Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Why the AAA Games Industry is Screwed

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 2, 2012

I almost titled this, “Why the AAA Games Industry is Doomed,” but “Doomed” isn’t quite the right word. Doomed implies that its demise is inevitable. I think, like mainstream Hollywood, it’s not going anywhere for a while. But it is quite possible its best days are behind it.

This article illustrates a lot of the key problems with the industry that are pretty deeply embedded in its business and its culture by now. Maybe there is a major publisher or some studios out there that have managed to figure out how overcome these obstacles, or even eliminate them.  Every once in a while, I hear about a studio that claims to have done that… and then I hear about them closing.

Bottom line – the AAA Games Industry is screwed.  This story just illustrates how it managed to claim more victims.

Death March – The Long, Tortured Journey of Homefront

Are indies immune to these kinds of problems? The ones related to being a publisher-owned studio, sure. But then we have a lot more of our own, and the hit-driven nature of the industry doesn’t suspend its rules for indies. In some ways indies have more room to maneuver, but financially may have a lot less.  There are  tons of lessons that game developers of all stripes can learn from this story.


Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 16 Comments to Read

  • McTeddy said,

    I have a buddy who was part of that whole thing. What I find really amusing is that his outlook on the situation is much brighter. His stories are full ways that the company tried to compensate the employees for overtime and improve the process. Not to say it wasn’t bad… just his exact words are “People are overdramatic”.

    That said, the place we worked before had all the poor management issues without any attempts to make us feel human. I remember the owner coming in one day to tell us that we needed to “Give more for the game” after /i’d had five days without sleep.

    But ,tbh, I don’t see these as an issue with AAA Development as much a problem with the the management itself. My company was set in its ways and ran our large team like a small one. This doesn’t work.

    The problem right now is just that companies need to learn HOW to run large scale projects rather than keep doing the same thing because thats how they’ve always done it.

  • Albert1 said,

    Time ago I read Jordan Mechner’s diary (highly recommended): well, even at the so-well-regarded Broderbund there were such management idiots it’s a miracle Prince of Persia made it! I find fun that the company in the article went from the mod scene. I remember (10 years ago) guru game devs saying that your best bet at employees were mod creators, that having programmed/edited a successful mod was a proven track record! I thought it was wrong and I think that stories like the one linked demonstrate that not necessarily modding experience, or even multiplayer game development, works that well in singleplayer AAA games. Also, it’s quite astonishing that 2.5 millions of copies aren’t regarded as a great result! I also think that singleplayer+multiplayer games aren’t financially sustainable anymore. Maybe the developers of singleplayer games should just put a link to QuakeLive in their main menu 😉

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I think both of you speak to a similar problem – scaling. You can’t just go from being an indie / modding studio to a AAA studio based on nothing but heroic capabilities of your principles. Sure, that can work for a little while in a 4-person or 6-person team, but when you scale it up to modern AAA levels, it’s a whole ‘nother story. And getting those processes in place for larger-scale development is something that plagues the entire software industry, not just games. But I think games have it worse, for a number of reasons.

  • Albert1 said,

    On scale. It’s quite interesting that Tim Sweeney, presenting UE 4, insisted so much on the fact that studios can’t grow up to 1000+ people per project, and that the tool chain should make people more productive. The fact that adding people doesn’t help is as old as “The Mythical Man-Month”. I think it’s quite related with what you wrote a couple of posts ago on how detailed a gaming experience can/must be. Or even with one of your years-old posts on data-drivenness. In short, I think that these days we’re doing with play mechanics what we were doing with physics in the late 90s: we’re faking that, writing ad hoc scripts or the like. This is unsustainable. Data-driven design could help, but it’s not enough – we need a different mean as well to enter all the massive amount of data required, something that is to design as innovative and powerful as sculpting techniques have been for 3D modeling. Before the advent of brushes, etc models you can see in every ZBrush practioner’s portfolio were almost unimaginable.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I haven’t seen that quote, but I suspect I’d wholeheartedly agree.

