I touched on this in my last blog post but if you’re not keeping pace with things – “Triple-A” is dead.
Not literally dead, mind you. But dead in the water, going nowhere and with enough significant problems that even the most hardened EA executive is crying to themselves in their swimming pool filled with hundred dollar bills. If you want a better term, tainted is the word I used – thanks to the profligate efforts of EA, Activision and WB Interactive amongst others, “Triple-A” has become a poisoned chalice of a term that carries with it a stigma that is refusing to go away as politicians, regulators and gaming commissions across the globe try to work out how best to tackle the messy skin-burning goop that now comprises the bulk of “Triple-A” video games.
Which means if you are a studio who is about to spend – or is spending – tens of millions of dollars on what you’d once have called “Triple-A”, now you really don’t want to. And that’s actually a pretty serious problem. As I said before, the idea of “Triple-A” was ‘borrowed’ (readas; hijacked) from the world of Finance. “AAA” was the definition of a safe investment. That’s what it meant. It was a ratings system applied to companies that could pay their bills, debts and overheads and did so regularly and with minimal fuss (this is a massive simplification I know). “Triple-A” as we gamers know it attempted to borrow heavily from that implied reliability in order to convince both investors and gamers that the expense was worth it, because the game would invariably see a return and/or be a good purchase.
Now with games not making much profit – and with indie games making proportionally much higher returns as a percentage – it’s no longer a valid or useful term for investors. And as for gamers? Yeah, as I mentioned, it’s been stigmatised so much now that it’s getting difficult if not impossible to not make negative assumptions about any game parading itself around as “Triple-A”.
Whew. With that said, what’s next?
Well, I’m of the viewpoint that most game development will shift somewhat to the sort of things Square-Enix have been suggesting; mid-tier games at relatively reasonable pricing points, with reasonable budgets done with a reasonably sized development team wanting to cut their teeth as it were on something. The rebirth of the Middle Market isn’t a new concept – the Wii U was a bastion of the Middle Market, after all – but as Japanese publishers are learning, there’s an appetite for these games. Gamers aren’t actually that bothered if a game is photo-realistic on the whole; they want a good video game. If graphics mattered, Sonic Forces would be considered better than Sonic Mania and ow I hurt myself even saying that in that way.
But these bigger, brasher, more visually impressive video games aren’t going to go away.
They shouldn’t go away either. There’s a place for this kind of thing in the market, as we know with the sales figures of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (now in excess of five million sales) and Super Mario Odyssey (selling two million in its opening weekend). In the ways that matter, these games -are- “Triple-A” by the standards of the term; safe investments, big games worth buying and worthy of attention. But you’ll notice Nintendo has been slowly, and by degrees, limiting its usage of the term “Triple-A” this year. And that’s nothing to do with the Switch hardware; Skyrim and DOOM show that the Switch is capable of great things, and with Square-Enix talking of porting Final Fantasy XIV to the Switch in earnest now – yeah, I think we can dispel the “not powerful enough” nonsense. Switch is getting those games.
Instead, Nintendo has been I’ve noticed trying to coin better terms; “Showcase” and “Spotlight” in its Directs. They’re interesting terms to use for presentations – very utilitarian and exact.
I like “Showcase” better not because it’s a nice word, but because in my opinion it better describes many of these games.
After all, if the point was to ‘make money’, publishers would have abandoned “Triple-A” years ago. Developers would have too. The costs were too great; they had to rely on gamers to make up the shortfall, and that began to affect how they made their games. How the games progressed. How they played. How they worked. What these developers want is what they’ve always wanted – to make games that showcase their talents, their skills and define or redefine genres and platforms. They have just been having to do that whilst being hen-pecked by their publishers to add in additional monetisation on top of that, and there’s a point where any science-boff will tell you comes “saturation”; a point where a salt cannot dissolve into a liquid any more and so the salt collects at the bottom of the beaker. It gets cloudy, murky and gritty. In effect – you can see it, and when you can see it… you kinda realise you don’t want to drink the kool-aid any more.
