Category: AAA Games

Indie, AAA, and AA Games: A Comparison

This is a part of Gameopedia’s Game Terminology and Taxonomy series, where we talk about the different kinds of game categories and aim to give our audience in-depth knowledge about them. This blog consolidates the difference between the major classes of games- Indie, AA, and AAA.

The video games industry generated almost $180 billion in 2020. In 2021, the video game market size in just the United States surpassed $85.86 billion. Video games, whether they are AAA, indie, or AA titles are important as a market for not just their significant revenue numbers but also for the value they create for the video game ecosystem. We’ve extensively covered AAA and Indie games in our previous blogs and broken them down based on factors like their budget and scope. However, to make it easier for those who use these classifications, we’ll discuss the salient points of each video game class and distinguish between them.

Deciphering Indie, AAA, and AA Games

While many find these informal yet effective definitions of benefit, game developers and publishers use them for marketing. Another group of people who use them extensively are e-retailers while categorizing game titles and pages.

Let’s look at the basic definition for each before we head into the differences between them.

Indie Games: Indie game stands for independent video game. Indie game companies are of two kinds. The first refers to the “independent” status of the company-  they are not owned by a parent company that defines the company’s direction. The other refers to the small, self-funded nature of these companies. In the indie game industry, studios are often made up of less than ten people (sometimes even one person) and usually depend on crowdfunding and donations to fund their games. There are some highly successful indie studios who are financially stable but still produce smaller games. Examples of Indie games include Transistor, Minecraft, and Celeste.

 

AAA Games: These are game titles made by companies that can produce huge, blockbuster-style games. They have large budgets – both for development and marketing – and they sell several million units upon release. These companies are staffed by hundreds of people, usually spread across offices in multiple countries.  Examples of AAA games are the Assassin’s Creed series, FIFA titles, and Final Fantasy games.

 

AA Games: These are titles made by companies with significantly smaller budgets allocated to produce their games. They are still developed by large groups of people spread across multiple offices, but they do not have the scale and reach of AAA games. Some examples of AA games are Life is Strange, A Plague Tale: Innocence, and Remember Me.

What Separates Indie, AAA, and AA Games

Let us look at how these game classes stack up against each other.

