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Postcard from GDC 2005: Designing the AAA Title: Letters from the Trenches

March 11, 2005

As part of this year's GDC business and legal track, on Tuesday Daniel Arey, Creative Director from Naughty Dog surveyed the requirements to create AAA titles both for this and next generation platforms. The session was structured as a series of pre-recorded interviews with studio leaders such as Will Wright, Louis Castle, Jason Rubin or David Perry. In these interviews, many subjects were subjects were commented, from budgeting to project management and IP building. Here is a brief recall of some of the thoughts shared during this session.

The first part of the session tried to find a common ground description of what is an AAA title, and what goals should a developer follow to create one. All interviewees agreed that the first of these components would be mass appeal, meaning that a game wanting to become an AAA needs to belong to a broad market, and appeal to a lot of different people across age and gender groups. Some speakers mentioned just sales as the unique characteristic of these titles, but most argued that achieving high sales is contradictory with a niche market approach.

Another aspect all experts mentioned is the idea of the perfect craft: AAA titles have a level of polish and aesthetic completion that conveys a large team, working with a clear audio-visual direction. The same way movie blockbusters should have great visual and audio effects, spectacular shots and great characters, AAA games are expected to be perfect in their technical and artistic execution. As a corollary of this, AAA titles should be not only playable, but fully enjoyable within the first five minutes of play time. Mass audiences do not want to wait forever while the game builds up its entertainment value: the game must be self-explanatory, with fun value appearing real quick to avoid casual gamers from bailing out.

Another consequence of this perfect craft is that, to become an AAA game, a title must be exhaustively tested, both for bugs and usability and entertainment value. With games lasting well over fifty hours, it is mandatory for the best titles to guarantee a continuous, well balanced entertainment from beginning to end. A specific part of this testing must go to the GUI, to make sure it is aesthetically pleasant, yet functionally optimal. Many games fail to reach mainstream acceptance due to poor GUIs that make gameplay quirky and non-intuitive.

Once all these issues are sorted out, all that a game needs to become an AAA title is a decent amount of marketing and hype. All experts coincided that games, like movies, need marketing force to reach mass audiences. Yet, all stressed the fact that no marketing can save a lousy title, and so marketing can only make sure good titles reach the audience they deserve on the first place.

For the second part of the session, experts, reported by Mr. Arey, tried to analyze the future of AAA titles, the requirements for the next generation, to stress the key issues to be tackled by AAA developers.

Most interviewees stressed that most AAA titles come from distinctive IP's, whether game-based or from other media. A good example here would be the rapper Snoop Dogg, whose persona has become so unique and recognizable as to make him a good property to create games. In this respect, IP should be an idea that's new to gaming, easy to communicate, and excites a certain group of people in the numbers needed to make the game a blockbuster. For next generation titles, we need to be able to find IP's that allow games exit their traditional young-male niches, and reach new audiences. As an example, Aryes suggested next-gen AAA titles could reach budgets of $25 million for development, plus 10 M spent on marketing. Using simple math, this implies approximately two and a half million copies sold to reach break-even, a feat achieved by only five to ten games yearly as of today. So, he stated the industry must take whatever steps it takes (and, especially, break audience niches) to the current $ 24.5 B worldwide revenue multiplies by a factor of five by 2008.

The need for good, emotionally engaging storylines was also stressed as a trend for next-generation AAA titles. As designer Sid Meier puts it, "good gameplay creates a unique story every time the player plays". Most designers agreed that creating a fulfilling experience for the gamer must necessarily involve some sort of story, as it is the story what engages the players and sucks them into the game.

Finally, a separate section dealt with the importance of gameplay as the foundation of the entertainment process. Developers agreed that they need to keep on researching new control mechanisms for the player, so it is intuitive, yet powerful. More focus must be placed in decision making, which sits at the core of gameplay. Mult-layered decision systems where a decision at a low level may cross boundaries and generate high-level implications seemed to be a trend to follow.

The games industry might be soon suffering from Waterworld syndrome.

All in all, it was an interesting talk about how video game blockbusters are made, and how they expect to keep on making them. Still, some problems were highlighted that very well deserve some attention. For example, to double the gamer base by 2008 it is not enough with the vegetative growth of the industry de to gamers getting old and new gamers entering into the equation. So, the industry must make an exceptional effort to create new forms of entertainment that make older people and also women play more. The second comment is a realization of the Waterworld syndrome from the 90s. As film budgets grew, some movies (namely, Waterworld by Kevin Costner) reached a point in which success, or even a simple break even result, was actually very hard to reach: the movie audience was not big enough to actually cover production costs. It seems like the games industry is approaching a similar moment. A moment in which the lessons learnt in the movies industry may be invaluable: only by imagining great movies, crafting them to perfection, and improving the marketing approach can behemoths like The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter actually become profitable. And still, there will always be room for Sixth Senses or even Full Montys.


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