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Xbox Live Arcade
Posted April 4 4:02 PM by Richard Fine

This was a very, VERY crowded session; we actually had to switch rooms because there were more people trying to attend than could sit in the room (or sit in the aisle, or stand at the back, or lean in through the doorway, or reasonably hear while standing outside the room). Given the information Jon and Katie were presenting, it’s not much of a surprise.

Jon started the talk with a brief history of the Xbox Live Arcade service. Live Arcade was launched in November 2004 in the North American territory, and April 2005 in EMEA and Asia. The original deployment included one free game to get people interested, along with the trial versions of other titles. Initial take-up was excellent for what is essentially a shareware channel: on average, 8.5% of people who played with the trial of a Live Arcade title went on to buy the full version (in the shareware world, this is known as an 8.5% conversion rate).

For the Xbox 360, the Live Arcade team wanted to lower the barriers to entry, both for developers and players, with the stated goal of “build a frictionless distribution model ofr broad appeal content.” (To me, this reads as ‘Build a really good online-based casual games service’). There is now a single point of contact for the Live Arcade service, built into the console; it’s been given very high visibility, on the top level of the Xbox Live UI, and banner adverts for new Arcade releases appear within the console UI. The service is available to the Silver level subscribers (the free accounts) and again they’ve shipped it with one free game, so anyone who buys a console can play with the service. Integration into the rest of Live has been massively extended; the Marketplace service is used to provide the purchase and download backbone, while the community services such as leaderboards and gamerscores are now required features for Arcade titles.

Jon talked a bit about Arcade as part of the business plan for the Xbox as a whole. Arcade was never targeted at what he called “primary” gamers – the hardcore guys, the early adopters, the folk who usually ‘own’ the console in the first place – but is instead targeting “secondary” gamers: girlfriends, spouses, parents, kids, etc. Other people in the vicinity of the console who aren’t interested in sinking 15 hours into a shooter – they’re more likely to prefer sinking 15 minutes into something that perhaps isn’t very deep but is still fun. That’s not to say the hardcore gamers are excluded from Live Arcade – the success of titles such as Geometry Wars can be largely attributed to them – but Arcade has been designed with accessibility and ‘casual gaming’ in mind. Ironically it sounds like the casual gamers very quickly start sinking a lot more than 15 minutes into their games: a decently large number of people in the audience have had their consoles hijacked by wives and girlfriends to play Zuma.

We moved on to talking about Live Arcade from a developer’s point of view. As a platform, Arcade offers three very attractive things to developers: a new audience (that is, a platform targeted directed at casual gamers), a low average budget (the games are smaller), and potentially very high returns (of course, this is claimed for every platform). Once you acknowledge that it’s a shareware distribution channel, but one that isn’t competing with the rest of the internet or the rest of the applications on the average desktop PC for mindshare, then you begin to see why it’s so nice. There’s current 20 games available on the platform; there will be 35 by Summer 2006 (and Jon acknowledged that the current Arcade UI will rapidly become unwieldy for that number of titles; a redesign is in the works). The portfolio is planned to include more updated classics (the name “Street Fighter 2 Hyper Fighting Edition” was thrown out at one point, but with a name like that I’m not sure if it was serious) and some sponsored titles (“Texas Hold ‘Em Poker” for one) alongside the original concepts. Someone asked a question at the end about retiring titles – apparently it’s likely that titles will be retired after some period of time, though MS are committed to always making titles available to people who purchased them (i.e. if you purchase and download and then delete the download, you can download again without having to re-purchase) so unless a title has literally sold zero copies, they’ll continue hosting it indefinitely. (As such it remains to be seen whether ‘retired’ titles are actually completely removed from the UI – if you’re hosting it, might as well sell it, right?).

Since launch, there have been over 3 million Arcade downloads; but the best bit? 20% average conversion rate, with one title even persuading 39% of players to buy the full game. Over 60% of the consoles out there are using Arcade – we’re still in early adopter period so this is an indicator that Arcade has hit more primary gamers than had been expected – and the top five titles are Zuma at fifth, Smash TV, Gauntlet, Marble Blast Ultra, and Geometry Wars at the top.

Jon handed over to Katie to talk about what the Live Arcade development process looks like for developers. The overall lifecycle of an Arcade project looks fairly similar to a traditional console title, though a bit more streamlined.

  1. Get concept approval from the Arcade Portfolio Planning Team at MS (in other words, the “green light” on your idea). They’re interested in making sure that your title isn’t too similar to something already available on Arcade or something in development, and that it suits Arcade as a platform (i.e. isn’t a 20-hour epic RPG). They iron out the business details with you, organise NDAs, contracts, and so on.
  2. Liaise with the Arcade production team to talk about your game’s requirements, obtain SDKs, guidance on best practices, certification requirements, training, access to private newsgroups, etc. This step’s all about getting you set up with the materials you need to actually go ahead with development, though they made it sound like it could actually go so far as working with the Arcade production team to solidify the high-level design of your project to ensure it takes best advantage of the 360. Bit of a bombshell was dropped here when someone asked how small teams can afford the hardware development kits (which, I’ve heard rumours, are priced in the five-figure range): Microsoft are open to negotiating loaner dev kits for those teams that really need it. So that huge barrier to entry for the really small teams – cost of dev hardware – is now apparently gone.
  3. Develop your game. A milestone system is in place for the Arcade team to check on your progress, though these milestones aren’t fixed dates – submit when you’re ready. Seven milestones are in the full schedule, though this can be whittled down to three – Beta, Pre-Cert and Cert – if the developer prefers.
  4. The final milestone sees you submitting your game to Xbox certification. All titles go through cert – it’s Microsoft’s way of ensuring a certain minimal level of quality in all titles across a platform (seriously, the requirements are things like “Game must not crash”). There are also a few extra requirements that Arcade titles get tested against, such as storage footprint (25MB upper limit). If you pass certification on the first attempt, it’s free; if you fail and need to try again, then you need to start paying for it. So it’s in your best interests to thoroughly test your title before cert submission – there’s actually a “trial run” built into the milestones process (the “pre-certification” milestone) but you’ll do well to treat it like the real thing.
  5. As soon as you pass cert, your game gets uploaded to the Arcade servers and made available. No need to wait for any discs to be manufactured or anything.

