Three Trends in Western AAA Games Research: Creators, Culture, and Cash.
23. 2. 10.
On December 8th, 2022, the 9th iteration of The Game Awards, a Hollywood-style awards show “celebrating the best in games,” streamed live to 103 million viewers.1) Not unlike the Oscars, The Game Awards is an amalgamation of industry recognition for games large and small, a validation of the artistic or technical merits of games, and an indicator of the cultural spaces games are being marketed towards. While The Game Awards does recognize smaller games, it is largely part of the cultural apparatus of AAA marketing and recognition for the most recent blockbuster games. Indeed, the Game Awards have been a hype and marketing machine, where numerous awards are given out rapid-fire style without ceremony or acceptance speeches to make room for trailers, first-looks, and gameplay premieres, some of which include elaborate musical presentations, or lead-ins from super-star creators like Hideo Kojima, famous for the Metal Gear franchise (Konami), and more recently Death Stranding (Kojima Productions, 2019). The largest AAA titles such as last year’s God of War: Ragnarok (Sony, 2022) and Game of the Year Winner Elden Ring (FromSoftware, 2022) get the lion’s share of the screen time, and while smaller games are not forgotten, it is mainly a night to celebrate and market big budget and mainstream games. Not inconsequentially, the night ended with a now-infamous young man crashing Hidetaka Miyazaki’s acceptance speech - another reminder that no matter how much we dress up mainstream games culture there is a level of meme-driven social deviance bubbling beneath the artifice.
This confluence of socio-economic forces as seen through the pageantry of The Game Awards is emblematic of three linked trends within Western research on the AAA game space: First is the creative domain and the artistic merits of big budget games. Second is the cultural domain, which is concerned with both the studio spaces and work environments that produce and ship these large-scale projects, which tie into the cultures of play that grow out of communities of players. Third is the monetary element through the marketing and monetization of games as premium entertainment experiences. This article is a brief introduction to a small portion of the discourse around these trends in the context of AAA games.
To begin with the creative and artistic merits of games, it’s important to understand that a great deal of media and scholarly attention on games into the late 1990s and early 2000s focused on the harms and benefits of games on society, with the largest emphasis on the impact of violent gaming content on children and youth.2) While many players and some scholars of this time implicitly understood games as having artistic value, there was a prevalent current of thought that saw games as a lesser media form. As Felan Parker notes, the discussion around games and their artistic merit came about in the wake of American film critic Roger Ebert’s notorious, and still oft-quoted comments, “that games can never be art,” between 2005 and 2010.3) More attention within journalism and academic spaces was reserved for this debate in the wake of these comments, and one strategy to uplift games from this ‘non-art’ assumption was to elevate game designers as auteur figures, not unlike world-famous Hollywood directors who are able to leave a distinct artistic flourish on their games.4) This trend is still visible through the elevation of key directors at The Game Awards just a few months ago.
AAA games, due to their high visibility and large budgets for production and marketing, maintain a status as flagship games for new consoles. They are also more likely to be games that push the technological limits of design, and so dominated the discussion of artistic games until the indie boom of the early 2010s. Brendan Keogh notes that AAA game studios operate under large publishers most interested in making profits, and so many games designed within a AAA framework have traditionally been conventional or risk-averse.5) Yet, the legend of the videogame auteur continues, and games like Kojima’s Death Stranding (Kojima Productions, 2019) can make unconventional choices regarding gameplay and aesthetic, while ‘indie’ games make up a much smaller portion of games discourse than they did through the 2010s. In part, AAA has both been influenced by and co-opted elements of ‘Indie’ design and aesthetic.6) There are certainly familiar AAA games that do not defy convention with any regularity, such as annual sports releases or FPS franchises like Call of Duty (Activision). Awards season, and to a larger extent games journalism, has adapted to celebrate a form of AAA game that takes the familiar tropes and genre conventions of yesteryear’s big budget titles while providing the slightest bit of something new or challenging to our collective sensibilities, thereby offering a hint of indie spirit that upholds the idea that these titles are the products of auteurs. In part because the ‘are games art’ debate is still alive in popular culture, players and the industry support this arrangement because it seems to validate gaming as an activity, while elevating the cultural cache of games which will ultimately sell more copies and grow the consumer base.
The inner workings of the AAA studio space are unfortunately lost in the emphasis of the auteur figure, but this has also been taken up in academic work on AAA games. There are two prominent topics when thinking about AAA work culture: overwork and the gendered work space. An early piece on overwork in the games industry was written by Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter in 2006, and examined labor exploitation, burnout, worker turnover, and struggles to unionize within this extreme work culture.7) Twelve years later, in 2018, former Kotaku writer Jason Schreier posted an exposé on the overwork, or ‘crunch culture’ within Rockstar Games as the company was finishing work on Red Dead Redemption II (Rockstar Games, 2018).8) Despite being a known issue within big budget game development for nearly two decades, crunch persists and continues to be a key topic of analysis, particularly as scholars explore possibilities for unionization and workers rights.9)
Related to this is the gender divide within game studios. Drawing from a 2013 Game Developer’s Magazine survey, deWinter and Kocurek point out that “the gendered disparity in salary is significant in all areas of game employment except programming and engineering (which is 96 percent male).”10) Contrary to assumptions that this is because women to not play games or are averse to entering the games industry, deWinter and Kocurek found that women were far more likely to be alienated by the workplace culture that has itself been influenced by the toxic and misogynist elements of game culture, and as a consequence would burn out more quickly and leave the industry.11) Much of the work written on games culture indirectly engages with AAA games precisely because of this feedback loop between the culture and the workplace. Critically, any change to either the player culture or work culture of gaming needs to occur simultaneously between the labor and leisure spaces of gaming culture.
Recently much of the focus on AAA games, and gaming in general, has been on business models and monetization. In particular, the prevalence of microtransactions, loot boxes, and battle passes. While these tend to be associated with mobile and free-to-play games, there is no set definition for AAA games and so there is no inherent exclusion of a game from the AAA category based on a free-to-play model. As Daniel Joseph’s work on battle passes shows, big-budget games produced by large studios, such as Apex Legends, DOTA 2, or Fortnite, can use free-to-models and microtransactions as the primary method of monetizing their games.12) Importantly for Joseph, these models effectively turn games into shopping platforms that obfuscate their primary goal of extracting money from the consumer.13) Exactly how predatory these models are becoming is of great concern, as is the way microtransactions change what kinds of AAA games are being made as there is a much larger emphasis on the service, or seasonal model of games precisely because they can make more money off of their players. It isn’t just a question of exploitation, but how these monetization models change the way AAA games are made and how they’re consumed. Building on the labor issues within AAA design, this also is creating new forms of crunch, as Joseph points out that Fortnite developers “...reported exhausting 100-h work weeks due to the massive success of the game and the drive to constantly be developing for the next season and battle pass.”14)
The AAA space continues to be one where art, industry, and culture coalesce. What games research attunes us to most is that each of these elements, while moving forward, seems to be stuck in stasis where the problems of the past remain unresolved. In the pleasure of the next big release, the anticipation of the next hype cycle, and the excitement of the next awards ceremony, it’s clear that AAA development is no-doubt heading full-bore into a future of even greater artistic heights, but these heights come with even more troubling extremes. Despite interventions on the part of games journalists and academics, and mobilization attempts from game workers, long-standing and pervasive issues with the legitimacy of games, and the exploitation of workers and players alike, persist. Academic work on the AAA space shines a spotlight on the issues that continue to go unresolved while major gaming studios propel forward in the perpetual quest for artistic recognition, prestige, and the almighty dollar.