Revenge of the XBLA

Posted in PS3,The Industry,Wii,Xbox 360 by Michael Pica on the March 21st, 2007

One of the best features of Xbox Live is the Live Arcade which allows you to download classic arcade games as well as new games in the classic arcade style. Many people don’t realize it but this was actually available on the Xbox 1, but it required you purchase a disc and there were only a very small handful of games (most of which which were either ported to or had a sequel on the Xbox 360 version of the arcade). The Xbox 360′s arcade offerings started fairly strong out of the gate but it has suffered a drought that it’s just now starting to overcome, unfortunately it comes at a time where they now have Nintendo and Sony to compete with in that regard as well. It leads one to wonder: what does the future hold for the Xbox Live Arcade? and do they have what it takes to put up a good show against the likes of Nintendo, Sony, or the countless Arcade style games on the PC?

Titles on these platforms target the casual gamer; maybe I’m alone in this but I’ve always thought of a “casual gamer” as someone who plays games with casual frequency. Sort of the antithesis of a “hardcore gamer”. Though I was recently corrected by someone who works in the casual games industry that the real definition of a casual gamer is someone who plays casual games. Casual games being defined as games with a simple interface, offer gameplay in short bursts, the ability to quickly reach the end of game, or play continuously with no need to save, no plot or characters or a very simple plot/character structure, usually 2D or abstract graphically, and offering some type of try before you buy level of product. If you’d like a more detailed description of casual games you can read the Wikipedia article. This definition is important because it describes casual games as more of a major genre of game. With this in mind it’s possible to have “hardcore casual gamers” which might seem like an oxymoron but it’s really not. It’s simply gamers who play casual games with hardcore frequency.

The way casual games are defined is also important because it reads like a definition of the Xbox Live arcade, to a lesser degree the Nintendo Virtual console, and to an even lesser degree Sony’s e-distribution service. Out of the three it’s clear that the XBLA is the most focused on this genre, the limitations of price and game size placed on XBLA titles helps keep them within the bounds of this genre. Nintendo on the other hand is offering Classic console games which includes, among other things, RPGs which even with their simplistic graphics and gameplay certainly do not meet the criteria of a casual game. Such a game wouldn’t find it’s way to the Xbox Live arcade service simply because the cost of production would be too great a company making an RPG wouldn’t have much to work with in terms of space and the time involved to make something that large would cost too much given the maximum $20 price tag allowed for XBLA games. Sony’s service on the other hand is just a method of distribution; in addition to casual titles they also offer full fledged games like Tekken or Gran Torrismo.

I think it’s important that these services stick to a theme, by doing so gamers know what to expect from it. You know that anything you download from the XBLA will fall into the definition of a casual game. You know that anything you download for the Virtual Console will be a classic game from the 8-bit, 16-bit, or early 3D generation. Looking at the PC world it seems that the most successful casual game sites are the ones that specialize only in casual games. Also it would seem that those more successful sites are those that build a community around their gaming service.

Keeping this in mind I think Microsoft has done well to position the Xbox Live arcade against the well developed casual game market on the PC. All of the factors seems to be in place. Nintendo seems to be going after a slightly different type of gamer, one that is looking for more nostalgia then a casual game. Sony doesn’t really seem to have a direction with their service yet. They seem to want to go after the same things that Microsoft and Nintendo are after, as well as some other things. Theres no doubt that their offering games like Tekken and GTHD through their e-distribution service has been one of the few saving graces for the PS3, but as it is right now I think it’s too diverse of a competitor. If you look at the VC the games are all separated by console or generation, if you look at the XBLA you’ll realize that it’s a small part of the larger XBL Marketplace and that things like retail game demos, betas, and other game offerings that don’t fit into the casual market are offered in a completely separate section of the service. The names of these services are quite revealing as to how they’re organized and what they offer: Live arcade – arcade style games with a community and live stats, Virtual Console – classic console games emulated, e-distribution – games delivered electronically.

