Xbox Live Arcade is a dead platform downloading. Microsoft’s designated home for small and inexpensive downloadable video games will not make the jump to the next generation. When the Xbox One releases later this year, all of its video games will live in the same space. The nearly nine-years-old Xbox Live Arcade might continue to exist on the Xbox 360 and slowly fade away during the transitional year(s), or Microsoft might quickly yank it like a Band-Aid through a dashboard update. In either case, XBLA has been read its last rights.
One day soon, gamers everywhere will turn on their Xboxes and find all available games under an aptly named Games section of the dashboard. It’s tempting to read this move as another case of Microsoft pushing independent developers farther away from the green glow of the Xbox spotlight. It’s tempting to assume that the new dashboard will shine that light even brighter on big-budget game releases and multimedia options, and that may well end up being the case. However, some indies, believe it or not, actually enjoy working with Microsoft. Additionally, Microsoft’s Phil Spencer told Eurogamer that he feels the new layout, which includes a recommendation system, will “solve fantastically some of the challenges that independent developers face, particularly around discovery and connecting their game to an audience, by some of the platform features we have in the machine itself.”
We’ll have to check back in a few years into the Xbox One’s life to verify whether or not Spencer spoke truly — but no one wants to wait that long. So here and now, what does the elimination of Xbox Live Arcade mean? Will it continue the Flight of the Indies? Or will it better a system that obviously has more than a few kinks and bring back the downtrodden and departed?
Stop me if you’ve seen this somewhere before
Head over to Steam right now. What do you see? Actually, forget what you saw and focus on what you didn’t see: a segregation of independent and AAA game releases. They’re all living together, if not harmoniously then at least fighting for the same gamers’ attention in the same space. As of this writing, Dust: An Elysian Tail sits on the front page along with Borderlands 2. There are no “arcade” games and “retail” games like there are on the Xbox; there are just games.
Ska Studios has gotten familiar with Microsoft’s segregated approach over the years, releasing games like The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile on XBLA and I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1 on XBLIG. But founder James Silva isn’t afraid the sort of games his indie studio makes will get lost in the Xbox One dashboard. “Steam’s never had a distinction between AAA and what would be considered ‘downloadable,'” he tells XBLAFans. Continuing, Silva says that “even though XBLA’s been a bit of a home for me, I definitely see a point to merging them. Of course, how much attention we’ll get will be (and always has been) hugely variable based on features, sales, etc., so to that we can just hope for the best (just like developers on Steam do).”
Silva also added that the Xbox One’s Trending tab might actually help the sort of niche games Ska makes get more attention. Not everyone is completely sold on the new dashboard layout, though, including Silva’s wife and Ska artist, Michelle Juett Silva. Her fear is that smaller games might get less attention because there will be less dashboard space available for all games to fight over.
“Less space means less pie for everyone,” she says. “The big game won’t really need that ad space as much but the indie game’s success might depend entirely upon it. The effects of getting a promotional spot on the Xbox dashboard greatly eclipses any marketing force we could put behind our games. Let’s say the plan is to diversify games promoted. Hypothetically, you have one ad slot for a AAA game and one slot for an independent game but there are three indie games that want to release around the same time, you have three indie games competing for one spot. Previously, there were more spots to go around within the Arcade channel but now there is just the one in a shared space.”
Lab Zero Games CEO Peter Bartholow shares some of Juett Silva’s advertising concerns; however, he, like James Silva, points to Steam as being a platform where users don’t seem to be suffering from an inability to find smaller games. Bartholow also believes a more Valve-like approach to a digital storefront because the “perception that XBLA games are ‘lesser’ games might be erased, and if the reviews are good the lower prices could attract more buyers than if they were cordoned off somewhere else.”
He makes a good point about XBLA being hidden away. As updates have made streaming multimedia services and advertisements more prominent in the Xbox dashboard over the years, Xbox Live Arcade has been continually pushed towards the back of the storefront. Today, due to the number of button presses and screen scrolls it takes to find XBLA, it’s reasonable to assume that some new Xbox 360 buyers might not even be aware of its existence.
Ronimo Games co-founder Jasper Koning also points out that Arcade is currently “behind several layers of interface,” but says he’s “cautiously optimistic” Microsoft’s new system will be better for indies, because it’s already working on Steam. “It just means that arcade games will be more spread out across the store, forward as well as backward,” he explains. “Of course, in the end it all depends on how Microsoft handles discoverability. If publishers are able to buy their way forward into the store, it could become a serious problem. But [Microsoft’s] also promised a lot of improvements, like showing games to fit your taste and games that your friends like playing.”
Steam Junior or Cable Junior?
Though things are mostly going swimmingly for indies on Steam, Koning says such a system means developers must be more careful to get out of blockbuster games by smartly scheduling game releases, “but other than that there’s no inherit problem with having them in the same store,” he says. “Besides, I think there will always [be] an audience for games like Fez, World of Goo and Journey, if only because there are lots of people out there who’d like to play something outside of what the AAA games are offering.”
Are there? Bartholow worries that those gamers may not be playing too much Xbox these days. “It seems like XBLA games haven’t been performing particularly well recently, including some big titles like Spelunky. So it’s possible that the Xbox audience just isn’t that interested in anything other than AAA content anymore.”
