Single-A games

Ever get that feeling? That optimistic, uplifting feeling that despite the economy, torture, and global pandemics, a few little things might be going right in the world? That's just how I felt upon completing a couple of notable independent games this past week: The Path and Zeno Clash. They made me happy that engrossing, novel, invigorating games are occupying that middle ground between retro/lo-fi and triple-A blockbuster, now more than ever. It's something I've been talking about for years, and to play such vibrant examples really makes me excited for the future.

Single-A games

The middle ground I'm thinking of is hard to pin down, but a few common properties describe it: the games have smaller teams and budgets than your standard, triple-A retail shelf title, but use similar, modern graphical technology (full 3D, modern rendering techniques.) They're bigger productions than single-author, bedroom coder, 2D/Flash/ASCII efforts that one often thinks of as the definition of "indie" but explore similarly outre themes and aesthetics compared to most mainstream fare. They use many of the same design, structural and representational elements as big, triple-A games, such as immersive first-person or third-person direct control over an avatar, a fully navigable 3D gameworld, voiceover and scripted sequences, but are generally shorter in length and lower in rendering fidelity. Basically, they are like a triple-A production that has been strategically and drastically reduced in scope, allowing them to focus on specific, and less conventional, mechanics and aesthetics, and smaller target audiences than their mass-market counterparts. They benefit greatly from the reduced overhead and plugged-in audience that digital distribution channels like Steam and Direct2Drive provide.

Putting one's finger on just what to call these sorts of games can be tricky. I've used "game noir" in the past, but that has too specific an aesthetic connotation. I've tried "B-games," like B-movies, but that has negative implications of quality, even if the most vital films of the mid-century were often B-movies. So I'll try this: Single-A games. They're like triple-A games, but trimmed down and tightened to fit a smaller team, smaller scope, and usually a smaller audience-- to try new, interesting, and exciting approaches that the baggage of a triple-A production can almost never allow. Single-A games: they're what we need more of, and The Path and Zeno Clash are two outstanding examples.

The Path

Created by Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey, The Path takes the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale as its jumping-off point. The player chooses one of six girls, each named with a different synonym for "red" (Ruby, Scarlet, Ginger, etc., except for Carmen, whom I'm guessing might be a reference to the opera heroine? A commenter below suggests a play on "Carmine.") The player's stated goal when choosing a girl is to lead her to Grandmother's House, and to "stay on the path." This is simple--the path leads straight ahead to Grandmother's House, and the player need only hold the 'walk forward' button to succeed. However, upon ignoring the game's directive and leaving the path, the player is immediately lost in a deep forest, where a variety of strange objects and characters are waiting to be found. Each girl has a different reaction to these points of interest, which bit by bit builds up the individual character of your chosen charge.

Two other characters can be found wandering through the woods-- the girl in white, an ethereal figure who plays without a care and tends to lead the player to interesting things, and the Wolf, who takes a different form in each chapter. Upon leaving the path, there is no way to return to it-- the only way to escape the woods is to find the girl's Wolf. A sort of compass leads the player to the Wolf's location, but figuring out how to draw the Wolf out can take the form of a point-and-click style puzzle.

Upon either walking down the path or finding the girl's Wolf, the player enters Grandmother's House, which takes the form of a garish, off-putting virtual installation art piece. The most interesting thing about The Path is experiencing each chapter through the lenses of the different girls' personalities, piecing together their mindsets through the snippets of reactions they have to the world, and discovering the forms that their different Wolves take. Grandmother's House is twisted a different way for each girl, presenting a very subjective environment informed by their individual traits, and the experience you had in your own playthrough with that girl.

