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What is a AAA game, and how it is done

Some games cost more to make, some less. Some require large teams, and others can be done with a couple of enthusiastic individuals. Some are backed up by big publishers, and others are not. These are a few basic things that draw a line between small humble titles and blockbusters aiming at millions of copies sold. The latter belong to the AAA category. What is a AAA game, and why it is so hard to make one - read in today’s article.

What is a AAA game in the modern industry?

If you are into the gaming industry, then you are definitely familiar with its categorization. Some titles are labeled as AAA; some go with one “A” less; some are called indie. What is the main difference between these categories? What is a AAA game, and why is it considered better than others? Multimillion production, large teams, renowned publishers, and incredible gaming experience. This is what AAA is all about. This explanation barely scratches the surface of the game development process, so let’s dive deeper!

What is a AAA game really all about?

Triple-A title immediately tells you a bunch of facts. First of all, there is an industry giant publisher behind it (Microsoft, Sony, Electronic Arts, etc.). Secondly, the budget of that game has at least eight figures. Thirdly, it took years to develop so that you can expect something unique and original in terms of gameplay (or at least some creativity with good ol’ mechanics).

Every AAA video game is a huge project brought to life by many talented individuals who work in one big studio. Sometimes multiple studios work on the same project due to various reasons. For example, one team does great single-player campaigns, while another specializes in multiplayer battles. Like so, last year's installment in the Call of Duty series – Vanguard – was developed by Sledgehammer Games in cooperation with Raven Software, Beenox, and High Moon Studios. The good ol’ Zombie mode is the merit of Treyarch. Combined effort makes perfect…sometimes.

The more ambitions you have, the bigger budget you need for such an endeavor. To answer the “what is a AAA game” question, we like to draw comparisons with the movie industry. Like Marvel or DC blockbuster films, AAA computer games cost a fortune. Is it worth it?

If everything goes according to plan and the marketing department knows how to spend their funds to stir up interest, then the expected profit of such a game often justifies the costs. For example, Microsoft’s Forza Horizon 5 was expected to reach $118 million in gross revenue before its release last November. With 4.5 million players on the launch day, you can estimate how much of a success it was, given there are different versions of the game that cost more than the standard $60.

To maximize profits, most publishers ask for multiple versions of the game: for previous and current generations of consoles separately and for PC. Some titles only appear on dedicated platforms. Those are exclusive projects for prompting interest in specific consoles (PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo). This is the go-to tactic for Sony with the majority of their AAA titles like Marvel’s Spider-Man, Uncharted, God of War, Horizon series, and others.

However, we must point out that some of Sony’s exclusives have become available on Microsoft Windows after a while. Today you can play God of War (2018) and Horizon Zero Dawn (2017) on your PC with no problem. It is a reasonable solution for making an extra profit on older games because all they need is just a good port to shine again on the new platform.

Why are AAA games so difficult to make?

However, in today’s reality, even highly hyped AAA games can fail because they don’t live up to gamers’ expectations, have serious performance issues, or just tons of untested bugs. Sometimes even trusted and beloved studios can lose their credibility after an awful release. From the player’s point of view, it is understandable – when paying $60 or more for various packages and buffed versions of the game, you expect them to be polished.

To understand why AAA titles are so hard to produce, we need to start with the basics. Where does the money go when developing a triple-A project? The first place is the staff. You cannot make a game without game developers. An experienced developer will cost investors about $10k on average. We’re talking not about their salary alone but a package that includes healthcare, insurance, overheads, bonuses, taxes, and so on. Note: the final number depends on the role (designer, manager, animator, coder, tester, etc.) – senior staff and team leaders may cost much more.

AAA projects have massive teams. The Call of Duty development team is estimated to have around 500 people working on the franchise at all times. It is Activision’s main moneymaker, so it is safe to assume that lesser franchises have fewer developers. Anyway, it will take devs at least two years to finish a big game. More time = more money spent. Some games end up in development hell, taking years to get to the finish line. Cyberpunk 2077 took 9 (!) years to complete the journey from the announcement to digital and physical stores.
Large teams need offices to work in. If a game studio is from the USA or any other country with high rent, then add about $6k per person per year to the budget. Furthermore, apart from hands on deck and places, you will also need tools – both physical (powerful PCs, monitors, consoles, chairs) and digital (specific software, engine license, extra technologies like Bink or Havok). The final price of all those things really depends from game to game, but it will be safe to assume that at least 5 million would be a pretty lowball estimate.

And don’t forget about voice actors. Hiring one or two famous faces from Hollywood will help promote the game but will also burn tons of money. A respected composer like Hans Zimmer (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2) or Jeremy Soule (The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim) will add even more expenses. And there are still so many other little costs to factor in:
  • Motion capture;
  • Localization;
  • Certification fees;
  • Game ratings.
Then there is another giant money sink: marketing. Nobody is going to buy your game if you don’t market it right. It is not uncommon for AAA computer games to have marketing budgets nearly as large as the entire development budget. For example, the first installment in the Destiny series had a $500 million (!!!) budget – production and marketing combined. But recently, we see that marketing budgets rarely exceed just half the cost of everything else. All in all, with all expenses included, you can expect a triple-A game to cost about $60 to $80 million at the very least.

A few issues with AAA games

Big budgets call for big profits. No investor in sound mind will throw money into a product that does not promise more in return. That is why most AAA games are made attractive to the mass market, covering as much audience as possible.

