Becoming a #Gamedev

What Indie Devs Can Learn From Rockstar Games

Even the most humble indie developers sometimes toy with dreams of huge success and popularity. You might genuinely be in the business for the love of games, with your goal merely being to create something you’re passionate about and have people play it without any dreams of grandeur. But even then, the idea of moving on to massive, successful AAA blockbuster is bound to cross your mind at one moment or other.

You might think that tiny, single digit teams working out of their homes instead of an office, and doing so voluntarily, are so vastly and utterly different from an industry giant like Rockstar Games that there is no common ground, however you’d be wrong. Rockstar has long been one of the biggest players of the AAA scene, and this has become ever more apparent with the continued success of Grand Theft Auto V and the hype surrounding the upcoming Red Dead Redemption 2.

GTA by Rockstar Games
GTA is reported to be the 5th-highest grossing gaming franchise, with total sales exceeding 220 million

But what could small to mid-sized indie teams learn from the juggernaut that created GTA 5, which recently broke the 75-million shipped copies mark? When we’re speaking about such a big divide, even some of the fundamentals that go into the development process are different. However, it’s easy to forget that Rockstar didn’t start out as the massive AAA business it is today – in fact, DMA design was, at its conception, much like many indies today.

The resurgence of the indie scene these past few years is often described as a fresh new take on the gaming industry, however it doesn’t differ much from the earlier decades of gaming as a whole. The huge AAA publishers that have morphed into faceless corporate titans have their roots in setups similar to today’s indie studios – they’re just the successful ones who grew over the years.

As an indie developer seeking long-reaching success and eventual expansion, one of your first things to do is build a loyal fanbase. Red Dead Redemption 2 has been available for pre-order ever since the game’s initial announcement last year, and people have been buying it in droves. In fact, Amazon even exhausted it’s initial Playstation 4 pre-order allotment.

Rockstart Games

The game hasn’t gone gold, we haven’t seen a shred of gameplay, and barely know anything about the storyline or anything else. With virtually nothing to go on, people have already invested their money into the title. Why? Brand loyalty. They know that with Rockstar Games as the developer, they won’t be let down. Does this mean that Rockstar has a spotless track record? Hardly, they’ve made some less-popular titles in the past alongside their major franchises. It’s just that the good outweigh the bad, with a few legendary titles peppered in between as well.

Rockstar got to where it is over the course of a decade and the road to success wasn’t always easy to walk. As budding indie developers, you need to be ready to invest emotionally into taking your studio to the next level over and over again. Each time you expand, give yourself some time to celebrate but remember that there is always another milestone ahead of you. Grand Theft Auto 3 was a great success for the time, but Rockstar didn’t pat themselves on the back and left things at that. They pushed on, and today, GTA Online is one of the most-played multiplayer games with over 8 million unique users logging in each week.

Rockstar Games
They’ve made some less-popular titles in the past. They can’t all be winners.

You don’t need to make a massive, sprawling, hyper-realistic game to reach this level either. If you look at what the original GTA was like back when it was released 10 years ago, you’ll note the relative simplicity of it. If you think something that basic couldn’t ever reach mainstream success, we’d like to acquaint you with mobile gaming. But then, immediate overwhelming success isn’t even the goal here, at least if we still take Rockstar as the role model.

You’re likely looking at a longer journey where you build your successes one at a time, each outshining the one before. The 2D GTA games were fairly popular at the time, but not blockbusters. GTA 3 made some major ripples in the industry, and then each subsequent spin-off one-upped the sales record of the one before. GTA 4 ushered in a new era for the series with a grittier take, and finally GTA 5 reinvented the game with industry-leading visuals and multiple protagonists. Each game did have Rockstar’s well-known satire and humor baked in though, not to mention story mode cheats (which are, oddly enough, somewhat of a rarity in modern games).

Rockstar also has a track record of tempting fate and pushing in directions that many would consider perilous. After years of controversies about the violence and sexual content in GTA, including a dozen or so cases where parties attempted to have the game banned, Rockstar went and upped the ante with GTA 5 by including full-frontal nudity in the form of an explicit, interactive lap dance viewable in first-person, as well as a mission involving an interactive torture scene. It also took one of the most under-represented settings in all of gaming, the Wild West, and turned it into an international blockbuster while other publishers only tackled it with minor, download-only titles.

But above all else, Rockstar teaches patience. Indie devs tend to want to get their work out into the world as soon as possible – I know, I’ve been there – however Rockstar built up this empire over the course of a decade. Remember that.


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Dan Richards

I love all types of games - from Indie titles like Braid through to "AAA" such as Grand Theft Auto V. If I don't have a controller in hand, you'll find me either on the golf course or at the beach.

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