Why triple-A devs are going indie (and why indies aren’t going triple-A)

Above: Indie developers aren't looking to direct the next Assassin's Creed.

Image Credit: Ubisoft

Joe and Anthony Russo had a pretty good summer. The brothers directed and released Marvel’s summer blockbuster Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The pair got that opportunity after working with smaller budgets in the independent-film scene and on television, and they worked their way up to making one of the biggest movies in the world.

That’s a story we don’t really have in gaming.

Independent and triple-A gaming development is experiencing the opposite, really. The big names from top developers are leaving their jobs directing huge projects to start their own, smaller development studios. Meanwhile, the hottest talent responsible for beloved, best-selling indie games aren’t moving up to direct larger projects for major publishers with enormous budgets. They’re sticking to their roots or focusing their efforts on expanding the games that made them popular in the first place.

The question is why is “upward mobility” in gaming broken?

We can point to a list of high-profile examples of triple-A developers leaving behind their positions at major publishers or big developers to do something smaller and more focused:

  • Cliff Bleszinski is now a CEO at Boss Key Productions.

    Above: Cliff Bleszinski is now a CEO at Boss Key Productions.

    Image Credit: Epic Games

    Jade Raymond: She left publisher Ubisoft in October 2014 after 10 years with the company. She oversaw massive hits like Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, and more.

  • Cliff Bleszinski: He left developer Epic Games in 2012 after directing the Gears of War series. He just started his own studio, Boss Key Productions, and he’s making a free-to-play shooter in partnership with global publisher Nexon. He is CEO at Boss Key.
  • Keiji Inafune: The Mega Man designer departed Capcom after 23 years in 2010. A few months later he started Comcept, which is developing Mighty No. 9, a spiritual successor to Mega Man using crowdfunding. He is CEO at Comcept.
  • David Goldfarb: This Mirror’s Edge and Battlefield 3 veteran moved on from working at developer DICE to overseeing development on Payday 2 at Overkill. Now he’s starting his own team.
  • Patrice Désilets: At Ubisoft, Désilets oversaw Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed II as creative director. He left the French publisher in 2010. In 2011, he helped THQ start its new Montreal studio, where he began work on a new triple-A action game called 1666. When THQ collapsed, Ubisoft — the publisher Désilets left in 2010 — purchased his studio and his new game. In May 2013, Ubisoft fired Désilets, according to the developer. He is now working on something secret at a new studio he recently started.
  • Brian Reynolds: He was one of the first big game designers to go do something smaller. After acting as lead designer on classic strategy games Civilization II and Rise of Nations, Reynolds went on to create FrontierVille at Zynga. In 2013, he founded SecretNewCo. Like Bleszinski, his team is working on a new game with Nexon. Reynolds is CEO at SecretNewCo.
  • David Jaffe: While at Sony, Jaffe directed Twisted Metal and God of War — two of the publisher’s biggest properties. In 2007, he formed Eat Sleep Play after leaving Sony Computer Entertainment America. He is now CEO of his new company, Bartlet Jones Supernatural Detective Agency.
  • Ken Levine: He spent the last 10 years making BioShock and BioShock Infinite as the head of developer Irrational Games. After releasing Infinite last year, Levine and publisher 2K Games closed Irrational Games in February. Levine took 15 people from his former studio and formed a new, smaller team that will make digital games for 2K.

And on the independent side of things a staggering number of developers have made smash hits but aren’t moving on Ubisoft, Nintendo, or Sony. Here are just a few:

  • Marcus “Notch” Persson: Minecraft. He made Minecraft, which is perhaps the biggest game in the world. Persson is worth millions, and he’s passed on development of the block-building phenomenon to others. He’s building some small games now.
  • Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes: The developers known as Team Meat released Super Meat Boy to critical acclaim in 2010. The pair is now working on a new game, Mew-Genics.
  • Jonathan Blow: This independent developer broke onto the scene in 2008 with the beloved time-bending platformer Braid. He is one of the best-known names in gaming. He is developing The Witness, which is an open-world puzzler with rich 3D visuals.
  • Zoë Quinn: The Depression Quest developer didn’t join a major publisher after launching her own game. Instead, she joined the indie studio Loveshack Entertainment as its narrative designer while she works on her own full-motion-video game.
  • Dean Hall: This New Zealand-born developer created the extremely popular zombie-survival mod Day Z for the open-world military shooter Arma II. He now works for Arma developer Bohemia Interactive on the full, standalone version of Day Z. He is a rare example of someone going on to work at a large developer, but he has already said that he will leave Bohemia later this year to move back into independent development in New Zealand.

