In recent years the AAA games industry has become more concentrated amongst bigger developers and fewer franchises as newer/smaller developers lack the financial muscle to compete in building increasingly complex games. AAA games are games made by large publishers that often have larger development and marketing budgets than typical games.
Here we look at some of the current trends in AAA game development and the challenges developers face in more detail and ask whether these are stifling new ideas and innovation, in favour of risk aversion and financial security.
Complexity in the AAA game industry
One of the biggest challenges facing the AAA game industry today is the rising cost and complexity of development.
Developing complex AAA games takes advanced hardware, software and a large team with specialised skill sets. With this complexity also comes greater financial investment and risk, as well as an increasing likelihood of bugs and glitches in the final product. In the book “Blood Sweat and Pixels”, one game developer likened creating a game to “constructing a building during an earthquake or trying to run a train as someone else is laying down the track as you go”.
This has put significant pressure on games publishers to recoup their investment, leading to a focus on monetisation, and perceptions that this is being prioritised over the actual gaming experience. We have seen an explosion in the number of games that have in-game currency and offer loot boxes and other forms of in-game purchases that are seen by many to detract from the overall enjoyment of games. Games as a Service (GaaS) have also taken off within the world of AAA games. Increasing numbers of AAA game developers are creating live service games, with some companies even shifting their entire business models towards GaaS.
While this model has proven successful for some, it also comes with its own set of challenges, including the need to constantly produce new content and features to keep players engaged and willing to spend money on in-game purchases. On the flip side, there is also the potential for player burnout.
Movies and Games
There are also some striking similarities between AAA game development and the movie industry, with greater reliance on sequels and franchises.
The list of top grossing movies from 1988 included Rain Man, Coming to America, Big, Die Hard, and Beetlejuice. Of the top 10 films released that year, only one was a sequel (Crocodile Dundee II). However, if we fast forward 30 years to 2018, the situation is reversed. Of the top 10 highest grossing films released in 2018, no less than 9 were part of major movie franchises. This trend is mirrored in the AAA games industry, with franchises like Call of Duty, FIFA, and Assassin's Creed regularly dominating sales charts. While these franchises may provide a reliable revenue stream for developers and publishers, it does raise questions about creativity and innovation in the industry.
Rise of Nostalgia?
Remastering or remaking classic games are also becoming increasingly popular. Advancements in computing power creates an opportunity to improve the gameplay and graphics of much-loved classics. This creates a combination of nostalgia and updates in performance that can entice gamers to buy. They can also be a less riskier route for developers to take, after all, re-selling a much loved classic to an already established audience is an easier way to make money than taking a punt on a new idea that might flop. However, it could be argued that this risk aversion is also stifling creativity in the industry as rebooting old games takes priority over new ideas and innovation.
Changing AAA gamer preferences
In addition to the above, gamers' preferences within the AAA games industry have shifted towards games that offer more social and immersive experiences. This has led to the rise of online multiplayer games, such as battle royale and cooperative games, which allow players to interact with each other in real-time. Additionally, gamers are looking for more personalised experiences, which has led to the popularity of games with in-game purchases that allow players to customise their characters or unlock additional features. There has also been a growing demand for games that offer more diverse and inclusive representation, both in terms of characters and storylines. As a result, game developers are focusing on creating more socially immersive experiences, offering customisation options, and embracing diversity and inclusivity.
In conclusion, the AAA games industry is facing several challenges, including rising development costs, a focus on monetisation, and a reliance on franchises and sequels. However, market research can play a crucial role in helping developers and publishers navigate these challenges and remain competitive. By conducting research on player preferences and behaviours, developers can better understand what gamers are looking for in terms of gameplay, customization options, and inclusivity.
2CV has conducted research into how to keep players engaged in GaaS games, what gamers expect from remasters, and even used social media listening tools to gain insights into Saints Row (2022) and how the game was perceived by gamers past the vocal minority. By leveraging market research, the AAA games industry can continue to innovate and evolve while meeting the demands of its audience.