Making the AAA Title: Letters from the Trenches


Dan Arey gave a talk at GDC 2005 on developing AAA games, and interviewed several designers for it. The actual interview was quite long, and I skipped many of the questions… but here’s the answers to the ones that I did respond to. You can comment here on the blog if you like.


This section was a multiple choice segment, with the opportunity to add in your own comments.

What element of gameplay is the most vital in your games? (If you had to choose your top priority.)
Online connectivity.

Outside of gameplay, the most important element in a game? (If you had to choose one.)
Graphics and Production Design, even if I wish it weren’t so!

In your opinion, what level of transparency should the Game Hero have?
It really depends on the game, doesn’t it?

Street versus Geek? Traditional sci-fi, adventure titles versus hip, pop culture, street games. Where does the mass market lie?
Both will be equally balanced in the coming years. I say this keeping in mind that geek culture has been on the rise. Look at the prevalence of anime, for example.

Realism versus Fantasy. Which market segment is the largest, and where will it go in the next generation?
Grounded in reality but with a fantasy twist. There’s always a fantasy twist to things, even if it’s just wish-fulfillment. Even the Tom Clancy games are fantastical in many ways.

In your opinion, where is the sweet spot in game graphics and production design in the future?

Where do you see the future of game animation?
I’m gonna hold out for a future based on simulation and physics, but with hefty doses of both trad and mocap.

Expectation for the average budget of next generation AAA titles?
Over $30m, easy.

Expectation for the average AAA team size next generation?
Around 120 people. Aren’t we here already?

Importance of Online in the future of games?
Vital. It’s going to take over in various ways… look at Asia for cues.

Excluding sports, which game genre do you see having the biggest future in the marketplace?
I’m torn, and cannot give an easy answer.

Violence in Games today.
A wider issue we need to work on. We’re not thoughtful about it, basically.

How important is bringing in fresh outside elements into gaming (whether it be new art, other mediums of expression, culture, celebrities) to generate new gaming ideas and experiences?
Vital. Or else, our market will cap.

With hardware technology and middleware converging, how important will content be in providing the differentiating factor in the next generation of games?
Content will be King! Isn’t it always?

In your opinion, what constitutes a AAA game title? What are the similarities you see in the top selling titles over the last year? Are there any common threads of excellence?

The common definition of a AAA title seems to revolve around marketing and around scope. You don’t hear of a AAA puzzle game, even though Bejeweled had great production values, addicting gameplay, and massive commercial success. Instead, AAA seems only to be applied to games with a certain scope, a certain level of graphical polish, and a certain marketing budget and hype factor. Would Lemmings be considered a AAA title if it were created today? I suspect the answer is no. Would Tetris? Definitely not.

My personal definition of a AAA title is driven by these factors even if I don’t want it to be. It’s the equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster, basically–and much as we would like to think that it means a great game, it doesn’t necessarily mean that.

I’d like to think that the industry would consider something like WarioWare or Katamari Damacy to be AAA titles because of innovation, but I don’t think that’s the case…

How do you spur creativity on within your team? Have you found specific approaches that have helped in thinking outside the old “gameplay” box? What outside sources have proven useful? When is “creativity” too much or a dirty word?

I hope none of the teams will take this as a knock. 🙂 But basically, I think being creative is hard for game teams because of the circumstances they are placed in. We’re typically operating with tight deadlines and under a lot of pressure. The budgets drive towards conservatism, and the result is that the “creative” solution can be regarded as high-risk and undesirable. Many times I have heard the word “creative” treated as a dirty word instead!

The things that most spur creativity are new experiences, and the luxury of time. Sometimes brilliant solutions leap out at you under pressure, but usually, you need time to explore possibilities. I favor reading widely, personally.

Creativity is only a dirty word when money trumps it. This is most of the time.

How important is story and character in games today? How do you feel a game story is different than in movies or other media? Gameplay versus Story and Characters – what is the balance? Do you see a time in games when the gameplay elements become such a constant that concept and content will become the most important?

By and large, story in games is grafted on. A lot of games are actually stories with little snippets of gameplay interspersed in them. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think it’s important that we think of ourselves as not making games, but interactive entertainment experiences (or else call the bits of gameplay something else, just to keep ’em separate). For one, it would help improve the quality of the stories, which in most games is pretty lame.

As a result of this approach, game stories aren’t really all that different from badly written movies or novels. Yes, they need to have their moments where the gameplay can be inserted, but that’s no excuse. Most games outside of RPGs (and not even many of those) are not calling for anything more complex than a traditional linear story.

If you start thinking of games that way, then the question of story versus characters becomes silly–good writing does both, by definition.