On top of that, some games feature various monetization techniques such as microtransactions (bonus skill points in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided or extra consumables in Dead Space 3) and loot boxes (new skins for heroes in Overwatch or new players for the team in recent FIFA games). In some titles, such methods work just okay, but in the majority of cases adding “pay-to-win” or “pay-to-play” content is never a good solution. It can ruin a franchise’s reputation.

Investing tons of money into a game project that might flop also calls for insurance policies. We are not talking about insurance companies but game development decisions. In other words, fewer innovations and no sudden moves, guys! Established studios prefer to abstain from taking risks when developing sequels or prequels for critically acclaimed and financially successful titles. Experiments are allowed only for new IPs by seasoned creators. If it works, don’t break it. This is what we see in almost all Ubisoft franchises lately. Every FarCry and Assassin’s Creed walk the beaten path with minimal improvements and barely noticeable changes.
Such stagnation makes big games boring. Without gameplay innovations, big (formerly) respected publishers like EA turned into the most hated companies notoriously known for releasing the same game with little to no changes every year. FIFA series is a prime example of this strategy – if you have played one, you played them all technically. Seeing the same mechanics and gameplay elements over and over again kills passion for gaming.

Anyway, not everything is so tragic in the AAA market. There are many fantastic titles with astounding attention to detail, clever usage of basic mechanics, mind-blowing stories, and amazing graphics. Let’s take a look at some of the most hyped triple-A games of recent years.

Notable AAA games

We decided to pick five games from the last five years for our list. Each one of them is a true AAA project that had made tons of hype long before its official release.

Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018)

RDR 2 is a work of art and a major improvement to the first part (also a great game). Wild West simulator with all kinds of activities like hunting, fishing, robbing, crafting, and questing in carefully replicated landscapes of America at the very beginning of the XX century. Players can explore a vast open-world, visit countless towns, play poker and blackjack, live the life of a bloodthirsty outlaw or dedicated peacemaker.

Red Dead Redemption 2 competes on par with another major Rockstar hit game – Grand Theft Auto V – as one of the best titles of the modern age. The studio managed to create a polished product that is fun to play and enjoyable to be in. The main story of the game is nothing short of genius and easily beats any other Rockstar plot to date. RDR2 offers a complete package of activities that together make one of the best single-player experiences in the action genre.

Horizon Forbidden West (2022)

Horizon Forbidden West is another perfect sequel to a solid triple-A game. Just like Horizon Zero Dawn (the first part in the series), it deserves to be called one of the most beautiful games of the current generation. The developers made significant enhancements to the combat system and open-world mechanics, added new activities, characters, and things to do. As a result, the new and improved Horizon looks even more beautiful and livelier.

Gameplay-wise, it is a classic open-world action-adventure where you will be dealing with very unusual enemies like cyber T-rexes. However, the story also plays a major role in this one, so you will have to travel and discover new mysteries of the lavish post-post-apocalyptic universe.

Cyberpunk 2077 (2020)

Before its release, Cyberpunk 2077 was a dream game with extraordinary settings and a variety of super cool features. It has been 9 years since the first announcement to the public appearance on the market. The game had significant remakes, some features never made it to the final build, and quality control was poor. You would think CD Projekt Red will end there, and you would be right if the game itself was not exceptional.

Turns out that even with bugs, performance problems, and visual glitches, Cyberpunk 2077 is still a true AAA title. It offers immense free-roam opportunities to explore the vast territories of Night City and beyond, combined with RPG elements that many other open-world games lack. An intriguing story with Keanu Reeves alongside your character makes the ride even wilder. The visuals are stunning, although you will definitely need an RTX-ready GPU to see the full potential of the game.

Death Stranding (2019)

Have you ever wondered what a post-apocalyptic delivery simulator will be like? In case you have, then compare your vision with Hideo Kojima’s. In his Death Stranding, you take control of Sam Bridges, tasked to carry packages between distant locations and reconnect people throughout the destroyed wasteland of the USA. Each delivery is a quest and requires planning: how much cargo you should take, which tools will be necessary to traverse the area, what side quests are near, and so on. In this game, some constructions created by other players remain in your world, so you can use them to your advantage.

Death Stranding is about connecting people – both physically and mentally. It raises many different questions and dilemmas we face in our real lives – about isolation, family relationships, parenting, and progressive self-destruction of humanity. It is not easy to comprehend, and it is not something you would expect from a walking simulator. But next-level writing and level design, amazing graphics, multiple Hollywood stars like Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen, and Lea Seydoux make Death Stranding an unforgettable experience.

Forza Horizon 5 (2021)

It is not a secret that all the latest Forzas have been dominating in the arcade-racing genre. No wonder why Forza Horizon 5 is the racing king, especially among AAA computer games. FH5 made it to the top in 2021 with the largest open-world map in the series to date, letting you climb volcanoes and scale ancient temples somewhere in Latin America.

The beauty of Forza Horizon 5 is its flexibility with both single-player and multiplayer modes that allow you to compete in a variety of racing challenges, including battle royale! The collection of cars is impressive as always, plus you can customize them with different sprays, body kits, engines, and more.

Finding partners for AAA end-to-end development

As you see, to make a blockbuster game, you need a huge budget and a AAA game company that knows how to utilize those funds. The process of creation might take years – 2 or 3 at least – so it is better if all the job will be done “under one roof” by one experienced studio. Such colossal endeavors require precise planning and foolproof management to make sure everything is going according to plan.

Argentics can provide such services covering all stages of the game development process, from concept creation, full game design, and art production to programming, testing, and release support. Our studio has an extensive portfolio of gaming projects that proves our expertise in game dev, and we can guarantee the quality of the final product. We prefer working closely with our clients to maximize the production efforts and provide exactly what is needed!

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