A good distribution system for casual games is quite useless unless you have casual games to distribute. This seems to have been Microsoft’s biggest stumbling block so far. While the system itself is quite superior to it’s counterparts in delivering casual games, releases have historically been too few and far between, and once they started delivering them with semi-regularity the overall quality of what was delivered seems to be lacking. Sure there are quite a few classic arcade games like your Pac-Man and Galiga, etc. but Rally-X and Scramble? I’m not the oldest gamer nor do I harbor a soft spot for pixels of the 80s but I seriously question if even classic gaming fans find much to like about some of these titles. I worked in an arcade for several years, an arcade with a fairly substantial classic game collection dating all the way back to Computer Science and Pong, I can honestly say I’d never heard of Scramble or Rally-X before their appearance on the marketplace nor do I recall any inquiries about them from arcade patrons trying to locate their old standards.

If the slew of bad classic arcade ports wasn’t enough even some of the newer titles were really botched when they arrived on the market. The release of Lumines Live was a debacle of trying to fit a game too large in price and size into the Live Arcade. The 50MB and $20 limits on size and price were apparently too small causing them to squeeze the core engine and a few token levels into a $20 50MB download and then a few more levels into another $8 and 50MB download and the game still wasn’t complete at that point when compared to it’s PSP and PS2 counterparts. More levels came later at additional costs and size. I was really excited to have Lumines come to the XBLA I’d heard lots of good things about it and I was disappointed that it was only available on the PSP. When it was released on the XBLA I voted with my wallet and refused to purchase it. I have the money and download size isn’t an issue but it’s execution soured me so. If they ever decide to pull their head out of their ass and re-release the whole game at one price in one download then I’ll buy it. I don’t mind updates to a game, I don’t even care how much the initial game costs, just don’t pretend that the initial $20 purchase is in anyway complete. Countless other screw ups came as well, games with glitches that were never fixed: Smash TV, Texas Hold-em, Small Arms, UMK3, etc. preventing people from getting their money’s worth.

Normally such poor performances would spell doom for the service especially in the face of two new competitors but lucky for MS Sony has little more then  fl0w a few token casual games, and Nintendo has been surprisingly non-aggressive with their Virtual Console release strategy. Though Nintendo has countless big ticket franchises in the wings that could be released at any time, and Sony’s announcement of Little Big Planet reminds us that they some original stuff up their sleeves too. Microsoft seems to rely almost entirely on 3rd party support though, which can be dangerous, and at the same time disappointing since many of the development houses they own have a lot that could be offered in terms of casual games.

Despite the problems and the competition they’ve been showing signs of turning that ship around, in the last three weeks they’ve released three phenomenal titles: Alien Hominid, Worms, and TMNT. All games that people have been begging to see hit the XBLA and all games that were executed quite well. This has helped to remind us that there are good titles that arrive every once in a while. I think these recent releases are the first time since the console’s launch when I’ve been genuinely excited about titles available on XBLA and XBLA as a platform in general. There have been a few gems along the road to now but they were mostly overshadowed by the fast drought between them. It’s not like there is a shortage of classic games people would like to see hit the arcade, nor a shortage of games planned for release or new games proposed. The real question now is: can they continue to release casual games at a high quality, can they continue to release them with consistency and diversity without digging deep into the abyss of classics that were not meant to be legends, and can they do it without the glitched or hackneyed releases that have plagued what would have otherwise been quality releases?

They’ve taken some steps to help prevent past mistakes from happening again. They’ve upped the minimum limit on game size to a much more reasonable 150MB and a while before that they decided institute Live Arcade Wednesdays; only releases one game a week regardless of how many they had ready to help spread out over the droughts, though they’ve still managed to have a few weeks here and there with nothing new available.

I think if the XBLA can stay on the course it’s on now and MS goes back and fixes some of the past mistakes the can sty in the lead they currently hold in the next-gen casual games market. It’s also important that they realize part of the reason they even hold a lead is not necessarily that their service has been superior, just that they’ve had time on their side to work out the bugs. As it is all of the big three console makers have some interesting offerings and I’m honestly excited about all of them, here’s hoping that they turn up the heat and start trying to out do each other; because when they compete, the gamers win.

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