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We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat: How AAA Raises the Tide

Indie innovation can only thrive in the nurturing environment of a hardware platform buoyed by compelling AAA games, and indie success is strongly bound by the install base of that platform. There is no point to saying “us vs them” with AAA and Indies.

There’s a scene in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster film Jaws where Roy Scheider’s character, Martin Brody, looks out to the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and spots the great white shark for the first time. Faced with this daunting challenge, Brody utters “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”  However, everyone knows there’s never going to be a big enough boat, and that shark will only get hungrier and hungrier. Videogames are not dissimilar.  As the scope of what videogames can be (technologically and creatively) expands and expands, the audience gets hungrier for more. At its core, game development is still a commercial enterprise, and developers need the security of a successful hardware platform to give them the audience needed for their creative enterprises, and that’s where AAA games are most essential. In the realm of videogames, AAA titles continue to drive the popular demand that grows the industry artistically, technologically and financially. Now that the dust has settled on the big upcoming titles from E3, gamescom, PAX Prime and TGS, we’re seeing that the titles garnering the most attention and critics’ awards continue to be AAA titles like Fallout 4, Uncharted 4 and Star Wars Battlefront. It’s because of AAA gaming experiences like these that gamers invest in platforms and gaming as a whole, which in turn allows game makers to reach a critical mass in install base.  Indie games benefit by serving a larger ready-made audience of gamers, which ultimately opens up the field to greater experimentation, newer game modes and innovation from developers of all sizes.

Halo V: Guardians

Unlike mobile platforms, whose killer apps are their built-in social capabilities (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc), gaming hardware lives and dies solely by the strength of their gaming lineup, and gamers are drawn by a wide swath of titles and experiences that showcase their shiny new systems. Previous attempts to create hardware platforms buoyed solely by indie titles have unfortunately not met with success, in large part because the word-of-mouth appeal of indie games can only thrive on platforms with a strong existing user base. Indie innovation can only thrive in the nurturing environment of a hardware platform buoyed by compelling AAA games, and indie success is strongly bound by the install base of that platform. Full disclosure: my company, Havok, was recently acquired by Microsoft, creators of the Xbox. Havok continues onward to provide multiplatform solutions and we’re proud to continue our work with first parties and the developers on those platforms. We’re game fans too, and we’re not throwing away our other consoles anytime soon!

The Last of Us

The indie space consistently produces innovative and creative titles that both build on and deconstruct gameplay ideas; Fez, No Man’s Sky, The Binding of Isaac and countless others take on the language and iconography of classic gaming but reinvent it into new forms. Any new ideas carry with them an inherent risk, and the risk of creating new gameplay experiences is only magnified with titles that are larger in scope. The size and fidelity of AAA titles requires a huge staff of dedicated developers, and each new innovation (the use of physics as a weapon with the Gravity Gun in Half-Life 2, the completely open gameplay and robust customization of Fallout 4) requires a huge level of risk and staff investment to bring these new ideas to fruition. These risks often yield innovative gameplay that push the medium forward, but it’s not without a great deal of bravery that these AAA teams strive to create something unique and compelling. The gaming world is not a seesaw, a dichotomous balance between two opposing forces.  It’s more like a playground, a vast field that benefits from greater participation and freedom to try new things.

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

Jaws left an indelible impression on those of us old enough to see it in theaters. We still think of Jaws every time we go to the beach, just as an older generation thought of Norman Bates as they stepped into a shower (a trauma that surely compounded hippies’ reluctance to bathe regularly). The spectacle of these blockbusters have become watershed moments for each generation, and the new watercooler moments are increasingly becoming the iconic videogame experiences that make our hands sweat, our hearts skip a beat, and suppress the physiological need to blink. It’s in the mass appeal of AAA that gaming platforms thrive. The AAA game space has become the shared gaming heritage for many gamers, from iconic scenes of Rapture in BioShock, to the deep and moving narrative of The Last of Us, the most ambitious designs often require the most robust technology. These are the games that establish solid gameplay mechanics and move hardware sales, and these platforms set the stage for the artistry of master game designers. Everyday Shooter doesn’t find as big an audience on PlayStation 3 without Uncharted driving hardware sales, and the Unfinished Swan doesn’t have the core FPS controls without Halo. AAA games pave the way for indies to take risks, try new things, and become massively successful as a result.

Until Dawn

“Us vs them” is a pointless way to frame the differences between indies and AAAs. It needlessly creates conflicts out of contrasts, and doesn’t reflect the fact that all developers are inspired by each other’s games. But beyond that, indie and AAA are classifications that are largely fluid, major publishers like Ubisoft and Sony Computer Entertainment regularly release titles that could be considered “indie” (i.e., Grow Home, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture), and indie titles often reach the scale of polish and technical achievement of a quintessential AAA title (i.e., Star Citizen, The Talos Principle). What classically qualifies a title as AAA is a drive towards greater technical achievement and scope. There’s a misconception that indie games thrive solely on a punk philosophy, a subversion of the status quo that goes diametrically opposed to the bigger games that preceded it. But ultimately, indie games retain the same craftsmanship and careful consideration of gameplay that all great games exhibit.  The key difference is scope.

AAA ultimately comes down to creating the type of deeply engrossing spectacular and stirring experience that only the most technically polished games can achieve. It’s an end goal for any developer to strive to make the very best game along every axis. It’s “AAA” because one A is not enough. It’s this spirit of grandiosity and mass appeal that allows AAA games to expand the playing field (i.e. the install base and the scope of videogame experiences) for indie creators to take part. A rising tide lifts all ships, and when equipped with a bigger boat, we can eventually get that damn shark.

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