What exactly does a AAA game mean?
We've all heard it before, and with each new generation of gaming we all want to play them, but what exactly are they? Ask anyone and you are likely to get various answers.
Some may argue they are based on budgets, some may suggest they are based on the amount of marketing they get. While others can claim it's a thresh-hold of how well they sell. Could it possibly be a combination of all three and maybe more?
What I can offer some insight is a guideline that was used in home video and game rentals. That's because I used to be a wholesaler. A store owner or manager would put in their order of monthly releases and we would offer a catalog of everything that was coming out. So as a store manager you would have a certain budget and place your order focused on key titles and try and at least cover the main ones. As far as games go they were often rated on either how well known the titles are or who was publishing the games. A game like Madden for example would be rated a AA title. Sure one can argue rentals might differ than what consumers will buy but it's still a rough guideline. Either way Madden was popular and still is. Back in the PS2 days one could say it was even a system seller but it still didn't reach the pinnacle of AAA status. Those games would be something like Call of Duty last generation or a Mario title or Halo and Gran Turismo. Well known titles that can shift hardware and generate lots of volume.
This is long before Indie games became popular like they are now and mobile gaming. Is Angry Birds and MineCraft AAA titles? Tough to say because those games don't really get rented out. In fact rental as we know is has kind of faded away. Services like Playstation Now are soon going to be the next wave of renting games. If we want to just talk about sales there are hardly any that reach more consumers.
AAA could be linked to budgets. The more a developer spends the more likely they will also spend on marketing. What about expensive titles that don't sell well, are they classified as AAA games? Well when you are placing your order how well they sell is still unknown at that point. What about a game like Demon's Souls, was that game a AAA title? After playing it I would say so but that isn't exactly AAA material. It didn't have a huge budget, it didn't have much in the way of marketing. In fact most of the marketing was free, it's called word of mouth. In fact rental stores could not keep the title in stock. The retailers were caught off guard. It became a hit and was hard to find. What that game also did do was create the basis for the next game to be a AAA title, or at least a A title. Thus Dark Souls. The game became multiplatform and likely had a larger budget and better marketing. Didn't mean it was a better game than Demon's Souls.
There is no certain formula for a AAA game sorry to say but I think we can all agree certain games meet this criteria. Grand Theft Auto I don't think anyone would say isn't. Those games have it all. Big budgets, huge marketing, top reviews, able to sell hardware, and sell over 10 million units at a time. Yes, even reviews can impact a AAA games status.
The size of the studio and the budgets are all over the place with how games are made and released. A game like No Man's Sky is garnering lots of attention, to some that game reaches AAA standards while others see it as a small development team with grand ideas that we hope will succeed.
In the end the whole AAA status also hurts the industry. Instead of creating games based on the enjoyment of a creative process it's become more of a business. It's why many popular names have decided to go independent. Either it's the pressure to deliver, the time constraints given or the limited amount of freedom that often stifles innovation and new ideas. Plus these big budgeted titles often overshadow other games that might be good games but don't get the exposure. It can also sink a company.
I still think there is a place for AAA games and just like most people I too want them to stick around. They are kind of the go to titles we talk about when discussing a game system. What I find interesting is how we categorize games. Do we call some games AA? I rarely ever hear that term. Same with A titles. Instead it's become basically mobile, handheld, indie, and AAA. Some of these Kickstarter programs have certainly woke up a few of the big publishers out there. Perhaps the whole idea of AAA will one day go away. Once that happens maybe the pressure that goes along with it will also go away and we can just get back to making great games.