AAA. An odd term to be associated as the gaming equivalent to big blockbusters movies. But the term has now stuck, and used to describe the biggest releases that demand the attention of all mainstream gamers.
These are the games to get to show off the power of gaming consoles or PCs. These are the pinnacle of what our current tech for gaming can be pushed. These are what the smartest and brightest talent of the industry can muster out, a game that has massive appeal.
But it all comes at a cost. These days a AAA game has to be good. Gamers hyped up about AAA games want them to be GOTY contenders. Publishers want them to be selling in big numbers to make the finance sheet for the quarter up to snuff. And game developers want to make something they are proud of. But all the increase demands and hype have led to huge budgets for AAA games, reaching millions.
So, that means the games industry is doing fine with a lot of money being poured in development?
The 60$ Price Stays, But Development Costs Keeps On Rising
While in our part of the world game prices still hikes up ever so slowly due to the depreciation of the ringgit (our currency getting weaker compared to the dollar), in the States the price for a copy of a AAA game maintains at 60$. Before this, it was 50, and during the period of transition they were plenty of discussions on whether it should increased.
But the fact that games maintain that pricepoint while development costs soars higher is astounding.
To create all the high-res assests for consumption in 1080p takes more time and effort as ever. Programming duties increases in complexity. Developers would now rather use game-engines available for licensing at a pretty pricey rate rather than developing their own for specific games. Case in point: instead of developing their own tech, or face something like Final Fantasy XIII. The game was not as a seller, no less because of how average the game was compared to the high standards of other FF titles. To justify the existence of that one engine they spent many years developing, they pumped out two sequels of it.
And with the emergence of the PS4 Pro and whatever the official name of Microsoft’s Project Scorpio is, now we are talking about 4K resolution, which takes even more effort.
A contrary point here is EA’s Frostbite Engine. This one is also a method of saving licensing cost by leverage Digital Illusions CE (DICE). These group of developers are known for their technical capabilities and have created a robust engine for their Battlefield series, which almost every EA game from 2016 onwards uses the engine, from Need For Speed to FIFA 17 to Dragon Age: Inquisition and of course, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst and Battlefield 1.
Also note that a career in game development is still not a secure one. Layoffs can happen at any time. Pay rate in comparison to work hours are not as good. Crunch hours occasionally happen where all the developers work at a longer rate to chase a dateline. It’s not the best job in the world.
That’s why you see an abundance of developers going indie. Some are new, sure, but many are industry vets, having a game or two under their belt. For some, the video games industry, as in the AAA development of things, are just not an ideal place to be.
Outside of the sheer hardwork require for pumping out great visuals, the rise of voice talents adds much more content to games, and the amazing talent that lends their voices However, these voice actors are also demanding fair pay for their work. As such, the need for professional voice acting has been propelling the game development budget. But it is sad to hear that certain companies decided to skimp out payment of these voice actors, which sparked a movement for these talents to unionise.
With all the work on game development rising every day for a decent AAA title, the publishers have to cut some corners in some way. One of them includes skimping out on QA (Quality Assurance). This is the stage where bugs are to be ironed out by playtesters rigorously pushing the current build to its limits to ensure the devs know what bugs they need to fix.
Sometimes, these bugs are recorded and feedback has been sent, but due to either time constraints- the game has to go gold before a deadline, or budget constraints- no more money to let the team continue on working out the fixes, games can be shipped with bugs, as long as it is nothing game-breaking or can corrupt save files or anything major of sorts: also known as a “known shippable”. With the prevalent of software updates, that is why we see Day 1 patches. Why delay a game when you can have it release on time and patch it later?
So with a lot of money being taken up for making a game nowadays, a game copy still sells at the same price point over the years. So these publishers have to get crafty on how they can eek out more money and ensure their investment is a profitable one.
Eeeking Out The Money
While game prices maintain, publishers have a workaround on this. First trick out of the sleeves are season passes, promising new content or DLCs. This method has mixed reactions throughout its inception. Planned ahead on what to sell to the point of including parts of the data on-disc? Capcom got screwed. Have nothing promised beforehand? Then what would end up would be mediocre levels of content, like stuff from the Batman Arkham series’ season passes.
Then there’s collector’s edition. These things are made to be limited and pricey to attract the right people who would mind to spend a lot of money just to have it. It’s actually nice to have some sweet looking swag, especially for hardcore fans of a particular game franchise, but it is basically a way to recoup some costs. Not by much, but every dime helps.
But there is such a limit to how much you can squeeze out money from the whales that can afford to throw all their money. As such, AAA games have to be marketable at a large scale. Hype it up with press previews, fancy new trailers at big conventions or livestreams, and have it appear everywhere they can. Mass marketing is the name, and having the game reached to as many eyeballs as it can will increase the chance to have it selling gangbusters in numbers.
Hitman 2016 was announced with an odd pricing scheme. It’s kind of like an episodic structure, but if you read it in the right way, they area actually selling an incomplete game in chunks, still amounting to $60 game. It was so odd and peculiar they scrapped it altogether and go straight-out episodic.
