In part one, I lamented over how the Xbox 360‘s over-marketed “shiny tech” has led to a sort of genre stagnation in this period of the console’s lifetime, leaving out a lot of potential for new and creative gameplay experiences. In this post, I’ll talk about how Xbox Live Arcade has been working to fill in the creativity gap left vacant by the green-box lineup.
I got my Xbox 360 for free. There. I said it. I honestly did not even consider the thought of purchasing one at the time I received it. Nearing its first birthday, the 360 just didn’t have enough titles that interested me. But the one thing I’d been watching was its Xbox Live Arcade lineup. XBLA is basically a marketplace to purchase and download a variety of smaller or older games. The list of available titles was still pretty short back then, but they had all they needed – Geometry Wars. This was honestly the title I was most excited about playing when I first received my console. Of course, I did snag a cheap copy of Perfect Dark Zero to have at least one green-box game to play with on the first day, but Geometry Wars was the real game on my mind. Was I really all that crazy? After a year of ownage… er… ownership, I can say with confidence that Xbox Live Arcade is definitely a key element to the Xbox 360 experience.
Downloadable content delivery has had a turbulent past. There are still many arguing today that it will never overtake the standard box-and-manual publishing channels. I can’t say I know with any certainty where the industry is headed, but I personally hope boxes and manuals don’t disappear entirely – feelies are always welcome and manuals can be good reading. Anyway, XBLA had a far less successful debut on the original Xbox console. As far as I’m concerned, it was an industry blip that disappeared into obscurity – until it’s re-emergence on Microsoft’s second console generation. The second time around, Microsoft marketed the service very aggressively. They pushed hard to secure independent developer support and successfully convinced other developers to port popular games onto the Xbox for XBLA. But despite their efforts, the risk of XBLA’s failure remained fairly high, relying on a yet unproven content delivery system and its associated business model. Steam was still in its infancy, just starting to ramp up in available third-party titles, and though it was reasonably popular, it was far from ubiquitous. I also remember Greg Costikyan railing on the evils of the publishing middlemen in his famous Death to the Games Industry duo of articles, announcing the founding of Manifesto Games shortly before the launch of the Xbox 360. That was the industry backdrop – downloadable content delivery was a promising frontier, yet it was still wild and untamed. Many looked at it with cynical eyes.
Fast forward to the present day, almost two years after the launch. Though the Xbox 360′s iteration of XBLA was met with lukewarm critical reception (as it lacked few original titles upon launch), its list of games has been growing steadily ever since. Though Microsoft failed to deliver its past promise of a new title every Wednesday, they’ve still managed to release a wide variety of games across multiple genres and time periods, including classic retro remakes and new, original games from independent developers looking for an affordable alternative to standard retail channels. It’s hard to say whether Steam’s simultaneous success has a direct relation, but if anything, it’s fair to say that Live Arcade made great strides in proving that downloadable content delivery is, in fact, a feasible business model. XBLA was charting new territory, and it was obvious that independent developers were catching on. It wasn’t long before Microsoft had secured for their platform several IGF-nominated titles such as Wik and the Fable of Souls and Behemoth‘s Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers. Other IGF’ers have since jumped onto the bandwagon, putting XBLA in a very secure position. Nowadays, it’s hardly a surprise to hear another independent developer pushing to get their game onto the console’s marketplace.
So what does this all mean with regard to the Xbox experience? It means that while the green-boxes are pushing the glitz, XBLA is bringin’ the attitude. Among the nondescript pages of the marketplace, I’ve been discovering treasures that are nowhere to be found on the shelves of Best Buy. When I get sick of going for the headshot, I can pop into the dashboard and play a board game, run a space station, flip a pinball, swing around on my tongue, or just succumb to the sight of shiny, colored squares disappearing to the beat of some catchy J-pop. And that, my friends, is pretty sweet.
Unfortunately, the discussion doesn’t end there. XBLA wouldn’t really be possible without one thing – the hard drive – a dubious hardware addition that has independently shaped the Xbox experience in its own right, for better or worse. I’ve said it time and again – PC gaming will never disappear. Why? Because consoles will, at the peak of their evolution, become streamlined PC’s. The Xbox 360 and the PS3 have made their network capabilities more robust. Xbox Live users can send mail and voice chat. The Wii has a free, downloadable browser. The 360 and PS3 both have swappable hard drives. And the long-time PC gamers are telling themselves, “So what? We’ve been doing the same things for decades”. The 360 and PS3 have been released with multiple SKU’s. How much longer before each and every component becomes upgradeable, eventually allowing players to swap in a faster CPU, add more RAM, and buy an optional physics card? Sound familiar? Anyway, back to the point: XBLA and downloadable content on the console are signs of a shift in the console gaming paradigm – one that is more closely aligning the experience with that which has been on PC’s for many years.
The Xbox’s downloadable content packs are essentially serving the same purpose that user-created content and mods have served for PC gaming. Both are simply adding replay value to a game. There are at least a couple of major problems with the Xbox version of the DLC experience. First of all, choice and variety are severely limited. You won’t be finding any total conversion mods on Marketplace anytime soon, given Microsoft’s extremely lengthy (or so I’ve heard) certification process. Distributed user-created content on the console is also still in its infancy. The only example I can think of is Forza 2‘s custom paint jobs. Secondly, Microsoft generally charges for downloadable content – the kind of content that fans will often create and distribute for free on the PC. The benefit, however, is that the Xbox’s DLC experience is far cleaner – there are no readme.txt files or installation instructions, no “0.1 beta” versions to crash your console, and the content is delivered on a much more reasonable timeline because it is developed by professionals being paid for their work. MS’s certification, while slow, is often pretty thorough in ensuring quality content. Is the Xbox’s DLC experience better than the PC’s? Not necessarily. But it certainly has some significant advantages over the breadth of available content on PC titles.
However, the Xbox’s hard drive and the delivery of downloadable content dragged in a nasty habit from the PC gaming scene – patches. The current console generation seems to be the first generation to adopt the PC-style patching philosophy: push it out, patch it later. Patching is not really a problem in itself. Obviously, the patches are there to address game/console-breaking issues and add features and content that were not there to begin with. The problem is when developers and publishers lower their quality bar because of the availability of a patching mechanism. It was rare for a so-called “AAA” console title in the previous generation to ship with a game-breaking or play-impeding bug. And yet, on the Xbox 360, this has already happened on multiple occassions.
In the past, I’ve always had a mental distinction between the PC gaming experience and the console gaming experience. PC gaming has always been a much more concentrated effort for me – installation, the inevitable “game-won’t-load” error and the subsequent forum-hunting for the fix, keeping the game up-to-date with patches, and optimizing video card settings to get a decent framerate. Console games have always been a “pop-in-the-disc-and-play” experience – at the cost of missing a certain level of depth and intensity found in the more intricate PC titles (I know I’m gonna get berated for that remark…). PC games, to me, were edge-of-your-seat hardcore, and console games were laid-back-on-the-couch fun. I’m not so sure that those distinctions can be maintained for much longer. The Xbox 360 is rapidly beginning to mimic the experiences I’ve always had on the PC – for better or worse.
In my final installment of “The Xbox 360 experience” series, I’ll be talking about the Xbox’s tilt factor – the achievement system – and how it’s taking the game experience we’re all familiar with and brutally mutating it.