Thousands of games are released to suit any taste and budget. There are those that are growing in popularity and sales, and some are not as popular as their developers and publishers would like. AAA games have a separate place in the industry pushing mobile gaming aside. Millions of dollars are spent on AAA game development to hit the big milestone in terms of sales and ratings. For example, Grand Theft Auto IV is estimated at the total cost of approximately $265 million (including development and marketing costs) that makes it the most expensive video game ever created. You might ask, “Why are AAA games so expensive?”

There are certain reasons that are causing budgets to skyrocket, above all, high demands from players. They strive for impressive 3D graphics, gameplay and game mechanics, realistic characters, and high-quality design of other game assets. The whole development process covers many aspects that may contribute to the final resounding success.

Let’s dive deeper into AAA game development and find out why developers make AAA games at all. Why do you need to spend hundreds of millions on AAA projects?

What Is a AAA Video Game? – In a Few Words…

AAA (pronounced Triple-A) is the criterion by which games are classified as technically complex and highly interactive products with top-quality graphics, video, and music. All this leads to high development costs along with high marketing costs to reach a huge audience and generate substantial profits.

AAA games are designed like blockbusters – large production budget is set to address well-known production studios and hire top experts who will be able to offer innovative solutions and great graphics quality. This is not the finish line – along with high-quality work and original ideas, expensive advertising campaigns will guarantee you high sales.

Just for comparison – the global box office in 2019 was $42.2 billion and the worldwide gaming market was estimated at $152 billion!

Typically, AAA games are developed by large game publishers, such as Nintendo, Sony, or Electronic Arts. They set aside huge budgets for both development and marketing to promote a million copies around the world. It turns out that AAA games are still worth making for many reasons:

Reasons to Develop AAA Games

AAA games excite millions of players globally While the video game industry is typically associated with teenagers, the audience of AAA games has continued to grow in recent years. Released in 2017, Fortnite has since become a global phenomenon, with 350 million players worldwide as of May 2020. Most gamers find video games one of the best ways to relax and relieve stress. This became especially true during the Coronavirus lockdown, when people are forced to spend more time at their leisure in front of the screen, rather than going to the cinema, clubs or bars.

AAA games expand gaming experience and market share exponentially New innovative hardware features, high performance, amazing graphics, and modern technologies (like AR/VR, facial recognition, gesture control) allow users to enjoy video games to the fullest. The ability to improve the gameplay through impressive design, game mechanics makes the players more passionate about the game. More and more players are joining a community of dedicated players, which provides an increase in market share for AAA games.

AAA games excite millions of players globally Due to high user engagement, successful promotion, AAA games earn record-breaking billions of dollars. If we return to the most expensive game ever developed, Grand Theft Auto V, we’ll see that the game earned over $800 million in the first 24 hours worldwide after its release. After three days, global sales reached $1 billion.

AAA games innovate technologies in the gaming industry AAA titles lead the entire industry to innovate in technology and platforms. We are all witnessing the transition from the seventh to the eighth generation of game consoles with faster speed, more advanced computer graphics, improved storage capacity, etc. Upgraded hardware with new technologies shapes the perception of gaming.

What Do AAA Game Publishers Get Eventually?

  1. High revenues (if the game is definitely valuable for an end-user);
  2. Global brand recognition on the market and beyond;
  3. Loyal customers around the world eager for game updates;
  4. The powerful impact on the game industry

How Are AAA Video Games Made: Ins and Outs

The development of AAA games, like the rest of the gaming industry, can be a mystery to consumers. The whole process lies on the shoulders of game developers and publishers. Apart from a huge amount of money, it also takes hard work and precious time. What does it include?