  Indie AAA AA
Development Budget On average, the real development cost of an Indie game is around a few thousand dollars to $1 million. Ranges upward of $50 million, if not significantly more. It is estimated that GTA V cost over $137 million just to develop. The costs for these are extremely variable, lying between that of an indie and a AAA game. For instance, the pre-production budget for Life is Strange was around €4 million.
Marketing Push Indie games often rely on word of mouth or curated collections to be made known to their audience. Social media, communities, and forums are also major points of importance for their marketing push. Marketing budgets can also be similar to or even higher than the development cost. An example would be Final Fantasy VII, which cost around $45 million to make, and had a U.S. marketing budget of around $100 million. There are not many concrete details available about AA game marketing budgets but they are between those of indie and AAA games, but usually a lot less than the latter. For instance, PUBG had no marketing budget at all but used word of mouth by partnering with Twitch streamers to promote their game.
Team Size Indie games are made by small teams, at times consisting of just one person. For example, Undertale in its entirety was made by one Toby Fox. The production teams for AAA title video games are huge, with at least 50 to 100 employees working on it. For instance, at Ubisoft, AAA game development for open world games involved 400 to 600 people. Again, detailed data is not exactly available for AA games. However, going by games like Life is Strange, whose team grew to a size of about 40 people, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which had a team of 20 people, and PUBG with 35 people we can say the size is usually below 50 people.
Dedicated Publisher They don’t have a dedicated publisher, or if they do, they maintain creative freedom. These games are usually published and made by large, established companies with a great deal of experience. A double-A development studio will typically be backed by a publisher but not fundamentally part of that publisher, and thus have somewhat more freedom to innovate and experiment compared to AAA studios.
Graphics & Technology They tend to focus more on innovation, storytelling, and fun mechanics. Their graphics and technology are usually far from cutting edge AAA games tend to use the latest technologies like game engines and custom development tools. They often develop their own proprietary game engines, such as Epic Games’ Unreal Engine and use expensive tech like motion capture to render gorgeous cinematics and animations. AA games usually prioritize excellent gameplay and storytelling, or innovative mechanics. However, their graphical and technical quality is certainly high-quality, if not cutting edge.
Production Values Indie games are usually smaller in scale compared to their counterparts. Their voice/acting talent might not be the best in the industry however and these games tend to focus on interesting mechanics and excellent storytelling because of their limited budgets. Triple-A games hire famous and established voice actors and character models for their games. For example, Mark Hamill voiced the Joker in Arkham Asylum and Kit Harrington was a major antagonist in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. AA games fall in the middle: they are expected to have good production values, but often, character models and voice actors feature people who aren’t very famous. A Plague Tale: Innocence went to the extent of developing their own proprietary engine and putting extensive detail into textures and lighting.
Franchising If an indie game is successful, their developing studio might be acquired and sequels made, or the developers might make a sequel themselves. Some examples are Axiom Verge 2 and the to-be-released Hollow Knight Silksong. However, these are the exceptions rather than the norm. These are usually intended to become video game franchises post-success. For example, FIFA and Assassin’s Creed. These games tend to become franchises if their first venture proves a success. Example: A Plague Tale: Innocence, has a sequel Requiem expected in 2022.
Threshold for Success Titles in the Indie game industry have a low threshold for success as their development budgets are lower. These games have a high threshold for success and ideally sell upward of 2~ million copies to break even if not be profitable, though this depends on their total budget. While data is not easily available for AA games, going by their budgets, their threshold lies between AAA and Indie Games.
Streaming and Content Indie games like Among Us created a huge buzz in 2020 thanks to streamers playing it in groups. Minecraft has always had a huge YouTube community as well. A lot of AAA titles are streamed on platforms like Twitch and Youtube, generating millions of views. Watching their streamers play through games like Genshin Impact or The Witcher 3 is an enjoyable pastime for many. AA games like It Takes Two and Life is Strange are often played by popular streamers to their audiences on platforms like Twitch and generate a large number of views.
Esports Indie games aren’t very prevalent in e-sports. AAA titles account for most of the esports happening around the world, be it Valorant or League of Legends to name a few. A games contribute to esports on occasion. PUBG being a famous example that revitalized the battle royale genre and contributed to more esport events for this genre.
Notable Examples Celeste, Minecraft, Transistor, Hades. Assassin’s Creed, FIFA, The Elder Scrolls, the Final Fantasy video game franchise. A Plague Tale: Innocence, It Takes Two, Life is Strange, PUBG.

From the table above, you can see the notable characteristics of each game class as well as the key differences between them. This should be able to help you distinguish between AAA, AA, and Indie games.

Conclusion

With this blog we have tried to  understand the characteristics of the different game classes. We at Gameopedia have specialized in collecting and curating game information about AAA, AA, and Indie game titles for the last 12 years and have been working with companies across the gaming ecosystem. From release dates, genres, and descriptions to in-depth game breakdowns, we strive towards providing the best to our clients. Reach out to us at [email protected] to learn more about our offerings.

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Game controlling

AAA Games: A Comprehensive Guide

This is Gameopedia’s Game Terminology and Taxonomy series, where we talk about the different kinds of game categories and aim to give our audience in-depth knowledge about them. This blog covers everything you need to know about AAA games.

 

In the gaming industry, the classification of games into categories based predominantly on the games’ budget, scope, and the like can be done into AAA, AA, and Indie games. These classifications are informal and used mostly by game developers and publishers for marketing purposes as well as e-retail portals to categorize game pages. They also provide information to customers about the games’ potential.

The video games industry generated almost $180 billion in 2020. While exact figures for all AAA game-related revenue is hard, Free-to-play (F2P) Triple-A games make up for a major chunk of income, with Fortnite: Battle Royale alone contributing a massive $5.1 billion revenue in 2020.

AAA title games have always been an eagerly anticipated bunch of releases by gamers around the world. What makes them so significant to the gaming industry though? Let’s dive in.

How do we define AAA Games?

We need to start with defining what exactly a AAA game is. Triple-A games are generally classified as those which have a significant budget for production as well as marketing, and which are conventionally developed by major studios and publishers. As a result of this, these high profile games are expected to be of excellent technical and graphical quality with top notch mechanics, minimal bugs, and high production values. The term came into existence in the 90s.

