B for big business
Way back in the year 2008, my first ever front-page post for Destructoid asked if ultra-expensive, realistic-looking AAA games were where the industry was going. Flash forward 15 years later, and most of the enduring, popular new intellectual properties since then haven’t come AAA at all, and instead hail from what you might call “B budget” developers. Human Fall Flat, Five Nights at Freddy’s, Genshin Impact, Among Us, Fall Guys, Fortnite, Vampire Survivors, and Rocket League are just a few of the non-AAA games that went on to find big, sustained audiences since then.
The list of games like this to both launch well and continue to perform well is a lot longer than the list of new, multi-million-dollar, AAA franchises that achieve the same goals in a similar timeframe.
We don’t know how much all these “B budget” games cost, but we can guess that if Fortnite originally cost $300K to produce, the likes of Among Us were likely much less. Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, one of the most played games of all time, started off as a fan mod fer cripes sake! And some of the few new AAA IPs that did manage to take off in the last decade largely found their footing thanks to goodwill built up from their developers’ work on less-than-AAA budgeted games. Elden Ring would have never taken off without diehard Souls fans, Cyberpunk 2077 wouldn’t be anywhere without the loyalty of fans of the original Witcher games, and so on.
From that perspective, the days of single-player, hyper-realistic games with long expensive cutscenes or other barriers to actual gameplay could be over. Some of the most well-known games in the world in 2023 aren’t trying to muscle attention away from casual shoppers in brick-and-mortar stores like Toys ‘R’ Us or GameStop. They are games that make for great “Let’s Play” videos, are fun to share screenshots or stories about on social media, stream well, and can be picked up and played by a wider audience.
It doesn’t always take a lot of money to make them. So why doesn’t AAA make more games like that?
The AAA culture bubble
AAA gaming, like most media cultures, exists in its own insular little world. Human Fall Flat sold 40 million copies since its release in 2016, but despite the fact that it’s clearly the kind of game that makes a lot of people really happy, you can be sure that it never, ever had a chance of winning one of Geoff Keighley’s Game Awards. Those prizes will inevitably go to a game that either attempts to be like a serious Hollywood movie, and/or involve some “auteur” talent from outside of games, like Norman Reedus or George R.R. Martin. When it comes to cute, silly, gleefully game-y games like Human Fall Flat, AAA executives are quick to handwave their success away. They’re seen as flukes, and their success is perceived to be based entirely on luck.
The fact that they do a better job than most AAA games at engaging the average player is largely ignored.
This leads to a weird sort of risk aversion where AAA devs feel like they need to spend a massive amount of money to assure that, regardless of what trends are happening at that moment, that their game will be “objectively superior” to the rest. And I get it. It’s much harder to predict which quirky, highly accessible game will be the next one to become a phenomenon. But it’s also likely that it won’t be a AAA game with realistic graphics and a focus on a big, complicated single-player story, because no game like that has sold more than 30 million copies in a long time. GTAV was probably the last one to do that, and it was released a decade ago.
It’s not as though the risk of AAA games with a big marketing budget selling absolutely nothing isn’t there. The capacity to bomb is still strong. AAA titles like Forspoken and The Callisto Protocol are two recent examples. Their AAA publishing, budget, and marketing efforts failed to make them hits. While they never had the potential to be the next Tetris or Minecraft, they don’t even look poised to become “cult hits” like No More Heroes. Moving forward, we can guess that all-new, single-player-focused, big-budget IPs will be more and more of a lose-lose proposition. For AAA, there will always be a ceiling for success, marked by a line where the enthusiast market ends, and the mainstream market begins. But there is no bottom to how hard they can fail.
The irony is, the same factors that limit how big AAA games can get are the same factors that make them appealing to publishers. It’s much easier to be a big fish in a relatively small enthusiast market than it is to try to swim in the blue ocean against massive mainstream hits like Roblox or League of Legends. And, for now, AAA still has the power to craft a niche culture where only they have the resources to make games that will be perceived as “important”.
