10 Years a AAA Game Dev

Lessons from a decade of making AAA games

It's hard for me to believe too, but February 15th will be the 10th anniversary of my first official title in AAA games, Warner Brother's Constantine. My path to game making as a full-time profession began on the tables of after-school programs playing Dungeons and Dragons with my friends, arguing over the superiority of the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Genesis.

Back then the prospect of making games for a living didn't ever cross my mind. It wasn't until playing Street Fighter II and Dragon's Lair in the local arcade that someone told me people got paid to make games. The concept seemed comic to say the least, a dream too far to even entertain.

My first taste was back when people called me a guru. I was 19 and vice president of creative for a Chicago-based start-up. A client we had raised 3.5mil for needed a virtual world for children to play in - online. With our novice, I mean, bleeding-edge techniques we jumped into Adobe's Director and slapped around Lingo until we had a slew of simple games to plant around Paw Island.  Even then the prospect of ever touching a AAA title didn't cross my mind. I wasn't exactly Nolan Bushnell.

What is a AAA game? Here I will turn to Wikipedia:

"A AAA title is intended to demonstrate the very best within a gaming company or franchise. Games not considered to be AAA have been referred to as "B titles", by analogy to B-movies."

With that, I was in B-land. It wasn't until I managed to take the SAT and get an acceptable score (to this day I still don't know what it was) that the University of Southern California's School if Cinematic Arts would accept me as graduate student in their new Interactive Media program. The portfolio was killer, but department chair Scott Fisher told me I needed more. I was looking for work and to cement my ability to be a professor in the future. Deep inside I thought, "this is my chance to be George Lucas and make good on my dream to be a professional storyteller."

Though Los Angeles and USC Cinema was a dream, there were no opportunities or connections into industry at the time. I had to make them. That spring I volunteered for MIT's Education Arcade and hung with Warren Spector (Deus Ex). It ruined me, all I wanted to do was to make the best games in history. For my volunteer efforts I was given a pass to attend E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo. At the time I was trying to convince my classmates and department that we needed a label, I called it SC Games, wasn't much more than a business card with a logo I had designed.

I did something shady with a buddy from USC and 'lost' my expo pass. Then told registration it was all-access. It got me in. I crashed every V.I.P. lounge and gave my SC Games card to anyone who would talk at me, told them I wanted an internship.

Nothing happened. Probably karma.

Three months later Warner Brothers called. Told me they got my card. They didn't have a program for interns in video games, but invited me to interview to be a production intern for Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment (WBIE). I hit the fashion district and bought the nicest $100 polyester suit I could find.

When I arrived that day I must have looked V.I.P. in that 3-piece, because I was lead to producer David Abram's office. People brought me water and David looked nervous. After some brief formalities I managed to say "I'm here for the internship." David looked at his assistant and I was quickly lead out of the room.

The next office was even more intimidating, that of Monolith co-founder Jason (Jace) Hall,  then Senior Vice President of WBIE. Beyond being a towering hulk of a man, Jason was basically the coolest guy I'd ever met. He showed me around offered me a drink and just shot the shit. Before I knew I was helping on everything from Matrix titles to Batman and Scooby-Doo! Taking the bus up from South Central three-days a week to help at WBIE was amazing. No pay, but one of the best gigs I've had to date - and access to the Warner Bros. lot was just icing on the cake.

It was there, thanks to the generosity of Jason Ades and Gary Sheinwald, that I landed my first 'official' credit - a "Special Thanks" on Constantine the game. I even had the pleasure of being on set for some of shooting of the film, to make sure the cinematics I was doing production Q.A. on matched. It was solid gold. That also when I got my first chance to work with an idol of mine, Flint Dille. I felt like Jim Hawking meeting Bille Bones for the first time. How I wished to knew what it was to be on the high seas of entertainment, all I knew was the lousy inn of B-games.

Well, I've been there, and I've lived to tell the tale, while this is no treasure map. It might serve you during those lonely nights at sea. Here is a list of my top ten tips from over a decade of trying to make it in this new form of entertainment (Let me know if you can think of others.)