I hope to God that we do NOT end up with a time when the gameplay elements are stock set pieces. It’s bad enough right now. The place where games need to innovate is not on story. They need to innovate on gameplay. On story, we just need to catch up and take it seriously, like the rest of the world does.

How important is working with Hollywood talent these days? How over hyped or vital is this cooperation for the future of the mass market? Is there a Hollywood star hip factor games are still searching for?

Hollywood talent brings an understanding of the traditional techniques of other media. That’s a good thing.

Long term, though, we need to have that mastery within our industry, not borrow it. Hollywood teaches itself architecture, rather than having an architect contractor on every set build. Hollywood has its own writers, and doesn’t just ask the print writing community to do it for them. Hollywood has its own costume designers, rather than asking fashion houses to do it for them. Hollywood teaches itself these skills because Hollywood knows that its medium is an amalgam of multiple media.

Video games are the same way. We need those skills in-house. Hollywood may give us a leg up, but we should not become dependent on them. I think the industry is, and always has been, a bit star-struck. The closer you get to Hollywood, though, the more you realize they are just like people everywhere.

Actors are not Hollywood; they are actors. They do theater and Broadway and Madison Avenue too. There are a few, and will be more, actors who are videogame specialists, just as there are voice actors who are cartoon specialists.

License versus original IP? Does it affect a game’s potential or market? What decisions in this regard did you make for your game? If your product had a license attached, what were the challenges in working with the outside owner of the property. Where there any approval challenges?

Licensed IP is a huge leg up for marketing. It’s a mixed blessing for design. And I suspect it’s a long-term detriment for a company. Long-term, the industry needs to build up its own stable of IPs, rather than borrowing creative content from other industries.

Stylized versus Reality – Is it a religious argument, or is does this matter for the next generation? Do you feel we can make reality a style?

It will always matter–this is not a next-generation question, it’s an old one. Yes, it’s religious to a degree (though now science is creeping in with stuff like the Uncanny Valley). We can make reality a style, but reality is an expensive style, is what this is teaching us.

What we cannot do is fall into the trap of thinking that reality is the only style.

At the AAA level, budgets have become so high that a game needs to be a top hit in its category to earn back and be a financial success. How important are high cost production values these days? How do you mitigate risk? How can smaller developers compete? Can there be a mechanism possible for a lower budget “indie movie” category of games?

If we had the answers to all this, most of the game industry’s problems would vanish.

The high cost of production values is everywhere, and it’s pernicious. I happen to feel confident that it will always be with us–by the nature of our medium, there won’t be a “good enough” for a very very long time–not until we have simulation to a level that is as granular as the universe.

We have to get SMARTER about how we make things. That means more simulating and less scripting.

We mitigate risk by prototyping early. That’s about all we CAN do right now.

The result at the moment is that smaller developers cannot easily compete, and that’s very bad for the industry.

When working to create addicting gameplay, how do you distill down the “fun factor?” What process have you found to be the best way to shape it? (Rapid prototyping, massive play testing, outside focus testing, luck, other processes, all of the above?)

Play it yourself, iterate, watch others play it without opening your mouth and ruining the test, iterate, rinse, repeat.

Players know your game far better than you do. Never forget that. They may not be able to explain what they know, but their actions will tell you.

What are the top five DON’T DO’s (No No’s) and DO’s during production?


  1. Build massive design documents. You won’t use them anyway.
  2. Let the vision for the game become splintered amongst multiple people who disagree.
  3. Build tons of tech or assets without having proven basic game play.


  1. Know exactly what you are expected to deliver–something conservative, something risky, something AAA or something merely sufficient.
  2. Play your game yourself, and understand the people who want to play it.
  3. Boil down the central theme of your game into a sentence or two so you can mutter it to yourself every time you make a decision.
  4. Prototype and iterate.

A game development team is a vast array of talents, procedures, and dependencies. How does your team manage this complex pipeline? Director approach (single person walking elements through the production pipeline?) Management tiers (Producer to department Leads to Senior team members.) A combination of the above? Is there one person who holds the lion’s share of the game vision and decision making power? Briefly, what works best for you?

We generally use the management tiers approach. Ideally, there’s a core director, but there are so many moving parts that really, the director has to share authority.

What are the biggest issues as a team grows in size? How will the next-generation’s super-sized teams present a challenge? Have you already found your logistical upper limit? How big is too big? The biggest risk, to my mind, is fragmenting the game vision. We don’t really invest the visionary in charge of games with the same overwhelming authority as we do the director of a movie. With good reason, usually. But the downside is that shared authority over the vision can rapidly cause the project to spin out of control. Someone has to enforce what the game is about.

This issue crops up in code, in art, in design, in content, everywhere. The way to combat it is to reduce the scope for creativity on the part of individual team members.

