AA games haven't gone away. They just look a little different now.

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bigsocrates

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Edited By bigsocrates

A lot of words have been written about the death of the “AA” game. “AA” games are games that don’t have the enormous budgets of what have come to be known as “AAA” games, massive projects that soak up tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, but still have the backing of large publishers and enough budget behind them for serious marketing budgets and frills like licensed music and well known voice actors. People have fond memories of games like these from the 6th and 7th generations (prior to that most game development teams were small enough that AAA size projects were vanishingly rare) and I’ve seen many laments that these kinds of projects have disappeared as budgets have bloated and publishers have consolidated.

The thing is, they haven’t, really, they’ve just changed.

AA games used to look like AAA games just a little bit smaller or less polished. Halo and Call of Duty were your AAA series with huge money behind them, and then you’d get smaller, less ambitious, FPS projects like Bodycount or Singularity. These games were sometimes disappointing (Bodycount) and sometimes quite well regarded (Singularity) but they were less polished and often a little bit edgier or more experimental than their more expensive counterparts. Gears of War had to hit all its marks and appeal to a huge audience in order to make back the millions funneled into it, but the perception was that a game like Binary Domain was less expensive and so could make its money back with a smaller, cult, audience of fans.

Was that perception accurate? It’s not clear. What is clear is that as game development prices increased there was also increased pressure to make every game a monster hit. Sales that would have been huge successes in the PlayStation or PlayStation 2 eras became cause for alarm by the time the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 came around. The Tomb Raider reboot series is infamous for selling millions of copies but being branded a disappointment because it didn’t sell enough millions of copies to make its publisher happy. Publishers saw that truly successful games could make billions with a B and became much less interested in supporting projects like Urban Chaos: Riot Response that might or might not make back their budgets but would barely be noticed in the flood of cash that a true big hit could bring in. That became even more true when the ‘dream’ of ongoing streams of revenue from microtransactions became a reality and games could pull in ten or eleven figures of income every year. Entire gaming empires were built on the backs of titles like Grand Theft Auto V and Fortnite and nobody wanted to make Vanquish or Shadows of the Damned anymore because you can’t build an empire on a one and done niche project.

At least that’s the story that we’ve been hearing for awhile now.

The truth is more complicated. It’s certainly true that the big publishers release fewer games than they used to. It’s also true that a lot of the older smaller publishers got bought out or went bankrupt or both. THQ famously flamed out, but Eidos Interactive got folded into Square, LucasArts was gobbled by Disney, and even the mighty Bethesda was absorbed into Microsoft. Even a company with the pedigree of Konami has all but given up publishing games, preferring to focus on other businesses and occasionally needle fans of its old franchises by releasing pachinko machines or horrible Contra games*.

But that’s only half the story. The other half is the emergence of a new group of publishers who seem to specifically target the market gap left by the departed bigger companies. Companies like Focus Entertainment, Annapurna, and the massive Embracer Group are all putting out a ton of games with relatively large but not astronomical budgets. Many of those games, like A Plague Tale: Innocence and The Outer Wilds have garnered a lot of acclaim and attention. Even the much maligned Electronic Arts continues to make games of moderate size. Game Award GOTY It Takes Two was made by Hazelight, a studio of under 100 people, and EA also put out Lost in Random, a lengthy, polished, adventure.

These games don’t look like the AA games of yore. They’re not really competing with the huge projects like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed. Instead they’re offering something different. They’re more like medium sized independent films, designed to reach an audience that the blockbusters aren’t serving and to attempt things that the huge games aren’t attempting. Whether that’s old fashioned storytelling, a focus on pure co-op, or just something else, they’re different kinds of games. Sometimes these games were made by tiny teams (The Outer Wilds was made by Mobius Digital, which is tiny.) Sometimes the teams are more substantial (Hazelight has dozens of employees.) That was true for older AA games too. What these games have in common is the backing of a publisher, which doesn’t just mean a budget but also access to PR staff, potential shared assets with other developers working for the same publisher, funds to outsource art and QA and the like, and all the other advantages that make publishers more than just the financial and creative vampires many gamers view them as. The AA space was always a bit like this, spanning the space from quasi-indie to big, established, companies with legal departments and HR and all the rest of it.