The highly-anticipated Final Fantasy VII Remake is also going the route of episodes. What’s with Squenix going all conservative with budgets?
It seems that we can point to the long-in-development Final Fantasy XV. It began in 2006 as a spin-off to support Final Fantasy XIII, then news stopped coming of the game, to the point people arguing that it could be considered abandonware, rebranded to be a new numbered title and finally set to release this September. After 10 years.
Now, Square hopes that FFXV will be successful by pushing out 10 million copies. 10,000,000. As a point of reference, Metal Gear Solid V and The Witcher 3, both big AAA titles of 2015 that did well critically and commercially, moved copies each.
That’s one lofty goal. Then again, Square Enix once considered Tomb Raider 2013 as a failure for selling only 10 million copies. So they have that to go on.
Free Updates/DLC Is Now A Bad Sign
Remember when EA announced that Need For Speed 2015 will have no plans for paid DLC? Isn’t it odd coming from EA who has now have a bad reputation when it comes to it? These are the folks who opened the gates for micro-transactions to be on AAA titles!
Like the malay proverb, there’s a prawn at the back of the rock (yes, it sounds silly in English). There’s a hidden meaning to it. Turns out on launch the game was in dire lack of content. For a game billing themselves having the most in-depth car customisation, it’s silly that some cars don’t even have customisation parts at all. I don’t mean the exotics like Ferrari cars, that’s understandable. But sleeper cars like the Volvo and the Ford Mustang Foxbody have no reason to not have any. It eventually appears as, you guessed it, as free updates/DLC. Now the game is a bit bearable, but on launch it was horrendous to say the least.
The same goes to the recently launched Street Fighter V. It was billed as a full-priced game, and was billed early on as a platform, with major and minor updates coming so you need not to worry purchasing another updated version.
This can all surmount to the devs chasing deadlines and using software updates as a way to put in more content later. While it works for some games, the Early Access model on Steam has its successes, having AAA games doing the same thing feels not only odd, but it has not been received well for most mainstream players. Games like Destiny and The Division has some bad reputation in some game circles for not having enough content out of the game.
Yearly Rehashed Sequels Are Safer, Money-Making Bets
Call of Duty is a great FPS game, that has set the standards for what you would expect in any other shooters, like aiming down sights. Not everyone likes them, I myself don’t, especially when the yearly franchise is almost similar by each instalment it’s baffling how it still sells well.
But it’s not. Call of Duty is a mainstream title. Casual players, be there those that rarely play games, or rarely play game other than Call of Duty, are abundant. If they can get a similar but better experience on a new entry that’s enough for them to pick up the next one. These people don’t branch out and try new, different experiences. They’re comfortable with what it is. It’s why some franchises don’t seem to suffer from franchise fatigue, where fans or consumers in general will lose hype and interest over time to play a new subsequent entry to the same series or franchise.
Franchises like Call of Duty and FIFA are the exception, where their fanbase are still willing to put up with similar stuff rather than go into a completely new direction. Why risk it? The haters are mostly those who don’t buy their games, and their own fanbase is huge enough to sustain themselves. Now we can see it to the extreme, where most Ubisoft titles have similar mechanics- find a tower that will reveal activities nearby can be found in Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and even racing game The Crew, for example. Open world games are filled with can be considered just bullet points and checklists
Having radical changes to a franchise can severely impact its fanbase at a risk of acquiring new ones. Hitman Absolution is the entry of Hitman where more linear, story-based levels are introduced back again, but fans felt they should have gone deeper with the open-ended levels from Blood Money. Need For Speed going back to its root with exotic car races proved to be a strong selling point, but wears out in a few years as most fans want tuner culture and car customisation to take center stage again.
The current situation on how gamers feel about this is..odd. On paper, it seems right now that gamers are reward originality. Call Of Duty Infinite Warfare was shunned for being another Call Of Duty while praising the heck out of Battlefield 1’s WW1 setting.
But the thing is, Battlefield 1 is mechanically far more similar to past Battlefield rather than embracing new mechanics that should be associated with the setting, like mechanical failures and weapons jamming. Infinite Warfare however is the furthest departure from the good old modern-day setting that has been the standard in ages. So is it really originality that these gamers support? Or they like something familiar but with just a small twist?
How Far Should We Go With The Budget?
The current situation of AAA game development is worrying. All these expensive games needed to sell well, but this has caused muddling issues, questionable business practices, and higher expectation from players. Way too much hype and more disappointment. But the costs keeps on increasing.
But to what point would the law of diminishing returns kicks in, and they realised spending more money wouldn’t help them sell more games, thus more money?
While big budgets enable more kinds of games to be produced, it won’t guarantee it would be a best-selling game. Right now, innovations in gaming can be more seen rapidly in indie games. It’s not because indie games are inherently brilliant. It’s because there’s plenty of indies now. Plus, they don’t need to push for huge sales to just break even, so they rely on what unique thing they can bring to the table as a selling point.
Even if more money is thrown to make, say a AAAA game, with the best graphics and best presentation any game can be supported with massive ad campaigns, it probably won’t work. Mega64 captures this point brilliantly.
Bigger isn’t always better.