Are AAA and Indie Still Enough to Define a Game?

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When we talk about games, we often lump them into one of two basic categories, “AAA” and “indie”, based on a games’ budget. Think of AAA as the gaming equivalent of a blockbuster movie. It’s a spectacle when it’s released and its expected to bring in huge numbers for the publisher. These are games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, games that break out of the community and have become household names. They are seemingly indestructible icons of the industry.

Indies are from the opposite end of the spectrum. Small development teams, low budgets, stylized artwork over realism, and often have a design philosophy that reflects the nature of its development. We think of Braid, or Journey, something quiet that may be more about the “experience” of playing rather than over the top action set pieces. Indies often reignite the never-ending debate over whether or not games are art. (By the way, they totally are.)

Indie games have risen in popularity in the last decade thanks in part to our home consoles having a constant internet connection, as well as services like Steam on PC. This allows developers to release their games in a digital storefront as opposed to a physical release that would be far more expensive on their end, as well as the consumer’s.

What makes a game AAA and what makes it indie have been clearly defined, but what if a game doesn’t fall into these two categories?

Last week, I was having a discussion with friends over representation in gaming. (A topic worth discussing on Gamerations, but we will save that for later.) I suggested that AAA games should have more diverse casts of characters, to which a friend said they do. Look at Tekken, where characters are plucked from all corners of the globe. Look at Persona, where most of the game is set in Japan.

This got me thinking, are Tekken and Persona AAA games? Definitely not by the classification the gaming community has set. Sure, both Tekken and Persona have the pedigree of AAA games. They both are generally liked by critics, have a secure fan base, and both have been around for quite some time. They are established in the gaming canon. But in terms of budget, Japanese developers just don’t have the same kind of money to put up that Western devs do.

In a 2013 interview with GamesIndustry International, Shinji Mikami stated that, “many Japanese publishers won’t be investing $30 million or more in a game.” The figure he states alludes to the budget on his game The Evil Within, published by Bethesda. The Evil Within went on to sell just under 1.5 million units worldwide, far below what other AAA-budget games sell.

AAA budgets do not usually net AAA sales, and the same for indies. As it tuns out, the two games that have shipped the most units started out as indie projects. Tetris sits at number one with 495 million units sold, but mass popularity didn’t occur until the game was published by Nintendo in 1989.

In a distant second sits Minecraft with just under 108 million units sold. Players were able to purchase Minecraft while it was still in alpha for a reduced price, with the promise of free patches and features as they were added by developer Mojang. At the time, this was a unique sales scheme and it essentially bankrolled a small project into one of the most popular games of all time.

The gap that falls between AAA and indie widens with every new release that doesn’t fall into these two strict categories. Maybe its time for an overhaul of how we recognize new releases.

There is a third category that isn’t nearly as recognized, “B-games”. It isn’t used often but I think it is an apt description for games like Tekken and Persona that have a baked-in fanbase. Even more apt for games like the Just Cause series that embrace style over substance.

But, B-games have already been tossed by the wayside by big publishers like Ubisoft. At GDC in 2013, Ubisoft Montreal’s CEO Yannis Mallet stated, “there is no room for B-games… I think that companies that put quality and consumer value as a primary focus, as we’ve been doing at Ubisoft, will enjoy great success.” Of course, Mallet’s comments can be taken with a grain of salt, CEOs and consumers aren’t necessarily looking for the same things out of their games. And not all developers can be expected to meet the standards of Ubisoft Montreal.

In recent years the new genres have entered into the video game lexicon. “Soulslike”, crafting RPG, and hero shooters all come to mind as prime examples of the gaming community adapting to new trends. It will only be a matter of time before AAA and indie categories follow suit.

Dan Berlin

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