Let’s say we have two groups of video games. In the first group, we have games like The Witcher 3, Civilization VI, and Overwatch. And in the second group, we have games like Super Meat Boy, Braid, and Stardew Valley. Can you tell the difference between these two groups?
Is one group of games better than the other? No, they are all good games that have achieved both critical and financial success. Are the games in the first group sequels, while games in the second group are new? No, Overwatch is a new, original IP. Are the games in the first group more expensive than the second group? Now we’re getting closer. The truth is, the first group of games comes from searching Google for “popular AAA games,” while the second group comes from searching for “popular indie games.” In short, the games in the first group are AAA games, and in the second group are indie games.
Indie vs. AAA game development
Now that we’ve seen the difference between the two groups, why do people separate these games into two different groups? What makes these two groups of games different from each other? Some would say that they are priced differently, but there are actually AAA games with low pricing as well as indie games with expensive pricing. How about the scale of the games? Again, there are indie games with big, massive worlds, and there are also AAA games set in short, small worlds.
From my perspective, the key difference between the two groups of games is the size of the company developing the games. Indie games are usually made by companies with less than 30 people, and some are even made by less than five people. On the other hand, AAA games are made by much bigger companies, usually with hundreds of employees.
Game development teams: size matters
Earlier, I mentioned that company size is the key difference between indie games and AAA games. So it’s not surprising that it’s also the main difference between indie and AAA game development. In fact, the difference in team or company size leads to every difference between the two game development processes.
Let’s start with something personal, your role or position in the development team. Big teams usually have every position they need already filled. If they need someone to work on the game engine, they already have a engine programmer there. If they need someone to design a level, they already have a level designer working on it. In a big team, your role is already determined from the start, and you will rarely work on any task outside of your job description.
If AAA game development values specialists, then indie game development values generalists who can fill multiple roles. It’s not weird at all in a small development team if a programmer is asked to deal with both networking as well as enemy AI. Small teams usually aren’t able to individually cover all the needed positions, so they turn to people who are able to work on a variety of tasks.
Funding across the games industry
Let’s move to another difference, this time from the funding aspect. A large team requires a large amount of funding, simply because it has more people that need to be paid. And, if you look at the bigger picture, it also means that video games made by a large team have a large development cost. The opposite rings true as well; indie game development has much smaller development costs because they have smaller teams.
Because every project has a chance of failure, the large development cost of AAA games becomes a big problem. If you’re only spending a little money, maybe you’re fine with a small chance of failure, but if you’re spending a large sum of money, you definitely want to reduce that risk as much as possible. This ends up with AAA game development being much more risk-averse; they’re trying to avoid risk as much as possible.
In AAA game development, when there’s a decision that needs to be made, the team will try to make sure that they don’t make the wrong choice. They will do extensive market research and they will see what is trending in the market. They’d want to grab as many audience members as possible, so if there’s any design that will exclude a significant amount of customers, it will be cut out.
On the other hand, indie game development doesn’t spend that much money. With a smaller development cost, indie games don’t need to have a massive amount of sale to recoup their costs. Because of that, they’re willing to take risks with experimental and unorthodox design, giving the team the creative freedom without needing to do market research.
That said, indie game development harbors a different kind of risk. Unlike their bigger counterpart, indie game developers tend to live from one game to the next. That is, they use the revenue from their current game to fund the development of their next game. So if any of their games don’t perform well, they could immediately close down. And that’s another difference between the two game development process, AAA game development tends to be more financially stable compared to indie development.
There are more differences between indie and AAA game development, but the ones listed above are definitely some of the most prominent. All in all, one development process isn’t better than the other, and it falls back on you to decide which one is better suited for you.
Raka Mahesa is a game developer at Chocoarts, who is interested in digital technology in general. Outside of work hours, he likes to work on his own projects, with Corridoom VR being his latest released game. Raka also regularly tweets as @legacy99.