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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