I’m sure you noticed a common theme or trend among the above developers. Most of the former big-name triple-A directors are now CEOs at their own studios. When it comes to the younger, always-independent developers, they don’t follow up their hits by seeking out an opportunity with a corporation.

So, what’s going on?

Running the show

A lot of what’s happening comes down to who is really in charge of a project. Going back to the Russos, working for Marvel and Disney, they had to answer to one of the world’s largest conglomerates. They probably agreed to a lot before starting production. But once filming started, and this is the case on most films, the director(s) are running the show. They decide what a scene looks like, they are the ones the actors go to for answers.

Again, in gaming, that’s not really the case and for multiple reasons.

Developers are corporations

When Disney brought in the Russos to make Captain America: Winter Soldier, they went on to hire a team of contract employees through their respective unions. They didn’t try to form a company that would focus on making similar movies with the same people over and over. Instead, the corporation will go on owning the property, and everyone who made the film can use their experience to get more work making another one.

Layoffs EA Worst Company in America

Above: The Electronic Arts offices.

Image Credit: EA

Game development doesn’t work like that. It’s actually more like a musical band that comes together to make games in a process that’s reminiscent to producing albums — but only with up to hundreds of employees and a chief executive officer and chief marketing officer and chief financial officer and chief technology officer. Sometimes a developer works under a publisher with multiple studios. This leads to situations where the director of a game is fighting for control with multiple people who all have a say.

“For me it’s pretty simple — I’m getting older and the time to make something that I feel passionate about shrinks every day,” Goldfarb told GamesBeat. “I have no interest in burning two years of my life on a very large team making very large games — with all the friction and compromise that comes with it. Don’t get me wrong. I adore those games. I have loved making them in many cases. But it’s time to do something else that is closer to the bone.”

Team size

Many developers responsible for big games find that directing a triple-A project isn’t necessarily about coming up with ideas and executing. It’s all about delegating tasks to huge subsets of teams inside a studio and making sure everyone is communicating. That means someone at the top of an Assassin’s Creed release isn’t working on exquisitely crafting important scenes; instead, they’re managing a massive organization rife with office politics.

This doesn’t leave a lot of room for creative expression.

“At the end of the day, people want to be free,” said Goldfarb. “That’s the best way I can put it. Finding avenues for that freedom is harder in triple-A, where the sheer mass of the team size makes simple things like communication incredibly difficult. Some people thrive in those conditions and want that to be their end goal. I got there and was profoundly unhappy with how it made me feel. For now, it simply feels like less is more.”

Publishers hide the talent

On top of the corporate structure and massive studio sizes, publishers often bury the contributions of individuals under the name of the company. It’s hard to feel good about your accomplishments when the corporation pretends like they came out of thin air.

“I really, really dislike ‘hiding the developers.’ It reeks of insecurity,” Bleszinski wrote on Reddit. “If people know who the developers are, then the developers have leverage. It’s Business 101.”

Hell, Ubisoft allegedly fired Désilets after acquiring his studio from THQ. They had him back for a few months before splitting up again. We don’t know the state of Désilets’s game, 1666, which Ubisoft still owns, but we can infer that the publisher and the designer had disagreements that cost Désilets his latest game and his job. 