  • Concept creation. Like any game, it is supposed to be based on a high concept and many other concepts in art and design. This is a key aspect of game design to establish a central idea even before creating a Game Design Document (often abbreviated as GDD). Don’t store all possible details in your mind, create a GDD. This is a common practice that will help you shape the final scope for your AAA project as it is large enough to get lost in your own ideas.
  • Full game design. This is an unavoidable part to fully prepare your game for publication. Design elements aren’t just about visual effects. This stage is focused on making strategic decisions regarding the gameplay – levels, rules, mechanics, characters, settings, storylines, etc. Each component is captured in storyboards and layouts and stored in the GDD (as previously recommended). It is vital to maintain consistency within the overall development process. So it’s up to game designers to provide the foundation for the entire game. In AAA projects, the design team is divided into many sub-teams like level designers, content design, UI/UX design, etc.
  • Art production. After all pre-production stages, it is required to develop an artistic vision in practice based on the desired art style – cartoon, realistic, sci-fi, or any others. At this stage, the art team headed by an art director creates characters, environments, props, animations, special visual effects. Artworks of AAA quality require scrupulous work and attention to each technical aspect of art creation. For that reason, it is better to hire technical artists. Their main focus is on integrating artistic assets into the game without compromising the artistic vision or going beyond the technical capabilities of the platform.
  • Programming. Immediately after the design is ready, programmers take on coding a game based on all the requirements. They work closely with producers, designers, and other departments to transform the full vision of the AAA project into a fully functional, playable game. These are specialists who set the speed at which characters run and how high they jump, how many enemies appear and when, and how they react to an attack if we’re speaking about shooter games. Game developers implement all features, functions, events, interactions that will take place in the game. Successful completion of this phase requires deep knowledge of programming languages and experience with engines such as Unreal or Unity.
  • Testing. It’s time to be in the players’ shoes but from the perspective of the quality assurance specialists who are responsible for detecting software defects prior to release. Their job is to ensure the proper quality of gameplay and to avoid bugs that affect the gaming experience. There are two versions – alpha (playable but incomplete) and beta (complete and final) – that allow them to perform testing and bug fixing. Beta testing provides final game balancing to improve the players’ perception and experience.
  • Release and post-release support. After development and testing, the game is finally ready to be presented to the world. Usually, large publishers have their own official online platforms on which they announce the release of their new or updated products (however, they don’t neglect to connect many other communication channels). As an independent developer, you can make use of many available options – Steam, Itch.io, Kongregate. But at this point, you still need expert help – the release can’t go wrong! Otherwise, you risk your reputation among AAA game publishers. All your risk-averse efforts should be directed towards high production and memorable release.

We know the AAA video game industry from the inside out thanks to our active participation in many projects implemented by Epic Games, FoxNext, Electronic Arts, etc.

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How Much Does It Cost to Make AAA Games in 2020?

When it comes to AAA titles, it is not only about playing full-featured games, but also about spending money, sometimes, big money. Let’s look at the budgets of world-famous AAA games and draw up your own budget plans below!

Budgets of World-Famous AAA Games

Game Genre Publisher/s Release Date Budget/Adjusted for Inflation*
Grand Theft Auto VAction-adventure Rockstar Games 2013 $265/291 million
Call of Duty: Modern WarfareFirst-person shooter Activision 2009 $250/298 million
Star Wars: The Old RepublicMultiplayer online role-playing Electronic Arts, LucasArts 2011 $200+/227+ million
Red Dead Redemption Action-adventure Rockstar Games 2010 $80-100/94-117 million
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Action role-playing CD Projekt 2015 $81/87 million

* Usually no official data about costs is revealed to the public, so the numbers are based on analyst estimates and taken from the authoritative resource – Wikipedia: List of most expensive video games to develop

It is not your task to surpass AAA game budgets and stick to large budgets (however, this is the predominant condition to afford AAA game development). Keep in mind that you need to hire different teams of qualified experts to cover all the vital stages of the process. One team will create art and audio, work on game design, narrative, another will program and optimize the game for the desired platform, others will test it, and so on. On average, it will cost you between $60 million and $80 million to develop and launch an AAA game on the market.

Top 3 Factors That Determine the Final Cost of AAA Games

It is better to calculate costs individually as there are many factors. Get familiar with the most relevant factors that will influence the final cost of AAA games!

Factor #1. What Studio to Choose for a Game of AAA-Quality and Where?

Today there are many competencies available to you globally. Just visit websites of millions of AAA game development studios and find the best option for your own business. You aren’t limited to local teams of game designers and developers. If you live in the USA or UK but find their hourly rates high, you can outsource AAA projects to countries like Ukraine, Belarus or Poland and get affordable services at every stage.

Factor #2. What Is the Size of the Development Team?

On average, 100 professionals can work on your AAA project from scratch. But if you need additional services, or want to speed up and release the game as soon as possible before the sensational projects hit the market, take care of the team members – increase the development team so that you can succeed in this endeavor. At the same time, plan the budget accordingly!

Factor #3. What Are the Timeframes of AAA Game Development?

Certainly, the final cost will depend on how much needs to be done to complete the project and in what timeframe. You may have a well-designed concept and 3D models, and the only thing you need is to implement a full-fledged project and releases it in half of a year. When deadlines are shortened, more specialists are required to complete a project on time. Consequently, the budget is increased.

Final Words…

And even if AAA games are expensive to develop, big-budget games like Fortnite or GTA delight most gamers, making the video game industry the most lucrative entertainment in the world. Without any doubt, there are high risks not to satisfy the end-user. But remember that when you’re creating something valuable for yourself and work with true professionals, you have more chances to enjoy success.

Our team is working with TOP 10 world game publishers and ready to fulfill your needs due to our extensive AAA expertise – from art production to game release and continued support.