October 9, 2012

AAA vs. mobile / indie development

We received an email from Russell A. with some interesting questions.  We thought the answers could be fun and useful to share with the community.

Comments below!

photo from http://cinemakingdom.com/?p=67

1.) Why did you pursue the mobile platform instead of larger "AAA" 3D title?

Mobile is infinitely easier to get to market on, essentially any other platform (other than PC) requires you to partner with a publisher to have any chance of success.  Mobile has a super low barrier of entry, and has a much better market potential for the types of games we'll be developing than PC.

Besides that, AAA requires a massive up front investment and really requires you to have extremely high sales out of the gate in order to just break even.  We're bootstrapped, so we have no funding for that type of investment, and even if we did, it wouldn't be worth the risk.

2.) Do you feel there is any need for a traditional publisher if you were to ever pursue such a title?

Publishers are a must for AAA / console.  An exception is XBLIG but even then you're at the mercy of Microsoft's whims and store functionality (which has historically not been great for indies vs. iOS/Android).

3.) What suggestions would you give to a project that possess' a 4 million dollar budget but wants to cut out the middle management? Do you think middle management could be circumvented?

It totally depends on the team.  A small team of highly motivated individuals that are also realistic about timelines and goals could do it.  A producer isn't a necessity, nor are code/art managers, but someone has to watch the schedule if you want to hit a release date.  In the console world you cannot miss your release date, or you will be in a world of hurt.

Is there a separate marketing budget, or is $4mm the total budget?  If $4mm has to cover everything, and you're targeting AAA, you have to plan on only having $3.5mm or less for development, as marketing has to be a huge spend in order to make the initial sales splash you need for success.

Do you have the team already?  If not, recruiting costs have to be factored in.  For the sake of argument, let's assume you already have your perfect team.  Let's work backwards from your budget.

The average pro dev salary is somewhere around $90k/yr.  The average AAA development time is 1.5 years, so you need to earmark $135k for each dev.  That means you can afford around 25 or 26 developers.  In the economy, you might be able to pick up a few extra by keeping budget low, but I will trade quality for quantity any day of the week.

So, you need someone that knows development well that can put together a realistic project plan for a AAA title made with 25 people.  

In this case you might be wisest to keep a core team of about 15, and outsource a large amount of art to help keep costs lower.

4.) Why is there such a separation between the development studio and the public? It seems to be very difficult to contact studio's to speak with them and employers seem very reluctant to allow their employee's to speak. Do you think potential developers would a appreciate a friendlier atmosphere where they are free to share their employment experiences?

This is a long discussion.  There are issues of wanting to be first to market with a new idea (you don't want to talk about a new feature you're developing and find it in a competitor's game before you release), there are issues of keeping up a company's brand/image, there are issues of being able to afford the time for such conversations (while writing this, I have been sweating about my own lost productivity), and more (possibly even legal issues, such as insider trading information or just standard NDA protected confidential information).

Indies are able to be more open, as there are no corporate guidelines, they are often quicker to get to market, and really need personal connections to help them from a grassroots marketing perspective.

btw, I invite you, and all our readers to like us on facebook! http://www.facebook.com/darktonicgames
(shameless indie plug ftw!)

Thanks for writing, Russell!