How long does all this take? Katie reckoned that a developer could go through the entire process – from concept approval to release – in about three months. (I imagine your team would kill you, but it’s apparently doable).

So what sort of thing are Microsoft looking for in a potential Arcade title? For starters, they’re looking for a “full experience” – an Arcade title isn’t a demo or trailer for a regular retail game. Distribution mechanisms for that kind of content already exist outside of Arcade. That said, they do also require that developers produce a separate trial edition of their games – it’s the classic shareware model and they need something to share. The game needs to be “pick up and play”-able, with no physical media or instruction manual (and that’s pretty much mandated by the distribution method anyway). It needs to be playable on a Xbox360 Core system – so, no hard drive or custom controllers – and as such needs to fit on a memory stick, with Microsoft stating a target storage footprint of 25MB, allowing two games to fit on a memory stick (though this can be negotiated up to 50MB, if a title really needs it). Lastly, it needs to integrate into Xbox Live; on the 360, all games are at least ‘Xbox Live Aware,’ even if they don’t make use of the multiplayer and matchmaking services, so Live Arcade titles need to be fully compatible with Live; but more than that, Live Arcade titles are required to provide things for the Achievements system and to allow players to earn some number of gamer points (albeit less than a retail game).

Beyond that? Microsoft are interested in “smaller games of all kinds.” Katie underscored this when she talked about the developers the Arcade team are working with and have worked with in the past; while there are certainly some studios contributing to the portfolio who could also pull of regular retail games with ease, Katie mentioned that they are currently working with at least one team that consists of only two people. To help people keep projects small, MS are also assisting teams in talking to other firms to offload things like localization or testing; they’ve partnered with some people and come up with some deals for developers.

It’s fairly clear that many of the developers Microsoft is targeting with Live Arcade are going to be coming from the PC platform – even the web. So, Katie took some time to go over the top “things to think about” for PC developers interested in working towards the 360.

Top on the list is what Microsoft calls “the 10 foot experience.” Console gamers tend to sit much further away from the screen – say 10 feet away – than PC games. This has some really big consequences for game design; asking players to try and pick out a 5x5 region with a cursor is going to be incredibly frustrating. Related to this is the fact that you’re addressing a TV display instead of a PC monitor, and yes, while Microsoft may be hyping up the “HD era” like there’s no tomorrow, they’re also well aware that some (ok, most) people are still using regular TVs. Non-HD TV displays are blurrier than PC monitors, are subject to colour bleed, and can present fewer easily distinguishable colours (two different shades of red may look different on a monitor but the same on a TV). These properties can be exploited – the blurriness and bleeding can help to conceal some of your aliasing, for example – but they present real problems for anything that requires precise shapes, most commonly font systems.

Next up is localization and “cultural concerns.” Live Arcade is a worldwide platform, and while I believe it’s possible to only target certain territories, it obviously would be nicest to address as many as possible. You should aim to support localization of all your strings and assets into multiple languages, including Japanese (so you’ll need entirely separate fonts), and it would probably be worth doing some research to ensure that something innocuous in your own territory is not offensive in another.

Thirdly, and kind of obviously, there’s no mouse on the Xbox 360. You need to design your user interface and interactions to work with the 360 controller. Conveniently, Microsoft have released a version of the controller for PC (the “XNA Common Controller”) which is great for prototyping. The API you use to address it is even the same (or at least highly similar) on both platforms.

Next, difficulty and progress modifications: remember that these are casual gamers we’re targeting. Things like continues should be available – perhaps resetting the player’s score, but letting them continue on and see more of the game. Consider using hint systems or dynamic difficulty to keep the player moving onward. Allow cheats – though not if you’re going to be entering the results into the leaderboard (and similarly, be sure that there are no exploits people could use to cheat the leaderboard – this is particularly common for games ported from PC where players have already had time to find out how to cheat the system). If you want to provide something for the more hardcore gamers, the Achievements system may be a good way to do this – most of the achievements should be within the reach of the casual gamer, but it’s reasonable to have a couple that require a bit more dedication to obtain.

Just because these are small games doesn’t mean they can’t be multiplayer; the full Live multiplayer system is available to Arcade games for internet-based play, and of course the usual single-console options of split-screen or hotseat games are still available. Also, consider cooperative gameplay as an alternative to competitive.

Lastly, make sure you’ve figured out how your trial version is going to work. The shareware world has this down to a fine art, and there are plenty of examples of what does and does not work. That said, don’t use time-limited trials (that is, “30 days remaining” type systems); opt for limitations on individual games, such as a restriction on the level the player can reach, or on the length of time they can play a single game for before automatically ending it, for a better result.

There were a few questions at the end, but most were asking for clarifications of the presented material.

There’s just one last piece of information I’m withholding: the contact details for the Live Arcade Portfolio Planning Team. I spoke to Jon about how open they want to be with that information – the team is already pretty swamped, and opening it up to the general public will not help that; it can already take a couple of weeks for them to get to a proposal. So, if you’d like to get in touch with the Arcade team, send me a private message so we can make sure that nobody's wasting any time.

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