In yesteryears, I used to be able to categorize a game in 3, simple groups: Indie, AAA and AA games. As the years went by and the industry matured and got more vicious and unforgiving, while we, the gamers, got more and more demanding of games, more informed and less inclined to take risks on games we knew nothing about or were met with severe criticism, those 3 groups started becoming less defined. More and more games have overlapped several ‘traits’ of each group, with indie games that have a passionate fan-base and notoriety in the gaming community (for example Spelunky), that they are just as exciting as any AAA release, while certain AAA games have become more expressive, controversial and artistic, ‘traits’ mostly expected from indie games; point being, the lines are getting blurrier with each passing year, not only on what ‘group’ each game falls in, but also what genre each game is in and what experience it is trying to deliver. However, one line has been as clear as ever, regarding where some games stand: the AA game, the mid-tier, B-game or whatever title you want to give them, have been non-existent in the modern era, almost extinct, until the last couple years. Each definition of the AA game will differ from person to person, but for me AA games have to have three features: Grand ambitions, clearly visible influences from other games/media, but lack the budget/skills to live up to those ambitions and match their influence’s success.
With that definition in mind, maybe you can see why I think there are a few examples of such games popping up again in stores; from the revitalization of the most prominent AA game company as THQ Nordic, to smaller companies hiring more staff and taking on more projects (Dontnod and Avalanche Studios are just some examples), as well as larger companies taking more risks with less expensive projects, it is very clear that AA games have been slowly-but steadily- appearing again: From Vampyr to Elex and The Tecnomancer, the barren wasteland that was the 40-60 euro price range that AA games exist in, has seen new life and some improvements from when the genre was in its heyday. Recall the games that used to be the majority of AA game releases: From movie and TV tie-ins, ranging from the notoriously awful (like the N64 Superman game) to the surprisingly good (like The Punisher for the 2004 movie), to blatant rip-offs (like most military themed shooters after CoD 4) and the incredibly ambitious but poor quality titles (like Total Overdose which was clearly a Robert-Rodriguez, B-movie inspired game), it’s very apparent why the genre struggled to find its footing in modern times. However, the recent examples of the genre are very different. Take Vampyr for example, which draws inspiration heavily from other titles: For the combat, it’s very reminiscent of Bloodborne and it even has a Destiny-esque main menu with the player moving a cursor around the screen! However, the ambition of the game is clearly grand, with Dontnod attempting to create something new and inspiring with their “embrace” system. The difference here is that, the game is pretty good; it has technical issues and sub-standard visuals, but the general loop of the game, the systems, writing, combat and story are actually interesting-at the very least.
Which is why I’m so excited for this genre to return; I associate the AA genre, with ambition and a friendlier price, but it comes with the cost of questionable originality and quality, however modern AA games don’t seem to suffer from that cost as heavily as before. If you take Mafia 3 for an example, then you can see that the game has a ton of issues, but they are not damning. It has numerous bugs and the gameplay is as repetitive as a parrot who only knows one word, but it has a bold and poignant story, interesting characters and fun gameplay (for the first few hours); it’s not for everyone, but then what game actually is? Regardless, even Mafia 3 is a better game than the old AA games, and as technology gets better, and the industry grows-in terms of players and scope- these games have been missing and have left a hole in the market; now that they have returned, they seem to be better equipped and able to provide worthwhile experiences. Furthermore, as the industry grows and attracts new people, these mid-tier priced games are required to offer something more expansive than indie games, but less expensive than AAA; they keep options varied and available to more people with different budgets. Mostly though, I am excited by the return of these games because they have a charm not found anywhere else; they ooze with ambition and sincerity about what they are, and what they are trying to achieve, and they do not settle with creating something safe and curated by business requirements or play-testing. They attempt new things or the merge of familiar, successful and established tropes and mechanics, and that attempt must be cherished and celebrated, especially when it succeeds.
Like before, they stand somewhere in the middle, and like before, they won’t become market leaders, but they don’t have to; they can be cool experiences that you play and are done with, simply adding to the market rather than revolutionizing it or evolving it, providing people with more choices and different executions on new-and familiar- concepts. Hopefully, this time they won’t disappear and 50 Cent won’t get another awful game tie-in.