Monthly Archives: February 2010

Bring your AAA game pt.2, the definitioning

Yesterday, I found out that “AAA” when applied to games is a vague concept. So today, I’m going to try to make it a little more concrete.

When you don’t know something, the first thing you do, of course, is go to Wikipedia.

  • Wikipedia says, “In the video game industry, AAA game is an informal description for a video game that has a high budget.”

Hey, I didn’t think that would work!

Big budget seems to be part of everybody’s definition. Great! But I’m looking for a more formal definition, even if I have to create it. So I kept digging.

  • Juuso over at has an idealized list of AAA game features:

– High-quality
– Broad market
– High sales
– Large teams
– Big budget
– Polished audio-visual direction
– Perfect technical and artistic execution
– Playable & fully enjoyable within the first five minutes of play
– Exhaustively tested
– Bug free
– Great usability
– Continous, balanced entertainment from beginning to end
– Great graphical user interface
– First place in the markets, and great marketing
– Hype

High quality seems to be a big part of this list, which isn’t necessarily concurrent with high budget. So let’s remember that one.

  • A nice, simple proposed benchmark at the forums is: “sold, or predicted to sell a million copies.”

Size of the potential haul is an underrated aspect of AAA-dom. You, no doubt, can think of several big-audience games that wouldn’t be considered “AAA”, but I suggest that the speed at which those names arrive in your head proves that these are the exceptions–they stand out because they’re odd, because they fly against the expectation of how big a game is expected to sell.

  • Here’s a smart treatment of the topic by Brad Wardell, which comes as a toss-off in the middle of another essay. Written in 1998, but still quite relevant, Wardell proposes a classification system based on budget rather than quality:

AAA, A, and B level games have nothing to do with how good the game is. If I wrote the world’s greatest space invader’s clone today and even if it had great graphics, great sound, and was totally rock solid, it would still be a B class game. Only a handful of games each year make it out as AAA because the bar is so high to be a AAA game. It costs millions of dollars to create a AAA game. So even the best and funnest games may not be AAA games. Starcraft is a great example of a AAA game and I’ll use it because it’s also an excellent game.

Games like Entrepreneur, Panzer General and Warlords III would be great examples of A games. They may be as fun or even funner than AAA games but don’t have the budgets behind them of a Starcraft.

Deer Hunter is a great example of a B class game in quality. Cheap to make. And where Deer Hunter changed the world was in discovering that a B level game can now make as much money, if not more than a AAA game. And believe me, the game designers of AAA game companies are probably sweating a bit about Deer Hunter. Because corporations are about profit and if they can make more money cranking out B titles they will. But that’s for another discussion entirely.

For a clear definition, it’s probably a good idea to use an objective measure like budget rather than quality. Except that quality will always creep back in. “Gentleman” used to mean both that you had attained land-owning class (objective), and by association, were a better sort of person (subjective). But look what happened to that neat, objective definition.

  • One aspect I did not find is the composition of the target audience. Bejeweled has made crap-tons of money by now, and has seen a fair amount of development by Popcap. But it’s a casual game, and casual games do not care for ratings. Burning Monkey Solitaire has sold, conservatively, a bajillion copies, and I do not believe anyone has ever come near it with a letter grade. Or a toupee, if you know what’s good for you.

Aiming the game at the game hobbyist is an important aspect of being AAA. You have to be someone who is likely to care about game marketing efforts to be the sort of person who might buy a triple-A game.

So all together, a triple-A game has:

  1. a large budget
  2. an extensive, professional marketing campaign
  3. the “gamer” hobbyist market in mind
  4. reasonable aspirations to high quality

Is that enough bullet points for one day?


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Bring your AAA game

A couple weeks ago, I was speaking with a friend about potential writing work on a new MMO. After he’d said a bunch of things and I’d asked a bunch of questions, he added as an afterthought, “And you’d be working on a triple-A game. That’s a nice carrot. I guess I could mention that closer to the front.”

And I said, “Oh yeah, that’s pretty nice.”

I didn’t say, “What makes it a triple-A game anyway?” in the same way that you don’t ask what postmodernism is in a roomful of black-clad philosophy students. Because you’re afraid to look stupid.