Some, like Pocketwatch Games founder Andy Schatz, thinks this might be more a case of Microsoft’s priorities than that of 360 owners. He asserts that it’s “very difficult” to accurately predict how indie releases will fare on the Xbox One without first seeing the new system in action, and that the important thing right now is to pay attention to the differences in Microsoft and Sony’s approaches. “Sony has been rushing to embrace indies over the past year, and I’m hoping that Microsoft follows suit,” he tells XBLAFans.
Funny he should mention as much, too. One of the top complaints following Microsoft’s May 21 unveiling of the Xbox One was the games were hardly mentioned, and indie games weren’t mentioned at all. Conversely, one of the top things the press and the public praised Sony about following its first showing of the PlayStation 4 in February was that Microsoft’s Japanese competitor made no shortage of promises as to its commitment to games in general and indie games specifically. It even made the audacious move of showing a few of them, like Microsoft detractor Jonathan Blow’s The Witness. Microsoft? It had Call of Duty and Forza sequels. And television. Lots of television. To be fair, it has since promised that E3 will be “all about the games.”
Still, you can’t undo first impressions, and the first impression is that the Xbox One is primarily all about the television. “My concern is that it could make things worse, in the long run,” says Bartholow. “Because the people the TV features are bringing in probably aren’t all that interested in games in the first place, and could sour the hardcore gamers that would buy downloadable games on the rest of the system.”
But wait, there’s more
The television focus isn’t the only thing that has XBLA developers worried, either. Unlike on some other platforms, independent developers won’t be allowed to publish their own games on Xbox One. Bartholow says that’s the biggest reason why he finds “the Xbox One extremely unattractive for indie game developers. So, yeah, by comparison Steam, PSN and even the Wii U eShop all look extremely attractive to me compared to the Xbox One’s current offerings.”
Koning agrees that the lack of a self-publishing option is a big problem but not the biggest. “Being unable to self publish games is a huge hurdle and will probably be much hated among indies,” he says. “But as long as Microsoft maintains a high quality standard and cherry picks awesome exclusives, indies will still want to be a part of it. The bigger problem lies in their policies regarding patches and updates, if those don’t change they make it very difficult for certain genres and strategies to flourish the way they do on other platforms. This is no problem for one-off single player titles, but multiplayer games like Awesomenauts require regular balance tweaks and updates. Right now this is very hard to do with special permissions from Microsoft and I hope they address this problem in the future.”
He’d likely be happy to know that Phil Spencer recently told Polygon Microsoft is doing just that. Microsoft plans to invest “a ton” into changes to its notorious certification process that it claims will make it easier for indies to patch their games. That’s one for the little guys.
There’s still one other issue for XBLA developers, though: that whole lack of backwards compatibility thing. As we’ve witnessed in the comments sections of a number of recent XBLAFans stories, many gamers who have built large XBLA libraries are none too happy that those games will be unplayable on the Xbox One. For those gamers, being forced to abandon their Arcade libraries to buy a new system is a bit scary. Andy Schatz is a bit scared, too. “I’m afraid that once the console cycle shifts, Monaco‘s main home will be on the PC,” he says. “Of course, the previous gen console usually has a strong life for at least a year into the next console cycle, plenty of time for people to get their heist on.”
The first Xbox — not to be confused with the Xbox One — was almost immediately abandoned when Microsoft made the jump to the Xbox 360 in 2005. Of course, the original Xbox was causing Microsoft to hemorrhage money at the time, a problem it’s not currently having with the Xbox 360. Microsoft has promised to continue supporting the Xbox 360 well into the Xbox One’s lifecycle, meaning the myriad XBLA games on the market would have a chance to live a bit beyond 2013.
A new console, a new approach…a new audience?
Regardless of how long the 360 is actively supported by Microsoft, eventually the Xbox One will be its primary focus. When that happens, indie developers will still face the biggest issue they’ve always faced: discoverability. If something like Charlie Murder is directly competing for the same space as the next Halo or Call of Duty, will gamers end up ignoring it? James Silva doesn’t think so. In fact, he thinks the opposite. “I do think that putting our stuff in with the likes of Call of Duty and Halo could expose a lot of Call of Duty and Halo players to our games, which would be great,” he says.
His wife isn’t so certain that’ll be the case. “I do think that indie games will get less spotlight chances,” says Juett Silva. “There is probably a trade off here: The spotlight will be bigger but less people will get to stand in it.” Her apprehensions aside, she describes Microsoft as a great company to work with, and she’s looking forward to Microsoft’s game-centric E3.
We should learn a great deal more about Microsoft’s software plans at E3 — especially considering that we’ve been told virtually nothing about them at this time. We know already that Microsoft recognizes there are problems with XBLA, and it’s making moves that it believes will fix them. As seemingly every voice in the industry continues to debate whether or not the AAA console games market can even survive another generation, Microsoft is blurring the line between blockbuster and indie, and James Silva is just fine with that. “At the end of the day, we want to be seen by the gamer who thinks of indie as a symbol of style and creativity and the gamer who thinks of indie as a symbol for neckbeards and pretentiousness, and anything that gets us closer to that is fine by me.”
By eliminating XBLA, Microsoft will excise its own symbol for neckbeards. It will cut out the message that Monaco needs to be judged under a different microscope than Assassin’s Creed. It will do its part to cut out preconceptions about indie games, and that might not be so bad.