AAA Christmas

‘Tis the season for Anticipation, Adventure and Advertising. I’ve always felt that Christmas brings out the worst in the video game industry; the summer season often lures me out of that belief on the promise that greatness is just around the corner, but then the Clocks go back, the nights darken and it all comes back to me on an incredibly cold breeze.

Publishers are intent on raping what little is left in our wallets and purses over the holiday season; if there’s a sequel to be sold, then an unwritten law states that it must be sold at Christmas. With most studios now able to turn out a major release inside of two years, there is a grace period for us to end our relationship with one title before its smarter, sexier counterpart turns up on our doorstep, clutching a nice bottle of wine with one hand and hiding cake with the other. That model is perhaps starting to change though, with some studios managing to turn around an entire AAA game in the space of a year – something I find just a little unnerving. I now worry that as the years go on, I’m more likely to open that door to find a man in a dress, clutching a brown paper bag and telling me that it’s all the same in the long run.

Granted, the biggest of the biggest title up for release this Christmas is Treyarch’s Call of Duty: Black Ops which has been under production since at least May 2009, while the true champions of the franchise, Infinity Ward, were applying the finishing touches to last year’s blockbuster, Modern Warfare 2.  Strictly speaking, there has been a two year gap between each studio’s release and the switched-on gamer knows this.  So powerful is the brand, however, that these things go unnoticed with Joe public and, all of a sudden, we find ourselves living in a gaming society where AAA is no different to a seasonal update of your favourite sports franchise.

I’m attributing all of this to the rise of DLC, but only through cause and effect. DLC has effectively killed off the expansion pack. Whereas before, we gamers (particularly the PC generation), could look forward to playing a discounted, follow-up chapter to a year old release at Christmas, we now spent the duration of our year doing this via DLC.  There’s no market justification for packaging a new campaign over the course of a year and sending it to us in nice wrapping paper with a manual and a disc; not so long as everyone else is constantly throwing out micro-transaction updates – that’s how people forget about your product.  If you follow the model of release, update with DLC in the spring and try to get another one out during the summer, then you can release a ‘Game of the Year’ edition in the fall with everything on one disc and then throw out a sequel at Christmas to the newly refreshed audience. Sound familiar? Of course it does, it’s the story of Assassins Creed: Brotherhood.

Never scoff at an assassin's magic tricks...he always has something nasty up his sleeve. Ahem.

A year to me just doesn’t seem like enough time. It’s no different if it’s an entirely new IP or a sequel; new combatants have to find their feet, discover what it was they did well and how they can do better. Sequels should really be looking for new ways to bring someone back to a particular franchise, instead of just relying on wheeling out the same decrepit mule and beating it with a stick in order to make some of its limbs move. We would never have got a game of Mass Effect 2’s quality without the team at Bioware being able to spend all that time looking at what it was that was so popular with the first title and trying out a few new ideas with Dragon Age: Origins.  You could argue that EA were trying to do that with the first iteration’s release in May 2008 and the sequel’s release in January 2010.  Ideally, EA wanted that game out in November 2009 but, for once, the scary monolith that is EA accepted that they’d be making too big a compromise to its potential. Putting it up against Modern Warfare 2 and ODST could have killed Mass Effect 2, sales wise, and the extra time spent with it ultimately proved to be a flawless decision.

The triple AAA team, ready to kick arse

We’re hardly at a point of crisis at retail; there are still some treats to be had at this time of year, but the magic of seeing eight titles you want on release and having to settle for just a small selection is of a time forgotten. I’ve become somewhat jaded to the pomp and circumstance of the AAA title and the dominance it has over the fourth quarter release calendar. I saw my first advert for Black Ops televised during the break of a football match at the end of September, a month and a half before the game’s release. Prime time ad-buys are expensive and making a commitment so early demonstrates just how much money there is to be made from the Christmas market. Modern Warfare 2 sold close to five million in its first 24 hours and another 15 million over the next six months; numbers like that do wonderful things to a publisher’s head. How long will it be before we see secondary studios established to work on the gap year projects on every franchise? How long will the AAA reign supreme? How deep does this rabbit hole go?

So long as quality isn’t sacrificed, we should all be ok. Two heads are potentially better than one, so perhaps Activision’s model may prove to be of benefit, providing of course they are able to find a replacement for Infinity Ward without cracking the whip at Treyarch too much. The AAA title may be just too tempting for executives not to compromise everything we hold dear. This year’s return of Medal of Honor to the frontline has shown that for years of development, a publisher is still willing to throw out an inferior product to get ahead of the competition. A four hour campaign and less than satisfactory QA testing has resulted in the game hitting the market before it was really ready. We’re told this is a AAA title and it certainly wears all the trappings of one but it sure doesn’t feel like what we’ve been told it is.  Similarly, Fallout: New Vegas has raised a few eyebrows after reports emerged of some game crippling bugs and some freaky deaky glitches in the animation found in release. Obsidian will get this all patched up in no time and before the end of the year and all of this will be water under the bridge, but this isn’t something that would have happened a few years ago for a game this big – there would have been a delay and more time would have been spent protecting the integrity of the brand.

