Triple-A; The Meaning of Meaningless.

Meaningless meanings? Does this even make sense?!

 

There once was a time when a developer had to earn their way to the top of the pile.

There was no bottom rung, as it were. No “lowest bidder”. A developer would rarely if ever have gotten a whiff of a valuable franchise until they had a proven track record of a game or two; they would have had to come up with a new IP, a fresh idea, a game of their own. Publishers would take the risks, sell the game – if it did well, then they would get more leeway for another project, perhaps a sequel or two. Getting their hands on the companies prized jewels, however, was reserved only for the cream of the crop. You had to be somebody in the market for a publisher to let you into that particular inner sanctum, to even so much as get that twinkle in your eye as such a valuable property danced and glinted in the dim light. You had to prove you were capable of handling the license, of doing a decent job and not tarnishing the good name of it, a name which was worth more in the market than a dozen new IP’s.

And for those feverishly slaving away at a desk day in day out for a franchise which was being thrust into the market, the reward for a lifetime of fealty and servitude was the chance to get given your own budget, your own little project that you alone could do all on your own. The chance to seed your own ideas, your own property into the pantheon of a bigger publisher/manufacturer’s list of projects and to see the industry respect and admiration as you showed you were no longer just dedicated to one thing; you were a studio who could be and be seen as so very much more besides.

Cut to the modern day and you have companies like Double Helix getting to put their dirty mitts on the likes of Killer Instinct. Now, for those not in the know, Killer Instinct was a beat-em-up in the mid to late 90’s, a game which was stylish and cartoon-like, rather like Mortal Kombat, however the emphasis was on “Combos”. Indeed, the whole nature of the combo in modern fighting games and the way they are scored can be traced back to Killer Instinct, which began with Rare and was directed by that Japanese powerhouse of a man called Shigeru Miyamoto. It got two arcade releases and an N64 compilation before, as Nintendo sold Rare, the game went silent on us for over a decade.

So Killer Instinct has real history and, to many, real nostalgia value. It’s an IP that to Microsoft should be worth more than life itself; after the horrendous XBox One reveal, Killer Instinct is the sort of property that they can use to get some old-school market leverage. But no, they’ve handed it over to Double Helix – the masterminds behind such games as Battleship, Green Lantern and Silent Hill: Homecoming. Basically, a developer who are known in the market for turning out pretty turgid tripe in the first place. And almost immediately, they obfuscate the whole issue. “We’re using a Free to Play model!” they cry. “We’re using all the old characters with new designs!”, “We’ve got serious voice talent on board!”, “We respect the franchise!” (that last one said as they kick it in the crotch repeatedly whilst we are watching!).

Of course, none of this changes the reality that a developer whose track record is hardly stellar and counts two games which have ended up in the “Worst Games of the Year” lists throughout this generation has somehow managed to get their hands on a license that once upon a time, even up to before E3, was a firm fan favourite. People wanted to see Rare back in action, and they wanted that to be with Killer Instinct. But instead, Rare are back to Kinect-based items and Killer Instinct, the IP that Microsoft had six years to put a claim in on after Nintendo stopped renewing the trademark rights, has been put in the hands of a developer that many believe simply do not deserve it. That a company known for making rubbish – and making the biggest hash of a Silent Hill game ever with the awful Homecoming – should be gifted by Microsoft the pleasure of an IP that holds serious market power and potential. And of course, the first thing we saw was their attempt at remaking Saberwulf. Which before you even got to the free to play model and charging for all the extras should have sounded alarm bells for everyone who was waiting on this new Killer Instinct.

Of course, Microsoft liked to make out that Killer Instinct is now going to be a “Triple-A” title. But where does triple-A come from?

THE ORIGINAL TRIPLE-A MEANING…

Well, in the most basic of terms it is a definition borrowed from the financial market, mostly from organisations like Fitch and Standards & Poors. Countries that can afford to pay their debts without any scary delays at all are generally considered to be rated “AAA”, or Triple-A, as this is the highest value one can be assigned. The triple-A rating denotes a low-risk investment, where debts are managed constructively and sensibly and where repayments are made on time without any excuses.

Of course, this is not merely limited to countries either. Corporations the world over are also graded on their long-term financial viability, and the top rating for them is, you guessed it, “AAA”, the triple-A.

So effectively, the whole concept of the triple-A should be safe investments and constructive business. Of products known to pay their way, which haven’t had to worry about fiscal black holes or troubled production cycles. Triple-A is the gold standard for a project, the crème de la crème of how things operate. So you would assume that triple-A investments in the games industry were attached to known financial powerhouses such as the Super Mario games, Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty?

