Xbox LIVE Arcade is a sort of safe haven for gamers who just want to enjoy their games. It’s a place where microtransactional games are minimal, and rarely pay-and-pay-to-play. It’s a place where pre-order bonuses do not exist, and one that doesn’t artificially lengthen a game with pointless quests. Here we can play a game that’s free of the adult content that feels so forced in retail titles. Here we can play without having political and religious agendas pushed on us. Here we can simply be gamers.

I love digital titles. I love that I don’t have to clutter my cabinet with discs. I love that I can have access to them at any time, and that the stereotypical moocher friend can’t borrow my digital games. I love how pick-up-and-play they are. I never feel forced to devote an hour or more to one play session. If I only have 10 minutes, I’ve got time for XBLA. It’s freeing. Here’s a list of problems that plague retail titles that remain (relatively) free from Xbox LIVE Arcade games.

Microtransactions without free-to-play

Happy Wars has been a breath of fresh air. It was the first of (hopefully) many games to be free-to-play. The developers earn their pay through microtransactions: the purchase of special in-game items with real-world currency. I’m totally fine with this. I embrace it. It’s a successful business model that keeps games alive for long periods. Only one game has charged fans for the core game while simultaneously using microtransactions: Gotham City Impostors. Truth be told the game was well loved among staff, and the developer has done its best to provide free additional content. But that obligatory 1200 MSP asking price keeps many from taking the plunge. I wonder: If Impostors had released now, would it have been free-to-play? Who knows. It later went that route on Steam.

Pre-order bonuses

Thank the maker that we don’t have XBLA pre-order bonuses. At least there’s one place where we have a haven from that awful infection. I recently pre-ordered Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. I got a poster (and presumably will later get some in-game content). Physical media I’m okay with. But in-game bonuses drive me nuts. They either feel like a necessity for players to feel they have the “whole game”, or the inverse — some awful, tacked-on weapon, outfit, or other bit that has no effect on gameplay. Heck, half of those mini-item bonuses are ugly as well.

assassins creed pope

Religious and political content

I’m a super-religious guy, but I’ll thank you to keep it out of my games. See, gamers are a finicky bunch, especially when it comes to religion and politics. Any time either is featured in a game (except in cases where it’s clearly total fantasy) it breeds major contention amongst players and the internet in general. I’d rather just sit down and play my game. I don’t want to visit fan forums to talk about the game only to be bombarded with threads consumed by argument.

Sometimes games can get it right, but it has to be so detached that players don’t feel vested in a side from the get go. Look at the [easyazon-link keywords=”Assassin’s Creed” locale=”us”]Assassin’s Creed[/easyazon-link] games. Up until [easyazon-link keywords=”Assassin’s Creed III” locale=”us”]Assassin’s Creed III[/easyazon-link] players just enjoyed the game, but now it’s a subject the fans, and the media, have a field day with. Best to leave it either to total fantasy or out entirely. Thankfully XBLA games are simple enough to typically not dive into this.

Adult (read: sexual) content

Okay, so I’ll fully admit here that sex sells. For some reason everyone wants to get it on with their virtual partner. Me, I’d rather just play the game. I’m happily married, and I don’t need some virtual fantasy fulfilled. Besides, most of these instances feel out of place and only serve as a cheap sell. The [easyazon-link keywords=”Mass Effect” locale=”us”]Mass Effect[/easyazon-link] games are the only instance where I felt such a progression was somewhat justified as my Shepard had been through a lot with his love interest. The scene was short, fairly discreet, and it didn’t feel cheap.

XBLA games seem to avoid it entirely. There are a few instances where a romantic interest is pursued to a given extent, but it just goes to show such things aren’t required to make a great game. Should sexual content ever cross the line over to XBLA I hope they take the somewhat high Mass Effect road; make the scene(s) tasteful and give us a true romantic reason to go there. Keep your Hot Coffee out of my life. There’s a whole other corner of the internet for that stuff.


SQS: Side-questing syndrome and artificially lengthened game

Again, there are moments, even large ones, where side quests are fun. I spent a lot of time with Ezio Auditore looking for feathers in [easyazon-link keywords=”Assassin’s Creed II” locale=”us”]Assassin’s Creed II[/easyazon-link]. I took every photo required in Beyond Good and Evil HD. Both were fun. But too often side quests feel like pointless filler. While it could be argued that’s what side quests are, I’d submit that any good side quest still has some substance, some meat. Too many games have us gnawing on a bare bone.

And while we’re at it, I’m so incredibly happy XBLA games don’t have us huffing every inch of some open world. Pretty much every game stays far from the open world concept. But retail games, oh no. They have you flat footing it all the way across the entire game map to start a mission, only to go as slow as possible tailing some bad guy all the way back to where you started.

It’s a cheap tactic, and one that I discussed with Retro City Rampage developer Brian Provinciano. When we talked in 2011 he noted he tried to add mechanics to break such monotony. “I hate car tailing missions.” stated Provinciano. He solution was coffee. If the player character wasn’t caffeinated he’d fall asleep during the tail. So to stay awake the player character must constantly stop for some java. It’s a mechanic that keeps players enveloped, and a perfect example of what makes XBLA games so great.

A safe shelter, for now

For the time being XBLA and its counterparts (PSN, Nintendo eShop, etc) seem to be free of the infections that taint retail gaming. May it ever be so. While retail games often provide epic scale and longevity in gameplay they also must at times resort to desperate measures to entice players to choose one game over another. With XBLA it’s a playground; there’s a game that fits everyone, and each person gets to sit down and enjoy some quality thumb time without all of the overhead that comes with a retail game.