Microsoft unveiling Halo: The Master Chief Collection on an Xbox stage.
Barone Firenze/Shutterstock.com

You might have heard the term AAA or Triple-A video games before. These are big-budget titles that you see commercials for on TV. Here’s what they are, and how they shape the gaming industry.

Blockbuster Movies, But for Games

You’ve probably watched a blockbuster movie before. Blockbusters typically have large budgets, production teams of thousands of people, big-name actors, and recognizable film studios producing them. Also, they tend to make tons of money, with more and more movies crossing the billion-dollar mark every year. AAA (or Triple-A) video games are to the gaming world what blockbusters are for the film industry.

Just like blockbusters, they usually involve huge teams working for months to years to make a finished product, employed by a major studio. This is normally followed by a big marketing campaign with ads that show up everywhere, as well as a long preorder so people can get the game as soon as it comes out. These games are then distributed by a large well-known publisher, such as Nintendo, Sony, Activision, or Electronic Arts.

Many Triple-A titles are also part of popular franchises. Much like the way a studio like Disney or Warner Bros. creates movies with their significant properties every year, there are some game series that release titles every few years or even yearly. Call of Duty, Battlefield, Mario, and FIFA are all series with regular new installments that frequently beat their own sales records.

Triple-A Games Versus Other Games

Witcher 3 Wild Hunt Roleplayeing Game
CD Projekt Red

So, how do you tell if a game counts as Triple-A? Without even knowing the game’s studio, the first identifier is its launch price. Nowadays, a standard major title is sold both digitally and physically at $60 upon launch in the United States, with that amount varying between different regions and countries. While this price will certainly go down over time due to sales and bundles, nearly all major releases start at this amount. This doesn’t even include things like a season pass or launch day downloadable content (DLC), which can add to its price upon purchase.

Next is the game’s scale. While there are undoubtedly many ambitious and expansive non-AAA titles out there, the limited budget often becomes a hindering factor for smaller games. Many Triple-A games such as Red Dead Redemption, The Witcher, and Grand Theft Auto have thousands of hours of content and open maps that emphasize exploration. They also frequently have boundary-pushing graphical quality and animation.

Another visible indicator is the size of the team. If a game’s credits have thousands of people and multiple gaming companies working on it, it’s very likely to be a major studio release. Due to the scale and intensity, game publishers often outsource certain aspects of the game, such as 3D animation, modeling, sound design, and online connectivity to third-party contractors.

On the opposite side of the coin are independent games, colloquially known as indie games, which are independently financed and made by small teams. Some famous indie games, such as Minecraft and Stardew Valley, were made almost entirely by one person. They usually are shorter, less graphically intensive, and are priced much lower than Triple-A titles, with many of them being sold between $10 to $40. Many of them also don’t have a physical release, opting for pure digital distribution.

A subset of these games, known as III or Triple-I titles, are large-scale productions with expansive concepts that are made by an independent studio. Games such as Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, No Man’s Sky, and The Witness are all high-quality titles developed by indie game studios.

What Are “Triple-A Plus” Games?

In recent years, game journalists have also coined the term AAA+ or Triple-A plus. These are titles with especially large budgets that are sold at a premium price, and often have additional monetization inside the game. Examples of these include season passes, DLC, and microtransactions.

FIFA 20 Football Game
EA Sports

Yearly game franchises, like FIFA and Call of Duty, are often explicitly designed to have additional purchases built-in. Call of Duty is sold with a season pass that players have to buy to play new campaigns that are distributed throughout the year.

FIFA, on the other hand, has a microtransaction system where you can open loot boxes to unlock various versions of football players to assemble a team. They recently announced that they’d made over a billion dollars in total microtransaction revenues.

RELATED: What Are Microtransactions, and Why Do People Hate Them?

The Future of Gaming

Minecraft Open World Game
Microsoft

As the gaming community continues to grow, so will the gaming industry. More and more major franchise games are being released every year, and while many of them are great, there are some causes for concern. These include the pervasiveness of additional monetization to already expensive games, as well as the tendency of studios to release very similar games every year.

Fortunately, indie gaming enterprises are also growing. The most popular game in the world, Minecraft, was made by a small gaming studio set up by one person. The ubiquity of digital downloading and the rise of platforms like Steam and GOG have made great affordable titles more accessible than ever.

Vann Vicente Vann Vicente
Vann Vicente has been a technology writer for four years, with a focus on explainers geared towards average consumers. He also works as a digital marketer for a regional e-commerce website. He's invested in internet culture, social media, and how people interact with the web.
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