress came from the responsibilities of leading a team, scoping the project properly, avoiding crunch, and ensuring that people's work would not be put to waste due to poor planning.
With a team of just two people, things are a bit different, and not just because effective communication becomes easier. However Dance Central did, it wasn't going to be remembered as Dean Tate's game. But now as an indie, the credit or blame for Captain Bubblenaut will be much more closely related to Tate and Macindoe.
"It's not clear yet how stressful that's going to be and how that's going to compare to being a AAA developer," Tate said. "I imagine there's a chance for it to be more stressful, especially [if] the financial side of things goes off the rails. So we'll see."
"It's almost like these guys have some weird advantage in making new experiences because they aren't experienced. They're forced to try new things because they don't know where to start otherwise."
And while the explosion of indie developers in recent years may be inspirational for some, Macindoe and Tate see some drawbacks to the current indie gold rush. Macindoe said it was an incredibly positive thing for gamers and gaming as a whole, but perhaps less so for individual developers.
"I think there are more interesting and well designed and executed games being released than ever before, but at the same time that means the bar is being raised quite high and it's very competitive right now," Macindoe said. "And that's not super-great for people who want to stand out in this large crowd of very quality games. I think the advantage did go to people who moved earlier when there weren't as many quality titles out there competing against and there was more opportunity. So it's definitely harder for somebody coming in now."
One might think that the AAA pedigree would be a leg up in the indie space right now, but Tate suggested almost the opposite.
"When I try to think of examples in the indie space of people who are making really interesting and unique things, it's almost like these people who haven't got experience in AAA have this scrappiness that you can't [force]," Tate said. "The only way to cultivate it is in jumping in both feet first without knowing what you're doing or having experience in AAA and just trying stuff."
While he acknowledged that some AAA developers have gone into the indie space with really novel efforts--fellow BioShock veterans Kent Hudson (The Novelist) and The Fullbright Company (Gone Home) among then--Tate was particularly impressed with the work of career indies like Vlambeer (Ridiculous Fishing), Adam Saltsman (Canabalt), and Alexander Bruce (Antichamber).
"For me, as someone with a huge amount of AAA, it's almost like these guys have some weird advantage in making new experiences because they aren't experienced," Tate said. "They're forced to try new things because they don't know where to start otherwise."
Macindoe worries that the gold rush might not be sustainable, and suggested a retraction to the point where most indie developers work on games in their spare time, supplementing a day job in the hopes that something they make will catch on. That prediction may prove accurate, but Tate isn't resigning himself to the idea just yet.
"I hope to be here for the long haul," Tate said. "And whether that's possible, who knows? And who knows whether I'll change my mind on that and decide I've got an itch to go back and collaborate with larger groups of people? Whether the gold rush is over or not, whether this golden age of indies is sustainable or not, I have no idea at all. I could speculate, but rather than speculate and come to a conclusion that worries me, or one that gives me hope but is potentially wrong, I'm the sort of person who maybe naively is much more comfortable putting my head down and just trying to build experiences that will appeal to enough people to keep me going."
Captain Bubblenaut should see release on iOS platforms in September. The game is also part of the Indie Megabooth at this weekend's PAX Expo.
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