The Rise of the AA Gaming Industry, and Why That’s a Good Thing
The sixth generation of gaming consoles was truly a time when everyone was experimenting like crazy, big publishers included. Namco would be wacky enough to look at a game like Katamari Damacy and think it was cool enough to be published and sold in stores. Nintendo would be okay with publishing a Lovecraftian horror game, as well as a first-person shooter starring a poltergeist. EA greenlit a fully-fledged Harry Potter Quidditch game. Capcom would eventually release a side-scrolling, cel-shaded beat ’em up starring a movie nerd dressed like a generic Power Ranger. While making games was a lot harder back then, production costs were also much lower, meaning that big companies would take risks, as well as prioritize the vision of the game designer above anything else. There was no such thing as AAA or indie: you either were a game, or you weren’t.
Nowadays, things are much different. Making a game might actually be easier, due to the popularity of engines like Unreal and Unity, but it’s also much more expensive to make a big game like the ones from back in the day. That also means companies are less willing to take risks, opting for more homogenized and mass-appealing games with additional monetization methods instead. From a business perspective, this makes total sense. From a fan’s perspective, it’s not interesting at all. Even though there are tons of amazing AAA games out there, an increasing amount of them have started to look a bit too generic and far too similar to one another.
Thankfully, the indie scene started to undergo a massive expansion, resulting in a gigantic array of small, but creative titles being released in a weekly basis. Sure, there’s always the generic “retro-inspired title with roguelike elements” that is released every single day, but nowadays if you want creativity, you play indies. With that being said, while I adore indies and will defend them until the end of time, those games are of a much smaller scope than AAA titles and more often than not don’t even dare to push the consoles they’re released for to their limits.
But what if I told you that the gaming scene isn’t as binary as it sounds? There is more than just “indies or AAAs”. The amount of mid-tier titles, also known as AA games, has started to grow over the past few years, and that’s great for the industry and for consumers in general.
AA games offer the best of both worlds, but in a slightly smaller scale. More often than not, you get a game with a higher degree of production values, polygonal graphics, voice acting, but at the same time, more creative premises and a focus on a specific demographic of gamers. There’s no such thing as bloated production budgets or huge advertisement campaigns. Their production cost is usually a fraction of the nonsensical amount poured into the creation of a AAA game, meaning that their sales goals are smaller, and therefore, their financial risks are also smaller. More often than not, there’s little to no publicity surrounding those titles, as those who actually want to buy them have been looking forward to them ever since they first got announced. Sometimes, less is more.
Thanks to the new AA industry, we can play Dark Souls clones featuring robots (The Surge), Lovecraftian horror titles (The Sinking City, Call of Cthulhu), Norse-inspired action-adventures with a heavy emphasis on mental health issues (Hellblade), adventures set during the Black Plague (A Plague Tale: Innocence), dictatorship simulators (Tropico 6), adventures starring a vampire in Victorian London (Vampyr), love letters to Banjo-Kazooie (Yooka-Laylee), and even RPGs in which we play as space wizards from Mars, something that sounds crazy enough to be the theme of a psychedelic rock concept album (The Technomancer).
Those are games that don’t feature a homogenized and mass-market oriented appeal, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth your time. In fact, none of the games described above are bad. Titles such as The Surge, A Plague Tale, and Tropico 6 might not sound like everyone’s cup of tea, but they are must-haves in any gamer’s library.
E3 2019 was a great indication that AA gaming is growing strong. Companies like Bigben, THQ, and Rebellion stole the show with the actual creative titles available in the show, as well as niche games directed to a specific target audience. THQ had the Destroy All Humans remake, a brand new Darksiders, as well as Monster Jam Steel Titans, a game that has little to no appeal for those who don’t like monster trucks, but is a godsend to those who do. Rebellion announced Sniper Elite VR, being one of the very few VR games not developed by an independent studio showcased at E3. Bigben, a company that truly wants to become “the leading AA publisher in the world” (their words, not mine), had unique titles like Werewolf, as well as the promising WRC 8; a racing simulator with actual RPG elements. Focus Home wasn’t at E3 this year, but I’m most certainly looking forward to their upcoming The Surge 2. All of the games mentioned above impressed me way more than AAA titles such as Ghost Recon: Breakpoint and Marvel’s Avengers; the latter being one of the biggest disappointments of the show.
What I like the most about this growing AA industry is that developers don’t want to impress us with flashy visuals, impossible promises, or a long road map. AA games are the closest reminder to how the gaming industry used to be back in the fifth and sixth generations, a simpler time where we would get a mid-sized yet complete product aimed at a specific gaming demographic. Whether they cost $60 or less, you know that you’re not getting a butchered piece of software. While I still love big budget titles, as well as indies, I’m glad that an industry focused on mid-sized games is growing strong. They might not be the most polished games out there, but there’s something about them that makes me look forward to them more than any other gaming tier out there.