No, what I believe developers want to do is make games on their terms, to showcase what they can do. Nintendo reportedly did this with Breath of the Wild; a younger team hungry for some meaty challenge were given the chance to do something that showcased their talents – and more specifically, the hardware they were making the game for. The end result is remarkable – and it’s clear, smooth and actually extremely pleasant to potter around in. They were given the option to “showcase” themselves; and I’m guessing this talent will go on to do even better things now.
But more specifically – I’m not entirely sure even Nintendo believed it would ‘make money’ (though now it seems unquestionable that it has). Money, in essence, wasn’t the point here. Breath of the Wild was an exercise – a marketing stunt, if you will. And perhaps one of the best marketing stunts any new console has dropped since… well… Super Mario 64. It wasn’t just about making a great game – it was about shifting hardware, about getting respect and interest again. And what better way to shift a brand new console than with an amazing, open-world Zelda game with jaw-dropping graphics and aesthetics?
It was Nintendo doing something it hasn’t done in years; from the outset, going “this is what we can do!” – no mess, no fuss, no illusions.
“Showcase” is what this sphere was about before executives and marketing people got their grubby little mitts all over it. Beyond Good and Evil was a “Showcase” game, for example. It was, by all accounts, one of the more expensive games of its era and it did not make much back. But it’s grown as an IP, developed a cult following, had a couple of HD Remasters which did reasonably good business and now the team, having spent a lot of the last fourteen years doing other stuff, are working on “Beyond Good and Evil 2” (except it’s a prequel, and won’t touch on that ending. BOO I SAY! BOOOOOOOOO!).
But it was a good game and despite the commercial mauling, it also at the time cemented UbiSoft as a good game developer. It was, and remains, a great video game. It was critically praised, and it found a small but very passionate following. It was a period UbiSoft needed to show it was more than “a publisher” – a period where, as I understand and remember it, UbiSoft didn’t have the best of reputations. So they did Beyond Good and Evil. And Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (that trilogy was great). They were showcases – a declaration of intent. EA went through this too – Dead Space, Mirror’s Edge and Dragon Age: Origins were all examples of EA trying to shake off its old image (I know). Again, the point wasn’t inherently to make huge profits – but to reestablish itself and its credibility. I’m pretty sure EA has realised this so keep an eye out as they do their damnedest to pull this stunt again.
Not all showcase games will be good, of course – in the same way every year or so we get a new Transformers movie (I know, I know…). Sony’s attempt with The Order: 1886 wasn’t entirely without merit, to be sure, but it fell down as a video game far too much. As an exercise in graphical flair, however, it really is top-notch. Some will argue that’s also valid as a “Showcase” game and I’d find it impossible to argue (though try telling me it’s a good game and we’re going to have to fight).
“Showcase” is not, however, a magical cure-all; it won’t wash the bitter taste of “Triple-A” out entirely overnight and anyone who thinks it will is deluding themselves. But I think Nintendo has the right kind of idea; focus your “Showcase” on quality games that show what you can do and what is technically possible. It’s how after launching fairly bare-bones, Nintendo managed to blind-side the industry over the course of the year. And when people say “Switch can’t have big third-party Triple-A games”, the retort has been swift and brutal; “It doesn’t need Triple-A games, it has Showcase games and they’re better!”.
Debatable as that last point is (there’s no pleasing everybody, after all), the message is getting through. In a period where so many big publishers have thoroughly defiled the term of “Triple-A”, is it really a surprise that a company like Nintendo would seek an alternative branding exercise? Hell, one can argue if Nintendo didn’t see the “Triple-A” car-crash coming, it certainly did its best to steer clear of a dangerous turnpike or something. No-one really wants to use “Triple-A” as a term now. It has lost its meaning, become a shell of its original intent and now wanders the upper regions of the games market like a zombie, feasting on the brains of games and studios which frankly deserved a better ending.
That’s not to say “Showcase” couldn’t end up something bloated and warped either – it absolutely could. But as a rebranding exercise, it wipes the slate clean – and considering we’re in the throes of a second mid-gen refresh with no slate-cleaning Gen-9 in sight, what the games industry needs right now is a marketing wave that flushes through the backed-up U-Bend, stuffed with “Triple-A” poop, so they can at least move on with defiling a clean loo.
And take it from someone with a slight OCD bent when it comes to cleaning; games industry…
You really need to learn to flush after your number twos.