Klei Founder: AAA's Loss is Our Gain

Klei Founder: AAA's Loss is Our Gain


Klei Games founder, Jamie Cheng, on the pros and cons of working in the shadow of the AAA games industry.

It's been a cruel year for the AAA games industry. Venerable studios and publishers have folded, and many of those that haven't have been forced to cut staff to stay afloat. The influx of devs into the job market is a boon to smaller studios; Studios like Mark of the Ninja and Shank developer, Klei Games.

"With all the changes and layoffs, we're seeing so many new studios come up that are doing these games without the crutch of hundreds of millions of dollars of marketing..." Klei founder, Jamie Cheng told GamesIndustry International. "I think for sure that the layoffs are fuelling way more development in the small, independent space."

Cheng himself comes from a similar background. Before founding Klei in 2005, he was an AI programmer at now-defunct publisher THQ's Relic Entertainment (Homeworld, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, Company of Heroes). While he's more than happy to snap up freshly laid-off developers, he doesn't want to see the AAA industry disappear entirely.

"I enjoy having the large AAA around because they were hiring and training tons of people, and I can't do that," he continued. "We have 30 people and that seems like a lot in the independent space. I can't go out and train a lot of people in development, and that's what they were doing."

While it may seem easy to dismiss Klei's efforts as "less important" than AAA games by virtue of sales, its worth remembering that every single one of the outfit's games have turned a profit. Yeah, Shank isn't exactly making wild bank, but it's making some money, unlike ... say, Tomb Raider, which is a "disappointment" despite over 3 million sales.

Source: GamesIndustry.biz


There's a whole in the As' industry that Cheng is willing to fill.

Smaller profits look a lot bigger when you aren't paying a team of thousands

As far as I can tell, no one really wants to see the triple-A industry disappear entirely, but it's current form is completely unsustainable. Unfortunately, if the triple-A industry does not change and adapt its business models to be more customer-friendly, support more risk-taking, and significantly reign in these outlandish budget, I'm afraid there will be no choice but for it to entirely disappear. It simply is not possible to have every single game sell 5-6+ million units; the market simply does not support that. There just aren't enough people with sufficient disposable income to support the level of expenditure being demanded by the triple-A industry (6-7 AAA releases per year at $60+ each), nor is the market interested in purchasing ONLY the same few franchise games; otherwise, the viability of indie and small developer games would not exist.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the triple-A industry has run aground due to spiraling costs and blatant mismanagement caused by a lack of understanding of the market and the products. In its current state, it's just doomed.

EDIT: minor edit; it's => its.

I personally haven't played a AAA game in two years.

I guess there *are* some decent experiences out there that I missed, but the games that I did play still more than made up for it.

All AAA's need to do is either have smaller scope or have more time allotted (or both). Expecting annual AAA releases is just absurd with the kind of expectations they put upon them; I can't state this enough, but but if gamers can be patient with the next game, then why can't publishers?

Says the guy who was published by Microsoft...

I was just playing Mark of the Ninja funnily enough. Absolutely fantastic game, love it to bits.

Anyway, triple A is absolutely vital to the success of the gaming industry like it or not. Large studios not only train developers but they also attract more customers to the market, which indirectly fuels smaller studios.

I just wish the publishers wouldn't be such a bunch of dicks all the time, who only care about turning an immediate profit.

All AAA's need to do is either have smaller scope or have more time allotted (or both).

And sometimes its not even the scope, Hitman wasnt as good as it could be because it went all AAA in its ass (its a niche game and no amounts of money being thrown at it will ever change it), a lot of voice acting, a lot of set pieces, basicly a lot of stuff that doesnt have anything to do with Hitman that costs a lot of money.

A Hitman game is actually something that can be somewhat cheap to make if the focus was on the right stuff. The best part of Absolution is the contracts that show that it is actually more fun to have a non-scripted level. Just have a place, add the NPC's and the stuff for them to do (patrol points, magazines to read, places to some a cigarrete, basicly just markers for stuff that can be used in the whole game), add the targets (those can have the more costum scripted stuff) and make sure that there is a lot of interactivity with the level.

Basicly what comes out as being expensive is the AI and the interactivity, the rest is your run of the mill game material.
They probably didnt even needed to create an engine from scratch, Unreal Engine 3 is used a lot so I presume that its rather cheap and even if the game doesnt sell as much at least they didnt wasted much on it and kept the fan base happy.

I kind of get where they were trying to go with Tomb Raider, that can easily be AAA material with a decent demand for it so the budget may have been justified. Hitman however has no excuse.

Its like if Fireaxis went all apeshit with XCOM and its budget and added a huge amount of high quality rendered cutscenes and a shit load of scripted events with a lot of ingame cutscenes and voices of celebreties and then complained that it didnt sold enough to make a profit.

AAA games are like giant whales or elephants. They get stuff done but often in a manner that damages or upsets the environment around them. Indie developers are like parasites, feeding off the AAA companies and enjoying their lesser returns that also require far less effort to acquire.

That's fairly thoughtful analysis there. A lot of smaller software companies in general depend on the bigger companies to train people. Small outfits reap the benefit of the larger groups' work.

That's fairly thoughtful analysis there. A lot of smaller software companies in general depend on the bigger companies to train people. Small outfits reap the benefit of the larger groups' work.

This isn't unique to software industries by any stretch, mind. Pretty much ALL businesses work like this; big companies train workers, then ditch em when the numbers don't look shiny enough, and smaller outfits pick em up from there.

A better example of Klei's contributions to gaming is Mark of the Ninja, which is hands down the best stealth game since the original Thief. Not only that, but it has an actually interesting story with an ambigious ending leaving a lot of people wondering which outcome is the canon ending, to which Cheng has stated "There is no good or bad ending. Only the one you like more."

Says the guy who was published by Microsoft...

The hell does that have to do with anything? Microsoft Studios is just the publisher, and had nothing to do with development. Hell, they're only the publisher because Klei works almost exclusively with the XNA Devkit, which if you license, express lanes your publishing through Microsoft if you want them to publish it.

I'm looking forward to Klei's next release, whatever it may be. I just picked up Mark of the Ninja when it went on sale last week, and it is very slick.


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