Video games are big business. From its humble beginnings in the 70’s and 80’s the industry has ballooned to the point where the next ‘big’ hit can take years to develop, employ hundreds if not thousands of people and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to bring to completion. This has given rise to an industry that relies on these ‘AAA’ titles to keep gamers focused on the next big release on the horizon as well as to mobilize a huge amount of hype for what is essentially just one game out of thousands. And while gamers have always looked forward to the ‘next big thing’ the massive marketing muscle, high sale price and pervasive presence of these ‘AAA’ are undermining the very industry they aim to support.
But before we really get into it, let’s define what exactly is a ‘AAA’ game. Basically these are the games that get gamers motivated to play the ‘next big thing.’ These typically come from major publishers such as Square Enix, Activision and EA, are tied to major franchises and release during the ‘peak’ time of the year for major game releases (usually Spring and Fall). The production values are typically sky-high with graphics that border on photo-realism and soundtracks crafted by orchestras filled with professional musicians. The are games that are supported for a long time after launch with dedicated servers, post launch DLC and content updates and finally supplemented by Game of the Year Editions in order for a final, discount laden push to consumers. Essentially, ‘AAA’ games are gaming’s version of a blockbuster movie.
The problem lies with the fact that, unlike movies, only a small subset of video game publishers can afford to constantly roll out massive hits and support these games. Currently (outside of the big three) you can probably count on one hand the amount of major publishers in the gaming industry and their games tend to dominate the headlines and push aside all but the most creative and innovative of smaller games. This has led to a serious glut of quality ‘mid-tier’ games that used to be so prevalent in the industry before the advent of HD gaming during the 7th generation of video games.
In any of the major entertainment industries (music, film, TV…) money talks any firm that has the funds to craft a multi-million dollar project undoubtedly has the funds to market that a large audience. This means TV ads, print ads, billboards, web ads and all manner of viral marketing campaign to get the word out on the new game, resources that smaller studios, especially indie developers can’t match. To counter this, many have to either release their games on Steam which, while reaching a large audience is also a very dense marketplace with thousands of available games or attach themselves to a major distributor which will take charge of promoting, marketing and essentially selling the game in exchange for things like console exclusivity or other perks/benefits from the developers.
This has created an industry, that while open to new ideas typically segments them into very specific areas, reserving the big bucks for time-tested ideas that are guaranteed to get people interested in a game. This has led to many games not only feeling similar but borrowing ideas from one and another so that everything feels the same. Case in point, the action/adventure genre has long been one of the most important in gaming, incorporating all kinds of different gameplay elements owning to its versatility. But now a days it seems that every single game in the genre is this weird mash-up of an action/adventure mixed with deep RPG elements. Games like Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, Assassin’s Creed: Origins, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, etc. despite each having a unique hook all feel like they have a checklist of ‘must-haves’ they need to cross off before they are released. It’s a bit ironic that despite the technology used to build games having expanded to levels some people never imagined possible that creativity is being siphoned out of the big budget games and can only really exist in the indie game scene.
Another major issue and one that originally did not seem like something negative at first is that AAA games have become massive affairs, that not only take upwards of 100 hours to “complete” but are supported with a heavy suite of post-launch DLC and content not to mention pre-requisite online modes in many titles that wear the AAA moniker. This means that a game that may have been a 60 hour ‘one and done’ in generation’s past is now something that you will play for weeks and months on end, and usually end up ignoring other games that have released either relegating them to your backlog or vowing to ‘get to them later’. The problem is that by the time that ‘later’ comes, the next big AAA game is almost here the temptation to dive into that one might be more tempting than an ‘older’, ‘smaller’ game.And then there’s the fact that (most) players don’t have access to endless amounts of money. Gaming is an expensive hobby, and on top of the base $80 price for most AAA releases you’re also putting in funds for DLC, passes, content and items. Simply put, AAA games make it so that you either don’t have the time or the money to play anything else.
The great recession of 2009 exposed many of the weaknesses within the video game industry as the amount of publishers and developers that had to shut their doors at the turn of the decade was something that could only be compared to the video game crash of 1983. And each of these firms closed for different reasons and under different circumstances there’s no denying that as the cost of game development rose and the industry shifted to ‘blockbuster style releases, these smaller companies were left out in the cold. Here’s a short (and not at all-comprehensive list) of the companies that had to shut their doors over the last few years..
- Acclaim Entertainment
- Bizarre Creations
- Blue Tongue Entertainment
- Factor 5
- Free Radical Design
- Gamecock Media Group
- Hudson Soft
- Majesco Entertainment
- Midway Games
- SouthPeak Games
- Silicon Knights
Of course the, claiming that AAA games are killing the video game industry is a pretty bold claim. Sure the above points may be accurate but there’s still a lot of variety in the industry and content creators of all sizes making games for all types of different niches. It just seems that, as gaming progresses and the cost of making video games balloons so to will the commitment (both in time and financially) that gamers need to put into these titles grow, and that does nothing but push these giant corporations to aim higher and go bigger with their next game, all the while leaving less and less room for the humble, enjoyable ‘B’ game.