What does it take to create a successful AAA title?

Source: Gamasutra

Nowadays many gamers tend to have complaints from the developers of some of their most highly anticipated titles, while other companies have been accused of taking advantage of their employees by imposing long working hours (a.k.a. “crunch”) when the games they are working on enter the final stage of production. And so, with all this in mind, now would be a perfect time to look into what is necessary to make a good video game.

Considering the way the gaming industry has expanded in the last few years, it doesn’t really come as a surprise that making any type of game, whether it’s big or small, indie or triple-A, for console or mobile, takes a large amount of effort, manpower and, most of all, capital. But, in order to paint as best a picture as possible, we’ll be taking the triple-A console title route here.

AAA title development is by no means a simple procedure and even the smallest of mistakes can set the whole effort behind even by months. Additionally, these errors add extra financial damages to the developers, who are already facing losses of around $60–80 million in order to create the game.

But let’s take it from the top. How is a game actually created? Before a game can even enter its main production phase there is an entire procedure that needs to be followed. This is known as pre-production.

The first thing is the idea. The pitch and the concept. Will this game be appealing? Will people want to play it? What makes it different compared to other games? What genre does it belong to? And what is it about? This is what the developers need to show to the publisher in order to gain their approval and (financial) support, so they can begin to build around that and slowly head towards creating the game.

After that, if they get the green light, the development team move on to creating a game design document, which is where all of the game’s themes and elements are incorporated. This document will stay with the team until the end of the game’s development and can be altered depending on the changes made to the game.

And finally, there’s a prototype of the game that allows developers to play around with everything they want to add to it to see what fits and what they should keep out. This is the final stage of pre-production and from then on, the game enters into what is known as its full-scale development phase.

During the main production stage, if we’re talking about a mainstream AAA title in the likes of God Of War, The Last Of Us Part II, or Cyberpunk 2077 (which may even be described as an AAAA title at this point), there is a group of over 300 people (at least) that need to work on it. This is a team of programmers, level designers, art designers, game designers, story and scenario writers, sound engineers, voice actors, motion actors, musicians, and so on.

Each of these teams has individual and specified roles and they each play their own small but crucial part in the development process. Should they not do their job properly, then their entire team might be forced to start from scratch, pushing the game’s release date back unnecessarily. Even worse, should something like a glitch fall through the cracks, then it could lead to a faulty product which, of course, today’s gamers and reviewers will not fail to pick up on, posting it all over YouTube and forever brandishing the publisher’s reputation.

And this is exactly the reason why most major developers always hire a large number of game testers in order to be certain for the quality of their product. These testers play through the whole game as it reaches certain milestones and provide necessary feedback to the development team for any bugs or glitches or anything else they feel could improve the overall experience.

As it goes in between its Alpha and Beta stages, a triple-A title will see many of these small alterations, yet another reason why game development is such a time-consuming process. But what are these “Alphas” and “Betas” and “Gammas” that we so often hear about in the industry?

Well, obviously they signify certain important moments in the development process. More specifically, the Alpha, is when a game is playable from start to finish and has all of its major features included, yet there is still room for changes or further additions. The Beta is when all assets and features have been added and all major bugs have been fixed and all that remains is to iron out the minor details that may ruin the overall experience for the players. A game that is in Beta can be shipped to the public. In between the Alpha and Beta stages, there’s another milestone dubbed “code freeze”, which signifies the point from which there can be no more additions to the game’s code. After Beta, the code of the game is given to the manufacturer, who then goes on to decide the release date. And this is when it goes “gold”.

And that’s pretty much all there is to know about video game development. However, there’s also another aspect of the industry that is equally as important if a game is going to be successful, and that’s marketing. Once the publisher gives the green light to the development team to move ahead with their project, they begin to heavily promote it (through trailers and ads) and create incentives for players to buy it. Most of us already know what those are. We’re talking pre-order bonuses, collector’s editions, exclusive in-game items from certain retailers or online stores, etc.

However, if the developers are failing to meet the targeted release date (or even window) for some unknown reason, then they may be asked by the publisher to work extra hours so that the game can release as expected. Those extra hours are what we now call crunch time.

Creating major titles is a very difficult process even for the most successful game developers and publishers. It takes a lot of effort, people, and, most of all, money. Now that the industry is going to get even bigger, due to the release of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S, it’s only going to get harder for developers to make the games they envision and deliver to players the massive experiences they want to give them.

But perhaps, now that we understand a bit more about how these things work, we could all be a bit more lenient, patient and understanding.

Media graduate, professional journalist and self-proclaimed Final Fantasy fanboy. Interests (and die-hard passions) include gaming and sports (mainly football).

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