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:
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.
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.”
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.
Entrepreneurship vs. auteurship
Triple-A developers are looking for more control over the games they make. They want smaller teams where they can act more as auteurs … so some are starting their own companies and taking the role of CEO. That’s because gaming has always had a combination of entrepreneurship with its auteurship.
The director is the top of the film-making pyramid, but in game development, that’s the CEO. Bleszinski, Jaffe, and Inafune probably all had daily dealings and struggles with their previous executives. They likely realized to avoid ever having to compromise again, they would need that title themselves. To run the show, they need to run the company.
Independent developers don’t really have that same compulsion to operate their own studios as CEOs. Persson lets someone else hold that top job at Minecraft developer Mojang. Jonathan Blow doesn’t even really have a title at his studio, Thekla. Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes are just two guys making a game together.
That same thing that keeps them from calling themselves CEOs is probably similar to what has them all happy continuing to produce games on their own.
“Me going to direct Assassin’s Creed would not be a step up for me. It would be a step down,” Blow told GamesBeat. “[It would represent a loss of freedom in what I choose to do and a decreased quality of life.”
New tools make big budgets seem archaic
Earlier this year, Ubisoft released Watch Dogs. It’s an open-world game that tries to re-create a science-fiction alternative-world Chicago where players can hack the city using their smartphone. You can go anywhere in Chicago and do anything, and it took hundreds of people to make it.
As people played Watch Dogs, developer Hello Games was showing off its upcoming indie game No Man’s Sky. This sci-fi space-exploration game gives players the option to do anything and to go anywhere through an entire galaxy. Every player starts out on their own planets, which features unique flora and fauna.
The crazy thing is that Hello Games did the bulk of the work on No Man’s Sky as a four-person development team. Four people built a game that creates a galaxy while Ubisoft is employing hundreds to make Chicago.
Blow points out that more developers are starting to discover they have the power to do whatever they want without having to go through a publisher.
“Yes, the budget is higher [with triple-A], but I don’t care about that because I can do everything I want within the budget I have available now,” said Blow.
Development kits like Unity and Unreal Engine are making it easier than ever to build gorgeous 3D environments and characters. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo are all welcoming developers to publish their own games digitally. Steam is enabling people to release unfinished games and use the proceeds from the sales to finish the titles.
Bleszinski could have stayed at Epic, but he’ll probably end up making the game he really wants now that he’s on his own, and it will probably look just as beautiful as a game from a big studio.
Then we have the money
Blow told GamesBeat that he doesn’t think the movie comparison works because directors are financially motivated. They’ll get the really big paydays by taking the blockbuster projects. Blow said he’s not financially motivated, and I believe him — but he also stands to make plenty of money when The Witness finally debuts on PC, mobile, and PlayStation 4 later this year (hopefully).
That’s true for everyone that is going from triple-A to independent and everyone who is an indie sensation now who doesn’t want to go on to direct the big property for Activision or Electronic Arts. Those companies might pay well, but it’s not so much better that it makes up for giving up the aforementioned freedom or quality of life.
“At the low end, indie money is a lot lower, and at the high end, indie money is a lot higher,” said Blow. “Notch has like a billion dollars, which is not an amount that any programmer or designer working for Ubisoft could ever make. A bunch of indies have many millions of dollars, which, again, is pretty rare for people working regular jobs in the mainstream. You probably have to have owned a chunk of a company to get that.”
If Reynolds’s new strategy game takes off, for example, it’s possible that it could end up as the next Clash of Clans. That mobile-social strategy game made nearly $1 billion last year. As CEO of the developer, that level of revenue would turn Reynolds into a millionaire.
And that’s really the big thing when it comes to why triple-A developers are going independent while the reverse isn’t happening. Going from independent to triple-A isn’t a step up. You’ll get more creative freedom, more prestige, a more tight-knit team with the potential for a game that looks and feels as good as a triple-A release. If all that’s true and you stand to potentially make more money? Well, I don’t think we’re done seeing recognizable talent leaving cushy positions with publishers to start their own thing.
Not every triple-A developer is going indie
Obviously, someone like Mario and Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto is probably going to stay at Nintendo for the rest of his life. Same thing with Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima — even if he started his own Kojima Productions studio inside of Konami. These industry legends aren’t the only ones who continue to work within the publisher system.
While Ubisoft apparently fired Désilets and isn’t missing him, the company still enjoys contributions from talented big-name developers like Rayman creator Michel Ancel and Assassin’s Creed and Splinter Cell: Blacklist producer Jade Raymond.
Raymond joined Ubisoft in 2014, and she has worked her way up to an executive producer role within the organization. She is continuing her ascent up the executive ladder as she is now the managing director of Ubisoft Toronto.
Ancel joined Ubisoft way back in 1990. He came up with the idea for the platformer Rayman and directed the beloved action-adventure game Beyond Good & Evil. He is most recently responsible for Rayman Origins in 2011 and Rayman Legends in 2013. While he works in the publisher system, he seems to have some creative freedom on his games. At the same time, Ubisoft does still exert a large amount of pressure on him. In 2013, the company had the developer go back and port Rayman Legends to a variety of platforms after previously promising it as a Wii U exclusive. Ancel and his other developers at Ubisoft Montpellier were famously not happy with that.
The truth is that when a developer can find creative freedom without having to start their own business, that is likely an ideal situation for many.
“Starting a business is a whole different beast then just making a game,” Ubisoft producer Patrick Plourde told GamesBeat. He went from working on Far Cry 3 to directing his own role-playing game Child of Light at the publisher. “Maybe I’m a special case, but right now I have so much freedom creatively that I don’t feel the need to go out and ‘make the game I always wanted to make.’ I am already making them now. It’s really easy to assemble a team of super talented people to make the game happen, and we can get a lot of exposure on the project that would be more difficult if I would be on my own.”
So not everyone is abandoning the publisher system even if it seems that way. Still, it’s hard to imagine a lot of independent developers trying to work their way up to Plourde’s position when they can get something similar on their own.
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, Trib... read more »
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