Except not, because the industry seems to throw the term about with an almost reckless disregard for its original meaning. We are told that Tomb Raider (2013) was a triple-A title. It should have been as safe as houses, or so you’d think, a sound investment. Tomb Raider is a known quantity, a known brand and is known to sell five million copies on a baseline. Perfectly sensible business strategy is aim for that market, make a decent product and off you go.

Except the product was “alright”. It was very short, and most copies within a week or two of purchase hit the second-hand market very hard, cannibalising their own product sales. Also, Square-Enix as publishers had envisioned a much higher sales pitch than five million in the first month, and were horrified when that was all Tomb Raider managed to bring in; they had spent recklessly and needlessly on new physics engines and voice actors and marketing, and were horrified when they couldn’t declare the “Release Window” of a game a success. The whole product had lost them money, and the game went on to okay but hardly astounding review scores across the world. It’s a lovely game, but it’s really very very short. And there’s no real replay value to it, once you’ve seen Lara abused once you kind of want to move on…

Ergo, Tomb Raider cannot be considered a triple-A investment any longer, can it? The future for the series is up for debate because what should have been the most obvious investment for someone turned out in the end to be a bit of a disaster. This would knock it down at least to AA rating, or an A1 rating. Still highly prized but certainly no longer an investment that carries no risks…

SOUNDS GOOD, MEANS NOTHING.

Of course, the industry likes to throw around the term “triple-A”, but not simply because it sounds nice.

It is a subliminal reassurance to their investors and to their partners as well. That they genuinely believe that this product is as minimal an investment risk as is possible, and that they wouldn’t dream of taking such huge financial risks in the market. They want their products to sound like safe, sound investments because ultimately people like safe, sound investments on the financial market. Some people will run a calculated risk and hope it pays off, but for a more long-term strategy individuals like to minimise their risks as much as is possible. They’re not in it for short-term gain, but long-term investment; to see the value of their investment grow, so they can use the proceeds in the end as a pension, or a lump sum to put their kids through college and university.

Often these people are those being advised by financial advisors, market professionals or industry analysts such as Michael Pachter. And these people can only go so far before being discredited (although one can say anyone who listens to Mr. Pachter is already doomed). The industry wants them to recommend their product and their company as an investment opportunity, and will use terms such as “Triple-A” to subconsciously lay in the impression that this product is as safe as houses.

Thing is, we know that the industry isn’t predictable and even the most well-meaning of intentions can go horrifically awry. No franchise is really that safe an investment, even Mario has had his failings as has Grand Theft Auto, and for all its industry success on the scene there’s still a very deep-rooted anti-Call of Duty sentiment among many consumers, and one that has been growing year on year. Tomb Raider wasn’t a success story. Nor was Aliens: Colonial Marines. On the surface of it, the game sold quite well – mostly on the back of pre-orders, but hey, they are still sales. The danger is of course that the after-effects of the product that was shipped being of such incomprehensibly poor quality may have far more dire consequences for Gearbox Software; between Sega and their disapproving stare, 20th Century Fox and the resentment over the poor quality and a class-action lawsuit from consumers in America who want their money back, the repercussions following a disastrous game can be even more crippling. Gearbox are also being asked to answer, by Sega and Fox, and account for every penny they spent in the hopes that they can recoup some of that back from the developer for it being diverted away from the place it was intended for.

We see weekly reports from companies like EA who are struggling after losing three-quarters of their share value in five years, and whom have seen a five billion dollar hole in the last few years magically surface and no-one really seems to know why. You have Microsoft’s recent little massive PR fail with the XBox One, a device which Nintendo is frankly thanking the gods for considering that it had the previous market example for a machine that misjudged an audience so greatly, in the form of the Virtual Boy. Sony too can sleep more soundly at night knowing that the PSP Go! will no longer be the noose by which we hang the idea of software ownership.

The idea of triple-A is lovely. But it’s ultimately only a hollow assurance in the market. No franchise is without risk. No project is guaranteed to be successful when released. There is no magic formula or Konami-style cheat code “Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Start!” wizardry that will cement a product as a critical or a commercial success. Because the two aren’t mutually exclusive, after all. If they were, then Beyond Good and Evil would have had five sequels by this point…

SAFE AS HOUSES. UNLESS YOU LIVE IN HURRICANE ALLEY… WHICH THE MARKET DOES…

Some franchises are obviously somewhat bankable and have a lesser risk.

