What AAA can learn from indies -- according to indies

What can big-budget developers learn from small independent teams? Developers on games including Super Meat Boy, Super Time Force and Spelunky offer their take.
Yesterday we asked some leading indie game developers about the lessons they had learned in the past year. Today, we ask what -- if anything -- big triple-A publishers could have learned from the indie game community in the last 12 months. The indies we spoke to generally pointed out that big publishers can never truly attain the elusive "indie spirit." That's not meant as an affront, but the fact is that large game makers are set up in different ways and work to different scales. And while indie games have enjoyed a very good year, it's rare for an independent game to achieve the sort of financial success that would muster a flicker of interest among triple-A publishers, who increasingly are about going big or going home. Still, small independent game developers offer plenty of interesting insights into the overall game development ecosystem. Here are some of the takeaways.

Innovate with fewer people

Randy Smith is the developer of Waking Mars. He says, "I don't see much evidence that the industry proper is taking lessons from indie teams. It'd be nice to say they realize you can do amazing and innovative things with fewer people, but the truth is the larger triple-A studios are staffing up to 500 people on a big project, which is mind-blowing. "The large game publishers are also heavy contenders in the mobile and casual space but mostly by refining existing formulas. It just seems like the two worlds don't overlap much yet -- triple-A just keeps evolving toward bigger and fancier, whereas indies are discovering and remembering how games can be high quality without a mountain of polygons and shaders. Both serve important roles in the overall ecosystem."

Respect the talented individual

Dean Dodrill, creator of Dust: An Alysian Tail, believes things might improve for talented individual within large corporations. "I would hope that large companies learn to respect their creative talent. The most talented individuals out there remain at large studios, but they aren't given the freedom to stretch. "The big money still comes from triple-A titles, but those are also the costliest risks. And with the large number of studios and publishers going under, I would hope they'd stop chasing the same few genres and look at what's happening in the indie space."

Spread the risk

Steve Gaynor, who worked on the triple-A BioShock series at 2K, is now working on Gone Home with The Fullbright Company. He says that indies have shown that there are different ways to approach the problem of risk. "If they were learning from indies, I would think that triple-A would be making more, smaller bets with more, smaller teams of developers, to diversify their lineups and get their employees more invested in what they're working on. "I'd think they would be letting their developers off the leash more, taking advantage of the huge influence of social media, allowing players to connect personally with the people making the games. I'd think they'd be branching out from traditional genres more and investing in giving players truly new experiences, to find new ways to stay relevant instead of burrowing deeper and deeper into known territory." Dan Pinchbeck, creator of Dear Esther with thechineseroom adds, "It is as valid a business model to spend less on more games that all make a good return and spread the risk of that investment. If you spread the risk across a number of games, then if one flops, you've mitigated that loss by the successes. If you back one title only, it'd better be damn good, and you can end up having to keep sinking money into it, polishing and polishing that turd until it gleams in the sunlight. "The last couple of years have proved you can make a really good return on a lower budget game, even with a tiny marketing spend. You might not have billboards and TV ads and retail shelf-space, and you might not make a gazillion dollars like Call of Duty, but you're not spending Call of Duty money, and that buys you a lot of creative freedom as well. That's pretty cool, and it's good business sense. So hopefully they'll continue to develop the understanding that investing in smaller teams, and then staying pretty hands-off and letting them do their thing is smart business."

Pay attention to indie-friendly business models

Kyle Pulver, creator of Snapshot with Retro Affect points out THQ's recent foray into an area traditionally reserved for indies. "Strangely enough the biggest example of big game publishers trying a recipe from the indie scene can be found right now at Humble Bundle. THQ has jumped on board with a massive pay-what-you-want sale, and although that might be directly related to their current financial situation, I think any big publisher or studio can learn a lot from what indies are doing in both commercial and creative spaces, just as indies can learn from the big studios."

Experiment within AAA

Nathan Vella created Super Time Force (pictured at top) with Capybara Games. He says, "I think developers everywhere see the growth of the independent games movement as validation of experimentation. This is something that everyone can learn from, and some large developers have already started leveraging. Bethesda's "Skyrim Jam" [YouTube] is a perfect example of large-scale devs applying this in a super positive way and seeing ridiculously positive results."

Don't try to be 'indie' if you're not

The Binding of Isaac and Super Meat Boy designer Edmund McMillen says large publishers are learning "nothing" from indies. "A lot of large game publishers try to figure out what indies are doing right and come to all the wrong conclusions. It's not something you can replicate in a very large studio because what indies have over large teams is just that, they aren't large teams, they don't have huge budgets that require great success to continue, they have the freedom to take big risks and speak honestly through their work, they have the freedom to experiment and improvise. "Indies have a very clear voice," he adds, "their games represent who they are and aren't muddied by the control of their many bosses telling them what they should do to make their games sell more copies. Indies are individuals, and that's something large mainstream studios can never be."

Think of what 'indie' means

Derek Yu, maker of Spelunky, believes the biggest lesson might be learned by individuals working within large organizations. "Beyond a certain size I think it's hard to understand one another," says Yu. "It's clear, however, that individuals within those large companies are seeing a lot of potential within the indie scene -- it seems like each year more and more are taking the leap themselves. "And that really highlights the importance of the word 'indie' to me. There's been a lot of discussion around what it stands for or whether we need the label at all, but at the end of the day, it's great that someone can look up 'indie' and discover a vibrant community of people that they may fit in better with. It emboldens people to take a chance on being happier." Colin Campbell is a feature-writer for IGN.

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