The art is at times both lovely and disquieting, and always quite accomplished-- the world and the characters, and especially the Grandmother's House installations are wonderfully realized. And though less overt, the systems are interesting in their somewhat combative dialogue with the player. It's a game that wants you to play it in a particular way-- slowly, contemplatively, and aimlessly. You can feel the designers witholding information and control from the player to this end: if the player chooses to run instead of walk, after a few moments the camera lifts up as if on a crane to look straight down at the girl, and the screen darkens with gloom to the point that seeing where you're going is impossible; spending most of your time walking is the only feasible approach. A sort of map exists which plots your trail through the woods, but only appears each 100 meters that you run, and only fades in for a moment-- it allows you to periodically readjust your heading, but denies the player the ability to check their map constantly, encouraging the feeling of being lost. Compass indicators pointing to the Wolf and the girl in white are ever-present on the screen, but update so slowly that the player is required to stop and wait for them to "catch up" if they want to use the compass at all. It can be frustratingly transparent, and in some cases makes the systems completely unreadable (I didn't know until I looked on the game's Steam forum that the compass indicators were anything but artsy embellishment-- they update SO slowly that without a tutorial, I didn't realize they meant anything at all.) But the core systems of movement, interaction and camera control are so transparent and solidly implemented that such examples only make the hand, and the intent, of the authors that much more noteworthy an aspect of the experience-- these are systems with purpose, based on a calculated thought process, which is more than can be said for many games.

The Path is the sort of unique, personal, and affecting experience that subsequent single-A games might aspire to match. It's only $9.99 on Steam, Direct2Drive, or direct from Tale of Tales.

Zeno Clash

Games boast the potential to transport the player to worlds completely removed from our own. And yet we so often fall back on tired or blase settings that when a truly unique, unprecedented gameworld appears, it's a real rarity to be celebrated. Enter Zeno Clash, the creation of the brothers Bordeu-- Andres, Carlos, and Edmundo. The land of Zenozoik is a completely novel invention, a gameworld unlike any you've seen before. It's not just crazy and new, but strikingly beautiful to behold.

Coming off of a string of intriguing mod creations, some overambitious for the size of their team, ACE Team decided to focus on "one or two innovative mechanics," resulting in Zeno Clash, a very linear, constrained game all about close-range arena battles decided by melee combat and primitive firearms such as muskets and slingshots. The game's protagonist is Ghat, a man who, as the game begins, has killed Father-Mother, a towering bird-like figure who's raised hundreds of children that populate the land. The game alternates between depicting the events leading up to the assassination of Father-Mother in the past, and Ghat's long, arduous journey through Zenonzoik as he flees Father-Mother's territory, pursued by her assassins.

The wonderful thing about Zeno Clash is how every presentational and gameplay element compliments every other-- the world itself is fairly medieval in its level of technology, which lends itself to the raw, small-scale fisticuffs of the core gameplay. The story of the protagonist's flight provides the rationale for a rapid tour through all different parts of this amazing, alien world, allowing the developers to show off environment after stunning environment, showcasing the sheer breadth of the creators' imagination. The first-person perspective gives the player the viewpoint of an actual inhabitant of this place, surrounding them with every strange detail, making this imaginary place all the more real. Consider Zeno Clash from an elevated third-person perspective: the gameworld and characters, having so little relation to our own, become that much more artificial, like scale models. Approaching this fantastical architecture and the unbelievable inhabitants of this world at eye level is what makes it all feel so real.

Mechanically the game is a joy (though my one major complaint would be that the game defaults to Hard difficulty, and even Normal, the lowest setting, exhibits some serious difficulty spikes. How about an Easy mode, guys?) Every impact of fist and swing of bludgeon feeling weighty and solid. The player's attacks really seem to make contact with their targets, creating a strong illusion of physical connection between the player and the occupants of this place, as opposed to the disconnected floating viewpoint of some other first-person games. The combat system is deep enough, allowing the player to dodge, parry and counterattack strategically. Selecting a particular weapon is a meaningful choice, as each has its own specific advantages and disadvantages. But much like a standard FPS, the core mechanics of Zeno Clash are fairly constant throughout; what makes the gameplay really interesting is great, creative level design that changes up your situation continually over the course of the game. One level might be a fairly standard arena battle in a city square, while the next challenges the player to fend off hostile creatures on a wooded path; the next might send you hunting for scurrying game in the underbrush, or defending a boat as it's rowed down a stream, or keeping a torch lit in a pitch black netherworld to keep shadow creatures at bay. The variety in gameplay challenges handily matches the ever-changing scenery and twisting, surreal storyline.

