A strange, if necessary, question.
Yesterday I talked about how Microsoft is setting forth on a journey to create the world's first AAAA title. I find the idea a little laughable myself, but it got me thinking as to just what defines quality. I mean there's the obvious measures such as how well a game sells, and how people like the game, but is there something that can set apart quality in and of itself? I guess what I'm asking ultimately is that can a AAA title be something that's also poorly received? Well, follow me on an (admittedly stumbling) journey to find out the answer.
Going back to the days of the original NES, I don't think I'd call games like Super Mario Bros, or Final Fantasy, or Mega Man, or the like AAA titles; likewise with portable games like Tetris and Kirby's Dream Land. Now, these games are all great games, some of them helped define the very genres that persist to this day, but at the time they were merely really good games. I might say that they are AAA titles somewhat in retrospect, but not at the time. Strangely though, I would say that these games spawned franchises that for the most part have given birth to AAA games. So perhaps age must be discounted.
With age falling by the wayside it leads to the next question: what of quality? You'd think that this one would pretty much have to be a given; but again I'll play the Daikatana card. That was a AAA game, it was also a notorious stinker. Certainly the fact that Daikatana bombed hard is something that is held against it, and the term AAA is often used mockingly, if at all, but still it does seem to qualify. On the flip side, there are plenty of fine games out there that aren't considered AAA but still are quite good: Devil May Cry, at least the original, is a good game, but I don't think anyone would say it's a AAA; same deal with games like Psychonauts, and I'd even go so far as to say the first Assassin's Creed title as well. With that though, I think perhaps we're finally starting to hone in on something.
Assassin's Creed wasn't a AAA game, but I believe that it was close, its sequels definitely are for all intents and purposes. The first certainly had a notable name attached to it in the form of Jade Raymond, but the sequel was something that had larger budget, one estimated at over $20 million. That and it had recognition from the first title, which met with modest acclaim but set the stage for improvements. I believe that it might be these two factors, first and foremost monetary, but also prestige. A AAA title almost always has a sort of legacy to live up to, games that have done demonstrably well in the past and thus set a trend for it to continue. On top of that the recognition also brings more leverage for budget, often meaning bigger dollar signs and more big names attached to any given project.
Now, do these advantages don't mean that a game is guaranteed to succeed, far from it. They do mean though that people have an expectation for it to do well, so when it doesn't people are more likely to remember. Of course when everything does go right you get titles like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Mario 64, and numerous others. Basically, AAA is like getting a really good poker hand; you can still fuck it up and bust out, or even play it to the best of your ability and still get screwed over by factors beyond your control, it does give you an advantage right out the gate though, and smart people will use and abuse that advantage for all it's worth to make sure they win big.