A better way is to somehow develop our processes and tools so that teams don’t need to grow as much. I do believe that this is possible.

Team Communication. Everyone talks about it…everyone “says” it’s important, but what is the best approach to keeping the team talking and working toward a common vision? How important is the much vaulted Game Design Document? (What about Wiki’s, work Blogs, art walls, meetings etc.)

Big game design documents are mostly a waste of time. Specs are useful, pie in the sky 400 page wishlists, not so much. There’s little reason why specs need to be as verbose as design documents usually are. Big documents are hard to update, they’re hard to extract a spec from, they’re mostly for pleasing publishers.

Wikis can be useful if you have a team culture of using them. If not, then they are a waste of time. Really, it’s about what keeps the communication flowing for your team. If that’s IRC, then use IRC. If it’s IM, then use IM. If it’s email, use email. If it’s walking from office to offer every half hour, then do that.

Can a computer make you cry? Trip Hawkins asked that question 20 years ago. How has the evolution of games allowed for more engaging, emotional involvement in the experience? How did you use those advancements of the art and science in your game(s)? Do we still have a long way to go? Where do you see the future heading?

Computers make people cry all the time. Haven’t you ever lost something to a hard drive crash?

Seriously, though, my impression is that we are leaning on the crutches of other media for our emotional involvement. Final Fantasy is not emotionally compelling because of the mechanics of combat.

Interactive entertainment as a whole needs to work on getting all the elements up to their highest level. Right now, in a lot of ways, game play is the red-headed stepchild of the bunch.

How do you see exploding budgets affecting games in the future? Where do you see the entire industry heading in 5-10 years, and what are the trends that will affect all of us? What pitfalls must the industry avoid? What are the biggest opportunities for everyone as the future entertainment medium of choice? What will be the single biggest challenge for developers during the next platform generation?

Aren’t all of these the same question? 🙂

Crazy levels of cost–in dollars, in time, in emotional investment because of the preceding two. It’s going to make us risk-averse and more driven by blockbuster economics. It will also lead to consolidation in the industry.

We badly need to develop an indie scene–and I mean a scene that can generate hit games that are of some size, and get them distributed, not a scene that only has the resources to make puzzle games. I love puzzle games, but what we need is an indie scene that can make Half-Life 2 and surprise us all.

It’s also going to take a level of coordination we’re not used to. In other creative fields, this is accomplished by giving massive authority to a central visionary. I don’t know if we’ll be willing to do that as an industry. It also means reducing a lot of the rank and file developers to cogs, and that will not go over well given the industry culture.

What would you tell other developer’s out there is the best strategy of success for moving into the AAA level?

I have no idea. I landed there by sheer luck of the draw.

How important will ONLINE be to the future of games?

Most standalone game developers will be driven towards online distribution and server-side authentication schemes by piracy and by the urge to escape publishers. In that sense, it’ll be critical.

Beyond that, I think that the value-add of connectivity will likely permeate pretty much all sorts of games, even if they are not what we think of as online. Let’s face it, a large portion of our audience already “plays” our games online by checking There’s no reason why that shouldn’t be part of the game experience itself. Being able to download ghost tracks for racing games so you can try to master them, comparing strategies in Ghost Recon, whatever.

For better or worse, our audience is already online and tribal in nature. We may as well recognize that the games will follow that audience.

What was your favorite game from 2004? Are there any development teams catching your attention?

Probably Katamari Damacy.

Your favorite game(s) of all time?


If budget were NOT AN ISSUE, what type of game or game concept would you like to make or see made?

It’s not so much about the budget, as it is about profitability. I have a lot of games I’d like to make that I suspect would not be profitable.

I’d like to make a story-based game where you play an orphaned wolf cub.
I’d like to make an online game of Galactic Empire politics.
I’d like to make the romance novel game from last year’s Love Story challenge.

What type of game or high concept have you seen so much of that you’d absolutely love to go to your grave never having to see or play it again?

Level-and-class based hack ‘n’ slash fantasy MMO.

Fantasy Career. Please complete. If I hadn’t become a game developer, I probably would have been a…..

A multimedia empire as a musician, novelist, comic book author, screenwriter, film director, and all-around nice guy?

Er, probably I would have ended up teaching.

When I’m not playing games, I’d rather be…

Reading a book.

The number of the universe. Don’t Panic! We’re almost through. What’s the best/coolest/most fun use you’ve ever found for a CD/DVD disc? (other than using in a console or PC. e.g. Melting in a microwave, signaling people, skipping on water, shaving mirror. Here’s your chance to show off your creativity 😉

Xmas tree ornament.

Your favorite wines/spirits? (You’ve earned it!)

I lived in the Caribbean for a while, so I enjoy rum-based drinks. Black Russians are good too.

You can comment here on the blog if you like.