What makes a AAA game a AAA game?
Not all games are made equal—that’s the cold, hard reality in the gaming industry. Factors like budgets, the size of the team, and the willingness to take risks have a lot to do with how a game feels, plays, and looks.
Games are often classified into categories like indie and AAA as shorthand in response to some of these factors, but what do those classifications mean? AAA games range from Grand Theft Auto 5 to Madden NFL 24, but they’re two very different games that elicited very different reactions from players. And what makes a game not-AAA? How independent does an indie have to be to be an indie?
Game classifications can be tricky, so here’s everything you need to know about the differences, and what role AAA games play in the gaming space.
What is a AAA game?
Omdia Senior Games Analyst James McWhirter explained that AAA games cost the most to develop and market, likening them to blockbusters. He used Cyberpunk 2077 as an example. The game cost an estimated $174 million to create, and he believes that the cost to market the game may now have exceeded that.
According to McWhirter, there are few AAA game publishers because of these massive costs. Only studios like Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft, Square Enix, and Warner Bros. Games can afford to develop and market games of this scale. He also pointed out that these publishers own most of the development studios they work with—and sometimes own the IP as well.
Examples of popular AAA games include Red Dead Redemption 2, The Last of Us, and the Madden NFL games.
There are other classifications besides AAA. Indie is another well-known label for games, and there are others you might not hear as often, like III (triple-I) games, AA, and even AAAA.
Indie games are made by very small development teams, and sometimes even by one person. They usually don’t have a very large budget and are often passion projects that turn into something bigger. Great examples of massively popular indie games include Loop Hero and Celeste.
Rana Rahman, Founder and CEO of Raptor PR, pointed out that sometimes people assume that any game made by an independent studio is an indie game—but just because a game is made by a studio that’s not tied to a publisher or another developer doesn’t mean it’s an indie game in the colloquial sense of the term.
Triple-I games are independently funded titles that tend to deliver the same high production value of a AAA game, often thanks to an experienced development team.
Then there are the AA (or double-A) games. As Rahman pointed out, these are generally from studios that aren’t quite big enough to be considered AAA studios but not small enough to be indie studios. They have bigger budgets than your average indie game, but they’re not going to spend the hundreds of millions that AAA studios burn through.
The quadruple-A classification is a relatively new category designated by companies like Sony and Microsoft to underscore that these specific games somehow go beyond what is delivered with a AAA game. Ubisoft, for instance, calls its upcoming pirate title Skull & Bones a AAAA title. It’s still a relatively new term that hasn’t quite been accepted by the video game industry as a whole.
How AAA games impact the industry
AAA games push the industry to do better in a variety of ways, testing the boundaries of graphics, performance, and the capabilities of gaming consoles. With massive teams and expansive budgets, they have the time and workforce to hone in on the details that make up large-scale games. Indie and triple-I games don’t have the same space to do this, whether that’s due to budget restraints or resources.
But indie games can push AAA games to be more creative. It’s not that AAA game developers wouldn’t try to break the mold if given the chance, but they often have less flexibility because of the constraints put on them by their parent companies. Once an indie proves out an approach, the path to using that approach is made easier for AAA developers.
So while AAA games are pushing many of the hardware capabilities in the gaming industry, indies and triple-I games are pushing the creative side of the industry just as hard. The existence of all types of games is important for moving the industry ahead.
The future of AAA games
With games constantly pushing each other to improve, one can’t help but wonder where this will lead AAA games.
There was a time when people debated whether AAA games were dying. With free-to-play games garnering massive revenue numbers, some thought that the days of blockbuster AAA games were coming to an end. However, these are generally just the ups and downs of the industry.
Analyst James McWhirter predicts that AAA games will use live-service features more, leaning on content-heavy updates and consistent patches—partly because AAA games cost so much to make, and studios want them to stay relevant for as long as possible. While this has been a trend in multiplayer games for a while now, McWhirter said it’s becoming more important for singleplayer games as well.
The future is unpredictable, but one thing’s clear: Video games, no matter their scope or classification, work together to make the gaming industry what it is.
AAA games may be the blockbusters of the video game industry, but they’re not the only games that matter. They have a massive influence (it’s nearly impossible to talk about gaming without mentioning titles like The Witcher), but games from indie studios can be just as fun and even more polished at times than their AAA counterparts.
These categories primarily exist to help examine the video game industry as a whole, but players shouldn’t use them to define what is and isn’t a good game.