I’ve mentioned Call of Duty, which year on year manages to beat Battlefield in almost every regard – when the latter, for all EA’s talk about it being “Triple-A”, fails to meet expectations and has a fortune thrown at it by a company desperate to see it somehow quash its rival on the scene. For all the criticism of Nintendo, the reality is that it’s Mario titles – even the recent New Super Mario Bros. U – do sell and sell extremely well, and are often very much liked on the market. Grand Theft Auto is always a big risk, because we’ve seen some faltered steps in the past, but the arrival of a new one is in the gaming world considered a Very Big Deal, and therefore you can guarantee at the least a huge amount of market exposure.

But “lesser risk” doesn’t mean “no risk”. As we have seen over the years, studios collapse. Publishers disintegrate, and we’ve even seen a company pull out of the hardware race altogether. Games we thought were in safe hands turned out to be a disaster; studios who have put out top-notch quality have also published some pretty disastrous numbers as well. Everyone wants to believe that their investment is as safe as possible, but the only way for any investment to be that genuinely safe is for everything to be paid for and equal. The way a company borrows money cannot be indicative of the quality of their product, after all. A company has to pay back their debts or risk sinking into default, whereby they can no longer afford to operate (THQ, for example, as a recent demonstration).

But this is the games industry. And truth be told, it’s a turbulent and scary place where risks and rewards happen constantly. Sure, there are people who have some sort of system in mind and can make a comfortable living from the big gambling casino that is often the market, and then you will get those who will be big spenders and be happy to blow millions of dollars of perfectly sound money on the roll of a dice. This is a market that isn’t really safe, predictable or reliable at the best of times, least of all in the jump to a new generation, new hardware, new engines and ultimately greater expenditure at a time when people do not want the price of the product they buy to go up.

Predictions of the market are often fruitless as a result. It’s no secret that many wrote Nintendo off after the poor 25 million sales of the Gamecube. It looked pretty pathetic next to the hundred million that Sony achieved with the PlayStation 2. But hey, as everyone considered the Wii to be the death knell of the company, ironically it turned out to be the greatest company decision that they’d ever made. A hundred million units sold, a profit on every single console sold (practically unheard of in the market!) and some of the highest software sales in the industry have given Nintendo a ten billion dollar financial cushion. Ten billion dollars. That’s how much excess they have after the Wii, and the frankly equally lunatic success of the Nintendo DS as well. People proclaim Nintendo “doomed”, even Michael Pachter thinks that somehow it is possible for Nintendo to lose those billions of dollars, but in reality, the success of the Wii is lightning in a bottle. Once it’s been used, it’s gone, and it is very hard to get that magic back. Still, Nintendo can console itself (narf!) with the whole notion that it’s worth billions and billions of dollars, has the most valuable IP collection in the world (and is still adding to it!) and can afford to wait for the Wii U’s big hit to arrive. It’s in stasis waiting for the chance to strike, a shame it’s taking so long but hey, Nintendo are apparently already making a profit on each sale so what do they care, really?

AND OF CONSUMERS..

Triple-A is a facetious concept dreamt up as some kind of verbal band-aid. A quiet reassurance that has somehow escalated into something more, and instead become a sort of ideal tag and selling point. The bigger the game, arguably, the bigger the risk so no huge title can truly be deemed as an “AAA” investment, surely? Not by actual investors and certainly not by consumers, who will be the ultimate judge of whether or not a title is worthy of their time and money.

The market wants you and me to buy their product. So “Triple-A” sounds like the best of the best, the top of the pile, the supreme quality examples for all others to follow. It’s again a term designed to instil a more serene sense of calm in us, to reassure us as we part with our money for these products that we’re paying top-dollar because hey, they’ve made damned sure their products are top-dollar. It’s a stupid term and it won’t change the minds of those already cautious, and it certainly won’t undo the anger people feel after when they find they cannot use their sixty-dollar product because your online servers aren’t working.

By saying this, the meaning behind the whole notion of the “Triple-A” rating is diluted down. Many of those professing their triple-A credentials are the very people whose companies don’t even enjoy a triple-A rating, so the notion that their product is somehow as safe as houses – especially in a world where servers can be turned off after a year or two of use – is marketing speak of the most heinously misleading kind, a sort of bare-faced lie dressed up in the kind of language where you’re not quite sure whether or not to call them out on it.