    As you add more people, you add more “overhead.” This is automatic. If I’m working by myself, making all the decisions, I can (theoretically) be 100% productive. If I add a partner, some percentage of our time will be spent communicating and cooperating with each other. Let’s say that’s 10%. So now I’m 90% productive. Times two of us, that’s 180% as productive as one of us.

    Now I add a third partner. Under an otherwise ‘flat’ hierarchy, each of us spends 10% of our time talking to each of our two partners, so now we’re all 80% productive. So now three of us are 240% as productive as one of us. Not as big a gain.

    At 4 people, now, we’re only 280% as productive (4 x 70%), at 5 people we hit a maximum of 300% (5 x 60%) effectiveness. Adding a sixth does nothing (6 x 50%), and at seven people we go backwards in productivity back to 280%.

    Naturally, somewhere in there – probably starting at around 3 or 4 people – we need to change how things are done, introduce processes to reduce that overhead (For example, meetings that allow us to reduce communications redundancy). Processes and hierarchy can allow for greater team growth, but I don’t think it can go on indefinitely.

    Then there’s another problem related specifically to games: Ownership. With a 3- or 4-person team, its easy for each contributor to feel a strong sense of ownership in the final product. This is how great games – which are as much art as science – are made. But when the team sizes grows to dozens, or over a hundred, it’s easy to feel like nothing more than a cog in the wheel, and to lose sight of the game as a whole. With great, passionate leaders who *can* concentrate on the game as a whole, this might not be a disaster, but it does lose some of the advantages that you’d otherwise expect from having so many eyes and hearts involved in the project.

  • Albert1 said,

    I’m curious how much government influences negatively game business. The studio of the article was located in New York: isn’t that one of the confederation states with levels of bureaucracy&taxes similar to Europe (where I live).

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    It’s pretty high there, but I’ve no idea how it compares to Europe. The cost of living – and doing business – is pretty high there. California (one of the MOST highly taxed and regulated states in the U.S.) has been bleeding a lot of businesses and jobs out here to Utah, which has kept this state from suffering quite as badly during this… uh, what do the call it now, “The Great Recession?”

  • Albert1 said,

    I don’t know about Utah, but years ago, when I read Texas tax rate – on the very site of the state if I remember correctly, clear and understandable by a mere mortal without first contacting a lawyer and an accountant, without being a fucking bureaucrat! – I was simply amazed!

  • Maklak said,

    What does “AAA” stand for? I was wondering about it for a while.

  • McTeddy said,

    Yep, scaling is exactly the problem I saw.

    I don’t really see this as a case of AAA being screwed or doomed as much as it’s going to need to change some of it’s processes. Improved tools will allow programmers, artists, and designers to work on the same game at the same time without breaking it. Agile development processes and more ways to communicate will improve the speed that changes can be made. So long as developers don’t ignore new ideas because “We’ve always done it this way” then there is a chance for the company to survive.

    In my experience, some of the best developers I know leave the industry because of poor management and zero respect for a Work/Life balance. Eventually, the AAA industry will realize that keeping experienced developers satisfied will lead to better projects for less time and money.

    It’s not hopeless… but it is going to have to change. For those that don’t want to change their ways, there will always be room for smaller budget Independent projects.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I totally agree about the lack of Work/Life balance being a major reason for a lot of the industry’s problems. This leaves you with a perpetually young and relatively inexperienced work team, or at least social misfits. Right now, game developers can work like slaves with no life right out of college, but within 4-5 years (the average burnout rate in the industry) they have wives and families and have been treated badly enough they abandon the AAA development studios. It is screwed up the industry even HAS an average burnout rate.

    I’ve only worked at one studio, and it was a film studio, but we were doing digital special effects for shots and had milestones, etc. so it was pretty similiar to a game development house. We had the same problems with scaling and work/life balance and poor management.

    I distinctly remember working on a major milestone shot to be delivered soon, and having spent literally 38 hours out of the last 48 hours working on the shot (along with several other artists), taking all my meals at my desk, and SLEEPING at my desk to avoid wasting time commuting, and being told by the team leader we needed to buckle down and show some more dedication if we were going to get the shot completed on time. Apparently the managerial style of a lot of these studios is to recite platitudes from leadership handbooks, reality be damned.