I think that people overlook the current flourishing of smaller but not quite indie developers for a number of reasons. One is that many of them are not in the United States so we just pay less attention to them. There are language barriers that prevent us from reading interviews, or we don’t have anyone close to our social circle who is even tangentially attached to one of them, or they just have less of a presence here for whatever reason. The second, and perhaps biggest, reason is that, as mentioned, the games they make look in many ways more like indie titles than the AAA extravaganzas, which was not always the case. The aforementioned Singularity was basically a Bioshock rip off, but something like the Ori series is a Metroidvania, which is a genre we associate with tiny independent teams. I’ve seen Ori called an “indie” even though it was published by Microsoft and made by a team of close to 100. That’s not an indie by any reasonable definition. It’s AA. The last reason is that these just aren’t the teams we’re used to. As the gaming space has gotten bigger and more diverse there’s been the same death of the monoculture that has occurred everywhere else. Growing up it was possible to keep track of every game being released because there just weren’t that many. The Nintendo 64 has fewer than 400 releases. The Switch has over 4000. Even though many of those are shovelware it’s still impossible to stay abreast of everything worthwhile that comes out on that thing, especially since so much gaming media time is soaked up by those megagames like League of Legends or Fortnite that also soak up such a huge percentage of gaming time and revenue.

If you like playing slightly off brand FPS or third person shooter games now is not a great time to be a gamer. There are fewer big releases than ever and a lot of the indies are intentionally retro. There are new Build Engine games being made and new professional campaigns for the original Doom and Quake, but not a lot of those straightforward modern 10-12 hour campaigns with some tacked on multi-player. The same is true for most of the major genres. Games like Blur or Split/Second basically don’t exist anymore. But if your gaming tastes are a little broader the AA space is thriving and producing lots of amazing games. There’s still a space in gaming that exists between indie and AAA and it’s got plenty of stuff to play, it just looks a little different now. We don’t have Ghosthunter anymore but we do have SnowRunner and Call of Cthulu. And even Necromunda: Hired Gun, Greedfall, and The Surge if you insist that your AA games look and play more AAAish. This stuff is still out there if you know where to look.

*Some of those recent compilations of old Konami titles, like the recent GBA Castlevania collection, are pretty alright.

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imunbeatable80

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Totally agree! You only have to do a little searching on Amazon or in a gamestpre to see that there are a plethora of AA games out there that exist.

We live in a time where there are more avenues and eyes then ever in the videogame space, but I somehow feel that people have oversimplified every game to only fit into two buckets nowadays. Games are either indies or AAA and that's just not the case. I picked up a game from Amazon recently that I've never heard of "dungeon of naheulbeuk" couldn't tell you if it's any good, but it is a game that hardly fits in either of those 2 buckets. It certainly isn't going to compete with AAA games, but it's not an indie game either.

This is perhaps my own echochamber, but I do feel perhaps the issue is that with the glut of video games that come out, since no company can really cover them all, they mainly focus on AAA games or indies that are making a lot of buzz. That means that these AA games get close to no attention and the majority of people then don't even no if they exist. Sure there is always a let's play or writeup of every game, but unless you are searching it by name, you won't stumble across it.

I for one love finding these AA titles (maybe even A titles), and while they certainly almost never have the polish their big brothers do, they can sometimes be more charming, daring, or fun, since they are aiming to please everyone at once.

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GloveSlipper

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@bigsocrates: Nothing to add here. Just wanted to say I enjoyed reading this and appreciate the thought you put into it.