The novel gameplay paradigm and highly unorthodox setting, likely too risky for a triple-A production, perfectly suit the single-A scale and direct download platform chosen for Zeno Clash. In fact, it's the sort of game that most likely never could have existed without the viability of this middleground. I hope that ACE Team is successful with Zeno Clash (and perhaps they are-- apparently the game was Direct2Drive's #1 download this week) and that other small, innovative development teams will be encouraged to stage their own wild experiments following this model. Zeno Clash is available on Steam and Direct2Drive for $19.99.

So What?

Alright, so I think these games are great, and you should play them. So what?

The point is that they demonstrate the amazing potential in the single-A space for individuality, experimentation, and immediacy. They sidestep many problems that normally plague boxed triple-A products-- problems like unfocused design, "safe" (boring, juvenile) settings and mechanics, overlong campaigns that nobody finishes, and inflated price tags-- delivering fresh, unique, and easily-digestible experiences that can reasonably be dived into, enjoyed, and completed over the course of a half-dozen hours or so, all for less than the price of a used copy of that big-budget blockbuster that came out a couple months ago. If the single-A space could expand from the current slow trickle of releases to dozens of titles released every year-- or every month!-- then single-A games might act as that bridge between bedroom indies and corporate blockbusters, giving emerging talents a place to shine, and all of us more, different, inspiring experiences to enjoy.

Is this a natural progression as more funding for independent teams becomes available and the barrier to acquiring the means of producing immersive 3D worlds is lowered? 15 years ago, pixel art side-scrollers were our triple-A blockbusters; now the one-man productions using this model are innumerable. Hopefully games like Zeno Clash and The Path (and Gravity Bone, and Flower, and so on,) are early glimmers of the successful intersection of immersive 3D and the indie mindset. And hopefully they're to be followed many, many more.


spindrift said...

great post, I wholeheartedly agree.
BTW, Carmine is a deep red colour. The name Carmen is likely referencing that.

Nels Anderson said...

Upon leaving the path, there is no way to return to it-- the only way to escape the woods is to find the girl's Wolf.Actually, if you interact with the Girl in White, she'll take your hand and lead you back to the path. I did this my first time through, playing as Ginger, not recognizing the Wolf or understand how to interact with her/it.

It's interesting to think about how one's interpretation of the game might differ, not realizing it's possible to go back.

Heh, and I also didn't notice the compass until I was on the very last Red.

Jonathan Blow said...

I agree that it's nice that indies are able to produce games with good-looking 3D graphics. But you fundamentally have to ask whether this is sustainable -- that is, whether enough people are buying these games for them to even remotely break even.

I don't have any way of directly seeing the sales stats for these games, but there is publicly-available knowledge to give you a pretty good idea of where they are, generally. First, keep in mind that Steam sells the vast majority of games on the PC right now, and all other services put together still add up to a relatively small minority. (#1 on Direct2Drive is peanuts from what I hear; I have never released a game there.)

If you go here:


And then click on the link at the bottom, "View Steam players per game", to expand it, you can see where the games are relative to each other, in terms of who is playing simultaneously. This is not the same thing as sales, of course (it will be dominated at the top by heavy multiplayer games) but it will still give you some idea of perhaps how many people are buying a game on any particular day, for games that aren't heavy multiplayer experiences like that.

So, search down this list for Zeno Clash and The Path. Both of them are pretty far down there. Zeno Clash is just a bit below Braid, which I can tell you right now is bad news. Disclosing how much Braid has sold on Steam would be a violation of the publishing agreement, but I can say that if you add together all PC sales from all PC online publishers, and extrapolate that through the end of 2009, it probably would not be enough for Braid to break even, if Braid had only been released on the PC. Maybe it would barely break even. Braid has done quite well, overall, but that's mainly because of the Xbox 360; I do not at all envy anyone trying to sell a game that's PC-only right now.

So you have Zeno Clash, a game with really nice 3D graphics that was probably kind of expensive to make (ACE Team lists 7 Key Members on their page at http://www.aceteam.cl/), and this game is selling less than a cheaper-to-make 2D game that, despite being cheaper, probably wouldn't have made back its budget either (had it been only released on the PC). So, that doesn't look good.

(And keep in mind that Braid is a pretty short game, so it is probably underreported on this list of simultaneous players, compared to longer games, if you are trying to figure out sales).

Then you look down the list and see The Path, and it's pretty obvious that making another one of those will not be possible without a large arts grant and complete lack of profit motive.

