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What Are AAA Games? A Guide To Unofficial Terminology

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There have been thousands of games that were released in recent decades, and a lot of them were loved by many gamers. There are games that reached a great milestone in terms of sales and ratings, and there are some that were considered a failure because not many gamers liked them.

AAA or Triple-A games are video games produced or developed by a major publisher, which allocated a huge budget for both development and marketing. The term is by no means an official classification but generally, a ‘triple-A game’ is equivalent to the term ‘blockbuster movie’. The term came into existence in the 90s and since then it has been incorporated into the gamer slang.

Want to read more about gamer language? Check out this helpful post I wrote!

Are other games referred to as AA, A, B games?

Some people refer to games as AAA, AA, A, or B, or even C and beyond. But there’s really no standard baseline to this and most of the results will only base on personal preference. With this, I could safely consider only two types on this category which are ‘AAA games’ and ‘non-AAA games’.

It’s really difficult to say that this particular game is an AA, when other people would say it’s just a B.

What are the most successful AAA games?

One of the main reasons why there’s still no guideline in terms of categorizing a game as AAA or non-AAA is that games are continually innovating, and what’s an AAA this year may not be an AAA anymore in the next few years.

Examples of these are Counter-Strike and HalfLife which were considered AAAs during their reign in the late 90s and in the first few years of the 2nd millennia. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (the latest CS) was not on the list of AAA games even when it was first released a few years ago.

Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege

As of 2018, here are some of the most successful triple AAA games based on their total earnings. (source)

  • FIFA 18, Electronic Arts – $790 million
  • Grand Theft Auto V, Take-Two Interactive – $628 million
  • Red Dead Redemption 2, Take-Two Interactive – $516 million
  • Monster Hunter: World, Capcom – $467 million
  • Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege, Ubisoft – $440 million

There are more games that actually earned more than what these games on the list have earned, but they are not considered as triple-A games mainly because the developer/publisher didn’t have a large budget. Some of the non-AAA games that really nailed it in terms of profit are:

  • Fortnite, Epic Games – $2.4 billion
  • PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Bluehole – $1.028 billion
  • Dungeon Fighter Online, Nexon – $1.5 billion
  • League of Legends, Riot Games, Tencent – $1.4 billion
  • Pokemon GO, Niantic – $1.3 billion
  • Crossfire, Neowiz Games – $1.3 billion

What is the typical budget?

Battlefield V – ‘Nordlys’ story mode

Developing a video game is no joke. You will need to hire different teams of experts to develop vital parts of the game. Usually, one team will be designated for the content and the storyline, the programming team that will write the code of all necessary in-game features such as its physics, rendering, and many more.

One team will also handle the graphics quality (including actors and actresses) and a team that will optimize it depending on which platform the game will be released. The audio features are important as well and the QA team that will test the game for bugs and report it to the developers for them to be fixed.

It’s estimated that a triple AAA game will cost about $60 million USD or more to be developed, and as you can see, only a major distributor/developers would definitely be able to afford this one. Distributors and developers such as Capcom, Ubisoft, Rockstar Games, Insomniac, Epic Games, and many more are known for developing modern triple AAA games. (source)

Here are some example budgets:

  • Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 – $200 million (production, marketing, and launch)
  • Battlefield 3 – $2.75 million on Facebook ads only
  • God of War III – $44 million on developmen

How many people usually work on a triple A game?

Each distributor has their own set of developers working on a certain game. It doesn’t mean that if Capcom created Monster Hunter World, they were only working on Monster Hunter World during that time frame.

They have different teams working on different games, and each game has their own sub-teams to work on other tasks to develop the game. It’s estimated that for each team working on a game, there will be about 50-200 employees and 20% of this are programmers.

God of War 4

It’s also common for a successful game to fund other games created by the same distributor, regardless of whether the successful game is a triple AAA game or not. It’s also very common for a major distributor to produce both AAA games and non-AAA games at the same time. Like in the case of Capcom; they had released Monster Hunter World, Devil May Cry 5, and Resident Evil 2: Remake – all of which are triple AAA games.

There were rumors that Resident Evil 2: Remake was made possible because of Monster Hunter World they were able to fund it properly. Devil May Cry 5, however, seems to have been falling short of profit and had sold 2 million copies only so far. Monster Hunter World had sold 12 million copies and earned Capcom about $467 million USD.

Take note that despite these massive profits, Capcom were also earning huge profit from their non-AAA titles such as Megaman 11 in the background. Capcom on their 2018 report disclosed that their company has about 2,000 employees in total, and other distributors have about the same total number of employees as well.

How long does it take to finish an AAA game?

Knowing the average number of employees working for a major game publisher might give you a misconception that a triple-A game can be developed in a matter of days. Unfortunately this is really not the case. Despite having an average of 50 to 200 people working for a single AAA title, it would still take months or even years to develop such project depending on the genre and scale of the game.

Tomb Raider

It’s estimated that non-triple-A titles with a strong reputation in the gaming industry take about 3-6 months to be developed, but an average number of triple-A titles released in the past years took about 2 to 3 years.

That seems like a long time and I’m sure you have seen a lot of whiners online complaining about why it’s taking so much time to release their favorite triple-A title. Well, most employees working on a developing a game, whether he’s a tester or a programmer, usually work more than 8 hours a day, especially in Japan.