Of course this year for Christmas, all I want is Peace on Earth.  Oh, and Fable III.

Last five articles by Adam



  1. Edward Edward says:

    A very interesting debate you bring up Adam, and I’d agree that having a sequel arrive every year is starting to impact the series negatively. It also ensures I lose interest in the franchise pretty quickly as I don’t have enough time to finish a previous entry or enough time to wind down after one.

  2. Simon says:

    Companies will do anything for money. Churning out games like sausage meat is big business, people flock to buy the latest releases though.

  3. Ste says:

    To be fair everyone tries to rape you for all your money during the run up to Christmas, I like to call it Capitalism. After all, T’is the season to be jolly and buy family members a load of shit, and a good company would be daft not to take advantage of that.

    I’m more concerned with the quality of the games they are pumping out. As long as the games are good and they are kept fresh with new ideas etc then I dont think it’s such a big deal. When games become obvious attempted cash in’s and offer little or no new features such as the annual sports titles then I just vote with my wallet and avoid the game altogether. As for rushing games to get them finished in time for Christmas, this I disagree with. I’d rather them take a leaf out of Blizzards book and release it when its done, but at the same time I appreciate the pressure publishers put their developers under.

  4. Lee says:

    I hate this time of the year too, so does my overdraft, and my credit cards – You still owe me £40 BTW

  5. Lorna Lorna says:

    Interesting article, Adam. I have noticed the shrinking gap between sequels and re-releases and it makes me wonder how they can get the games turned around in such a short space of time, especially with the frequent DLC releases which inevitably fill up the ‘tween space.

    We’re now starting to get a Christmas overspill though as more titles get bumped back into the new year, which helps spread out the wallet damage a little bit and makes more sense for titles which may otherwise get buried.

  6. Rook says:

    As much as I love some titles and want more I would rather time be spent making the sequel the best it could be rather than getting the next game 12 months later. Too many games in one franchise or too much DLC will eventually lead to game fatigue for that franchise. Give me AAA titles but leave a decent amount of time between games.

  7. Adam Adam says:

    Thanks all :)

    Its strange really because there are some instances where sequels built on exactly the same tech can be more fun than their predecessors but it really does remind me of Expansion packs which would pop up annually and provide us with another lengthy campaign, refinements to the tecnhical and gameplay aspects along with new features for multiplayer. That we’re being told that these are actually fully fledged AAA releases I get a little grumpy about simply because I’m old and I like the way things used to be :p

    I find myself getting the same fatigue. I played Assassins Creed on release but only completed it six months after ACII was released and so didn’t play ACII for a whole year and a half since it was released, along comes Brotherhood and as much I have loved it all so far, I don’t have the energy to do it all over again :S

    Granted, any thing that fits the bill I outlined will still sell and quite probably better than what came before it. Most are also reviewing better but how long can this be sustained before these figures show the big companies how important it is to keep the releases coming that things we want in our games are sacrificed in order to make sure they can get it under the tree on Christmas day?

    So far, I can’t point to a game and say that this a product of greed. This is just a fear mongering prediction that hopefully we’ll not have to bear. At what point does this become so commonplace though that studios dare to release titles they call AAAA in order to show how they’re above this model, should things go that way of course ;)


    I’m sure some studios, the ones that are solely responsible have got themselves into a good schedule where 6 months prior to launch, they’re heavily involved in design for the sequel so that on launch, they’re half the way to producing the next one, subject to reception, sales and criticism of course. The ones that aren’t however, if under the beady eye of a greedy publisher are either going to be pressured into sacrificing their own ideals in working faster through a project than they’d like or see the franchise passed to a studio that is willing to take that on. I understand that Gaming is mega bucks now and in some respects thats great that its expanding like it is, i just worry what that greed will do to whats expected of AAA. I do like that overspill though and those that are willing to wait for the new year deserve the same success. Gaming should be a whole year thing for the masses :D

    Hear Hear :)

  8. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    I know what you’re saying, and it’s that feeling which first had me wary about shoving New Vegas into my XBox the day we got it, as I just thought “this is just going to be Fallout 3 with a new story” and it sort of was… but then turned out not to be. If it had been, then I’d have been seriously hacked off by the whole thing. Like when every new C&C game comes out, I just sort of roll my eyes at how much the franchise has been reamed over the years. The first C&C was, let’s be honest, crude as hell… but it was a great game! Red Alert was also a great game, but Tiberian Sun… that just annoyed the hell out of me. I loved Generals because it was a bit OTT but still great to play in multiplayer but all the releases since then have just been abhorrent in my eyes. People may love them, and I get why, but I just don’t like them myself. It’s like a non-stop sequel factory, and I want to clock out.

    By the way, for anyone wanting to point out that Fallout 3 was already a sequel… I got that from the “3″ part, but it was the first Fallout game of that ilk, and New Vegas was the sequel to that style.

  9. Richie richie says:

    Very interesting article. We’re in the age of Bobby Kotdeath and EA.

    I got burned by Konami’s Pro Evo Soccer yearly updates (FIFA are currently in that territory with four games in a row that must share 95% of the same code). I rather liked AssCreed 2 but haven’t picked up Brotherhood as a year doesn’t seem to be enough time.

