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The major differences between 'indie' and 'AAA' video games

Despite the overwhelming library of titles available to gamers today, the vast majority of them can be surprisingly broken down into these two groups, based on their development. Both styles are very different, ranging from price to graphical design and file size. This article aims to make the differences between the two clear.

It's important to note, though, that this is a general overview of indie and AAA games. There are some outliers that exist within both groups. Also, console users don't have to worry about hardware limitations nearly as much as PC users, because games made for consoles are tailored for the unchanging hardware. PCs, however, are modular, and games on them have minimum and recommended requirements.

Indie: Being little goes a long way

In general, indie titles tend to be cheaper, shorter, and smaller with more stylized art direction.

Indie titles are always developed by individuals or small teams, which rarely have financial support from a publisher. In fact, many indie developers rely on crowdfunding or personal investment to meet the costs of development. Since the developers don't have a huge budget, the games tend to be smaller in size and shorter in length. This is also why many of them feature stylized art designs.

The indie style typically is considered to be more accessible to the wider audience due to several reasons. First, they're much cheaper than AAA games — indie titles rarely cost more than twenty dollars. Also, they have relatively simple gameplay and are easier to pick up and play. This simplistic nature allows for a wide variety of players to be able to enjoy the game, regardless of gaming skill or experience. Lastly, they tend to be significantly less taxing on hardware, meaning that for PC players, you won't need the latest parts in order to run them well.

AAA: The titans of industry

In general, AAA games are more expensive but offer more content and a realistic graphical style.

In sharp contrast to indie titles, AAA games are developed by large studios that have hundreds, or even thousands, of people working for them. In addition, the projects are backed by a publisher (such as Activision), which supplies the development team with a massive budget. Due to the size of the budget and development teams, AAA games are usually long, large, and feature detailed, with realistic graphics. The term AAA itself is meant to represent the expectations that these games are incredibly high-quality.

As a result of the much larger monetary investment that goes into AAA games, they always cost more money than indie games. Typically, AAA games range from $40 to $60. Gameplay in AAA games also tends to have a lot more complexity, and in multiplayer games, there's often a learning curve that players have to work through. Since they usually have cutting-edge visuals, PC players need strong enough hardware to run the title smoothly.

Which one is right for you?

We Happy Few image

We Happy Few image (Image credit: Compulsion Games)

If you're a casual gamer that plays to relax, are on a budget, wants simpler experiences or just doesn't have a lot of time to play, than indie games will likely be great for you. Their prices can't be beat, and if you don't mind games being short or simple, they will be perfect.

If you're more of a "hardcore" gamer that plays more seriously, has the money to spare, has time to learn complex games, and enjoys realistic-looking graphics, the AAA industry is right up your alley. While they may be a bit pricier, most AAA games make up for it by offering players more content and deeper experiences.

Your thoughts

Do you agree with our take on the differences between indie games and AAA games? What aspect of indie or AAA games do you like the most, and which do you dislike? Make sure to let us know.

Brendan Lowry is a Windows Central writer and Oakland University graduate with a burning passion for video games, of which he's been an avid fan since childhood. You'll find him doing reviews, editorials, and general coverage on everything Xbox and PC. Follow him on Twitter.

20 Comments
  • I do both. Recently I'm starting to move a bit away from some AAA games. Those made by greedy companies who ask you to buy their free2play game full of microtransactions /loot boxes... In recent years i've seen a trend. Casuals are more likely to follow then "hyped" well marketed AAA game like FIFA, COD, AC... then any indies game. I think people who game a lot often plays more indie games then casuals...
  • Likewise. I play both, so I heartily disagree with the comment that AAA titles offer deeper experiences. The reason I've started moving away from the AAA scene is because the experiences were becoming more and more shallow and homogenised for the purposes of selling DLC/loot items. I will play the occasional big budget title that gets things right, but they're few and far between. This article seems very confused. Most hardcore gamers I know have also shifted toward indie games because THAT is where the deeper experience lies.
     
