It sort of snuck up on us. Sure it's been talked about, but it's not as drastic as the indie revolution or the death of double-A or the rise of quadruple-A (now, there's a dumb term, but it does indicate just how the costs of making a AAA game have risen), or for that matter the free-to-play evolution from poor games we'd be embarrassed to spend time on to games that actually offer a good experience comparable to traditional offerings.
What then is triple-i (or iii)? Well, it's a game that's independently funded, fully or at least in part, it offers high production values in many (if not all) areas. Something to fill the void between the increasingly rare AAA productions and the numerous very small and modest (in terms of scope and production values) indie releases.
There are a number of factors that have enabled this. Most notably there is crowdfunding and while it's not exclusive to Kickstarter that's certainly the platform that has enabled and empowered most creators to independently fund their projects. It's not an unproblematic model and we now see that some developers are opting for different models after having success with Kickstarter campaigns. And perhaps that's a good thing. Perhaps this method is most useful when breaking free of the publisher model or when breaking into the market to begin with if you're a brand new studio with a great idea.
Of course, prior to this you have the introduction of digital platforms with enough customers to allow developers to sustain themselves. And these platforms have evolved and opened up more. Steam is the most important one, but both PlayStation Store, Xbox Live Marketplace, as well as Humble Store, GOG.com, and others are important enablers. There has been a tremendous shift from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo when it comes to working with independent developers in recent years.
More recently the rise of alpha funding, Early Access or whatever you want to call it, allows developers to earn income from their game while development is ongoing. This not only makes it easier to stay indepedendent, but it also allows developers to work on a game until they are content with it. Obviously there are pitfalls, and we've all seen examples of this, but regardless of the risks this is an enabling factor.
Furthermore, there is now a richer landscape of publishers. Either indie friendly publishers like 505 Games and Devolver Digital who are challenging the traditional publisher/developer relationships, or developers who double as publishers like Team 17 or Paradox Interactive also work very differently than some of the old guard. Teaming up with a publisher does not necessarily mean signing away your rights and most or all of your future profits.
Perhaps the most important factor in the rise of the triple-i is the shrinking spectrum of triple-A development, and it's not that we're not getting the truly massive giant productions - it's those smaller triple-A titles, sometimes referred to as double-A (AA) that are decreasing in numbers. These were the hallmark of many mid-sized publishers and as few of these remain there just isn't the same amount of games in retail boxes.
A game like the Fatshark developed and published Warhammer: The End Times - Vermintide, is a great example of triple-i. Developed by more than 50 developers for two years, it's the biggest production in the studio's history, and its scope is such that it wouldn't have raised many eyebrows had it been released as a boxed product during the last console cycle. The fact that Double Fine Productions can launch into development of Psychonauts 2 without publisher backing (although there is an outside investor contributing a third of the budget) is another sign that the industry has changed. Sure, Double Fine have had some commercial successes, but not the sort that would fund development of a project like Psychonauts 2 from start to finish. It's difficult to analyse Shenmue III as its budget is nowhere near that of the original game even if it's the most successful Kickstarter campaign of all time (at least in terms of video games). But the fact that Yu Suzuki has a chance to realise his vision without the deep pockets of a publisher is perhaps enough of an indication of the change we're talking about.
Platform holders need this desperately. Both Microsoft and Sony have the eco systems in place, and so does Valve with Steam, and even Nintendo are getting in on the act. They all benefit from more games in their channel as they take a cut from each sale, and there is a need to maintain a high flow of new releases. One way the flow has been kept up is through "HD remasters", but ultimately mining your old titles to provide games for new platforms is going to yield less and less rewards. There has to be new games, and they have to come from somewhere. Some players complain that there are too many indie games (on console), but really what they are complaining about is the lack of triple-A. It's not a zero sum game after all, but more triple-i would likely help ease those concerns as it is difficult to see from where a surge of new triple-A titles would come from such as the industry is at this point in time.
Perhaps this is also why Microsoft and Sony have warmed up to Early Access style programs. This is sensitive on console where players arguably aren't accustomed to unfinished games, but the success of games like ARK: Survival Evolved on Xbox One clearly indicates that consoles needs this and have to adapt in order to provide players with the sort of experiences currently being developed by larger indie studios. It's a little weird how Microsoft once set much of this in motion with Xbox Live Arcade where they were calling shots, and now they find themselves in a situation where they need to open up their platform in order to provide players with games they're dying to play.
Another factor that is coming into play is virtual reality (VR). There is a natural reluctance to commit to VR from the established triple-A studios. After all, there is no market currently in place and in order to support teams of hundreds of developers working on a game for several years there would have to be the potential to sell multiple millions of copies. And in 2016 it would be surprising if we see a single (non-bundled) VR-only title sell a million copies alone. In fact, half a million would be impressive. But where the big boys hesitate there is opportunity for new studios or older independents looking to break free of whatever business models they're used to. And with Oculus making use of their Facebook funds there is support to be had. This is a very risky market even for a small company, but the potential rewards for those who gain experience early in what might be the next big thing in gaming are also significant.
Another factor that we're seeing is that studios who have grown as a result of the booming mobile market are increasingly looking towards PC and console in order to get away from the highly competitive mobile scene where you may have to compromise your game design in order to earn money on your game.
What does this mean to players then? Well, obviously we're still in a state of flux, but ultimately and in the long run, this change of pace will further open up game development and provide players with a greater range of titles to play. Silly gaps like the fact that there are no major snowboarding titles or decent skateboarding games on new-gen consoles will hopefully be a thing of the past as smaller indie titles, triple-i, and AAA gel to once again form a more cohesive whole. It's necessary in order to satisfy all players and enable further growth for the industry. But perhaps we should also just get used to this exciting and unpredictable new reality.