    Also, multiplayer. Errrrrghhh.

  10. FC360 says:

    You could always argue that Sequels shouldn’t take too long as all that needs doing is a new story to continue on from the previous game and then add a few new features and release it. I wouldn’t have thought it takes longer then a year to do this, especially if there is a team of like 50 people working on the same things. I don’t have any sequel games that came out 1 year after the game before the only things I see that come out within a year are expansions or download packs for games.

  11. Samuel Samuel says:

    I have some issues with some of your points here. For example, Mass Effect, the original Mass Effect, was released in November 2007 and not May 2008, and it was Microsoft Game Studios that published it and not EA. The sequel was well over 2 years in coming, and people were clamouring for it, rather than hoping it would be pushed back. That Bioware held on to it until it was ready to be released properly in a more polished state (the original being somewhat infamously buggy despite its excellence in other areas) is admirable, but I’m not sure that it’s relevant to your argument.

    I can’t help feeling either that it’s a little bit unfair to call out Assassin’s Creed 2 and Brotherhood as examples of this kind of sequel factory mentality, as Ubisoft have said clearly that they want to alternate the main series of Assassin’s Creed titles with Prince of Persia, leading to at least two years between games in either franchise. And they haven’t really gone against that, as Brotherhood isn’t really a sequel in the true sense, rather a self-contained stand-alone expansion for Assassin’s Creed 2. Assassin’s Creed 3 is still somewhere off in the future, and if anything, Brotherhood is a perfect example that retail released expansions aren’t entirely dead, contrary to your suggestion in the article. It has much the same engine, same graphics, and it adds a new area, a new story campaign, and an online mode.

    There are other games too recently that have had full blown expansions. Tropico 3, had the Absolute Power expansion disk. The Settlers 7 has an expansion disk. Expansion packs aren’t totally a thing of the past despite the growing prevalence of DLC.

    My final point is that the idea of shoving out a sequel in a hurry to a very popular game is hardly a new phenomenon. In the late 80s and early 90s we saw it all the time, with games like Sonic and Golden Axe and Phantasy Star and Mario and so on getting sequels every year or every other year. That the gap widened a bit in the late 90s was more down to the amount of time it was beginning to take to make a new game, rather than a change in mentality or marketing strategy. Now that we’re in 2010, studios have managed to compensate for the more demanding development cycles, and we’re back up to speed again.

    I don’t agree with rushing out sequels to franchises, and sometimes the release schedule can become overwhelming. But I can’t help feeling that you’re basing some of your points on misconceptions.

  12. Adam Adam says:

    No idea where I got may from :/ bad info on my part but I don’t argue that EA did the wrong thing, more that they’re right to forsake that Xmas window by delaying ME2.

    It’s also less about sequels and more about what we are told is a AAA release. It also depends on what you measure a sequel by, the game that follows or the jump from 2 to 3 on a licence.

    Small games will always get expansions but bigger companies are seeming to focus more on DLC these days. Seems to be dying trend for the mass Market.

    No misconceptions tho :)

  13. Adam Adam says:

    Edit: For some bizarre reason I’m citing the PC US release date for Mass Effect 1.

    PCGamer at the very core :p

    Strange how the game was released on PC in Japan before EU! Fancy that, a western RPG on PC, wouldn’t have thought that

  14. Samuel Samuel says:

    I don’t think you can really call Settlers 7 a small game, it’s the latest version of one of the grandaddies of modern strategy and management titles, and one of the few with a mainstream following.

    Whatever point you were trying to make about AAA titles and Christmas seems to be lost in a general tirade against annual sequel releases and the effect of DLC on the expansion market.

    However, a lot of big AAA games have come out this year outside of the generally accepted “Christmas/Thanksgiving season” window. Halo Reach, Mass Effect 2 (admittedly you did acknowledge this one), Prince of Persia Forgotten Sands, Alan Wake, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Monster Hunter Tri, Metroid Other M, Super Street Fighter IV, Red Dead Redemption, etc. I’ve not even mentioned the PS3 games, simply because I don’t own one to know exactly what’s come out.

    If you were going to ask me which ones are meant to be AAA and are just out now for Christmas, I can only think of Call of Duty, AC: Brotherhood, and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. New Vegas is a bit of a grey area, sort of out outside of the window, but so close that it might as well be in there. A couple of big games have been pushed back to next year in the name of polishing and a better final game, too; Test Drive Unlimited 2, and Ghost Recon Future Soldier.

  15. Kat says:

    As obvious as it could be for me to say that AAA titles are spread throughout the year, we all know that, it is fact though that my wallet is getting a battering in this last third of the year >.< I would have bought COD BLOPS if it wasn't for another (good!) NFS, wanting to try another Ass Creed game, wading through another Fallout game, another Fable too. Then all the DLC that will come out for them in the coming months. Not to mention Kinect and any other new games I may wish to try. Bigger gaps in releases would be great from a selfish POV as I can't afford all I want at this time of year or have the time to play it all. Thanks gawd there was no Left 4 Dead 3 this year :D

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