'AAA' titles are supposed to be gaming's answer to the blockbuster movie. But the comparison doesn't quite work.
Image: Bethesda Softworks
Did you hear? Fallout 4, the video game for people who are serious about video games, is finally out. Do you care? If you're reading this rather than obsessively exploring a post nuclear disaster Boston, maybe not. Or maybe you're just taking a break.
The game is the latest "AAA" release from Bethesda Softworks, a studio that's scored a devoted fan base thanks to its extremely deep, extremely long, and extremely customizable open world games. But the truth is, most gamers will never play it. Conversely, do you know anyone with even a passing interest in movies or sci fi who's going to skip the new Star Wars?
"Somebody spent a lot of money making a lot of money, a game on the same register as a Hollywood motion picture ... that's what 'AAA' wants to mean," Ian Bogost, a game designer, researcher at Georgia Tech University, and author of How to Talk About Video Games told me. "It's [supposed to be] a giant, global entertainment production. But you think about it, and that's not what those games do. They don't reach those numbers of people, they sell a lot of dollars worth of games primarily because those games cost a lot of money."
He's right. Bethesda shipped 12 million copies of Fallout 4—representing $750 million worth of sales—on its first day, which is a huge, huge number of games. But walk up to a random person on the street and ask them if they've played Fallout, and they'll probably tell you "no." Angry Birds, on the other hand, has been downloaded more than 2 billion times. Candy Crush had been downloaded more than 500 million times by November of 2013, the last date I could find figures for. The original Super Mario Bros. sold more than 40 million copies.
So what's a AAA game? What's Fallout 4? It's a very good game made for people who have a lot of time—right now—to binge on video games for hours at a time. It's not—it can't be—a hop-on-hop-off experience like Candy Crush or the Mario games or even something like Call of Duty.
"I think we have to consider the idea that what 'AAA' means is not this big blockbuster tentpole experience—which would also mean it's a mass market experience," Bogost said. "A 'AAA' game is a game that nobody except people who play games knows anything about. This is a niche experience. [AAA] specifies that there are some people committed to playing a game for tens or hundreds of hours."
Some of those dedicated people are my fellow Motherboard staffers, Clinton Nguyen, Emanuel Maiberg, and Nicholas Deleon. I ask them what the game is about, what makes Fallout so appealing to its fans, and, ultimately, if they're having any fun playing it.
Many thanks to Bogost for joining the show. How to Talk About Video Games comes out this weekend.