Trailmix, Sharkmob, Interior Night, Maze Theory, Ordinal Games, Dream Reality Interactive, SlingShot Cartel, PlayMagic: all these recently-opened studios are the creations of former triple-A veterans – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are more and more examples pointing in the direction of developers being weary of triple-A production every day, even if that’s what they’ve been aiming at for their entire career. Wanting to leave a well-established company to create something of your own is not a new desire, but it seems to be increasingly popular in development in the past few months.
Star Wars Battlefront II’s actress Janina Gavankar specifically discussed the rise of independent studios created by triple-A veterans in a interview with GamesBeat recently: “If you don’t have something that hits gamers’ hearts, you’re not going to reach them. I have triple-A fatigue, and I have felt like this for a while. Why am I playing games that I could’ve played in 2007 except with better graphics?”
So we decided to ask newly-created studios if they too felt this triple-A fatigue, how instrumental it was in their decision to create their own company, their role in the future of an industry that is changing more rapidly than ever and what people are doing wrong when it comes to retaining talent within triple-A studios.
THE GAMES FACTORIES
A need to explore more creative processes, and generally to have more creative freedom, is first and foremost what’s driven these industry veterans out of their comfort zone to find a new path, away from the sometimes rigid formats of triple-A development.
“After three triple-A games in 11 years (Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain and Beyond Two Souls), I felt the need for a change of pace and scale,” says Interior Night creative director and CEO Caroline Marchal, formerly of Quantic Dream and Sony. “Triple-A development is great but it means long development duration – four years on average at Quantic Dream – and bigger and bigger teams which come with organisational challenges and less flexibility. Running my own studio, I get creative freedom and the benefits of working with a smaller team. People are here for good reasons, not because it’s comfortable or prestigious. But it also comes with new challenges: now, I control a lot more things, which is super cool, but can also be a bit scary.”
Jim Brown, who spent over 15 years at Codemasters, is now studio director at Malta-based PlayMagic. He echoes Marchal’s statement on the challenges of long development cycles: “The video games market and the industry move too fast to spend years on one game. I enjoy making entertainment for a living but too many years on one title is not for me anymore, I’ve done that. I’m happiest working on multiple products that I know can make the kids in my family smile.”
The lack of creative freedom at some triple-A studios is also what led Martin Hultberg and Chris Pasley to co-found companies with devs who felt the same way.
“It is not unusual for triple-A studios to become these monster production houses, more akin to factories than creative studios,” Hultberg says. He spent 14 years at Ubisoft, 11 of which were at Massive Entertainment. He’s a founding member of new Malmö-based studio Sharkmob, where he’s now IP and communications director. “I wanted to get back to a studio size where everyone had creative input, were hands-on with the game and felt a sense of ownership for what they worked on. When organisations get too big and these things aren’t considered you can lose that and it quickly becomes a more political and rigid environment.”
Pasley, who was executive producer on The Walking Dead: Road to Survival at Scopely and also worked for the likes of Cartoon Network and Kongregate, recently founded free-to-play mobile studio Ordinal Games. He also mentions “a strong desire to do things in [his] own way,” adding: “Large established studios with high burn rates make it difficult to go off in directions that are interesting but unproven – any plan you make could end up costing millions, so you tend to design and execute conservatively.”
The well-reported success of indie hits from studios such as Campo Santo, Infinite Fall, The Fullbright Company or Giant Sparrow, to name a few, has also shown that it’s now possible to make it as an indie, paving the way for more ambitious independent productions.
“There is so much opportunity to innovate as an indie, the landscape of tools, talent and market make it a viable and exciting option,” says Dave Ranyard, who spent 11 years at Sony before launching Dream Reality Interactive in 2016. “The next wave of triple-A will come from indies, possibly backed by major publishers, but finance can come from many sources now: just look at film financing.”
Sharkmob’s Hultberg also sees similarities with the film industry: “I think [these new indie studios] combine the best from both worlds – combining elements of triple-A production values and practices with indie creativity and risk-taking. It is a move similar to what the movie industry in Hollywood went through years ago when there was a paradigm shift from the huge studios to the smaller, more flexible, production companies.”
The comparison with films doesn’t stop here, with the democratisation of tools also being instrumental in the emergence of these new studios led by industry veterans: they don’t need to work at triple-A studios anymore to have access to the best game engines.
“I looked at the film industry pre and post-WW2,” Ranyard continues. “Originally, the big studios made all the film and contracted the talent, but post-war, the tools for film-making were democratised, making it possible for smaller creative companies to develop ideas and then look for funding from the studios. I see a similar pattern in games, with the ubiquity of tools like Unity and Unreal.”
Ordinal Games’ Pasley agrees that the market is now mature enough to support the emergence of more indie productions: “I think if there is a shift to indie development it’s because of two possible things: creative people want to stretch out in ways established companies have a hard time justifying and the indie economy can now support it.”
This shift is also a genre one, with the great majority of these new studios having been vocal about wanting to develop narrative-focused titles.
