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AAA ratings: when do videogames become too realistic?

Repetition is a rare phenomenon in the real world but a sense of déjà vu is common in the game world. Games made by large studios with massive budgets, often called AAA games, have become ever more detailed…

As games get more realistic, discrepancies become more apparent. Steven Andrew Photography

Repetition is a rare phenomenon in the real world but a sense of déjà vu is common in the game world. Games made by large studios with massive budgets, often called AAA games, have become ever more detailed, complex and expensive in an effort to reduce every perceptible audio-visual difference between real and virtual environments. All of this in order to give players the ultimate immersive gaming experience.

But at what point does the increase in detail and complexity demand too much of not only the game’s development resources but also the player’s desire to keep playing?

Game development budgets have increased hugely since the 1980s (see graph below). The latest instalment of the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series by Rockstar games had more than double the budget of its predecessor and cost an estimated US$265 million to make – the most expensive videogame in history.

The budgets – in US dollars – of the more expensive ‘AAA’ games since 1995 show the steady increase in the cost of production. The latest version of Grand Theft Auto (GTA 5) cost Rockstar Games US$265 million – a substantial increase from the US$100m in 2009 for GTA 4. Author/The Conversation

Game assets such as terrain, characters, buildings, vehicles, sound and music, all have to be manually created which is time-consuming and costly. Game developers routinely reuse assets in the game world to save on time and money, as described below. From a technical perspective, also, the detail and complexity is largely limited by the hardware that dictates the number of objects and the audio-visual detail that can be displayed at acceptable frame rates.

Android: Repliee Q2. Wikimedia Commons

In stealth video game Hitman: Absolution (2012) large crowds were made up of only six to nine base character models. While the developers would have liked to use more character models, the severe memory restrictions of the game platform did not permit that.

People are good at perceiving detail. Japanese robotics specialist Professor Masahiro Mori observed, in what he described as the “Uncanny Valley”, that people react positively to a robot’s appearance as they come to look more human-like … then, with increasing human likeness, as people focused their attention on what didn’t look quite right, the former positive reaction turned into revulsion.

Mori speculated that the acceptance of robots increases again with increasing human likeness. This observation poses a particular challenge for human or humanoid characters in a game, but the problem also applies to all other physical aspects and objects of the game world.

The doing and undoing of repetition

As games thrive towards realism, players more readily compare the game world against the real world and discrepancies become more apparent.

Situations such as the exact repetition of a dialogue, the re-emergence of a previously expired character or the identical copy of an object in the game world, are situations we don’t commonly observe in the real world.

An increase in realism might paradoxically lead to a decrease in believability and significantly limit the longevity of the game.

Repetitive audio can be managed by lowering the sound or turning it off altogether. But repetition in the game world can only be addressed by adding more content. In GTA V the developers “hand-crafted” every aspect of the game world and as a consequence the player encounters less repetition.


This “hand-crafted” approach requires a serious development budget, not commonly available for most game projects. As game worlds, game characters and game interactions become more “realistic” companies have to develop more content and implement more sophisticated interactions to create a convincing world.

There is still a long way to go until the development of more realistic game experiences is less limited by the computer hardware and more limited by budgets, team sizes and production times.

As long as gamers demand higher degrees of “realism”, developers will continue to look for tools that allow artists to craft a game world that reduces the inherent repetition we see in games today.

So, where to from here?

Let’s consider the modernist music of American composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass, German electronic band Kraftwerk, American rock band The Velvet Underground. Repetition or “looping” is an important aspect of all their compositions. Repeated sounds work magic in our brains and this practice led to techno music, primarily designed for dancing.

This approach may assist in making repetition in games less of “a grind” – which refers to the time spent doing repetitive tasks to progress through the game.

3D animation application software – such as Houdini Engine, Substance Designer, SpeedTree and CityEngine – is slowly emerging that exposes elements that can be manipulated by the basic game software or generate unique content.

Software developers will need to change their current way of developing games if true realism is their goal. The blueprints for base objects, animations, sounds and music will still need to be created by artists to a large extent, but software of the type described above will have to become more prevalent, and more sophisticated.

With AAA gaming, there’s plenty to do when it comes to keeping it real.

Are you an academic or researcher working on videogame development? Contact the Arts + Culture editor.

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8 Comments sorted by

  1. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Really interesting article, there is a quote somewhere about necessity and innovation

    The only time I can think of when being too realistic is a problem is in simulators like Gran Turismo which has become so difficult/realistic its no fun to play anymore

    Other area's would be like if your character died in the game and couldn't come back to life or if you stuffed up a bank robbery and you had to spend years in jail - that's realistic but not fun

    One thing that has evolved in the GTA series as well as the graphics and physics is the storeyline, the storeline in GTA V is like an epic movie

    1. Craig Read

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Michael, each to their own.

      I actually like Gran Turismo because it is so realistic. But I have competed in motor sport, and find close races between similar low-powered cars (or even go karts) to be as much fun as getting into a monster machine. I really wish we had something like the 24 hour 2CV or 24 hour LeMons races here.

      There are other reasons why Gran Turismo can be less fun than other racing games, but I don't think the realism is one of them.

      And I totally agree with you on the GTA stories. I haven't picked up GTA V yet, but did play through GTA IV (and the expansions) several times, and enjoyed the stories every time.

    2. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Craig Read

      I used to like Gran Turismo when it was more forgiving, I'm just not that good with the controller, maybe would like it better with a racing wheel

      Same thing with Call of duty style games, with a mouse, point and click, I can nail it, with that damn little PS or Xbox joystick, I dunno what I'm doing wrong

    3. Craig Read

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Michael Shand

      I don't know how people can play "simulators" without the right input, and GT is a totally different game with a racing wheel. I use a Logitech G25, which I picked up on sale at JB several years ago.

  2. Damien Westacott


    I think that if we're talking about a simulator then it's reasonable to consider realism a goal. The purpose of a simulator is, after all, to create the impression of a real-world situation.

    But this is not necessarily the goal for a game, which I'd describe as 'enjoyability' (which could encompass replayability or unit sales, depending on your personal perspective or cynicism level).

    Realism is at best a method for achieving a more important goal, and its importance varies depending on the…

    Read more
  3. Craig Read

    logged in via Twitter

    The thing a lot of people don't get about the game industry is how varied games can be.

    There are some that are very realistic, and that's what they strive for. Others go for a much more artistic style. Two of my favorite games of last year were Journey and Flower, which both managed to evoke emotion without any dialogue or realistic characters.

    Yes, there is a push for realism in AAA titles. But they're not the only games worth looking at, and most AAA titles seem to be formulaic at best.

    1. Cory Zanoni

      Community Manager at The Conversation

      In reply to Craig Read

      Ah Journey and Flower. Even watching Journey being played broke my heart. Thatgamecompany can do no wrong.

      I've always thought the push for "realism" comes from the side of game dev. that views themselves as a "tech industry". The discussion is more about "look what we can do" rather than "look at the art we can create". (Plus graphics and physics engines replicating real life are easy sells in trailers.)

      The indies seem to be more interested in "games as art" and eschew realism for realism's sake in the process.

  4. Rory Cunningham

    Test Analyst

    I actually don't think people do want realism in there games, they want fun game mechanics. There is certainly a community out there that winges about realism in games but they are often the minority. For example if GTA were more 'realistic' you'd have the entire city after you for life as you rappled into a FBI building using a helicopter to shoot a bunch of FBI guys.

    I see the want for super high definition graphics as the biggest factor for 'realism'.