AAA definition is very simple:
It is a classification term for video games that is roughly the equivalent of the film class blockbuster.
A bit of an addition: in almost all cases, a highly paid staff of business-minded producers have most of the creative control.
To expand a little. It's also a part of the industry. The strategy is to create a game, put it out, see if people buy it by the millions. Then dump millions more dollars and people into multiple sequels simultaneously in development so the cadence of release can be higher than simply completing one game after another. In addition, there's a lot of "pipelining" where there are people who have specific roles in the development process, and then when they are complete, they move on and begin the same job on the next game (employees on the development pipeline are like replaceable parts). These are, more or less, Producer games where the designers don't have much control over anything except getting the documentation down, the artists must follow the templates, as all art and design are controlled by lawyer-like producers who are more interested in the financial sales goals than the art form. This is basically what happened with Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed. The film industry is very similar as well. It's also why most AAA and blockbusters seem to have really cool looking scenes, but the originality of a cardboard box with a different coat of paint on it - it may look vastly different on the surface, but underneath it's the same sort of box. There's nothing incredibly sinister about this pipeline/producer model, it has been used in franchised TV programs since at least the 1950s; what it does do is create consistent themed content for consumption and generate revenue through niche exploitation as most people prefer repetition of what is familiar to them; and it is much less reliant on being a work of art as it is much more constrained - this is why earlier TV shows tend to have more satisfying content in the earlier series despite the earlier not necessarily being objectively better than the later; it's because people look at it and see "this is really good, but I've seen this box before. This earlier box is the original."
What are the precise values of money, people, and resources to make a game AAA? Like the blockbuster film, it's mainly arbitrary and ever-changing. And similar to blockbuster films, the precise definition of AAA games are always going to have people debating. "Is Godfather a blockbuster film or not?" "How about Taxi Driver?" "American Beauty?" etc...
Godfather for me looks like blockbuster on quality, sales and reception (but I had never seem the budget). The other 2 I would guess qualify as blockbuster... but considering most blockbuster are action/adventure or sci-fi I can understand the debate.
AAA is definitely about studio size and budget, it has nothing to do with the quality of the finished project. There are no clear rules for where the cutoff points between A/Indie, AA, and AAA lie, but generally speaking I'd say it's somewhere in this neighborhood as of 2018:
A/Indie- Team sizes between 1 and 40 devs typically. Budgets can range from just a few thousand dollars for 1 man basement projects up to around $10m typically.
AA- Team sizes between 40-100 devs typically. Budgets range from $10-50m typically.
AAA- Team sizes can vary widely, for instance Skyrim was made with 100 devs, one of the smallest AAA dev teams in recent years, while others, like Ubisoft, have been known to have over 1000 total devs work on a game at some point during it's development (with core teams over 400 devs). Recent known AAA budgets have ranged from $50m (LA Noire in 2011) to $265m (GTA V in 2013). Some other known game budgets for recent games that fall into that range: Darksiders 2 ($50m), Gears of War Judgement ($60m), Ghost Recon Future Soldier ($65m), Crysis 3 ($66m), Watch Dogs ($68m), Fable Legends ($76m before it was cancelled), MGS V ($80m), Witcher 3 ($81m), Skyrim ($92m), Halo 4 ($100m), Red Dead Redemption ($100m), Battlefield 4 ($100m), Tomb Raider 2013 ($104m), Max Payne 3 ($105m), Destiny ($140m).
There are some AAA level games of this gen that would fall on the 10-30M bracket (production only).
But I do agree with the general baselines. I would just break it a little more
B tier - real Indie - 1-10 people <100k invested
A tier - like japanese niche products <1M
AA tier - most regular games 5-10M
AAA tier over 30M
AAA has everything to do with production value, budget and marketing. But is has no bearing on quality. Plenty of expensive movies with costly effects and highly paid cast are also shit. Most AAA games are mediocre, some are great, some are crap, same as other ranges of games and gaming regardless of budgets, size of the dev team and cost of marketing, not to mention regardless of actual software sales.
I'm reminded a little bit of the age old discussion in here whether or not high sales = high quality, this is something quite different, but the OP's viewpoint seems to about as misguided, in my humble opinion. As for the distinction between A, AA and AAA, I have no idea, but on the surface it's usually really easy to tell an A title apart from an AAA, at the very least.
Yep, sales and budget doesn't determine quality... although high quality and budget may make a game a high seller.
It is ever important to remember that sales =/= quality, but you can infer that sales correlate to perceived value to target audience (like saying a hip hop song that sold over 10M isn't better than Mozart, but for those 10M it probably was more worth).
And certainly there is plenty of high budget turds versus several low budget gems.
duduspace11 "Well, since we are estimating costs, Pokemon Red/Blue did cost Nintendo about $50m to make back in 1996"
Mr Puggsly: "Hehe, I said good profit. You said big profit. Frankly, not losing money is what I meant by good. Don't get hung up on semantics"