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brian_

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If "Bring Your B-Game" taught me anything, it's that language is dumb. Labels don't mean anything because words only mean what we want them to mean. I think the term "AA games" only exists because we needed a short-term for that style of mid-tier, western-devolved, action game to point out that it went away. I think that's why people are relucent to refer to Annapurna games, or stuff like Ori as "AA".

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bigsocrates

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@imunbeatable80: You can't tell me if Dungeon of Naheulbeuk is a good game but presumably you WILL tell me whether it's the greatest game at some point...right? Right? If not...I...just don't know what to believe anymore.

I agree that changes in game coverage and discoverability have a role to play in the perception here. It's not just the glut of games but the loss of many 'big league' press outlets. Remember when magazines were a thing? I always wonder how it's possible for all the indie games to find any kind of market that makes them economically viable. Part of me thinks they must because they keep coming in this giant torrent of games but part of me thinks maybe a lot of them just...don't and that's a sad thought. For every game that breaks out like Valheim there are dozens of really good titles that seem totally ignored. I think AA games at least have some marketing and PR behind them so they are less likely to be totally lost. Maybe Dungeons of Naheulbeuk is big in Europe. That name certainly doesn't roll off an American tongue.

I too really enjoy AA or A games or whatever. I'm burned out on AAA games right now (another tower? no thanks!) and the smaller stuff isn't always great but it's generally interesting. I'm kind of glad we moved on from things like Quantum Theory and Fracture towards a time when AA games are trying to do different things.

@gloveslipper: Thanks for the encouragement. It's very much appreciated.

@brian_: I don't really think it matters what you label these games. I'm not super attached to the term "AA" and if people want to differentiate the current mid-tier games from those of the past I don't mind. What bothers me is when people say everything is huge budget or indie now, when that's just not true. I've seen people call Ori an indie series and like...it was published by Microsoft. It has a big team. It's not indie. If you don't want to call it AA because it's not a shooter that's fine but then maybe we need a new term.

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brian_

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@bigsocrates: I don't think it's a thing where you needed a better or different term for something like Ori. I think when it came out, it gets lumped into that "indie" category no matter what. I think the reason that happens is because there were so few of those western mid-tiers sized games coming out at the time, that people just don't bother to make the distinction. I think that probably starts to change now, with Annapurna putting out more games, with larger teams and bigger budgets, Embracer pumping out more games at a faster pace, and stuff like Kena coming out and being successful last year. I think as more of that stuff hits with a more general audience, people do start using the "AA" term more and differentiating that stuff more. It's not that I think the labels are bad, it's that I think they only get used as a need for them raises.

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bigsocrates

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@brian_: My point is that this space never really went away. I can rattle off a long list of familiar titles that can be called AA games and were made during a time when people have been bemoaning their loss. There was probably a downturn at the start of the 8th generation as the publishing chairs shifted around, but at this point we've been back to getting a pretty good number of mid-range experiences for a while now. They just look a little different than they used to.

I think another side of this is that a lot of teams like to promote themselves as indie even if they're really not because people root for indie teams and try to support them.

The other side of this is that as a percentage of games AA has gone down quite a bit because of the indie explosion. There are so many games in the indie space that it makes AA games seem like a tiny sliver of the market in comparison.

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cikame

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I've attempted to reply to this thread multiple times but i really don't know how to approach this topic, i think what it boils down to is that i miss the types of B - AA games we used to get in the 6th and 7th generation, third and first person shooters, action adventures, beat em ups, loads of linear single player games with story modes to complete.

There are still smaller studios raising a budget and making games like Biomutant, Sniper Ghost Warrior, Stray, but they all vary in quality and content wildly and most studios are trend chasing with multiplayer battle royales or gacha games, on the other hand i've put 331 hours into Snowrunner, i've been playing Zero Hour and have Ready or Not on my wishlist, i've got BPM installed, they don't have traditional single player campaigns but there are still a good number of sizeable games coming out.