  • And.. I guess multiplayer could mean long gameplay, but good, long single player campaigns/games seem to get less common and those are what I'm mostly after
  • I do both but I tend to find gameplay experiences in indie games to be more in line with my tastes and my time investment. In all, AAA games have their trappings, as the loot crate thing shows, though sadly indie games have DLC and similar things too.
  • What's really crazy is the AAA $60 games offer $50 season passes and still have freaking loot boxes.....Big Trigger for me...Greedy MFERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! BTW I hope they ban that ****, cause it is Gambling!!
  • Herein lies a problem with the gaming community, which is the insistence that if a company tries to make more money off their game, they must be "greedy". Welcome to the real world. Businesses exist to make a profit. Period. End of story. While game development costs have skyrocketed over the years, we are in fact paying less up front for our games than we used to. I remember the days of $49.99 being the standard for a full price game. That was some 15 years ago though. That $50 in today's dollars would be nearly $70, yet here we are screaming if a publisher tries to do anything to get more than the initial $60 that has been the standard for the last 15 years or so. And again, game development costs are FAR higher today than they once were. As I see it, it is the community's mindset of publishers being greedy that has forced them to use tactics like loot crates and micro-transactions. I would MUCH rather pay $100 for a game, IF it was 100% free of other monetization schemes and DLC. But if the publishers did go that route, many in the gaming community (primarily entitled millenials, I suspect) would crucify them on social media. Didn't mean to go on a rant, but it REALLY gets under my skin when I see someone complain about companies being greedy, especially when that very mentality is a root cause of companies behaving the way they are. Try starting a business under the philosophy that you don't care about making a profit, and see how that works out for you.
  • Of course Company's seek money, just some do 8t more honest than others. Oh and being a 'entitled millenial', I must be the odd one out since I'd happily pay more for a Game if developers focus more on quality rather than profiteering from microtransactions. I'm irritated that we never got the option to pay more upfront, rather than having the game to milk it players constantly with microtransactions.
  • @OhmsFutility Oh PLEASE. Can we stop with the "price is always the same while development costs have skyrocketed" argument. 
    Cost making movies is a lot more than say 10-20 years but the prices remain more or less the same. 
    It's not as much the development cost that went up but the marketing cost. I don't think gamers should be the ones to cover up that cost. Most of these games are sequels of previous version. Take a game like FIFA, they make 800m bucks a year. They have basic version of the game at $60 then they have various different version, and add to this microtransactions and other bs. And let's not forget DLC. These were introduced years back and now it's become a gaming standard...
    You really think that is to cover the development cost? You talk about paying $100 bucks and not having to pay for microtransaction and loot box. The really funny part is that you have versions of the game that comes to $100 or more and you won't even get all the content. You'll still need to spend for some DLC, MT or loot box.  It's been a long time that games don't cost $60. You don't pay $60 and get a full game. You only get a piece of it. 
    10 years back free2play games used to be FREE, now the initial fee to play them is $60... The very fact that there are other companies who DON'T NEED to have MT/loot box and other bs to be successful just discredits your entire comment. 
    It's mostly the MAJOR RICH companies that do this because let's face it. Gamers and gaming is not their priority. It's not about having a sustainable business but all about making a quick profit for investors...  It is just pure greed at this stage... It is really sad when it's gamers like you (I'll assume you're a gamer) that comes here and damage control for these companies. It's people like you who defend MT/loot box.
    Tell me, how are Lootbox and MT good for gaming...???
