The Soapbox: The death of AAA

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The Soapbox: The death of AAA
38 Studios picture
Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

I think we're all pretty familiar with the tragic story of 38 Studios by now. If not, take some time to familiarize yourself with it. Essentially it is a tale of massive dreams, botched plans, and hundreds of job losses. I'm not yet sure exactly what went wrong, but I have a feeling that the lackluster response to the studio's stand-alone title might be to blame on top of the poor performance in the high-end of the company. Either way, I have seen many comments exclaiming the end of the big-budget title or at least more trepidation from governments that feel the need to get into a game (no pun intended) they were unfamiliar with.

If we could take a poll of the several million "AAA" MMO players in North America, it's my bet that most of them simply go from one title to the other. The RIFT players who are now enjoying Star Wars: The Old Republic came from World of Warcraft, and before that (if they played MMOs before WoW) they might have been City of Heroes fans and EverQuest players before that. For a long time, large studios held all of the players. Then, AAA started rolling down the steep hill to where it is now.

EVE Online screenshot
We must make at least an attempt at defining AAA. You readers can hash it out in the comments section, but I have my own definition: I think for a long time AAA referred to all things wonderful and large -- games that were open, full of opportunities and new to most of us who have been playing since the '90s. Heck, there have always been indie or underground games, but in the early 2000s, it was much a much larger bet to make an MMO than it is now. Indies just weren't as visible.

AAA meant that you had to get a new machine. AAA also meant that, as soon as a faster internet took over dial-up, you had to aquire that. The general rule around my house for over a decade has been to spend some sort of money on upgrades around every two years. Sometimes we had to figure in subscription costs, at one point paying for six subs for two people. We needed a bigger monitor and better speakers, and later on we got into covering games through podcasting and blogging. That meant paying for web hosting and a faster podcast-sharing service.

So ultimately, AAA means more money coming from the average customer.

Luckily, AAA gave in return. We had wonderful graphics and a lot of players to interact with. I have found friends through gaming, friends who are still with me today. I've met some of them at conventions and continue to meet new ones through social media. AAA MMO gaming was like a giant, virtual convention, filled with rides and friends to hang out with. AAA meant social interaction and fantastic times.

"Soon after World of Warcraft ate the rest of the AAA industry, developers tried to adapt by becoming more like WoW. It worked in some cases and not in others."

Then, the fabric started to fray. Soon after World of Warcraft ate the rest of the AAA industry, developers tried to adapt by becoming more like WoW. It worked in some cases and not in others. In the background, older games like the original EverQuest or RuneScape continued to run and enjoy enough success. Little did we know that, poised overseas and waiting to strike, free-to-play developers and publishers were lining up. In fact, I almost remember exactly when the movement to free-to-play started to become serious. A few titles like Flyff or Rappelz made money and are still around today. I'm skipping over many details, but as I remember it, then Western companies started to turn to free-to-play to make more money. It turns out that free can equal profit, thanks to the (possible) double-digit percentage of players who actually pay something. Hybrid models have now become popular with Western publishers; they employ freemium models that do away with the initial pay wall and ask for fees later. The formula seems to have worked.

AAA used to mean subscription but now can mean anything.

This isn't the only way that "AAA" has lost or completely changed its meaning. It can refer to quality graphics, but what does that mean? I think we all know that graphics alone do not make for a good game. AAA might refer to stellar gameplay, but then we are asked to put down $60 or more for a game like Star Wars: The Old Republic that tucks the same tired combat in between bits of fully voiced cutscenes. The truth is that budget or graphics used to guarantee a sense of wonder, but now we've seen just how few chances developers are willing to take. I talked with a member of RIFT's original community team at GDC Online a few years ago, and he shrugged at the possibility of "dynamic content." He wasn't impressed. Then we found out that the game was not as dynamic as many of us had hoped. Despite amazing graphics, the game pushes players through linear lines more than it presents them with a chaotic world. Fortunately the linear gameplay in some of the titles, especially RIFT, can be quite fun. But are they worthy of being called "AAA" -- the epitome of quality? Nope. There are only a few gems that are the equivalent of a Mercedes Benz.

EverQuest screenshot
I mentioned RuneScape earlier -- would many players consider it AAA? To me, it offers more gameplay, story, fun and linear gameplay, and sandbox gameplay all within the arm's reach of a browser... yet I would bet that many of our readers would not call it AAA. Why?

Wizard101 is doing amazing stuff and has found a massive audience. The game is satisfying to adults and kids alike and has won awards, made profits, and even spread word to television commercials. Would readers consider it AAA?

Mabinogi has been around for years and continues to offer some of the most unique and open gameplay of almost any title I can think of. It also offers a sort of freemium pay model, but it's still as free as you can find. Is it AAA, considering its age and success?

What about Free Realms and all of its obsessed players? How come many would not consider Second Life a AAA title, even though it pulls in $75 million a year? What does it take to be considered AAA? Here's my guess: If the game is threatening to cost yet another PC upgrade, that's a point toward AAA. If it offers up a relatively famous name as a consultant, artist or writer, that's another point to AAA. If it's being talked about as a game that will change how MMOs are played, and if it's talked about in that way long enough, players will start to refer to it as AAA.

"I'm calling the term AAA dead. It guarantees absolutely nothing, except for maybe graphical quality. At the same time, we have games like Vindictus that dominate the graphics department."

I'm calling the term AAA dead. It guarantees absolutely nothing, except for maybe graphical quality. At the same time, we have games like Vindictus that dominate the graphics department. Then we have to consider Kickstarter for finally drawing attention to independent gaming. Sure, we've yet to see much fruit being bared after much fundraising, but the important thing is that independent or smaller developers are now being talked about alongside 200 million dollar titles. The same thing happened to the music industry, thanks in large part to sites like MySpace and file sharing. The internet can now deliver any sort of MMO to a willing player. Not only can a fan of AAA titles find all that she wants for free or for little money (hopefully she pays something at some point), but she might stumble across an interesting indie title and become hooked on that as well.

This is a new, more open web we live in. Social media guarantees that word-of-mouth is faster than ever. Indie MMOs still receive very little coverage outside of sites like this one, but even still they are getting more coverage than ever, alongside games that have development teams that are literally many times larger. Wurm Online was built mainly by a few people, one of them Notch, who went on to develop Minecraft; by contrast, 38 Studios laid off hundreds. RuneScape was started by a pair of brothers 10 years ago and is one of the most successful MMOs ever, even being mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records; World of Warcraft has thousands of employees under its roof.

In other words, AAA means absolutely nothing anymore.

This is by no means an exclamation that big-budget MMOs will be a thing of the past. There will always be a few out there, and this is good. Players need choices, and a 20-gig adventure is sometimes all the doctor ordered. But now we have browser-based, independent, and an entirely new generation of medium-sized studios, all vying for the attention of gamers. If you don't believe me, let me ask you this: If you find a game and enjoy it, do you honestly care how large its budget was? Of course not.

There will always be players who take pride in spending thousands of dollars on state-of-the-art gaming machines and will go out of their way to play games that drive those machines harder, but in the meantime, most of us are playing on several-year-old machines and finding more titles that ever to play, games like Wurm Online, MapleStory, Illyriad, MilMo, Pocket Legends, Anarchy Online, EverQuest, Glitch, Gemstone IV, Spiral Knights, Battlestar Galactica Online... games from all sorts of budget levels and team sizes.

It's a new time, and AAA is no longer the only game in town.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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