I keep bringing it up but last year i played the Extermination Day campaign for the Brutal Doom mod and it's one of the more memorable gaming experiences i've had recently, because we only really get 1 or 2 campaign shooters a year, one of them is Call of Duty, sometimes we get a Doom, the rest are indie retro shooters in early access.
Third person shooters are one of my favourite genres and no one's making those now except Gears of War.

So that's my disjointed ramble, AAA are doing what they do to varying degrees of success and squeezing wallets with micro transactions and digital money laundering, and making a game is easier than ever inspiring people to make cool new experiences that aren't third person shooters :P.

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#8  Edited By brian_

@bigsocrates: I think when used in the context of "mid-tier, western develop, action game" the "AA game" did go away for a while though. And that's usually what I find people who bemoan that loss are referring to. Yes, smaller budget games never truly went away. You have your games like Ori, or the hundreds of JRPG series coming out of Japanese companies, but the people looking for "AA" games aren't looking to play an Atelier game, or care how big the team that made Ori is, or that they were published by whichever company. They just want to play games like the ones they used to play. And I think there were definitely very few of those around last gen.

So then should there be a different word for "mid-tier, western develop, action game"? Maybe. When someone refers to "the death of AA games" I know what they're referring to, despite it being untrue if we're just going by textbook definitions of words. Is any of that actually relevant to the topic of this thread? Probably not. But am I a massive weirdo with a boner for semantics, willing to somewhat derail a conversation to espouse my own stupid philosophy on whether the context of language and the conveyance of ideas is more important than meaning and correctness? Absolutely.

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Justin258

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Honestly I don't really want to define "AA". If it's specifically about scope of project... sure. There are still a lot of things that definitely aren't indie but also definitely aren't AAA coming out, but I don't think that's exactly what people who lament the lack of AA games are looking for.

I think one of the most significant factors when it comes to this conversation isn't even budget, really. I think what a lot of people are looking for are single-player, linear, focused, well-paced, story-driven action adventure games that look pretty, play well, and - this is the most important bit - aren't bloated time sinks. Games like Prince of Persia 2008, the already-mentioned Binary Domain, Vanquish, Mirror's Edge, Escape from Butcher Bay, Castlevania Lords of Shadow, Singularity, FEAR, Bioshock, Enslaved, the old God of Wars, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, and so on and so forth, we don't get those as much anymore. We get games that play like those, sure, like God of War 2018 or the newer Tomb Raider games or maybe even something like Prey. But those games are all long, "epic" affairs, frequently loaded with superfluous mechanics and dragging every opportunity out into a three hour section of the game.

Titanfall 2 is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. I think Resident Evil VIII fits the bill damn near perfectly, too. But those are both very much AAA affairs put out by some of the biggest publishers in gaming, and the former rather famously came out at a busy time of year and didn't exactly make waves outside of gaming-focused internet communities. Devil May Cry 5 came out and Bayonetta 3 is supposedly coming out, I suppose, but that's still not much and both of those are very similar games.

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bigsocrates

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@brian_: I think that you're getting at a similar point to the one @justin258 and @cikame are making about how there are fewer AA games of a certain type, but I think their posts also get at the major counterargument, which is that there are fewer games at any budget level of that type.

Single player straightforward campaign games just aren't nearly as common as they used to be. You can name a few in the AAA space and I can name a few in the AA space (like Control and Kena: Bridge of Spirits) but they're rare not because AA changed but because the whole industry did.

Even Halo has gone kind of open world, and Gears made similar movements in its last iteration. Many of the companies that churned out the AAA single player campaigns have completely shifted to "live services" or at least bloated open worlds.

The reasons behind this aren't entirely clear but probably have to do with the fact that those games can be played and then sold on the second hand market and don't really have the opportunity for recurrent microtransactions. You can sell DLC campaign add-ons but that kind of DLC is expensive to make compared to things like cosmetics or XP boosters.

That's why I think this is less an argument about AA than it is about the change in game design. And yeah, I miss those kinds of experiences too. Whether at the AAA Uncharted level or the AA Binary Domain level.