“Narrative games are the only fertile ground for new IPs at the moment,” Ranyard says. “I have talked with many publishers and many have done the same research, with the same conclusions… Narrative games are a huge opportunity for new IP to flourish. Indies have the experience and the agility to make great stories – how many great stories have been written by a committee of executives?”
Marcus Moresby, VR director at Maze Theory (founded by veterans from Sony and Activision) is in agreement: “Over the past few years I’ve spent a lot of my time playing games from the indie world: Firewatch, What Remains of Edith Finch, Gone Home and Dear Esther to name a few. As a massive fan of narrative experiences that have a strong emotional hook, I think the shift to indie productions could be rooted in developer fatigue of triple-A polish and constantly redressing the same well-trodden game mechanics. I believe they appeal to a wider audience who are perhaps put off by the heavy action titles or seemingly complicated control schemes.”
Interior Night’s Marchal shows nothing but respect for triple-A games, saying she enjoys playing them once in a while “the same way [she] enjoys superhero movies from time to time” and adding she “knows how much sweat and blood goes into to this level of perfection,” mentioning God of War as a prime example of what triple-A has to offer. However, she agrees that the greater ease of access of indie narrative games is what makes them appealing.
“Narrative games tend to be more accessible as they focus more on story than skills. They have the potential to appeal to a broad audience as stories are universal,” she says. “It’s a blossoming genre with several successful new IPs every year – something other game genres struggle with – and recent interesting experiences trying to bring together TV/film and games. I think this convergence is fascinating and will lead to the creation of a new medium/format in the next few years.”
Narrative games have also not reached their full potential yet, meaning it’s still a relatively unexplored part of the market that is well worth exploring, Pasley continues: “It’s time to double down on narrative because it’s a gaming niche that is currently not as fulfilled as it could be. And now a few companies have shown that these are viable market mechanics – that I am not alone in my desire to play great stories, and that players will support that desire financially. I think indies are drawn to them because these games who have set the stage for others were all well made, but production-wise not that difficult to make on a budget. I think indies see these experiences as ways to deliver quality without needing to deliver expensive graphical fidelity.”
Ultimately, these newly-created studios led by veterans have an important role to play in the industry: they’re shaping its future. A future that could see a wider range of firms sharing the market, with triple-A titles side-by-side with indie narrative darlings. Perhaps these polished, often shorter experiences, are worth bringing the term ‘triple-I’ back for, no matter how silly you think it is.
“It’s the promise of getting new voices out there, exploring different topics and new genres,” Interior Night’s Marchal says. “It can only be beneficial to get more diversity in games as this allows us to reach new audiences and satisfy niches which are not considered by triple-A. It’s a very exciting time and I have high hopes in these studios delivering high quality and innovative experiences.”
PlayMagic’s Brown concludes: “Companies like ours are the lifeblood of future creativity, and to a quality standard players respect. I don’t work to make games for our company – we make them for the consumers that buy them. Our duty is to create high quality engaging experiences that deliver fun. Triple-A studios copy what works and package it in graphics. We create what works.”
With many people leaving triple-A studios to create their own firms, it’s only natural to wonder if big firms are rewarding key creatives enough and if they could do better to retain staff.
“This is a tricky question. Some turnover is inevitable in any studio, especially after a project’s completion,” Interior Night’s Caroline Marchal says. “As to retaining staff in triple-A studios, promoting people, trusting them to evolve the franchise and empowering them creatively seem like sensible things to do, but I’m sure they already do this. What I do know is that you rarely make a fortune as a game developer. Heavy Rain was a massive success, but to my knowledge it didn’t translate into massive revenue for Quantic Dream. If developers had a better royalty share, then they could reward and retain their staff more.”
Here, Marchal touches upon a very sensitive topic: rewarding the developers for their contribution to the game, in a similar way the film or music industries reward staff with bonuses and royalties.
“When it comes to rewarding key creative staff compared to Hollywood, I think that might be difficult, but the idea is interesting,” Ordinal Games’ Chris Pasley says. “Should key creatives get royalties, or other performance bonuses beyond what companies usually give in the industry now? I think it works in Hollywood because of the concept of key creatives as auteurs. In games, with a few notable exceptions, most are made by large teams who collaborate in a much different way. So if you didn’t have this key creative, would the game have been as successful? In movies, the answer is usually no – without James Cameron, Avatar doesn’t exist. However, I think in games that is rarely seen to be the case.”
Sharkmob’s Martin Hultberg also thinks it’s maybe time to change the way we approach recognition in the industry: “I think we have problems in regards to giving credits, royalties and proper recognition. This probably stems from a lack of unionised or industry wide standards, something that is more common in the movie and music industries. In gaming, all the rights stay with the company.
“All the recognition goes to spokespeople selected to represent the product. It would be interesting, and highly motivating, if the actual content creators were the ones recognised for their contributions. And don’t even get me started on credit lists. Maybe a more structured industry in this regard would help stabilise compensation and recognition for everyone working in it.”