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.


Dean Tate

"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."

Dean Tate

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.


Tate wants to try new genres each time, but all his games will likely share a light-hearted tone.

"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."

Dean Tate

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.

Latest comments (13)

Anthony Gowland Consulting F2P Game Designer, Ant Workshop4 years ago
"You end up working on stuff you're incredibly proud of that nobody ends up seeing."
This is purpose motive vs profit motive. Turns out that lots of people lose job satisfaction if they can't see a purpose to their work - just being paid isn't motivating enough. WHo would have guessed?

I think there's a chapter on it in Dan Ariely's Upside of Irrationality.
1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
James Ingrams Writer 4 years ago
AAA gaming is not sustainable. PS4 and XBOX One will fail relative to the previous incarnations, and the PC indie market will grow. We will, in fact, be starting again. Small teams, low budgets, all genres catered for and gameplay at the core of everything. Just like at the birth of gaming on PC! We are in a PC gaming renaissance and people are starting indie games companies to take advantage!
3Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd4 years ago
@ James I largely agree. Budgets will have to be cut back. That said, I don't see the publishers disappearing for good, nor do I think PC is the only place gaming will continue to thrive. Consoles quickly adapting to allow for more indie games and giving them real promotion is a huge sign of progress for that side of the industry, and the 3DS shows huge appeal in a dedicated handheld still. There are an awesome number of ways to get your games out there now and the industry will support a variety of business, publishing, and artistic models.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Show all comments (13)
Carlos Bordeu Game Designer / Studio Co-Founder, ACE Team4 years ago
It would be interesting if after a while could follow up on how several of these high profile developers who quit AAA have done - especially those that went mobile. There have been a few. Shouldn't we be hearing about some already?

It would be enormously valuable information to get the experiences of the professional game developers who have bet on mobile and who are not King, Supercell or Rovio (I'm not very interested in the stories of the 0.1% who got super rich... it doesn't give me an idea of how mobile is doing for the majority of developers out there, and these other cases would definitely give more insight into the viability of betting on this segment of the market). I actually feel that I have gotten more insight about the mobile business by Paul here in the comments section than the articles themselves.

Didn't some rather prominent Rare developers go indie/mobile several months ago? How did it work out for them? Do we have any equivalent stories?
3Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
James Ingrams Writer 4 years ago
It will be churlish to say it would be only PC. but would you pay $500 for a PC to play from a choice of 10,000's of indie games, or a higher amount to play from a choice of 1,000's of indie games on your console? There will be a lot of people buying PC lapops, etc rather than a PS4 or XBOX One, especially as they are not backward compatible.Console gamers are just not seen as indie game players like PC's gamers are.

As to the 3DS and smartphones, etc, I was just compaing like with like. For 10 years plus it's been PC, Sony and Microsoft in the gaming arena, with the consoles on top and PC second. I think this dynamic will change due to indie gaming growth, and this in turn will have a huge impact on Ninetendo, Sony and Microsoft and the AAA publishers that have supported them. The thing about handhelds and smartphones etc, is the sales numbers aren't there for an EA, etc to continue in business in it's current form. I would also go as far as to say that only on PC will you se multi-million unit selling indie games like Mindcraft. I don't beleive this will happen on console. Also, if the PS4 and XBOX One don't sell well, I think you see the 360 and PS3 continue to be supported

Unless costs for AAA games come down by at least 75% and multiple genres are covered more equally (rather than 95% FPS's)I don't see how we can have a market that looks at all like we have now, and can't see how we still have the Blizzard's and EA's, etc selling us AAA games.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
James Ingrams Writer 4 years ago
We had some of the Bioshock 2 tam starting an indie company last year, called the Fullbright Company. They just rleased their first game called Gone Home, which as garnered 9.0+ on commerical gaming sites, is creating a ton of buzz an is selling very well indeed, by all accounts!
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Carlos Bordeu Game Designer / Studio Co-Founder, ACE Team4 years ago
Thanks James. I was aware of 'Gone Home' and Fullbright, but wasn't that they are ex-Bioshock 2 devs. In any case, that game is an indie PC (Mac/Linux) title... so it is performing well on a familiar platform - or at least one that I'm knowledgeable about. I'm more curious about other devs doing the equivalent on mobile, and to see how that goes.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me Up4 years ago
Soon, AAA as a term will be gone, and everyone will just be game developers. The way it should be. Never liked that term when I worked on big teams. Its just a buzz word to keep the troops happy, and anyone is only as good as the last thing they produced. Power to indies and collaboration of individual developers I say.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Sam Brown Programmer, Cool Games Ltd.4 years ago
...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.
To be brutally frank, this is what pretty much everyone in every office I've ever worked in is doing already, and has been for as long as I can remember. It's just that there's more of an outlet now.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
James Ingrams Writer 4 years ago
I must admit, if I was an indie dev/games publisher, I would go PC. That's where the sales are, - and that's where the kickstarter money comes from I can see suitable titles going to mobile, if the devs have that skill. Bu it's why I say in other posts, I think it will PC to make the money and then conversions after that. A complete turnaround from the 90% of PC AAA games being console conversions - which has been the case for the last 5 years - another reason as to why indie has taken off on PC in such a big way!.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Andrzej Wroblewski Localization Generalist, Albion Localisations4 years ago
That's probably why European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals banned docking... The tail that wags the dog feared for it's sole existence and decided to enforce a Kulturkampf effectively removing the need to do something that could endanger the marketing.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Rogier Voet IT Consultant 4 years ago
Everyone is saying it that the budgets are getting to big, so the need to make huge sellers is getting higher and higher. Publishers (and developers) are both complaining about this. It's like a vicious circle. Games cost a lot to make, so Publisher get very risk-averse but a the same time they are putting more and more money in fewer baskets. So that means more risk. It's sad that almost no big game developer is able to make a Triple AAA title with normal resources and a normal sized team (say 40 people).

With all the expertise and platforms that have been around for 8 years, you would have thought that tooling and a effective way of working should have been developed. Or is it just the insane amount of polish that a game needs nowadays.

With both the PS4 and Xbox One with very simular hardware and PC-architecture it seams that developing for those platforms will be easier (and in the future maybe cheaper for developer's).
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
James Ingrams Writer 4 years ago
I see the likes of EA, Blizzard, Valve, etc, becoming like Record Companies, they will have "labels" for genres and price-points. They will put together a team of 12 or so together from their 100's of employees and give them free hand, like an "in-house" indie company.

It might happen.....!!!!
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply

Sign in to contribute

Need an account? Register now.