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Dennis C Scimeca avatar 2:26 PM on 08.05.2010  (server time)
What the hell does "AAA title" mean?

I'm a writer. I like words. I also like words to mean something, and preferably the same thing every time they are used, or at the very least within the same context. And I can't quite figure out what the hell "triple-A title" means.

I first started thinking about this question a week after I played Blacklight: Tango Down. Zombie Studios promised us "a AAA quality game," with all the trappings and features of a full retail experience. Instead, we were delivered a title with rough graphics, menus that didn't look like they were finished before the release, and I don't know of many full retail FPS titles that just don't bother with a story at all. What I'm curious about is what the developers thought a "triple-a" title is, such that they felt inclined to slap the label on their upcoming game.

Another Dtoid blogger provided the beginnings of an answer to my question, by quoting a Stardock article. "AAA game means games that have almost unlimited budgets and are media events." This isn't what Zombie Studios meant, however. They were referring to the quality they intended to provide...and would anyone call a game with a $100 million budget that was released a month before Christmas after a 12-month PR blitz a "triple-A title" if it turned out to abjectly suck? Wouldn't we probably call it a "triple-A wanna-be?" I also wouldn't call Blacklight a "media event" by any stretch of the imagination.

It's not a phrase with a concrete definition, rather something that "we all know what it means." We "know" that triple-A titles come out around the holidays, and that comparisons with Hollywood blockbusters are common and apparently appropriate. I went into my RSS reader and searched for "AAA title." I got results dating back as far as October, 2005, but the only definitions to be had are contextual.

Halo 3 has the label slapped on it. Sometimes I would read about "huge AAA titles," which implies that there are small AAA titles? Medium strength AAA titles? This discussion suggests that the phrase is directly related to scores on GameSpot.

Singularity is apparently not a AAA title according to Jim Sterling, even though it looks pretty similar to other titles which are AAA (and which very often are first person shooters). Sid Meier's Civilization V is a AAA title according to Firaxis. Crackdown 2 is a AAA title according to IGN. AAA titles can move hardware on their own. Just today I read a story wherein Peter Molyneux stated his belief that a triple-A iPhone game was inevitable. But...if triple-A games require $100 million budgets...

I thought I was close to a solution when I considered that the definition of "triple-A title" might be "a game of high-enough quality such that it must be played in order to understand its influence on the medium." We may disagree that Blacklight: Tango Down offers a triple-A experience, but a group of reasonable gamers could certainly come to an agreement as to what a bevy of triple-A titles actually were by the context in which we use the term, even if we resort to Metacritic as a guide.

God of War III, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Red Dead Redemption, and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 are all fairly defined as AAA titles, I think. They are games which must be played by anyone who wants to understand where video games are today, or to comprehend the game culture references which will certainly spring from these highly-regarded gaming experiences, or the inevitable comparisons to these games which future titles in similar genres will be subject to.

They are also games which anyone who loves video games should be able to dredge some level of enjoyment from. Even if you don't like action platformers, there's something to be said for the gorgeous visuals and smooth mechanics of God of War III. Even if you wish Mario would fall down the drain, it's difficult not to appreciate the level of imagination and design that went into the environments in Super Mario Galaxy 2. Red Dead Redemption has a borrowed mission system and bugs that will make you shake your head in disdain, but the writing and characterization are superb. First person shooters may not be your boat, but the multiplayer in Bad Company 2 is balanced and varied enough that someone with a group of mates to squad up with can enjoy the hilarious insanity of the entire world exploding around them due to the wonders of Destruction 2.0.

But I have to add a caveat to my proposed definition, because sometimes there are games which must be played to understand their influence on the medium and the culture simply because they are so fascinatingly bad. I love the fact that I played E.T. on the Atari 2600. I still crack up when I see screenshots. I didn't think Pac-Man for the same system was that horrible...I was also around six years old...but I'm glad I've played it so that I know what writers are talking about when they cite the game. I rue the day that I passed up buying a cheap copy of Superman 64 so that I could have experienced the train wreck for myself. If I had more time, I would go back and play ALL of these bad games because there's something to be said for learning from mistakes and developing critical language accordingly through those experiences.

I think my definition of "a game which must be played" is pretty close to the truth, but what concerns me is that my most cynical response to the question might be the real answer: that "triple-A title" is just something a PR hack concocted, and therefore intentionally has no discrete meaning whatsoever, and never will.

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