AAA is an informal classification used for video games produced and distributed by a mid-sized or major publisher, typically having higher development and marketing budgets. In the mid 2010s, the term "AAA+" began to be used to describe AAA type games that generated additional revenue over time in a similar fashion to MMOs by using software as a service methods, such as season passes or expansion packs. The similar construction "III" has also been used to describe indie game companies' works of very high production values.
The term "AAA" began to be used in the late 1990s, when some development companies started using the expression at gaming conventions in the US. One of the first video games to be produced at a blockbuster scale was Squaresoft's Final Fantasy VII, which cost an estimated to develop, making it the most expensive video game ever produced up until then, with its unprecedented cinematicCGI production values, movie-like presentation, orchestral music, and innovative blend of gameplay with dynamic cinematic camerawork. Its expensive advertisement campaign was also unprecedented for a video game, with a combined production and marketing budget estimated to be . Its production budget record was later surpassed by Sega AM2's Shenmue, estimated to have cost . By the seventh generation of video game consoles, AAA game development on the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3game consoles typically cost in the low tens of millions of dollars for a new game, with some sequels having even higher total budgets – for example Halo 3 is estimated to have had a development cost of $30m, and a marketing budget of $40m. According to a whitepaper published for EA games, the seventh generation saw a contraction in the number of video game developing houses creating AAA level titles, reducing from an estimated 125 to around 25, but with a roughly corresponding fourfold increase in staffing required for game development. During the seventh generation, AAA games had marketing at a similar level to high-profile films, with television, billboard and newspaper advertising; a corresponding increasing reliance on sequels, reboots, and similarly franchised IP was also seen, in order to minimize risk. Costs at the end of the generation had risen as high as the hundreds of millions of dollars – the estimated cost of Grand Theft Auto V was approximately $265m. The same conditions also drove the growth of the indie game scene at the other end of the development spectrum, where lower costs enabled innovation and risk-taking. At around the period of transition from seventh to eighth generation of consoles the cost of AAA development was considered by some to be a threat to the stability of the industry. The failure of a single game to meet production costs could lead to the failure of a studio – Radical Entertainment was closed by parent Activision despite selling an estimated 1 million units on console in a short period after release. Ubisoftgame directorAlex Hutchinson described the AAA franchise model as potentially harmful, stating he thought it led to either focus group tested products aimed at maximizing profit, and or a push towards ever higher graphics fidelity and impact at a cost of depth or gameplay. The eighth generation of video game consoles saw further increases in costs and staffing – at Ubisoft, AAA game development involved 400 to 600 persons for open world games, split across multiple locations and countries. AAA game development has been identified as one environment where crunch time and other working pressures that negatively affect the employees are particularly evident.
The console video game industry lacks the equivalent of a B movie, made-for-TV, or direct-to-video scene. Occasionally, however, titles such as Deadly Premonition and Binary Domain have been dubbed "B games" due to developing a cult following or accruing a significant amount critical praise despite widely acknowledged flaws, with critics often noting that the game's ambitions in the face of budget limitations add to the game's charm, a trait common among B movies. Such games are the exception, and generally games with very low production costs that are not critically well-received are referred to as "bargain bin" titles.
In general use, the term "AAA+" may refer to a subset of AAA games that are the highest selling or have the highest production values. However, there are at least two more specific meanings. The first describes AAA games with additional methods of revenue generation, generally through purchases in addition to the cost of the base game. The desire for profitability has caused publishers to look at alternative revenue models, where players continued to contribute revenue after the initial purchase, either by premium models, DLC, online passes, and other forms of subscription. In the mid 2010s large publishers began a focus on games engineered to have a long tail in terms of revenue from individual consumers, similar to the way MMO games generate income – these included those with expansion or season pass content such as with Destiny, Battlefield, and the Call of Duty series; and those which generated revenue from selling in-game items, sometimes purely cosmetic, such as Overwatch or League of Legends. Titles of this type are sometimes referred to as "AAA+". In 2016, Gameindustry.biz described AAA+ games as products that "combine AAA production values and aesthetics with Software as a Service principles to keep players engaged for months or even years".
"III" has been used to refer to independently funded games that meet an analogous quality level in their field; i.e., indie games that have relatively high budget, scope, and ambition; often the development team includes staff who have experience working on full AAA titles. Examples of III games include ', ', and The Witness.