There was a time when distinguishing between video games primarily amounted to what genre it was.
However throughout the console generations the way in which video games are developed and published has changed substantially. During the Seventh Generation of consoles (2005-2013) this change began to become noticeably apparent.
Before the Sixth Generation (1999-2005) no one distinguished one video game from another based on the size of the company that developed it. This would only come into the discussion if the budget for the game was unusually large, or criticisms were made of a lack of polish, in which case it might be stated that the developer outstretched themselves.
Yet during the Sixth gen the term AA game began to be used. The problem with this term is that there is no strict definition for it. This can cause confusion, as there are some that tie this descriptor to Metacritic scores. And therefore equates AAA games with a rating of 90+, and AA between 75-89. There are others who associate the A ratings with sales figures, which can seem more appropriate considering how AAA games are usually defined. This is because AAA games are often have large development and marketing budgets, and subsequently sell large volumes.
During the era of the Sixth Gen when the distinction between AAA and AA games was starting to become apparent, it tended to apply to games which were comparatively unique, and could be seen as taking more risks than other titles. This distinction was particularly apparent regarding the output from Capcom during this period, especially in relation to what was referred to as the “Capcom Five”.
This was part of a plan to help boost sales of the GameCube and to demonstrate much-needed third-party support. Ultimately, only four of games were released and only one – P.N.0.3 – remained exclusive to the GameCube.
Of particular note was Killer7, the one game made by a non-Capcom owned studio, Grasshopper Manufacture. Killer7 was unique in that gameplay was not a primary concern for Grasshopper. It was only defined after the developers considered the primarily elements of storyline and the visuals. Despite what people think of the Killer7, both of these elements still stand out today. Yet the gameplay that was created, despite being a secondary consideration, is one of a kind and provides an unparalleled experience.
In relation to his ambition regarding the game, the director Goichi Suda – aka Suda51 – reflected:
“I wanted to create something that people have never experienced before [no matter the medium], and that is the philosophy I had when I created Killer7. I don’t know if it was successful or not, but I believe that a lot of fans received Killer7 really well.”
Despite the game generating polarising reviews, and failing to meet Capcom’s sales targets, the sales it did achieve were modest enough for it to gain a significant cult following. This amount of success was sufficient for Grasshopper Manufacture and Suda51, and helped cement their presence in the Western market. This cult success subsequently enabled them to remake Flower, Sun, and Rain, as well as No More Heroes, which was critically and commercially successful.
Capcom learnt some key lessons from its experiences during the Capcom Five project, but they had unfortunate ramifications for AA games in the following generation. Oone of the main lessons identified was the need to focus on existing franchises rather than to create new ones. The explanation being that out of the four titles released, Resident Evil 4 was the only one deemed to be an unequivocal commercial success.
The immediate implementation of this was the creation of a direct sequel to the Capcom Five title Viewtiful Joe, and turned the internal Team Viewtiful into a semi-autonomous developer now named Clover Studio. The irony was that despite Capcom’s decision to focus on existing titles, the modus operandi for Clover Studio was to focus on developing new IP. Unfortunately, this agenda was short lived – as was the company itself – and during its brief lifetime the company only managed to create two new original IP’s before it closed. The closure was mostly down to the high profile resignations from Clover Studio of Atsushi Inaba, Hideki Kamiya, and Shinji Mikami, who said that Capcom either reluctant, or actively opposed to risky new ideas. This was shared by another Capcom member Keiji Inafune, who left in 2010, complaining about the rule dictating that at least 70-80% of all new projects had to be sequels of an existing series.
However Capcom were not unjustified in their hesitation to support new ideas. The first of the new IP’s was Okami; a combination of action, platforming, and puzzle elements, which took place within a cel-shaded, watercolour style environment. The game was deemed a critical success but it failed to achieve sales expectations. This initial stumble was the beginning of the end, as shortly after the North American release of the second new IP God Hand, Capcom publically announced that it was dissolving the studio. The game received more mixed reviews in comparison to their previous effort and also failed to meet sales expectations, regardless of initial strong sales in Japan. In spite of this, both games have gone on to become cult hits and both have been reissued.
After leaving Clover Studio, Atsushi Inaba, Hideki Kamiya, and Shinji Mikami went on to found a new company called Platinum Games, which after the closure of Clover Studio took on many of the previous members of staff. The new company began by conducting its own version of Capcom Five called Platinum Three, which was an attempt to continue the ambitious and creative spirit of the original project. All three games managed to be released with the span of 2009-2010, as well as each offering a unique experience from one another. Irrespective of the risk, the three titles were critical successes and all sold suitable levels of units, with the most successful being Bayonetta. Platinum Games were able to prove that it is possible to create ambitious original games that don’t need to sell an excessive number of units to be considered a success. A lesson Capcom has found difficult to take on board.
Meanwhile, Capcom needed streamline where possible as it could no longer justify the substantial financial costs of AAA development, although doing so would be at the cost of creativity.This transition was best demonstrated with the release of Resident Evil 6. Despite having sold 5.2 million copies by October 2013, the game was still considered a failure by Capcom, whom had projected nearer 7 million copies.
This problem is not isolated to Capcom, with Square Enix also claiming titles had failed, despite selling over 4 million copies. Falling short of inflated projections is just one of the problems facing AAA games as a whole. Another key problem occurring is in relation to review scores; as interestingly enough although Resi 6 had the development costs of a AAA game, it failed to achieve the review scores previously expected of a AAA game, and this is now becoming a trend with other AAA games with both Assassins Creed III and Call of Duty: Ghosts having mediocre Metacritic score.
Although recently the benefits of AA games have started to become more apparent due to the issues now afflicting some AAA games. In a financial report for Capcom in March 2013, they announced they were pleasantly surprised with the sales of AA game and new IP, Dragons Dogma. The concept of taking risks with AA games still resonates with Capcom despite past events. One such game was the French title Remember Me which was unfortunately considered a risk because the game featured a female protagonist. Regrettably sales were low and it received mixed reviews. Yet this demonstrates that there are still signs that AA games are not over, but it’s definitely an uphill battle.