We exist in a bubble where the industry over-values the importance of its product at the best of times. Truth is, we can live without half of it as that is of mediocre to poor quality that most people are happy to step over in order to buy a game that appeals to them. We have titles that try to change and appeal to more markets and effectively destroy their whole market appeal in the process, failing to understand you can’t change genres or markets without alienating your old crowd. They won’t follow you into the brave new world, they’re happy where they are. Not everyone is like me, willing to give anything a go within reason because hey, why not? What else have I got to do except watch my body slowly fall apart? I’m grateful for the distraction for the most part.

But valuation of a product isn’t easily defined by letters and numbers. It’s a complicated and messy affair between commercial sales returns and critical reception and appraisal.

Dark Souls to me is a product of huge value; but it’s not a triple-A game. It’s a niche product for a niche audience, as are most games truth be told. For all the pomp and ceremony of E3 and TGS, for all Blizzcon and the illusion of size, the actual market isn’t a culmination of numbers. Certain genres only appeal to certain people, and even if your product is of amazing quality, you can’t sell Call of Duty to someone who just wants to play Plants vs. Zombies. The crossover is so minimal in so many ways that it can be overemphasised in its importance. We’re told possibly 180 million households own a console across the world – at the end of this generation. We’re being told the next jump should be a billion households, but again, that’s one in five households in the world. A lot of cities and towns even in America and Canada and Europe live below the poverty line. Are we really saying that we are going to sell them a product they don’t need, don’t want or desire? They want many things, I assume a games console in so many spots is fairly low on the list.

The market wants you and I to think of games as safe bets, safe investments because ultimately we’re more willing to experiment when there’s a safety net below us. But for all its assurances, we know that there is no safety net. In some regards, the games market is the most difficult of all; you can’t take a game back to the store because it doesn’t play properly. They sold you a functional disc. They held up their end of the bargain, which means more and more developers and publishers are finding their products more and more thrown into bargain bins and second-hand sales because ultimately the consumer rights of a product like SimCity or Aliens: Colonial Marines are not on the side of the consumer. The only value they have out of it, is selling the product on. And more and more, companies are trying to stop us doing even this.

If the industry really wants to be seen as a safe environment for all, then it can no longer bury its head in the sand over these functionality issues. It can no longer continue to blame piracy and used games sales for its own budgetary misfortunes. It can no longer assume that it can take short-cuts around development and hope we will forgive (we rarely do). It has to effectively end up with each company finding its own unique spot in the market and playing to it, and not stepping on each others toes, and making games to sensible budgets and not spending more money than is necessary on advertising. But that would be boring. And it wouldn’t grow the market. The industry needs competition and it needs developers trying to find new ways around old problems. Without it, the industry cannot grow.

No, the industry thrives on risk. And the notion that anything can be triple-A, and safe as houses and a bankable product, only serves as a reminder of the current state of the market that struggles more and more to take creative risks, and yet sees no shame in blowing a fortune on its known brands hoping that a bit more money will somehow magically increase their market share.

It doesn’t seem to know where to turn. But triple-A, for me, means “safe”. Very safe. Almost too safe, in fact.

If there’s one thing in a creative market you don’t like seeing, it’s “safe”. Boring. Bland. Okay. Alright. Not too bad. I sit through enough games in a year that end up scoring fours and fives that they congeal into some weird mass of beige that swims before my eyes and never makes any comprehensible sense. Safe, to me, is the enemy. I want companies to take risks, to try harder, aim for more.

Triple-A effectively means doing everything as you are supposed to. Which is fantastic if you are a Chancellor of the Exchequer. Or trying to solve a fiscal cliff crisis. Or own a big multi-national company that has as a result zero debt issues at all. That’s the best thing to aim for – safety. Security. Calm seas. It makes for an easier, less bumpy ride.

But I don’t really want it from my video games, thanks. I play enough games created in a by-numbers fashion every year. We see games made by focus groups, or done to please a checklist drafted up by somebody who has taken the attractions from other games and thinks by copying them they can have similar success (when really the question was, “Was it a good game first?”). All of this is to supposedly minimise risk. Safe doesn’t cut it. I want excitement, I want to be moved and changed and challenged and thrilled and in some cases even offended.

Risks bring reward. I don’t want to hear someone from EA talk about “Triple-A” any more. If you’re not even trying, then why expect us to buy your product?

And arguably, it appears, for all these “Triple-A” games…

… we are not. Or at least, not in the numbers they want, anyway…

 

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