Nobody misses the FFF Quantum Theory and Inversion level though.

But that's not really a function of AA changing it's a function of the game landscape changing. And it can change back at some times.

I've wanted to make a post for a while about the fact that the 3D platformer was dead for a very long time outside specific Nintendo franchises and the indie space, and in the span of the last couple years we've had a surge of high budget fantastic 3D platformers, from Psychonauts 2 to Astro's Playroom. We might see a resurgence of single player campaign focused games in the same model at some point, maybe centered around Game Pass where there's no real concern about resales and you've already got the recurrent revenue source in place.

It will never be like it was in the 6th and 7th generations, but again that's true for the AAA space too. Now we have a bunch of AA Soulslike clones instead of AA Gears/Uncharted clones, but that's the overall trend, not just one budget level.

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Justin258

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I've wanted to make a post for a while about the fact that the 3D platformer was dead for a very long time outside specific Nintendo franchises and the indie space, and in the span of the last couple years we've had a surge of high budget fantastic 3D platformers, from Psychonauts 2 to Astro's Playroom. We might see a resurgence of single player campaign focused games in the same model at some point, maybe centered around Game Pass where there's no real concern about resales and you've already got the recurrent revenue source in place.

In addition to 3D platformers, we have also seen a resurgence in isometric CRPGs, fast-paced first person shooters, turn-based strategy games, and you can even find a few first-person dungeon crawlers hanging around. Even RTS games had Iron Harvest come out last year. Anything can happen, and the tools to make games have only gotten better and better and easier and cheaper to get a hold of. Anyone can go download Godot and make a game and sell it, and learning Unity or Unreal has never been easier.

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imunbeatable80

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@justin258: I would also argue that as more people who grew up with those 6th and 7th generation "B-games" (or whatever we want to call them), get into game development, those games will see a resurgence. Nearly every genre and type of game has had minor resurgence over the past 5-10 years. Gaming is very cyclical and trend chasing. Some companies will chase what is hot, while others work on trying to appeal to the nostalgia in older gamers. All it takes is for one of those nostalgia games to hit, and now companies want to chase that high too. It's only a matter of time before we get the next "Singularity" that causes enough of a wave to have people trying to copy it.

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cikame

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@bigsocrates: Your point about 3D platformers is really good, genres do have a tendency to come back around.
I prefer a more tactical third person shooter but they are making a new Space Marine that i'm excited for, hopefully it can match the original.

But man... every year of open worlds and multiplayer focused games that goes by i crave the old stuff more and more, i'm starting to think of games like Binary Domain as white knights of the industry :P.
I saw gameplay of Red Faction Armageddon the other day which most of us skipped back in the day because it wasn't like Guerrilla and it looks awesome :S.

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stealydan

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Would Outriders and Remnant count in this category? Had a ton of fun with these recently, despite swearing off loot-based games like two years ago due to getting frustrated by spending too much time in menus while playing action games.

Also, great writeup my dude, pretty sure I read more of your writing than anyone else's about games these days!

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bigsocrates

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@cikame: I'm a little worried about having a PC only gamer in my thread. I could be perceived as a collaborator and banned from the Fourthline threads that drive all the traffic on these forums.

I played Binary Domain in late 2020 and it was a lot of fun, though also somewhat dated. In my discussion of it I said that I missed these kinds of games for the same reason you do. There's something really nice about a game where you get a curated experience with careful pacing and you always know what to do next.

@stealydan: Super appreciate the kind words, my duder. I think Outriders and Remnant definitely qualify!

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cikame

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@bigsocrates: Full disclosure i have played the PC version of Binary Domain and have positive opinions about it, i'm sorry if this affects the popularity of your forum threads in the future.

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Broshmosh

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@cikame: I'm a little worried about having a PC only gamer in my thread. I could be perceived as a collaborator and banned from the Fourthline threads that drive all the traffic on these forums.

I have nothing to add to this thread except this made me laugh.