  • Obviously you're having trouble comprehending the point I was making, so pet me dumb it down. I am in no way, shape, or form defending the loot crate system, quite the opposite. It used to be we'd pay a flat $50 and get a complete game. There were a few rare instances of devoted developers who would release some free content for games later on (DICE and BF1942 come to mind), but this was relatively rare. Granted, expansion packs were a thing, but those typically sold for a mere $15-20 and more often than not were worthy of being their own games in and of themselves, were it not for the need to have the base game installed for them to work. Anyway, we got to the point where they raised prices to $60, which I remember creating a considerable bit of backlash. Since then, publishers have chickened out of doing any more raising of prices, instead opting for shadier tactics. First, it was DLC, which almost without exception was small bits of content for the cost of the old expansion packs, or in-game skins for $1 a piece etc. Now we have loot crates, a system of buying yourself an advantage. One way or another, costs have gone up, and they, as a business, must find ways to pay for it (and make a profit. If that offends you, well, perhaps you haven't spent much time out in the real world yet). I clearly stated I would rather pay $100 for a game than have to deal with this nonsense of paying $60 for an incomplete game, followed by a season pass, or any number of other DLC to make my game complete. Also finally, your point about movies isn't quite accurate. Everything has gone up in price, from the movie tickets to the popcorn to the cost of the blurays. And don't even get me started on how the movie studios f*@# us over with streaming services and digital movie sales.
  • @OhmFutility LOL. Great work ignoring many of my points and just posting the same thing using different words. Oh and ofc I understood the points you were making. You are comming here criticising us the gaminig community who happen to criticise companies who use these anti-gaming strategy.
    By coming out here and lashing out at the gaming community and trying to find excuses like "cost of development skyrocketing" you are indirectly (or directly) defending these companies. And I would say you are indirectly defending them for the practices by lashing out at gamers who are criticising them. Since you ignored the points made I'll put numbers to make it easier for you... 1) You are not comparing the right thing. They are using free2play model, 15 years back F2P games used to be... FREE. Now they are asking a starting price of $60. 2) You seriously think that if they increased the price of a game to $100 they won't have MT/loot box? NO. The answer is just here in front of us. You seem to try to ignore the fact that there are already version of games that are more than $60 and more at $100. And do you get a full game after paying that much? NO you don't. There is still MT/LB. Sometimes there are DLCs and other content missing.
    The main thing is that you said it yourself. All that matters to them is profit and more money for their investors.
    So in a sense you got to thank people who are criticising these huge companies... 3) For the movies, the average price of tickets rose with inflation. Blu rays are actually cheaper than they were 10 years back. But one can say that blu ray is what DVD was then. Streaming service and digital movie sale? You're talking as if these things aren't present in the gaming industry. See, movies don't have DLCs, they cannot tell people "here is your part of the movie and then say "wait 2 months and We'll give you another 20 minutes for 3 bucks".
    Gamers has sort of accepted DLCs but now with MT/LB a limit was reached. The movie industry doesn't cry that movies are more expensive to make so they need to screw their customers by implementing anti-consumer policies... 4) Let's take a game like FH3. A game with different pre order bonus per retailers, and a game with a $60 base game, a $80 and a $100 version.
    There were lot of DLC car pack and DLC expension all were sponsored and had product placements/ads...
    Total there has been 8 DLC car pack each at 7 bucks? That's $56 right there. Then there was the Expansions. You could get the Expansion Pass for $35. And let's not forget the VIP pass or the car pass provided (6 DLC car pack) for $30. Ignoring the passes, to get the full game someone would need to spend $60 + $56 + $35. That's $150!!! And wait that's not it. There is MT/LB to add to this. Now if this isn't greed I don't know what is...  5) There is a difference between making a profit in a sustainable business, by keeping customers happy/satisfied and doing anything to make a MUCH BIGGER profit to please the investors even if it pisses off your customers and it could kill the industry. 6) You want to talk of the "real world" and how this is business... Well this is the real world too. We are consumers and there is something called customer satisfaction. In an open world we have every right to criticise companies and their strategy. We have every right to give our opinion when we feel they cross the line. In supply and demand, if there is no demand for a product than the company will tend to lose. Chasing that extra profit for their investors can lead to what happen to Star Wars BF 2. 7) Another point you ignored is that there are others MUCH smaller companies who manage to make games without the need to use these strategies. When you are saying "cost of development skyrocketing" you are justifying the "need" to try anything to maximize your profits. 