    “Gee, I’m sorry. I guess I shouldn’t have slept those 4.5 hours each night in my desk chair after working for 19 hours straight, even though my job requires precise hand-eye coordination. I’ll stay up 48 hours straight next time and be a team player.”

    And of course, the studio I worked for no longer exists. So not only do game developers have to put up with horrible life/work conditions, they have to consider the very real possibility that an unnerving amount of studios don’t last past one project these days and they may not have a job when it’s all over and done with, no matter how much they slaved.

  • A little light reading « Stylish Corpse said,

    […] Rampant Coyote’s “Why the AAA Games Industry is Screwed” – an always-interesting blog with a link to a fascinating article.RC’s post […]

  • Bad Sector said,

    That was an interesting read (and this Polygon site seems to have nice articles in general). I’m not sure that this is the state with AAA games in general though, i think it is more of a case where all we hear is the bad cases because, really, why would a studio or developer come out and say “hey, we’re awesome, we’re actually treating developers like normal people”?

    Even if that was the case though, the defeating behaviour that the guy with the ending quote has doesn’t help the issue really. “This is how video game development is”? Well, it wont take a magic fairy to fix it, people who are harmed and experience these bad issues are those who should fix it.

  • alanmcl said,

    Says more about application development in general than AAA games. Immature development organisations tackling large projects will fail. Film at 11.

    “AAA games” will succeed and fail based on the same criteria as other large development efforts. Which is increasingly a solved problem. Time for the games industry to catch up.

  • Xenovore said,

    My experience with professional game development is similar: working for months, often with 70+ hour work-weeks, only to have the projects cancelled because of some publisher whim. And then you get laid off.

    So, as much as we might still want to work in the game industry, stability and, well, having a life become more important. So we go do something else, something completely not game development. Because there’s a pretty good chance that the next game company we go to work for will be another great opportunity to be mismanaged, overworked, and ultimately laid off.

    I’m not entirely sure why the game industry is like this, but I can point to a few things.

    For one thing, there is a metric shit-ton of false optimism, e.g. “Our game just needs these killer features and it will be the coolest evar and sell millions!” Or, “Yeah, our game isn’t fun right now, but we still just prototyping, of course it’ll be fun later,” and then they wonder why their game still isn’t fun a year later.

    Also, there’s just a lot of mismanagement, e.g. programmers getting promoted to managers or becoming CEOs, in spite of the fact that, although they are fantastic programmers, they don’t have an ounce of management or business experience. Or on the flip side, managers and producers that have business/management degrees but don’t know a damn thing about game development.

    Finally, there’s just straight-up abuse of talent. Game companies know there’s a seemingly endless supply of overly optimistic talent straight out of college that they can burn through, while the more experienced talent either “moves up” or, more often than not, becomes jaded and leaves the industry.

  • Anon said,

    > Game companies know there’s a seemingly endless supply of overly optimistic talent straight out of college that they can burn through, while the more experienced talent either “moves up” or, more often than not, becomes jaded and leaves the industry.

    That’s the main reason, IMHO.

    If there is nobody willing to be exploited (low wages, too many hours etc.) then nobody *can* exploit people.

    Problem is, working on mainstream games seems to be as cool as ever, perhaps even more so (with all those cool, realistic graphics etc.).
    So there is little chance of a “game change”.

    I’m increasingly confused about this, though. The teams of mainstream games are so incredible large today that individuals can only contribute such a microscopic share of the sum that makes a game.

    Why would anybody still accept to be “interface programmer, #7” or “graphics artist #23, responsible for shrubbery, potted plants and toiled seats”?

    Back then with small teams people would at least have had bigger responsibilities, me thinks…

    If, for example, people with no education at all are happy to cater food for movie crews then that’s fine (they love movies and probably contribute what they can) but why are highly intelligent and/or talented people so stupid to accept these ridiculous jobs in the first place?

    If you love games so much then at least become an indie and realize your dream yourself! Even if game programming/designing isn’t your day job but your super-power at night ability! 😉