View All
More information:

Jaffe is originally from Birmingham, Alabama and currently resides in San Diego, California. Jaffe graduated from Alabama's Mountain Brook High School, located in Mountain Brook, AL, a suburb of Birmingham. Jaffe then attended the Univ... read more »

Clifford Michael "Blitzball" Bleszinski (born February 12, 1975) is a video game designer, and former design director for the game development company Epic Games. He is most famous for his role in the development of the Unreal franchis... read more »

Ken Levine is a founding member of, and lead designer at Irrational Games. He previously worked at Looking Glass Studios, which he joined in 1995. Some of the games he has worked on include Thief: The Dark Project, System Shock 2, Tri... read more »

Powered by VBProfiles

James Voss
James Voss

Respawn Entertainment, creators of Titanfall, started out the same way. It was a group of guys from Activision that worked on CoD that left and formed Respawn. I'm not sure if Titanfall would be considered an "Indie" game per-se but it goes to show that some of these companies that are started from a small group leaving a larger company can go on to make huge games.

can alş
can alş

Cliffy Blezinski a washed up has been,invented GoW  and taught he could do no wrong. His time ran out because everybody has great ideas for FPS'es . Now ? H e is trying to revive a dead game genre. David Goldfarb touched Payday 2 and turned it into a utter shit fest with small levels and nothing like Payday 1. I am so glad that these guys wont make money like they used to. They will have to beg and claw for evey penny they get. Cliffy B used to be something but coming up with a F2P game and partnering up with a shit tier publisher like Nexon ? Oh boy. Can anybody say John Romero ? ITS GONNA BE FUN !!!!

Kevin de Ligt
Kevin de Ligt

I work at an indie company, Flow Studios, we're making a game called Cat Fights and as they say in here. You have a lot of creative input. The biggest struggle is just getting recognised, you never have the money to travel to GDC or E3, getting a stand somewhere costs thousands of dollars, let alone the flight and stay there. and that is just the events, publishers think you have a million dollars laying around to make a game they want to see, but finding the audience to let them play your game and see their smile, is priceless

Thomas Happ
Thomas Happ

 Working in AAA is more like working a desk job for a software company like IBM or something.  It's more creative and interesting, but, in the end, you a part of a big team.  Even the most "important" person on the project (lead designer or whatever) is still just an employee with a salary and they really only contribute some small percent to the total work.  But in indie development is much more direct.  It's not an exaggeration to say "Notch made Minecraft" or "Jonathan Blow made Braid."  You feel a lot more like an artist as an indie, rather than like an employee.

Nick Stancato
Nick Stancato

Sad to hear. I find the glut of 2D retro Indies uncreative and uninteresting to play. Until Indie devs do something closer to AAA games, I have almost zero interest in them (there are always exceptions like Minecraft)

Jason Lacour
Jason Lacour

@Nick Stancato A Hat in Time? Armillo? Black Ice? Rime? Hover: Revolt of Gamers? Assault Android Cactus?

If anything though, they're filling the gap with mid-tier these days that many big pubs have killed off. You're simply looking in all the wrong places.

Fuzzy Wuzzy Games, who made Armillo is made up of some former EA and Radical Entertainment devs and Tequila Works, who are making Rime is made up of former Blizzard, Mercury, Pyro and Sony EU devs. Witch Beam, who made Assault Android Cactus is made up of 3 people who worked in the industry prior from Sega, Midway and EA.

This is becoming more and more the norm as time goes by.

Tyler Woodworth
Tyler Woodworth

@Nick Stancato I have to ask, since you implied indies only make 2D retro games, have you ever played Payday 2? I could list a bunch of games but I think that one embodies the things you wanted out of an indie.

I find the common view on indies is a misconception or misunderstanding of what indies actually make and do. Perhaps you can give me a little more input on that from your point of view.

GamesBeat is your source for gaming news and reviews. But it's also home to the best articles from gamers, developers, and other folks outside of the traditional press. Register or log in to join our community of writers. You can even make a few bucks publishing stories here! Learn more.

You are now an esteemed member of the GamesBeat community. That means you can comment on stories or post your own to GB Unfiltered (look for the "New Post" link by mousing over your name in the red bar up top). But first, why don't you fill out your via your ?

About GamesBeat