I was laughed off of the internet once for theorizing that home console controllers have become increasingly complicated over the years in order to push away players who are more likely to criticize AAA games. I can see how that might sound paranoid, but just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. Just look at the amount of hate people have gotten for suggesting that tough boss fights be skippable, or that games should always have easy modes. The level of venom that the Wii and the DS received for valuing “casuals” was wild to witness. AAA marketing had worked for years to instill a weird pride in people for playing difficult, complicated games, and with that pride came the urge to shame anyone who took a different road.
You’d think that AAA publishers wouldn’t want to create an audience that repels potential new customers from getting into gaming, but as many politicians know, winning elections isn’t about getting everyone to like you. If using divisive, mean-spirited rhetoric pushes 50% of voters away so much that they don’t even want to think about politics, but also excites 30% of the remaining people, then that only leaves 20% of the population who may vote against you.
And in AAA, every vote costs at least $60 to cast, making the barrier to entry much higher than voting in most of the world’s political elections. Expensive to make, expensive to buy games do even more to alienate any reviewer who may consider playing a GTA or CoD game for review and say, “It’s too long, divisive, or meanspirited.”
If the only people playing your games are the ones who are predestined to love them, then you’ve already guaranteed a win.
But that can’t last forever, especially with something as awesome as video games. Eventually, people are going to find them and love them, no matter how much you try to alienate them. As a result, the urge from the old guard to fight back can lead to some pretty strange comments. You see something similar happening in the film industry, where directors who love making movies about real people will complain that superhero blockbusters aren’t “real cinema”. What they’re really trying to say is, they preferred the days when the movies they loved to make were also the movies that the industry valued the most. They want to continue to be the ones to establish what “good” and “bad” movies are, so they can continue to easily get financing for the kinds of movies they like making.
If controlling the standards for quality in your medium is the #1 way to avoid risk in any art industry, you can bet your sweet bippy that AAA will do its darndest to exercise that control. That’s why Bethesda’s Hi-Fi Rush was such an anomaly. The game was a huge hit, despite not being a typical AAA game. In fact, that’s exactly why it did so well. It was a massive breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale market filled with games aiming for the same safe, AAA goals.
But if Bethesda and other AAA publishers continue to make that type of game, they are going to implicitly admit that you don’t need a ton of money to make something really popular. The emperor’s new high-res, photorealistic clothes will be off, and they’ll have to compete with other publishers and developers on a much more even playing field. It’s enough to give your average AAA CEO low-budget nightmares.
Delaying the inevitable
Just like fossil fuel companies that desperately want to keep their good thing going until either electric cars, government regulation, (or the planet Earth itself), says that the party’s over, AAA publishers really don’t have much reason to embrace the truth right now. If the vocal minority online, which is still made up of millions, keeps believing that they are number one, it will keep that FOMO feeling alive in those with enough disposable income to splurge on a $60 or $70 title just because it got a lot of reviews/awards/buzz online. As long as they maintain their stature with the loudest voices in the enthusiast market, then they are going to keep making plenty of money.
That said, I think it’s inevitable that their brand of game will eventually lose the capacity to even appear “important” to anybody. AAA games in long-running franchises like God of War, which appeal to both older players like me and the kids who care about AAA gaming history, are going to continue to do well for at least another decade. It’s not a coincidence that these games tend to be about aging parents and their up-and-coming, game-loving children, because that’s exactly who’s still buying them. Eventually, the generation brought up on disc-based home consoles will hit their 60s and 70s, leaving the Minecraft-loving tablet and phone gaming generation to fully inherit the medium.
By 2050, the current style of AAA games will look “retro” at best, like how N64 games look to us now.
And, by then, making realistic-looking games will be as cheap and easy to do as it is to use art-generating apps today. The games that win the popularity contests will be the ones that give people the opportunity to work out their stress and live out their fantasies in the most novel and interesting ways, regardless of how much money was put into them. It could be that The Last of Us may really end up being one of the last of the single-player-focused, story-heavy, AAA-budget franchises that will appeal to anyone but the most diehard of video game fans.