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.