    It is simple not necessary as most companies doing these are MAJOR companies that won't go bankrupt (on the contrary...) 8) "cost of development skyrocketing". Like I said it's mostly marketing cost that has "skyrocketed". If the investment is really that much of a problem no one is stopping them from spending less. No one is telling them to spending MILLIONS on marketing...
    Like I said, most of these games are just sequest of previous games. The cost of development has hardly skyrocketed. I don't think gamers need to suffer to help these companies cover the marketing cost they invested...
    --------
    YES, I will call them greedy. Because you said it yourself. They are trying to maximize profits even if it pisses of their customers.
    It is greed because they don't need to do that to have a sustainable business... At the end, I don't really what do you want gamers to do. Do you want gamers to say nothing and quietly take it in the ***? Do you think these companies should not be criticised? Should we worship them?
  • But since you're comparing times 15 years ago. I've no numbers, I admit, yet I'm willing to bet that EA now makes more money off of their best selling game of the year than their whole catalogue 15 years ago. Bottom line: they're NOT struggling. Plain and simple.
  • The point isn't whether they are struggling or not. The point for any business is to see growth. No company is going to get 3/4 of the way through the year and say "We've made enough, let's just not give a f$ck for the rest of the year". With the cost of development skyrocketing as it has, a single high profile failure can be devastating for a company. We've seen several smaller companies shut their doors because of a game that flopped. It's simply good business sense to maximize your profits and ensure year-on-year growth. The point I was making was that we as gamers are so hell bent on criticizing companies for making money that we have forced them to resort to shadier tactics, instead of just raising prices as needed, be it because of development costs, inflation or both.
  • Shorter answer, indie titles are produced "independantly", whereas AAA titles have a publisher. Nothing else factors in, quality has nothing to do with AAA or indie, even though so many people seem to think it does. As an aside, I emphatically, 100% disagree with your last paragraph above "your thoughts", if anything it is closer to the opposite.
  • I think it can be. Like I said, this is just what I personally feel based on my experience as a gamer growing up. AAA games as of late have been...less satisfying than ones years ago, I will admit.
  • Agreed to a point. Indie just means that it was independently created. There can be big Indie games. To me, AAA is a quality/budget designation. A AAA game means that a huge amount if resources were invested into the creation of this game. The art assets will be top quality. The engineering will be high end. An Indie studio could have a AAA game if they sunk in enough money.
  • What indie games are "usually long, large, and feature detailed, with realistic graphics?" Sure, there may be a few notable exceptions (I can't think of any that meet all the criteria), but the generalization really rings true for the vast majority of AAA and indie games.
  • Ninja theory made a Indie AAA game recently called Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice. Only one off the top of my head I can think of. It does happen but it's is rare. Wouldn't The witcher and other CDprojects be indie too since they Self publish?
  • Technically, The Witcher games are indie. There is also Tacoma, PUBG and the aforementioned Hellblade. The reason why I disagree with AAA games automatically being given the "quality" description is we have been getting far too many big budget titles that are anything but quality and have been provided in down right broken states in some cases, AC: Unity, Andromeda, Halo MCC, GeOW4, all big name titles released with serious problems (some still persist). Just becaus people throw money at something doesn't necessarily imply it's going to be well done.
  • Games are games and meant for enjoyment and brief reprieve from the daily stress people experience day in and day out. They were never meant to be a 24/7 job just so you could boast about digital rankings and equipment which have no bearings on real life. Unless of course the game offers the ability to convert game currency to real currency. Even then, the studio / developer / publisher holds all the strings.
      So for me there is not much difference between indie and AAA titles except the latter will get heavier critique and scrutiny over it's mechanics because I play to enjoy a game. Not to be left in state where I'm frustrated and have to "work" for a few hours on a leveling treadmill just to progress. Factually though Indie devs don't usually have publisher's pulling the purse strings although there maybe a few behind the scenes investors who would have a say in the games development.
  • Cool