Below are some examples of AAA title games, where we also go into what makes them so. The characteristics we’ve noticed are:

 

  1.  Development budget: These games have a massive budget, usually ranging upward of $50 million. For example, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt had a development budget of $81 million. It is estimated that GTA V cost over $137 million just to develop.  
  2. Team size: The production teams for AAA title video games are huge, with at least 50 to 100 employees working on it. For instance, at Ubisoft, AAA game development involved 400 to 600 staff for open world games, split across multiple locations and countries 
  3. Game scope: These games usually have several features and modes and are narrative based. 
  4. Genres: Action, Adventure, Shooter, RPGs, and Sports are the most commonly seen genres.
  5. Graphics quality: They are expected to be high quality and have the latest in graphics technology such as real-time ray tracing, particle effects, and detailed textures.
  6. Technology usage: They tend to use the latest technologies like game engines, custom development tools, and more. These studios often develop their own proprietary game engines, such as Epic Games’ Unreal Engine and use expensive technologies like motion capture to render gorgeous cinematics and smooth character movement. These games are made for newer generations of consoles and a higher calibre of PCs.
  7. Marketing push: Marketing budgets can also be similar to or even higher than the development cost. An example would be Final Fantasy VII, which cost around $45 million to make, and had a U.S. marketing budget of around $100 million, back when it was released in 1997. Marketing often focuses on generating hype for the game through a large number of campaigns, sponsorships, collaborations, and the like. An example would be Madden NFL 2002 buying Super Bowl ads. Beautiful cinematic trailers and bonuses on pre-orders are other ways these games have improved marketing.
  8. Level of game polish/number of bugs: Triple-A games should ideally be well polished and have a small number of glitches or bugs due to the large number of people working on it and budget. Hiring famous and established voice actors and character models is a well-established process for these games.
  9. Franchise release: These games are usually intended to become a franchise post-success. For example, Skyrim, Dragon Age Inquisition, and FIFA.
  10. Studio size and whether they’ve made AAA titles before: These games are usually made by large, established studios or talent experienced in making them.
  11. Higher threshold for success: Ideally these games sell upward of 2~ million copies to break even if not be profitable, though this depends on their total budget. When The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt launched in 2015, it sold nine million units that year. In May 2020, the developing studio CD Projekt Red announced it had sold 50 million units in a tweet.

Let’s look at an example.

Destiny 2

Destiny 2: A AAA game
Destiny 2: One of the most popular AAA releases.
  1. Development budget and marketing push: According to Activision Blizzard’s CEO, it costs $500 million to develop and market Destiny games.
  2. Team size: For Destiny, according to Butcher, the game’s lead engineer, “If you count all of the test and development and support staff then we’re over 400 people.” Destiny 2 has at least that many if not more, considering the new content they keep releasing.
  3. Game scope: The game features a multiplayer “shared-world” environment with elements of role-playing games. Like the original, activities in Destiny 2 are divided among player versus environment (PvE) and player versus player (PvP) game types. There have been several massive expansions as well, with the latest being new Halo guns being released as a reward as Bungie celebrates their 30th anniversary.
  4. Genres:  It is a free-to-play online-only multiplayer first-person shooter video game released in 2017. It was originally a pay-to-play release but in 2019, was made F2P.
  5. Critical reception: Destiny 2 received “generally favorable” reviews, according to review aggregator Metacritic. Its gameplay and story were both highly praised by several reviewers and publications. It was nominated for and won Best PC Game of 2017 at the Game Critics Award.
  6. Graphics quality: The game’s graphics and gameplay were both highly praised by publishers. 
  7. Technology usage: It was released for the latest generation of consoles available then (the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One) as well as Windows, though you would need a mid to high range PC to properly play the game. Later, when Google Stadia was released, Destiny 2 was re-released as an F2P game by Activision across all platforms. It has recently been upgraded for the new generation of consoles (the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S) as well.
  8. Level of game polish/number of bugs: Destiny 2 was relatively free of game-breaking bugs and came well-polished. The game’s frequent patches and updates tend to ensure this is consistent.
  9. Franchise release: This game is a part of the Destiny franchise, with similar gameplay elements and lore. 
  10. Studio size and whether they’ve made AAA games before: Bungie, the studio behind Destiny 2, is also responsible for creating the famous Halo franchise.
  11. Threshold for success: In 2017, post-release, Bungie shared that millions of people had played Destiny 2, with as many as 1.3 million doing so at the same time. It was also the second highest-grossing console game of 2017 in North America, and was Activision’s biggest PC release based on units sold. Activision also said that Destiny 2 set a day-one sales record on the PlayStation Store.

Why are AAA Titles Important?