So, I agree that it's great seeing people make these games, and I'd love to see more, perhaps this becoming a well-established paradigm for indie game development. But is that realistically going to happen? Only if the PC market changes tremendously.

Anonymous said...

So, in response to Jonathan's comment above, I would profer that the reason you see those stats in the ditch has less to do with the "PC Market" and more to do with the manner in which titles distributed through digital channels only are marketed (i.e. very little if at all).

Xbox Live has a very tight system of marketing titles - in the case of Braid this was done through Summer of Arcade - which can bring awareness to things that might otherwise pass unnoticed. Steam does an okay job of this, but it could be infinitely better around bringing awareness of independent titles.

On the other hand, Jon's comments around the cost of making a single A title are likely valid. It would be informative to see a graph of average cost of development across the spectrum (independent, single, double and triple A, etc.) against the average revenue for those titles.

I suspect that on the edges you would see lower risk, lower gain for independent vs. AAA titles (high risk, high gain). The question is then, is it a smooth curve in the middle, in which case making single A titles makes sense, or does it dip (because making single A titles suffers from neither the flexibility of small indie titles, nor the marketing guns of the AAA ones), in which case it is not.

Steve gaynor said...

Jon-- thanks for sharing your experience. I think it's fair to question the financial viability of this approach to game making, as the field is fairly unproven. And I don't have a strong prediction either way (I haven't really thought much about this aspect, or been through the funding travails of an independent developer.)

I wish that Valve would release hard sales numbers, as the methods of inferring a game's actual sales are inexact at best. But the comparison you make is pretty fair, I'd say-- if Braid has been out on PC for a number of months now, and more people are currently playing it than either of these newer games, then their sales are comparably probably not so hot (I think that for The Path at least, as you note, most of their funding is grant money, and so sales are probably not as important to them.)

So is Steam not an effective delivery platform for independent games? Or does the gaming audience just not want this kind of product?

As you note, Braid was successful largely due to its 360 version. And so perhaps the need isn't for the PC market to change tremendously, but for console platforms to embrace these sorts of independent efforts more fully (or conversely for independent outfits to embrace console platforms.) As far as I can tell, there's no reason either Zeno Clash or The Path couldn't be on the 360 or PSN-- they both support gamepads, and don't seem like they would be technologically incompatible with the hardware offered by game consoles.

So if anything I imagine that games like the above might be seen as more financially viable if the effort was put forth to make them available to as broad an audience as possible. One hopes that the cross-platform success of games like Braid (and, say, World of Goo on Wii and PC) might help lead the way.

Jazmeister said...

I would like to register my whole-hearted agreement. When HL2 first came out I had like ten mod ideas, all games I'd loved to have played. V:TM was just the beginning; I saw source (the engine used for Zeno Clash, as you doubtless realised with that first loading screen) as this great, accessible engine that could serve anyone's creativity. Why aren't people making more? Why aren't Valve allowing an open market for it on Steam?

Hoatzin, Man of Mystery said...

MAYBE these prospectively unsuccessful indie developers should spend more time sanctimoniously damning prevailing game design philosophies at industry gatherings. As a promotion technique, you see.

MAYBE we should tax World of Warcraft and all those yearly sports games and use the monies to subsidize indie game development.

Ubisoft has already subsidized some of their games through claiming artsy-fartsyness to the French art authorities. It is only a matter of time before the Greatest Generation and their offspring stop being on boards of grant giving bodies such as the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

MAYBE as more people come from the artsy-arts direction (people such as yourself), more weird corporate sponsorships, private patronage schemes, residencies, and other methods of funding that come from the art world would occur to them as viable.

Joshua Hernandez said...

Thanks for the insight here. We are starting up a small studio in Chicago this summer that revolves around the concept of smaller, market response games.

I have to say that it was tempting to take on the 6 month to a year scope thinking that more polish would result. But sales data gives us a set of constraints that seem to be resulting in some creative fuel.

I like the idea of this label but I am not sure many of us understand what the true definition of AAA actually means outside of its current marketing use. Does labeling a game effort help smaller games become more create a vocabulary to expand the market base that buys independent games?