1. The Industry is Smaller than You Think

Once you meet everyone, though that's harder these days, you'll see them again and again. It's like reruns of Three's Company, but Chrissy and Janet are neckbeards and Mr. Furly is some lady from HR that speaks a different language. So be forewarned, GDC drinks last FOREVER.

2. You are Only as Good as Your Last Title

Three years. Yep, three. That's all you get. Then, unless you're ready to drop the next Halo or self-funded, you're out the door. Age isn't appreciated, nor experience, it's all about what you last made and if your skills fit the check list. I don't have a remedy for this, but I have met some that work in games for a decade and never release a title, needless to say they've moved on by no fault of their own.

3. Take Credit for Your Work

No one will give it to you. Being a contributor is all that matters, if you even only worked on it for a day, you worked on it. Take credit for your work. We don't have the comfort of unions to enforce credits, only those that might abide by the not-so generous International Game Developer Association (IGDA) credit guidelines. I've written screenplays for big budget AAA titles with the golden boys of Hollywood, they get six-figures plus and their name on the box, we get "Special Thanks". Don't let other peoples egos scare you from taking credit, they did to me for too long. (Adding Martix Online and Scooby-Doo to my list shrotly.)

4. Play the Team Game

Flub. I went to art school. We worked alone in caves, I mean, studios. By the time I got to grad school I thought I was a visionary. I played the team game poorly to say the least. This alone will make or break you in a professional game studio. No one man makes a AAA game. It takes at times hundreds, you need to be the one that helps others. Even directors are more like mentors, though that is changing, even they must bend at the will of the team, be it publisher or studio side.

5. Don't be Fazed by Egos & B.S.

When you put a bunch of dudes in a room it starts to smell like a high school football team. People get pissed on, okay, at least their jocks do. Some just bark at the weakest link, others crawl into the corner huddling around balls of code. Now the industry is changing, mostly due to hormone therapy, but women are there, amazing ones. And yes, she will be the Quarterback Princess.

6. Making Quality Games is Hard Work

If I could have a dollar for all the times people said "Oh you make games! That's so cool. What a fun job!" I might finally have that passive income stream. Making games, AAA ones, is really, really challenging. Terribly rewarding, but equally challenging and risky. If this one fails it might be your last (see point 2).

7. Remember to Play

Videogames aren't a medium like film, we still don't know what our medium is. (Though I'd argue it's play.) As such, you need to constantly challenge yourself. Will Wright (creator of the Sims) is always quick to remind people in his talks no one thought a game about urban planning (SimCity) or ordering pizza while swimming in the pool (The Sims) would be a good title. Clearly it was. Find inspiration anywhere and everywhere. Play and keep playing, be the infinite player.

8. Process, Process, Process

I can't tell you how many times I've been brought in to work on a game and not one on the team member can tell you what the game is about, or even how it plays. If they hand you a Powerpoint deck run. Find a team that can show you the game, play it with you even. Sure, it might not have all the bells and whistles of a release build, but until you can play it you are not making a game, you are wasting your life and countless others. Prototype and playtest rapidly, you should be able to play your game with a day of work on paper. Yes, paper. My best games I've been able to prototype within two hours. If you need help, read Tracy Fullerton's Game Design Workshop. It will show you the path.

9. Don't be Afraid to Start Over

I've seen whole teams get derailed after years of development and then not be able to get back up. They pretend to; polishing turds. A polished turd is still shit. The call us 'doctors', often brought in to resuscitate the project. It doesn't work. Why? See item 8 above.

10. Don't take Yourself too Seriously

The first big gig I had was for a job I designed after graduate school, we called it "Narrative Designer". Just after signing the contract I went to the video store (yes, they still exist.) I was a regular, and chatting it up with a female staff member she told me about a film. Offered to let me take it for free on the condition that I let her know if the industry was really like the film portrayed it. It was, very, very similar to my experience at various studios.That film was "Grandma's Boy". Watch it, pick which character you'd like to be. You'll be surprised how real it becomes.

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