To say that making big games like Destiny is “difficult” is kind of like declaring the Grand Canyon is “deep,” so it’s always interesting to hear new insights from people who have been in the trenches.
Ex-Bungie developers Jaime Griesemer and Marty O’Donnell, who have worked on Halo and Destiny, gave some pretty fascinating quotes on the differences between AAA and indie development to no-longer-pornographic magazine Playboy in a long interview published this week. Griesemer and O’Donnell now work for the independent studio Highwire Games, where they’re developing a VR game called Golem, but before that, both men spent many years in the world of big budgets and 500-person studios.
So just what makes AAA development so tough? Often it’s the same issues that infect any big offices in any field: politics and bureaucracy. You should really read the whole Playboy interview—it’s great!—but here are some key excerpts.
On office politics:
JAIME: Man, so much of it is size. I think if you put a bunch of junior guys in a room, they probably would blunder into some mistakes that a more experienced team wouldn’t, but I don’t think they would spend nearly as much time politicking. It just requires a certain number of other people around for that to be effective. You know, I’m not going to go passive-aggressively garner support behind your back because there’s only one other guy. [laughs]
I think you could set up a situation where each of those three people looks at the other two as an obstacle to their success—like they’re the people that can undermine me and veto me and counteract me. It’s just a disaster—at that point you should just declare somebody the ruler. Whereas in our situation it’s more like these are the two guys that are going to keep me from screwing up so bad that the company goes under.
On studio size and work pipelines:
JAIME: It’s not just a matter of knowing everybody’s names. It’s really easy to get into a situation we call feeding the beast, where there’s this enormous production team that isn’t allowed or isn’t capable of making progress on their own, so creative directors are always just trying to generate something for those guys to do. And you come in every day and you’re like, OK, there’s a line of like seven people waiting for me to tell them what to do, I guess I will just—as fast as I can—make something up. And that’s crisis mode.
Now we’re planned well in advance of what our production is capable of doing so we’re actually sort of having a problem the other way, like we have more plans than we can take action on. So we’re trying to increase the size of the team a little bit to get it more balanced. But yeah, I don’t want to ever put myself in the position where I’m just kind of making it up as I go along, because otherwise we’re paying people to sit around and twiddle their thumbs—or worse, talk shit about the direction of the game and the team.
And on auteurs:
JAIME: I’ll be honest. I think the auteur version of game development works really well if you’re making a game by yourself. And actually a lot of those guys got started that way. You know, the first Metal Gear was—I think the team was like 10 people. I think once you get to bigger teams, “auteur” almost always means ‘I’m not disciplined enough to plan ahead,’ so I just have to react to everything and tell you I don’t like it. And a lot of those games end up going way over-budget and way under-delivering or just being a kind of a disorganized mess—
MARTY: You realize you just said David Cage and [BioShock creator] Ken Levine—[laughs]
JAIME: I’m just saying that model. I’m not calling out any name individually.
MARTY: OK, good. [laughs]
JAIME: And also, I think in those two guys’ case, I think it’s probably more of the press latching onto one person and sort of attributing all of the decisions to them rather than them actually walking into a room and saying, ‘Today we do this!’ That kind of auteur almost never gets to make a second game because their first game just doesn’t go anywhere.
I think the ideal is having a creative director with a vision so that everybody’s kind of going in the same direction, but has a lot of kind of flexibility so that everybody can get behind the idea and push it in a direction they like to. Like, I’m not going to make every decision about every color palette for every environment.
Seriously, go read the whole interview. It’s full of interesting insights—and those of us who love big games should do our best to stay informed about how tough it can be to make them.