The Rise of the Indie AAA game

Written by John Thornewill, CEO & Co-Founder, Zappaty

In 1848 James W. Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in Colorado, California starting the original Gold Rush and resulting in more than 300,000 people heading straight for “them there hills”. As a result, the village of San Francisco leapt from being a small settlement of just 200 to nearly 36,000 residents almost overnight. Following on behind the 49’ers (referring to 1849, the peak year of immigration) was the inevitable coat-tails economy including railroads and naturally manufacturers of picks and shovels.

What does this all have to do with the games industry you may ask? Well, whilst the 49’ers of our industry, the games developers and publishers head north (instead of west this time) towards Scottish Games Week in search of fame and riches, it is the industry’s picks and shovels manufacturers that stand to gain the most from the event.

20 years ago, things were very different. Almost every studio wanting to create games had to build their own tools; from graphics rendering engines through to level design tools and backup methodologies. That all started to change though in 2005 with the very first release of the Unity platform, with its mission to democratize the process of games development.

Fast forward to the arrival of the Asset Store in 2010 and the time of the games “Picks and Shovels” developers had arrived. For the first time, instead of making money from games sales, software engineers had a marketplace to sell their tools and assets for a profit. By 2018, the Asset Store had achieved more than 40 million downloads.

Why is this all important to Scottish Games Week though? The world of software tools is about to go through a major new change with the arrival of widely available procedural generation techniques. Suddenly, it is becoming increasingly possible for the smaller studio to compete directly with the traditional AAA behemoth studio by producing games of incredible scale, complexity, and quality.

So, Unity themselves now listed on the New York Stock Exchange are taking a small cut from games studios, the Asset Store vendors are taking their bit and of course infrastructure tools from the likes of ourselves, Zappaty are generating revenues as well. As time goes on, studios will need to rely on more and more game generation tools and less and less on the creative skills of retained staff.

All is not lost for the creative element of our industry though, not by a long stretch, but things are likely to change over the next few years. AI based engines are increasingly being called upon to create graphics, music, and even narrative story, but those engines need teaching by talented creatives with the vision to adopt their ways of working.

A great example of the use of AI based procedural tools comes from Hello Game and No Man’s Sky. With a team of just 26 staff, they have created an entire universe of diverse planets and experiences that simply couldn’t have been hand-built even with thousands of creative staff. It will be interesting to see how Bethesda’s Starfield compares given that initial gameplay demonstrations look quite similar, except Bethesda have over 400 staff. In the end, they may prove to be vastly different
games, but Bethesda have admitted that they themselves are using elements of procedural generation as well in Starfield.

So how does Zappaty fit into all of this? Amongst the emerging techniques for creating games, whether through traditional or cutting-edge procedural methods, is the one consistent fact that games are getting bigger and bigger. Even small development teams need to be able to collaborate and backup projects quickly and simply. However, many traditional tools such as GitHub are struggling to match the scale of these new games and as developers of VR games and experiences in the past, we certainly struggled to find tools that could handle the scale of our procedurally generated content.

Given this issue, in 2020 we took things into our own hands and created a simple backup and collaboration toolkit to allow us to keep our Unity Projects safe and secure in the Cloud. Given our success using this internally, we subsequently realised that if we had a need for such things, other development teams would too. And we launched the first release of the tool Zappaty Solo in June 2022.

So, are we producing Procedural Generation toolkits as well? Not yet, although as we have been generating VR experiences using such techniques for years, so you shouldn’t put it past us. Perhaps we’ll publish a few of our own games first and see what the reaction is. One thing we do know is that we certainly develop a lot quicker using Zappaty , and we invite you to join us by using discount code SGW2022.

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