AAA games are vital as they historically have driven the industry and pioneered innovation.  An example of this are the Triple-A titles produced during the late 1990s and early 2000s. They brought a shift towards more narrative-driven games that mixed storytelling elements with gameplay. With larger budgets, developers found new innovative ways to present narrative as a direct part of gameplay rather than as pre-rendered cutscenes. Half-Life was one of the first of these new narrative games to nearly eliminate cutscenes in favor of interactive storytelling mechanisms.

Half-Life: The game that turned cutscenes into narratives with gameplay.
Half-Life: The game that turned cutscenes into narratives with gameplay.

AAA title games are likely to continue in this manner. They offer recognition to their production and development teams which aids in getting talented personnel, epic entertainment experiences which attract large audiences, and access to new technology which fosters major innovations. Games and gamers will continue to evolve, but the scale and scope of Triple-A will continue to be vital to provide amazing opportunities.

AAA games can provide the resources, stability, and talent to make the games all of us aspire to play someday.

History of the AAA Game Industry

The term “AAA” started to be heard frequently in the late 1990s, when a few development companies started using the expression at gaming conventions in the US. The term was borrowed from the credit industry’s bond ratings, where “AAA” bonds represented the safest opportunity most likely to meet their financial goals.

One of the first video games that was developed at an Triple-A scale was Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy VII in 1997, which cost an estimated $40–45 million (post adjustment for inflation, $64–73 million) to develop, making it the most expensive video game ever produced up until then. It had unprecedented cinematic CGI production values, movie-like presentation, orchestral music, and innovative blend of gameplay with dynamic cinematic camerawork. Its expensive advertisement campaign was also a novel venture for a video game.

One of the first AAA games ever made
Final Fantasy VII: One of the first AAA games made.

This spurred on future AAA title releases to have a strong emphasis on innovation and narrative-driven gameplay set amidst state-of-the art graphics.

 

The Most Famous AAA Studios

Now that we’ve examined what exactly makes a AAA game, below are some of the most beloved and prominent Triple-A studios with their popular releases. This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means- it is just meant to provide you with an idea of what kind of studios develop and publish these games.

  1. Square Enix (Final Fantasy, Tomb Raider)
  2. Ubisoft (Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry)
  3. Riot Games (League of Legends, VALORANT)
  4. Rockstar Games (Grand Theft Auto)
  5. Nintendo (Mario, Pokemon)
  6. Activision (Overwatch, Call of Duty)
  7. EA (FIFA, Battlefield)
  8. Bethesda (The Elder Scrolls, Fallout)
  9. Capcom (Resident Evil, Street Fighter)
  10. Sony Interactive Entertainment (God of War, Gran Turismo)

Prominent Genres and Trends of AAA Games

In one of our prior articles, we explored genre trends in the console market across the past five years for AAA, AA, and Indie releases. This graph below showcases the major variations in genre trends across the last five years related to Triple-A games.

AAA Genre Trends

You can see that two genres feature consistently at the top every year – Action and Adventure. Some of the popular games belonging to these two genres over the past five years include Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (Action, Adventure), Red Dead Redemption 2 (Adventure), and Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War (Action, Shooter). 

Some of the most well-received Role-Playing Games of the past five years are all AAA titles. These include Final Fantasy VII Remake (Role-Playing) and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (Role-Playing, Adventure).

Sports games have been consistently popular with AAA publishers as well. There’s a reason for this: licensing costs for these sports leagues go into hundreds of millions of dollars and only AAA studios can really foot this hefty bill. 

FIFA: One of the most prominent AAA games
The licensing fee for FIFA and other franchises can skyrocket into the millions.

There are a few annual sports franchises – FIFA, NBA 2K, Madden NFL, and NHL – which make up for the bulk of sales and media attention each year.

Franchises

Quite often, AAA title games are intended to be a series of games under a similar title or set in the same universe. Popular characters come back and/or are referred to, and the storyline may continue. The technical definition of a video game franchise would be an iterative series of game products developed around a demand for the services/value of the intellectual property. Once a new single and unique game is released and copyrighted, the brand is established with the first iteration consisting as the IP’s basis of design and definition.

 

AAA titles are unique amidst other game types because they are developed often with the intention of being a franchise. The massive investment these games require means that they become franchises if the initial game is successful. An example of this not occurring would be Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. This was an action RPG game released in 2012 with a sequel planned, developed by 38 Studios and Big Huge Games. The studio secured a $75 million loan guarantee from the economic development board of Rhode Island for establishing 38 Studios within the state and promoting job growth. The initial sales within the first three months post-release were around 1.3 million. Though impressive, Rhode Island recognized that the title was expected to have hit 3 million units by this point for 38 Studios to pay back the loan. 