As a pure industry label, it could work but I think we would need to define team size and budget ranges as well since sales don't seem to define what a Triple A game is considering the tremendous amount of AAAs that don't sell more than 50k - 100k copies.

Great discussion! So much to think about.

Steve gaynor said...

Hoatzin brings up another valid angle-- sources of funding. Perhaps more big-name publishers will take on the Fox Searchlight/Miramax/Sony Pictures Classics approach and begin funding single-A projects with some of the profit from their successful blockbuster games. And perhaps in the States we'll begin to see more non-profit-focused funding sources, such as the ones that made The Path viable to develop in Belgium. One assumes it would start with independent teams making compelling games at this scale to get such organizations interested.

George B said...

I have thought of them as triple-B titles for a while, but as a baseball fan I'm surprised I hadn't thought of Single-A. Maybe Double-A games could be Single-A games that get picked up by AAA publishers. Anywho, I officially second your nomenclature, hear hear!

Michael Samyn said...

Steve, one of the funders of The Path was a US organisation (Creative Capital). So this type of funding is not just available in Belgium.

But I have to agree: we need more non-commercial funding and less dependence on huge corporations with their "friendly-to-indie" channels. There's work to be done here. And it should not be stopped by capitalism.

Eamo said...

The triple A games for the most part lose money, about 10% make a lot of money the rest are generally at best breaking even or at worst losing money. It is very much a hit driven industry and it is hard to see why the lower budget games won't work in much the same manner.

Maybe once in a while one will come along that makes a fortune but most will either fizzle or make just enough to keep the companies going.

Carlos Bordeu said...

Hi. I'm one of the devs of Zeno Clash, so I just wanted to add my two cents in regards to the feasibility of making these type of games (and a bit in response to Jonathan's reply which is quite insightful).

Zeno Clash has not been a huge seller still. We are currently covering the project's cost and it would be correct to say that getting a XBLA port would be the next step to help achieve the financial success of the game -and this is something we are pursuing at the moment.

A couple of things should be noted in regards to ZC and the discussion about 'Single-A' games:

a) We developed it from Chile. The cost of life is perhaps half the cost of living in the US, so in terms of revenue you could say that each dollar we get for this games is valued 'twice' what you would get if you made it in a 'expensive' country. Taking this into account, I think we will likely see similar projects come from other countries in the future.

b) I believe one of the things that is very important in a project such as ZC is the fact that you are creating more than just a game; you are creating an expandable intellectual property. The world, characters and story of Zeno Clash are a huge part of the game. I think creating a sequel and expanding the universe of a game like this can be more effective and profitable (in a long term) than with many indie games, since they are usually based on the novelty of their game mechanics and design. Maybe a 'World of Goo 2' or 'Braid 2' would be less successful than their previous installments. But if we developed Zeno Clash 2 with an open RPG world, with many more characters and a continuing story; that adds tremendous value to the series and can eventually make the game a hit. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I believe that 'Single-A' games in many cases have better chances of becoming franchises.

Unknown said...

I know I'm coming into this conversation quite late, but it's partly because I only heard about Zeno Clash very recently. I've managed to go this long without creating a Steam account (not really sure how) and I'm sure that's part of the reason. As previously mentioned, spending any amount of time on XBOX Live exposes you to ads for all their services. In this way, XBOX Live is a very "sticky" service, and I'm sure Steam takes aim at the same goals.

For a game like this, however, it seems like it would be important to reach as broad a base as possible. I wonder if there isn't something out there on the internet that hasn't been leveraged correctly yet so that potential fans of these types of games get word of them. Nintendo's "new gamers" aren't quite prepared for some "Single-A" games, as we're calling them, but would a similar approach - marketing to a group that has never purchased a game on Steam, etc. - work in this case? Just a question, I don't know the answer.

George Buckenham said...

Even smaller and less ambitious than the games you've highlighted are the ones made by Flashbang (blurst.com). And while it's true they don't seem to be making any money yet, the costs for one of their games is so much smaller (I imagine) than that of Zeno Clash or The Path. That's because of their smaller scope, yes, but it's also because of the tools available. And perhaps an emphasis on not polishing the games as much, on getting them out the door faster. I'm not sure they fit into single-A titles, but they're still an option for 3D indies.