AAA not the future, says Splinter Cell: Blacklist director

Patrick Redding proposes "lower-case aaa" game as where the industry should be heading

While the AAA approach has served the Splinter Cell series well in the past, the developer heading up its next installment has reservations about AAA in the future. Speaking at the Gamercamp festival in Toronto today, Splinter Cell: Blacklist director Patrick Redding said the industry is moving away from the high budget blockbuster model.

"The market as a whole is going to undergo a critical shift in priorities, a shift away from the absolute primacy of graphics and production values and content creation toward systemic depth," Redding said, adding, "This trend is going to trigger a reality check for developers like me who work on established franchises with a large succession of sequels, and it's also going to be a call-to-arms for smaller game creators, including a number of people who are sitting in this room, I hope."

Redding said the shift would be driven primarily by procedurally literate players, digital distribution channels, and the rising cost of production. As for where those factors would point the industry, Redding suggested a new class of game he called "lower-case aaa." Among the key qualities he believes aaa games should emphasize are a reliance in systemic design, open-ended games that allow for a range of possibilities and strategies instead of one "right" approach. He gave chess and poker as examples of such design.

However, one of the big problems with systemic design is that it's just difficult, Redding said. While a publisher can throw more resources at a game and reliably produce better production values, the same safe return on investment isn't there with design. Throwing more designers at a problem won't necessarily produce better systemic depth, and it might even hurt the final product.

Additionally, aaa game creators will need to give up authorial control, as Redding said the meaning of the game will only emerge once the players begin experiencing it, exploring the mechanics and using them to tell their own stories or achieve their own goals. Finally, Redding said he expects asynchronous multiplayer to be a key component of the aaa experience.

Redding pointed to Minecraft as the best recent example of what he considers a aaa game. As for Blacklist, Redding didn't describe it as aaa, although it does reflect some of the qualities in its systemic AI and the particular way it handles lighting to see if a player is effectively safe from detection. However, he said that Blacklist does show that it's possible to have a game with AAA production values put in the service of better, more complex game mechanics.

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Latest comments (9)

Pier Castonguay Programmer 9 years ago
So if I understand correctly he decided to call linear games "AAA" titles and open-ended strategic games "aaa" titles? And somehow, with less budget and less designers, you will get better, more complex game mechanics? Something I don't follow in this guy theory. Although I love the idea of putting more efforts on well-though game mechanics instead of just hiring an army of artists to create beautiful scenes that players don't even spend more than a few seconds looking at.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Pier Castonguay on 4th November 2012 11:11pm

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Robert Mac-Donald Game Designer, Lethe Games9 years ago
AAA hasn't been the present nor the future for me for quite a while. Most of the games I enjoyed in the past few years were more indie/"aaa" oriented

I think mixing up gameplay with AAA/aaa labels is not going in the right direction though, as far as correctly labeling games and different target audiences.

But It is something the game industry as a whole should attempt to do. Calling everything just "games" and "gamers" doesn't cut it anymore

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Robert Mac-Donald on 4th November 2012 11:14pm

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I think you can develop and have great core game experience without the overbalanced or large budget required associated with large blockbuster games. There certainly is a niche and ongoing love for core games with that "michael bay" feel, and thigns tend to come/go in cyclical manners.

Perhaps the way design in games may evolve. Traditionally it tends to have a good A to B set piece designs, and an evolution to this could be a more modular set of set piece design levels which lend a feel of a more open world option
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Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 9 years ago
Ok am I missing something? I always thought AAA was a measure of quality. Are you all really arguing that quality is not the future?

I hope I just walked into a room full of my drunk peers and they were all babbling nonsense due to the booze!
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Caspar Field Consultant, Talk Management9 years ago
As is often the case, the right answer is somewhere in the middle. CSR and Infinity Blade are about there, as are the best of PSN and XBLA. I think that's probably the aaa that Patrick is talking about. The definition of 'AAA' quality on next-gen hardware could be very expensive to achieve, but that doesn't mean we won't have great looking games, or aspire to make them. It just means that perhaps that 'AAA' visual quality shouldn't be the thing that swallows all our time and budget - making great, deep, clever game design is.
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd9 years ago
This says more about Redding's mindset than the state of the industry. Many publishers are delivering deep games with high-end production values every year: strategy games, action adventure/RPGs or open world games. "AAA" is not just a term to describe pretty on-rails fairground rides that get traded in after a week.

@Caspar Field -- Infinity Blade and CSR are surely the exact opposite of what the article is talking about - "AAA" production values with trivial underlying mechanics.
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters9 years ago
@Peter - I've always thought of AAA as a reference to scale, i.e. big games with big budgets made by big teams. That doesn't necessarily mean they turn out to be any good even if they do have your favourite Hollywood star voice acting or cut scenes to rival the latest movies.

I agree with Robin, that the likes of Infinity Blade and CSR are the exact opposite of what are being talked about here, and a direction I definitely wouldn't want to see games go, i.e. flimsy, half arsed gameplay hidden behind flashy production.
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Ben Gonshaw Game Design Consultant, AKQA9 years ago
OK, I get it, you can actually polish a turd. - not that all AAA games have inane core mechanics, far from it. (@Robin - you nailed that!).

So Redding wants to make a game with a certain type of mechanic - that's fine too.
Depending on what his chess-like asynchronous multiplayer game is, it might be completely inappropriate for the experience to spend a huge amount on AAA aesthetics - whether from an experience POV or just a because of diminishing returns. Just what would you spend $20m on with a chess game?

This doesn't have any bearing on the future of games. It's just that some treatments suit certain games and not others.

As for Minecraft... well, I wouldn't be shocked if there was a AAA version of that in the making - that's one set of mechanics that could handle that level of investment. It's like most other innovations in the industry. First a low(er) budget game proves that the mechanic can be successful, and then the big boys jump in to capitalise on that by putting money into a bigger budget version - judiciously duplicating what works and cutting what doesn't. As if by magic, a genre is born.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Ben Gonshaw on 5th November 2012 2:10pm

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Caspar Field Consultant, Talk Management9 years ago
@Robin, I don't agree. Those games are not 'AAA' production values in the sense of contemporary console game production, they're what I think may be considered 'aaa' in the context of what Patrick is talking about. (The benchmark always shifts, of course.) And you may dislike (?) the gameplay mechanics in CSR and IB but they are (relatively) open-ended and in each game they do form a tight and cohesive system. Trivial or not, they're one approach to solving the problem that I think Patrick is considering.

Current-gen console 'AAA' production values will one day (relatively soon, I think) be considered 'good enough' for most consumers. If you don't think that's true, look at what was considered 'AAA' on PS2 and then compare it to a fair chunk of what is on the iOS App Store.
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