Will GAME's Woes Kill Off AA Titles?

The squeezed middle could soon be squeezed out of existence argues Christian Donlan.

There used to be three Game stores in Brighton - well, two Games and a Gamestation. Overkill, perhaps, particularly since you could walk between all of them in the space of five minutes. Even less than that, if you're good at dodging those street carts filled with knitted Angry Birds hats.

Each of these stores had its own character, though, from the slightly earnest, hardcore staff of the Western Road Game - I pegged most of them as Nintendo fanatics - to the more studenty bunch who worked the Churchill Square site and the chirpy hardnuts who sat behind the counter at Gamestation, flirting with my younger sister whenever she went in. (Not creepy, thankfully, as she's not that much younger.)

Western Road has gone now, and I'd love to believe it's the only site that will be doing a vanishing act. It's been a very sad business, this Game thing. Regardless of what you think of the second-hand trade market, or the pricing that Game often settled on, it's never nice to see lovely, informative, friendly people losing their jobs.

Lots of websites have been covering the human side of Game's troubles extremely well. Now it looks like the company's going to keep trading, albeit in reduced form, I'm going to touch on something else today. It's something Oli Welsh got me thinking about a month or so back, actually, when his Game of the Week piece looked at the crisis in AA games. AA games are in trouble already, basically: squeezed by the lavish excesses of big budget AAA titles, and undermined by the quirky, sketch-like quality of some of the indies. They're a little too expensive to be true impulse buys like an iOS or Android game, and they're often a touch too ropey to tempt people in at 40.

AA games are in a spot, and if Game had properly gone under last week, it would only have gotten worse.

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At university I worked at a cinema, and I was amazed how many people turn up at the box office without a specific film in mind. Game stores are often the same, apparently.

Speak to any smartphone game developer, and they'll tell you the same thing: if you want your game to be a hit, you have to get it into the top 25 listing. So many games are released every week - and iTunes and the Google store are such a mess - that this is the only real shop window you have, most of the time. Fancy a new game? Scroll down the bestseller ranks and you'll probably find something interesting. If not, why not fire up Drop7 again, eh? Where do you start browsing on the App Store? Staff Picks and New and Noteworthy aside, it's not really set up for it.

With no Game on the high street - and not much of an independent store scene left anymore - boxed games would find themselves in the same sort of position. Amazon and the other onlines would be stocking everything, of course, but for the majority of people who still buy their games in town, it would be supermarkets or non-specialist shops taking their business. Most of these places buy games in bulk, and a lot of them are only going to buy the stuff that is charting.

I totally understand the economics of it, but it's still a miserable concept. Look at your game collection. How many of your favourite titles didn't chart well? It's probably more than you think. Over the last few months, I've loved Asura's Wrath, I've rediscovered Bulletstorm and I've moderately enjoyed that Raven game where you're titting around on a Russian island with Nolan North. I even had a fair amount of fun with Blades of Time, although I did have to really work to find it.

These are the sort of games that don't get anywhere near the top 10 with any regularity, and sometimes don't even get much coverage in the gaming press. These are the kind of games that a lot of people buy after coming into a Game store looking for something else, or not looking for anything at all. Sorry to pick on Blades of Time here, but I refuse to believe a sizeable proportion of the gaming audience thinks, "Oh, that looks good, despite the middling reviews and the lack of consumer chatter and the wonky videos I saw at E3. Tomorrow, I'll get up bright and early and rush into town and grab it before it sells out."

Instead, you see it - discounted, probably - on the bottom shelf of the Xbox section. You've got a bit of credit left on your card, and you say to yourself, "May as well, eh? I like blades. I like time. This lady on the cover has clearly been working out and she has a very nice haircut, too. I'm in."

You can't do that on Amazon quite as easily.

Granted, in this example, it means that you'd be missing out on a troubled project with some amusing voice acting, but if Game had fallen apart a console generation ago, I could have missed out on P.N.03, perhaps, or The Red Star, or Psi-Ops, or Jet Set Radio Future. Go back even a few years, and I might not have found Stranglehold or WarTech. What would life be like without Inspector Tequila around?

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Inspector Tequila's already had it, but who's next?

There will always be hardcore fans for obscure Japanese titles, of course. There will even be, like me, hardcore fans for ketchupy schlock as served by the likes of Midway - may you rest in peace, sweet princes and princesses. But are there always going to be enough of these people? Game allows these kinds of titles to pick up a little extra traction by being visible wherever people are browsing for other stuff. Amazon or Play or whoever you use online are great for finding what you want, but they still struggle - even if things are getting a bit better - at showing you what you didn't know you wanted. I generally end up loving the games I didn't know I wanted.

What's really sad, I think, is that AA games, the very games that are in real trouble right now, are actually the most like the games I grew up playing in the first place. Double Dragon, which was a big deal in my school playground, feels like classic AA fare, for example, and the AAs I love, I love because they actually seem more honestly old school than a lot of the other stuff out there.

They have to be, I guess. They have to drown you in UI clutter, combos, finishers, wall-springs and collectables, because they don't have the money to throw on the set-pieces and turn themselves into something a little weirder and more slickly rollercoastery like Uncharted, and they don't have the financial set-up to take risks like the indies can. AA games are a bit like those movies you occasionally used to see in the DVD store which would guarantee a good double-punch every few minutes, a couple of ninjas popping through the wall at the end of each act, and a final set-piece featuring a zipline slung between two not-very-tall skyscrapers.

I love those kind of films. You don't see them too often anymore, of course. Not now that most specialist DVD stores have dried up and blown away.

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