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was a game that deserved but didn't get its sequel (yet.)

38 Studios defaulted on one of the loan repayments, leading to a publisher to pull out of a US$35 million investment in a sequel. The studio managed to make the next payment, but could not make payroll or other expenses, and shortly later declared bankruptcy by May 2012. On the contrary, games like Call of Duty, FIFA, and the like, once successful initially, have continued being a great source of revenue for their developers and publishers. 

Publishers like going for franchises because they already have a dedicated fanbase who would be interested in the game beforehand and this increases copies sold. It is also easier to build upon a pre-existing universe and lore. The most successful video game franchises have been made by AAA developers and publishers and remain popular till date because they have developed a large audience over time while maintaining a reasonable quality to their products to keep their players happy.

The Future of AAA Games

When AAA games started out, the focus was on pushing out innovative single-payment games with great narratives, gameplay, and state-of-the-art graphics. However, with budgets being so high for these games, they had to think out of the box to beat their competition and make a profit. One of the major ways they did this was after the release of the 7th generation consoles. Along with the internet capabilities of that time, these studios were now capable of releasing optional post launch content for games. Games received bonus content in the form of DLCs, which added new areas, quests, and storylines for the player to enjoy. 

A lot of AAA games these days follow the GaaS- games as a service. GaaS is a business strategy while F2P is a revenue model. The most successful AAA titles which use this model ensure that they are transparent about what players get by buying a subscription or season pass, and that this is more than the cost of entry. Another thing to note when it comes to GaaS games is how they manage tie-ups and sponsorships. Whether it is Valorant’s Zedd x Valorant series of gun skins or Fortnite’s various collaborations with movies, shows, and musicians, they capitalize on several fanbases to sell add-ons to their players that make them happy.

Fortnite
Fortnite makes a LOT of money off its skins from other famous franchises like Marvel, DC, and even anime like Naruto.

However, microtransactions, loot boxes, and the like which necessitate additional payment from players for uncertain rewards, especially when it’s hard to grind these rewards which are almost compulsory for game progression for free, have proven unpopular. These questionable business tactics have led several gamers to boycott such games. It is however heartwarming to see games like Borderlands 3- a game where loot boxes and microtransactions can thrive- outright stating that there would be none of those. And they kept their promise. Studios which manage to successfully make and sell games without resorting to microtransactions and loot boxes continue to be well received.

Another trend to notice: in the last decade, free-to-play GaaS AAA games have more than proved their mettle as revenue generators, with games like League of Legends, Apex Legends, and Fortnite generating billions of dollars in profit for their developers and publishers, while also driving a related industry up significantly- esports, which in turn improves their popularity and brings in more players. 

AAA giant Ubisoft said that they would be “focusing less on AAA games” and more publishers seem to be heading down a similar route as mobile games prove to be the area of largest profit. More and more Triple-A studios are looking towards GaaS and F2P games to bolster their profits. This however doesn’t mean that Triple-A games are dying. AAA titles will always be a dependable bastion for gamers to return to for their preferred franchise, such as the latest FIFA or newest Assassin’s Creed release.

It seems likely that the future of AAA games will proceed in three major directions: 

  1. An increase in adoption of the Games as a Service (GaaS) model for games which are extremely rewarding for their players and generate a good deal of revenue.
  2. The usual franchises remaining as popular as they always have been thanks to their dependable fanbases, as well as established AAA studios trying to make high-quality games for the new generation of consoles and computers.
  3. New developments in technology such as VR and AR leading to games that are the first of their kind.
Half Life: Alex
Half-Life Alyx: A stunning tribute to what VR gaming can be.

According to Harold Ryan, ex-president/CEO of Bungie, the studio that developed Halo and Destiny, “At their best, Triple-A games can be a generation-defining experience with an oversized cultural impact. They have the power to inspire and influence gamers to become developers.” While games at the end of the day derive their value from the enjoyment they provide to their players, AAA titles show no sign of losing their relevance now, or in the future.

We at Gameopedia have specialized in collecting and curating game information for the last 12 years and have been working with companies across the gaming ecosystem. From release dates, genres, and descriptions to in-depth game breakdowns, we strive towards providing the best to our clients. Reach out to us at [email protected] to learn more about our offerings.

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