I had this really awesome idea for a short series of articles that put AAA MMORPGs up against each other. People would vote, a winner would be declared and it would have been fun. I may still do that, but it brought about a whole new question: What does AAA MMO mean?
To answer this I went to the trusty source of all information; Google. That wasn’t much help. There were a lot of people discussing what they think it means but there doesn’t seem to be any one answer. One person on an old thread threw out the number of $20 million to create, but most companies never tell us how much money they’ve spent making a game. Also, just spending a bunch of money is no guarantee that the game is any good.
MMOHQ on Youtube put out a video in 2016 addressing the subject and gave his own definition of what a AAA MMO is. To him, a AAA MMO is “a big, expensive well-advertised game published by a big name publisher.” But this still leaves a lot of interpretation. What’s a big name publisher? MMO players will know the name Perfect World, but it isn’t a name that would be widely known to gamers. Star Trek Online is well advertised. Does that mean Star Trek Online is a AAA MMO? You can watch his video on the topic below.Looking at the other definition he throws out there, “a big budget, big name MMO made by a well-known company” you still have the same questions.
A lot of the recent discussions on Reddit about this topic point to Crowfall, asking if it is AAA. The studio is brand new, they’ve never made a game together, but it has some incredible talent who have made other popular titles. Between news about investments and crowdfunding, we can sort of guess how much money they’re spending to make the game, but we don’t know for sure. And the game is certainly well known amongst MMO players. It raises the question; can an Indie game be AAA? If not, then what is Star Citizen? It certainly breaches that $20 million mark that was mentioned above and again, it’s got talent, but the studio was created to make this game.
Can Ratings Change?
If a game is labeled AAA at the start of its life does it stay that way? Star Wars: The Old Republic had the biggest budget of all time, and certainly was called AAA when it launched, but should it still be called one today as its future is currently unknown? Once a AAA, always a AAA? If so then Lord of the Rings Online, Anarchy Online, and Everquest are all deserving of the title, are they not?
Or maybe as games age, the AAA rating no longer applies. According to MMOHQ’s video, the IDGA defines AAA as “Those ranking among the top 5 titles based on unit sales of the year.” He also points out there are some flaws there because of the nature of MMOs. Sales of an MMO will go down over time. If WoW doesn’t make the top 5 in terms of sales this year but Project Gorgon does, will WoW lose that status and Project Gorgon replace it on the list?
Also if a game improves over time, can it not turn into a AAA? Jumping out of MMOs for a moment lets look at Warframe. At launch, it was given reviews that were in the 60s out of 100. The five-year-old game has only been getting better with time and last year it was one of the most played games on Steam.
Sometimes MMOGames will do updated reviews of MMOs simply because over time, the game changes. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse. The most recent example of that is Guild Wars 2 which we rereviewed for the 5th anniversary of the game.
So maybe the AAA rating shouldn’t be just limited to launch and should instead be an ongoing reflection of the current market and its standing within it because MMOs do evolve over time.
If I’m completely honest I’m not even sure how I define what a AAA MMO is. When I think of them, I think of the games that are the most popular, the best looking, and get the most coverage by media but that still leaves a lot of grey area. Is EVE a AAA title? It’s a gorgeous game and it gets a ton of coverage, but it’s a bit niche. I do think that AAA is a reflection of the current market, so as games age they certainly can lose that AAA standing, but I don’t know where that threshold is. I don’t think how well known or not a studio is has any reflection on a game’s AAA standing. I do think that budget has something to do with it but there are no numbers involved in that calculation, just that it looks expensive. If a game isn’t popular then I don’t think it can be called AAA. Wildstar started out life as a AAA title, it has the looks, it gets good media coverage when there’s something to cover, but it’s certainly not popular. Games I’d for sure call AAA right now are WoW, GW2, FFXIV, and ESO. After that though…that’s when I have to start questioning and look deep.
Maybe AAA shouldn’t be something used to talk about MMOs at all. It works fantastically for single player games, they’re generally a one-off and as such easier to label, but even thinking about that it isn’t a guarantee. Stardew Valley gets fantastic updates every few months making the game bigger and better each time. I’m not suggesting Stardew Valley is AAA, it’s clearly an indie darling, but it’s just one example of how game development is changing.
There’s never going to be one definition of what a AAA title is because everyone has a different opinion on it, but there does need to be a way to clearly identify what the best games on the market are and that’s what the AAA rating tries to do for us. For something that seems like it should be simple and straightforward, this really isn’t.