What is an AAA game? Valve, Volition and EA veterans discuss

A silly buzzphrase, or something more?

However loudly the term is trumpeted, "AAA games" can be elusive, nebulous things. Like "gameplay", true love and Bigfoot, everybody seems to know a specimen when they see it, but few can pin down an exact definition in advance.

Is there more to the idea than fluff? Is it just a marketing phrase we've unwisely seized upon as an indicator of status and quality? To find out, OXM spoke to five games industry heavyweights.


David Braben
Founder, Frontier Developments (Kinectimals, LostWinds, Elite)
The term 'AAA' has always annoyed me. You never hear of people making 'AA' games; it's always 'AAA' or nothing. I suspect it has something to do with the budget, team size, and production values but in practice as often as not it has more to do with publicity. More recently it has been applied to disc-based console games to differentiate them from mobile games, but I expect future mobile games will claim to fall under this same umbrella. Certainly our future games for mobile platforms at Frontier have the production values, but I still have every intention of steering clear of using the term. I'm now off to have a 'AAA' cup of coffee ...

Chet Faliszek
Writer, Valve Corporation (Half-Life, Left 4 Dead, Portal)
I am not sure myself what defines a game as triple-A games anymore. Is it budget? Advertising? Popularity? Games come in so many forms now if the concept of triple-A games is still with us today, I'm not sure it will be there tomorrow. That isn't to say there won't be "big" games, I'm just not sure how you define them.

Harvey Elliott
Consultant, former VP and general manager of EA Casual (Harry Potter, Boom Blox, Burnout)
AAA is the holy grail of game development, something all developers should strive for - although the measure of success needs to be in the eyes of the player not the developer. As a player though I never use the expression AAA - I would just shower the game in superlatives. To me a truly great game is when the player is surprised and delighted throughout, and they finish the game feeling they've been rewarded supremely for their time and investment. And much like how a good book takes you away from the words and sentences so you barely notice turning the page, or how a great film removes you from the place you are watching it - a great game should draw you in and just deliver consistently high quality entertainment and fun, and in most cases be so intuitive to play that you are concentrating on the overall experience, not the controls.

Greg Donovan
Producer, Volition Inc (Red Faction, Saints Row, INSANE)
Defining what constitutes a AAA game is dependent on whom you ask. Publishers tend to judge based on sales or profitability, whereas developers tend to judge by quality - presumably based at least in part on reviews and other critical acclaim. I think it's a very loose definition that can be treated differently depending on the situation. For example, AAA in the mobile or social space probably needs to be judged differently than AAA on console. For me personally, a AAA title is a game that exceeds sales projections and is critically acclaimed due to a number of factors like originality, innovation, visuals, immersion, etc. and overall leaves most players with a fun, compelling, and memorable gaming experience.

At the end of the day though, this is all moot; AAA is so twentieth century. AAAA is the new standard. There are some studios searching for developers to work on AAAA titles now. Although I'm very excited about this new endeavor I'm a bit worried that quad A might be too much game for gamers to handle. And now I'm thinking about disposable razors...

Ed Stern
Lead writer, Splash Damage (Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, Brink, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars)
The distinction is deceptively straightforward. When you tell your parents (who are still baffled about quite what it is that you do) about a medium-budget game project, they - trying to be appreciative and supportive - will say "Aah". But if it's a larger-budget game project they, to indicate they realise it's a bigger deal, will nod and say "Aaah." It's THAT simple.

What do you think constitutes a triple-A game?