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.