Video games today come in many way shapes and forms. From the short and sweet indie titles to large scale Battle Royale games, video games have evolved quite rapidly in the last 15 years. And one of the products of this evolution is the term AAA Gaming. AAA games span across multiple genres and, of course, attract large audiences. But with rising game development costs and little to no margin for error, these games do evoke a sense of ‘high risk equals high reward’. And probably that is why there has been a notion, for years now, that AAA games are dying. But take a closer look and that seems to be very far from the truth.
To understand this better we need to look at what does a AAA game mean and go to its roots. Back in the PS1/PS2 days, videogames were just video games. Regardless of the length of the game, or the scope of it or how cinematic or silly it looked, they were just games sold on discs. This meant that Parappa the rapper would be looked at the same way as say, Shadow of the Colossus (PS2). Granted they are completely different games in terms of genre, scope and almost everything else, but they were still games. Nothing distinguished them based on their status. But put out two games of similar scope and scale today and one will be AAA production, possible only made by a large studio. So how did this begin? The answer lies within the 7th generation of consoles, where the industry shifted from SD to HD, thus embracing new standards in quality and gameplay in games. This also meant a huge increase in the cost of production for these games. Unfortunately, this eventually led to the end of most mid-tier studios and publishers who had had 2 or more games that had failed in this generation. And the ones who survived keep making big budget games today. Also, during this transition was the rise of indie games. The kind of games made by teams of a few people who felt fresh took a lot of creative risks and resonated with the audience. So, this helped draw a line between the two sides of the industry and term AAA gaming started been thrown in more than ever for the ones made by the big studios.
Naturally, big budget means big risks and it also meant that most companies that put these games out have investors to answer for. This meant that the AAA companies had very little room for error and had to come with creative ways to keep their companies afloat. Too many studios who stuck to the traditional way of making and selling games had to shut their doors during the PS3/360 era. Enter the idea of DLC. Thanks to the capabilities of the 7th gen consoles and the internet infrastructure at the time, studios could now release optional post-launch content for the users to buy. We all know the rest though. This evolved into micro-transactions which evolved into loot boxes, which of course resulted in some very nasty controversies. Even games as recent as Mortal Kombat 11, a game in which you can feel the amount of love and care put into making it, has fallen prey to such practices. Perhaps this, more than anything, is what has led people to believe that these sorts of games are dying. That the risk is too high for companies and the interest for these game within the audience is fading, and this becomes a tough proposition in order to maintain sustainability and keep the companies afloat. And both statements are true to some degree. And if we look at the situation from that perspective, the future does look bleak.
The ups and downs that followed big budget games throughout 7th and 8th generation of consoles is mind-boggling and is something for the history books. But if corporations are good at one thing, they are at taking notes. Although not many may change their practices, some of them are looking at ways in which games are not affected by design to accommodate microtransactions and loot boxes. To see a game like Borderlands 3, a game which can be perfect to make a boatload of money using micro-transactions, be announced with the quotes “There will be no micro-transaction or loot boxes” is very encouraging. Then there are companies like Sony, who have excelled in creating amazing big budget games and making that a successful business model, while steering clear from what is considered questionable business practices. There is no doubt that Sony is only going to double down on these games for their next console. This then points towards Microsoft who have had quite the lesson on the importance of good games and have invested heavily in creating multiple teams of talented individuals who will all be working on exclusive games for the next Xbox. Not to forget the new players like Google and Amazon’s inevitable entry into the market. All of these companies, at least Google out of the two, for now, are investing in studios to make games for their platforms. And the focus for all companies is to put out better games than their competitors.
Above all, us gamers do love our big budget games when they are done right and do not try to nickel and dime us. All of this only points to a better future for AAA games. And it will be exciting to see where the industry is headed in the next generation. Here’s hoping that it’s in the right direction.