Some game testers working in Japan would spend 16 hours a day testing the same game over and over again looking for bugs. Despite their hard work, some bugs still escape at game release.

This information should give you an idea about how difficult it is to develop a game. While 2-3 years seems generous, some game genres can even take more than 6 years to develop. God of War (2018), for example, took about 4 years to finish.

The disadvantages of developing tripleA games

While it’s very inspiring to see the earnings of the successful triple-A titles that we play, there are actually a lot of disadvantages that may arise in developing one. This job is more of a gamble, betting not just a huge sum of money, but also hard work and precious time.

As I mentioned above, it takes time, dedication, hard work, and a huge amount of money to develop an AAA title and you can’t even be sure if gamers worldwide will like it or not.

Grand Theft Auto V

Aside from beating the odds through a gamble, triple-A games are also very difficult to optimize especially for the PC. This is why some PC versions of games will always come late because optimizing a game for it is a very difficult job. AAA titles are VERY demanding to the hardware, and let’s face it, the PC components aren’t exactly cheap.

And let me tell you this – gamers are demanding. If you can’t create something that will entertain them, then your game will be in serious trouble – and this happens all the time, regardless if it comes from a major publisher or not.

And this is where the issue would arise: even if your triple-A title would only cost a dollar per copy…if the users can’t even boot the game because their computer can’t handle the load, then no one will be able to play your game. With that, you will need to make sure that your game will run on an average rig but at the same time keep the quality for it to be categorized as an AAA title.

Another disadvantage that you need to battle against is the risk for piracy and your battle against cybercriminals. Yes, all of the developers all over the world fight against these people to reduce or eliminate the risk of their games to be hacked or pirated (crack version). And unfortunately, most of them always lose.

Do triple A games guarantee quality?

Monster Hunter: World

The developers will always try to guarantee the quality of their triple-A titles. They spent a lot of money, effort, and time to create it so they will always do what they can to make it a success. However, this is not always the case when the game is shipped to the consumers.

There are some triple-A games that didn’t end up well simply because the users didn’t like them. So it’s a case by case basis, and gamers would usually base the failure on the overall gameplay and the storyline of the game.

Sometimes the developers focus too much on the graphics quality that they end up slacking on the gameplay mechanics and the storyline, making the game fail in terms of the overall quality.

Are there AAA games that flopped?

Fallout 76

In relation to the above information, there are actually a number of AAA titles that completely flopped. These games were considered to be a complete failure, and many critics and players alike ridiculed the developers who created these games.

Sometimes the games get over-hyped and while they may have the potential to be amazing, they leave gamers with utter disappointment for one reason or another. There are many reasons that games can flop completely – an incomplete game that requires paid DLCs to make it “complete”, pay-to-win microtransactions, bugs and glitches, lack of cohesive story and more.

Here are some of the games that have totally flopped over at Metacritic. (source)

  • Mass Effect: Andromeda – 71 meta score (4.9 user score)
  • Anthem – 59 meta score (4.1 user score)
  • Star Wars Battlefront II – 65 meta score (1.1 user score)
  • Fallout 76 – 52 meta score (2.7 user score)
  • Duke Nukem Forever – 49 meta score (4.5 user score)
  • Street Fighter V – 74 meta score (3.1 user score)

Of course, there are people who have enjoyed the above-mentioned games but I just had to include them for the relatively high numbers of negative reviews.

What are indie games? How do they differ?

Aporia

On the other hand, indie games (from the word independent) are being developed by individual companies, usually a small team of developers and programmers. If a triple-A title is being developed by a major game publisher working on different games at a time, an indie game is being developed by a smaller company working only on that particular game.

With that information, indie games can be classified as a game that is being developed with a lower budget than triple-A titles. It’s also common to see an indie game being developed by one creator, as there are various tools and software now to create games by just yourself. Usually, these are mainstreamed tools provided by companies that publish games, like iTunes and Google Play.

Can indie video games compete with AAA titles?

My castle in Minecraft

Though with a tighter budget, indie games can still compete against triple-A games. As a matter of fact, there are more indie game players in the world than triple-A game players. How is it possible? I have mentioned above that an AAA game would cost a lot to play in terms of having the right hardware to run it – and this is where indie games usually kick in.

An indie game is usually being developed using different gaming software than the production companies of AAA games. The reach of indie game developers is wider because indie games are not that demanding to the hardware, and that the smartphone you are holding right now will definitely be able to run most of the indie games in the market nowadays.

The most successful indie game without a doubt is Minecraft. The small company behind Minecraft had sold 54 million copies before the game was sold to Microsoft for a staggering $2.5 billion USD.

Conclusion

Developing a game is somewhat similar to playing a game – you need to have the passion to attain your goals. Whatever you are working on, it’s not always the budget and the number of people you are working with that will define your success – but it is always your determination and perseverance.

As a gamer who has played triple-A games, indie games and everything in between, I found out that it’s not the classification that matters. Indie games can be as good (or even better) as AAA games and that big marketing and production budgets don’t necessarily mean a quality game.

A game with great graphics quality can stand out but it’s not the only feature which a successful game is measured by. So whether you are a gamer who can’t afford a good rig for triple-A titles or a developer who can’t afford to fund a development of a triple-A title – always remember that there is always an alternative for everything, and that alternative might just be the best even if you compare it to more expensive choices.

If you wanna see some of my favorite AAA (and non-AAA) video games, do check out my recommended section!


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