Single-A Games – How Zeno Clash, Braid, Trine and more are changing the industry

Single-A Gaming

Single-A Games - How Zeno Clash, Braid, Trine and more are changing the industry

Visit any supermarket in the country and you’ll be spoilt for choice. Each and every product is available in a variety of flavours, colours and scents, commercial and own brands, premium and value ranges, ensuring that consumers of all incomes and demographics have no reason to leave the store empty-handed.

This fragmentary strategy isn’t lost on the entertainment industry, either. The advent of digital platforms has allowed us an unprecedented degree of control over how and when we consume content: scheduled television is crumbling in the face of on-demand and pay-per-episode services, newspaper sales have plummeted in the face of the free, clearly demarcated coverage on their websites, and the validity of the album is being steadily eroded by the booming market for individual songs. The concept of one-price, one-product may soon be no more than a memory.

Changing technology is forcing the games industry to adapt and restructure in a similar way. The major publishers are laser-focussed on finding the next Grand Theft Auto, Halo or Call of Duty, but while the right idea can lead to enormous profits, escalating development costs make every triple-A project an enormous risk. At the other end of the scale, services like Xbox Live Arcade, WiiWare and the PlayStation Network are brimming with small games offering instant gratification for just a few pounds. Unfortunately, all too often this instant gratification can feel instantly disposable.

The mainstream, commercial industry has done little to fill the gap between these two extremes, but a string of interesting releases over the last few years suggest this might be about to change. Just as District 9 showed Hollywood a compelling alternative to mega-blockbusters like 2012, there are a number of studios working on a new kind of product that could prove vital to the growth of the market: the single-A game.

The term ‘single-A’ was coined by Steve Gaynor – a designer at 2K Marin – during the height of the recession last year. At the time, Gaynor was working on BioShock 2, yet despite his close proximity to such a high-profile project, he wrote a blog post detailing his concerns about the industry’s obsession with blockbusters.

This view is gathering momentum, and with good reason. The latest UK Chart-Track data for the first-quarter of 2010 shows that both sales and revenue are still falling year-on-year, despite a release schedule weighed down with the sort of big-hitters normally reserved for the pre-Christmas rush. Mass Effect 2, Final Fantasy XIII, Bayonetta and BioShock 2 have all arrived in the last few months, yet their high sales weren’t enough to lead to an increase overall. It paints a picture of a top-heavy industry, reliant on a select crop of franchises from the biggest publishers to keep sales ticking over.