AAA Games vs Indie Games: How Their Impacts Differs
The gaming industry increased 20% in value during the pandemic and is now worth $180 billion — that’s more than North American sports and movies combined. Players from around the world have flocked to games like Call of Duty: Warzone and have spent millions of hours exploring the vast wilds of ARPGs like those in The Witcher 3.
However, not all games are equal. Just like in the film and music industry, some game developers choose to stay independent, while others benefit from the massive investments that come from being publicly traded on the stock exchange. The games which receive big monetary backing are called “AAA”, and those with more modest budgets are considered “indie”.
But what kind of impact do the different gaming developers have on players and society at large?
A Brief History of Video Games
To fully appreciate the impact video games can have, you first have to understand the evolution of video games.
The idea of gaming really caught on in the 1970s, when games like Pong and Space Invaders were released in arcades. However, the first video games console wasn’t released until 1985, when Nintendo released the NES alongside a series of classic games like the Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros.
In the following decades, more companies entered the gaming market, and tech businesses like Sony and Microsoft captured a large chunk of the market share through the PlayStation and Xbox. While the competition between consoles did inspire innovation, the gaming market was on a pretty linear track until the early 2000s, when massively multiplayer online (MMO) games became publicly available.
MMOs like Runescape and World of Warcraft allowed players to create their own characters and play online with friends who had also spent hundreds of hours mining XP and leveling up. This meant that gaming became an inherently social activity, in which gamers could spend hours online together.
In the last few years, mobile games and streaming services have again revolutionized the way we game and have increased the popularity of games across generations, as many predict that the future of video games lies in technological developments through AR, virtual reality, and improved 3D graphics.
The core feature of a AAA game is simple: money. AAA developers have access to massive amounts of cash for research, development, testing, and marketing. This means that developers like Rockstar Games can employ hundreds of people to write, develop, test, and market their games. In theory, this should produce games with rich stories and/or immersive gameplay.
AAA games are also culturally important. Developers sell millions of copies every year, and their games touch the lives of people across the globe. Just like movies and books, popular games help us navigate life and can show us new perspectives. Perhaps the most recent example of AAA games of cultural importance is Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us 2 (TLOU2).
It’s fair to say that TLOU2 splits opinions. But, whether you love or loathe it, it’s hard to deny that the game tackles meaningful social issues like trans rights and homophobia.
In the game, you navigate a post-apocalyptic world through two characters who grapple with their role as individuals who are at odds with larger social factions. They build friendships that defy the ideology of their respective groups and find refuge in art and love. As a story, its high notes hit all the same meaningful chords as literary works like Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road.
While assessing the impact of games AAA like TLOU2 probably depends on who you ask, the intention of this game is clear: it aims to show us how we can live in a world that is largely hostile to us and aims to prove that we can still swim through these treacherous waters with grace.
While an indie game might be able to tackle similar questions, the scope it could reasonably take on is far smaller. AAA narrative games like TLOU2 open up entire cities for exploration, and simple mechanics like strumming a guitar likely require hundreds of thousands of dollars to become a reality.
Indie games lie at the other end of the budget spectrum. Most indie developers only employ a handful of do-it-all employees, and, in recent years, have produced games like Arise: A Simple Story and Stardew Valley.
While indie games don’t have the same capabilities as AAA, their small size does mean that they have a unique ability to respond to advancements in tech and cultural issues.
Indie games are also able to take larger risks, as developers aren’t backed by investors and corporate entities who want to see a significant return. This means that indie developers can produce games that are innovative and less risk-averse — like 1047’s Splitgate.
In many ways, Splitgate is like other free-to-play FPS games. You play versions of TDM, Capture the Flag, and Free For All, but there’s one major difference: portals. Players can open portals around the map to move and shoot enemies — think Halo meets Portal. This variation would likely be shot down (sorry) if it were pitched in an Activision studio but has seen the light of day through an indie developer that has captured a major player base in its first full year.
In the coming years, the tinkering that goes on in indie studios will likely involve some amount of Augmented Reality as developers and programmers draw inspiration from the science community, where emerging and existing tech is already changing the way we work — and vice versa.
We all love to get excited about an upcoming, big-budget AAA game. But recent games like CyberPunk 2077 which, despite being a massive financial success, disappointed a large portion of its huge audience should make us reconsider their value in comparison to indie games. Where an AAA game promises us the world — and often falls short — a good indie game is like visiting a street vendor and receiving a Michelin-worthy meal. You get just as full, usually pay a fraction of the price, and can’t wait to share it with your friends.