But let’s face it, I am stupid, on this topic anyway. Are there double-A games? If there were, would those be better like batteries, or worse like bonds? So I went looking online to see what a “AAA” title is, exactly.

It turns out that (just like postmodernism), “AAA” is a term with no clear definition. Everybody just uses it to mean “expensive game with a big marketing budget.” Which, unlike the derision normally heaped on this definition, is a fine thing. I’m all for big, loud, blockbuster games. They don’t all have to be winners, as long you don’t want me to buy the losers. But then I wondered, “Can I come up with a definition?”

Yes. Tomorrow.

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Further thoughts on GDITS

Here are some other quick observations I had while playing:

  • So many options in such a small space gives you plenty of reason and opportunity to fiddle with all the knobs.
  • Good enemy abilities do not make good player abilities.
  • Flying rules. This is  subset of the larger principle of  game design, “mobility rules.”
  • Enemies do not use their full suite of powers against you. Things that can fly do not fly to come get you. This is good, because the game would be too freaking hard if that happened. Levels would have to be redesigned to give you shelter from flying monstrosities. The same thing that makes you rule when you play as the thunder dragon would make the thunder dragon unbeatable against you.
  • It would be nice if there was some reason to play other than the best monster in the game. Your best monster might be different than my best monster, but I bet both our best monsters fly, and have a high damage attack that bounces and can be fired frequently. If your monster doesn’t have that, my monster is better.

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Catch ’em all

Between bouts of snow, I’ve been playing Great Dungeon in the Sky, a retro-style game Web game of fantasy adventure. I really enjoyed it. It’s simple, clever, and rewards mastery early and often.

The game contains 314 characters in all, which you unlock for play by killing them in the regular game.* Kill a speardwarf? Now you can be a speardwarf.

Eye tyranny

In this screen shot I’m a pixely beholder, flying above some primitively-rendered yetis.

However, speardwarves are not everywhere, and thus the game enters a collectible phase with a rarity scheme.

Normally I am immunized against “collectible” achievements by having what’s called “other things to do.” But the snow drove me into my cave, and I found myself compelled to unlock every character.

And hating myself for it. When a game reaches this point, where you’re trying to complete all the side quests or catch all the Pokemon or whatever, it is imperative to keep the game fun to play.

Otherwise, you’re playing a whole different game, and a significantly less fun one. It’s a game of endurance, a game of spite. You plow through the mechanics, a race against patience.

These aspects of games are popular enough that someone must be enjoying them, but a designer could do well to make that repetitive endgame more playable:

  • Provide accompanying game play. I found myself still enjoying Mass Effect even as I tried to complete everything in the game because there was still an exploration element to flying out to different star systems and driving around on planets. This can be resource intensive, but it kept me playing the game.
  • Create visual novety. In another game, you could mix existing art assets in “unreal” ways once the primary objective is met and the game is 95% complete. Kick it into dazzle mode.
  • Leave difficulty alone. The hard part at this point is finding the will to turn on the game one more time. Making every enemy 20% harder doesn’t help me meet my achievement goal. It only hinders it. (Happily, GDINTS doesn’t do this.)

What would you do to make unlocking achievements more fun?

*or by winning the game and getting a free unlock.

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Big as the movies

When I worked as a game designer and editor at Wizards of the Coast, the company’s vision statement was to “Make games as big as the movies.”

At the time, if you counted gambling, games were already bigger than movies dollar-wise.

But the vision was bigger than dollars. It was about making games be part of people’s lives, and creating a common cultural reference. Everyone knows “Rosebud.” Could everyone also know “Zagyg?”

Are we there yet? Well, mostly. Everyone does know “Mario.”

The crucial difference though is that Mario is thought to be for kids. Broad American public opinion remains that games are something you put away after childhood, or enjoyed furtively as adults.

But the attitude is changing generationally. Once half the office is playing Counter-Strike, how much longer can you be slightly sheepish about it?

We’re not there yet, but we are on the cusp. Now is a great time to be in games, and it’s a great time to be curious about games.

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