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Which Console Did You Buy/Receive Over The Holidays?

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Game Profile
Xbox Live Arcade
Digital Eclipse
GENRE: Shooter
PLAYERS:   1-2
November 08, 2006
Hard Corps: Uprising

Hard Corps: Uprising

Contra ReBirth

Contra 4

Super C

More in this Series
Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting
Texas Hold 'em
Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3
 Written by Glenn Wigmore  on January 17, 2007

Specials: 2007 needs to be a big year for the Xbox Live Arcade.

The Xbox Live Arcade is something that has always had lots of potential, and even right from the beginning, the service seemed groomed to usher in a new type of casual content to those who would normally be playing Halo, Madden and GTA. From the get-go, one could sense that Microsoft saw a chance to leverage old (or economical) content to the masses in order to create excitement and, more importantly, new revenue for their gaming platform.

The ?Live Aware? features of the Xbox 360 proved to be the ultimate trump card, as basic standardized features like leaderboards and achievements proved useful for adding much needed value to older retro titles, but they also would (and currently do) serve as a key differentiator from the inevitable copycat responses from Sony and Nintendo.

The service obviously benefited from Geometry Wars, without a doubt, but even fun retro titles like Smash TV and Gauntlet or original additions like the addictive Marble Blast Ultra were reasons to believe in the service. Even a few months in, titles like Uno and Cloning Clyde showed there were some unique things to be done with the service, and they managed to entertain people in an affordable way; people showed up in droves to buy and play Uno, because it was priced appropriately and presented in such an accessible way.

Generally speaking, the Xbox Live Arcade should be lauded for a good deal of its 2006 offerings, as there was some entertaining games to be found on the service. But then again, there were also some troubling scenarios that played out on XBLA. Team those problems with the slow start for the service here in 2007 and you have to start asking some questions about the direction (or lack thereof) of the service.

Pricing is definitely something that comes to mind initially, as all consumers (well, most sane ones, anyway) want the most value for money when purchasing a product. On the whole, many items are priced fairly on XBLA, and the previous examples of Uno, Geometry Wars, and Marble Blast Ultra show how $5 to $10 games can be chuck full of value (even more than many fully priced retail titles). I would suspect most gamers feel that most of their purchases on the Xbox Live Arcade have been worth it, and maybe only one or two games have ultimately been letdowns (the demo feature is to be commended for helping in this respect).

On the other hand, there are a few $15USD games on the service, and it's somewhat telling that they rank quite low in both public and critical opinion (and I'd suspect overall downloads, as well). Bankshot Billiards 2 was reviewed by Gaming Target, and while it does carry a $15 or 1200 MS point distinction, the game still provides some decent online value and can also be acquired for ?free? in certain Xbox Live Gold Kits. But then you have titles like Lumines Live! And Roboblitz, and each of these seem to be a little more problematic in their pricing. Lumines was obviously the fodder for much debate in 2006, as many felt the price point was excessive for a game that was already out on the PSP much earlier, and it was also troubling that a substantial amount of the content in the game was removed in order to be sold to users at a later date as ?add-on? packs. Lumines really opened up a big can of worms, as the 50MB limit on games for XBLA was clearly a culprit, and it essentially enabled Q Entertainment to slice up the game for additional money, whereas no limit would have likely prevented them from pulling that kind of stunt. Just the same, removing what is essentially ?expected? game modes out of a product and then charging for them is really quite abrasive, and it all came off like some kind of science experiment by MS and Q Entertainment to see what consumer tolerance would be.

Roboblitz doesn't initially seem quite as flagrant, but then again, having to pay more just because the developer used a new toy (Unreal Engine 3) seems flawed. If the game experience is pretty mediocre when compared to other comparable action/puzzler titles, and the game duration is only 5 hours, then why should the end user be charged because the developer achieved a technical benchmark in compression? Many RPGs from years past had to cram text into small chunks of data, but the user wasn't financially penalized for the technical breakthroughs of individual developers. Microsoft likes to talk about the ?richness? of the experience when addressing the pricing of titles like this; if that's the route they want to take, then they ought to treat the users with a little more respect and ensure that games are full of features that exist on competing platforms and that the game experience itself is actually ?rich.? It doesn't behoove a gamer to have to pay for a developer working around MS' self-imposed limits. If they want to charge $15 or more for these games, then get rid of the 50MB limit and allow some more creative freedom to let the developers truly give people their money's worth.

Also in regards to pricing, why are older XBLA games not being discounted? Why are certain retro games from the same developer not bundled and sold for a reduced price to increase sales? It seems unlikely that many of the older retro titles are really drumming up sales so why not make them more appealing to new users and also reward others who've been waiting for a better opportunity to get value for their money? Hell, even bundle in Gamer Pics and Themes so that people will have another incentive to support content.

Timing has been another issue that MS has struggled with so far, and this is something that's obviously very important in order to generate excitement and allow for anticipation of upcoming product. Hype and calendar management are pretty simple concepts and they're pretty much standard practice for retail games, so it's odd to see things go awry for XBLA. To be fair, MS is to be commended for their initial offering of games at the console's launch, and releasing Uno at E3 and Doom during TGS/X06 were both smart calls (as Uno proved to be the perfect impulse purchase and Doom was legitimately unexpected). Their concept of Live Arcade Wednesdays seemed like the perfect idea to generate interest in the service, and to properly spotlight games when they come out.

Yet, their inability to execute on this initiative is leading to their current problem with timing and lack of hype. Gamers simply don't know what games are coming out on a given week until a day or two before Wednesday. Why is it so difficult for MS to set a loose schedule and then stick to it to the best of their ability? It was said that many titles on the service would take about two to six months to develop so it seems odd that there are so many delays, misunderstandings and incorrect information when trying to find out when games are coming. It's quite absurd that a user should have to scavenge message boards and fan sites to find nuggets of information that lead to possible release dates, and it's equally absurd that games come out of nowhere and just sort of fall onto the service.

Obviously, there's some sort of disconnect between the certification process and the development process, and Microsoft really needs to cut down on the cert time so that games can get out in a more timely fashion and can be promoted before they actually arrive. It's all well and good to have one game get the spotlight for a given week, but to not promote it because of a bizarre and overly protective cert process? That just seems strange.

Even further still, where is the ?flood? of content that was promised by Greg Canessa months back? Why were weeks throughout the year skipped for no good reason? It just comes off as bad when one of these supposedly simple to develop titles can't show up in a relatively timely manner each week. It was said that developers had commissioned whole new sections of their team towards Live Arcade or that companies were submitting tons of ideas for Live Arcade games ? where are they? Is MS stonewalling so many games from getting out that it is hindering timely releases? Their effort to protect the service from a flood of ports and lazy releases is backfiring, as they can't even seem to release the titles they do approve on time.

But in the end, content is king, and this will certainly prove to be true if XBLA is to ultimately succeed as the dominant provider of casual content among the big three. This topic actually ties into the previous subject, as MS seems to have trouble releasing a game each week, but on top of that, they managed to actually do what they said they wouldn't ? flood the service with a bunch of ports or games that have issues.

In terms of issues, you need only look at the releases of Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting, Contra, TotemBall and Texas Hold ?Em to see problems in MS' certification process. Why is the cert process so cumbersome when flagrant problems still get through? How about Contra's buggy online, Totemball disconnecting you from Live, or SFII being an unmitigated mess online? Sure, these problems all eventually got patched, but how do such basic issues like disconnects, voice chat issues, crippling lag or exploits make it into these games? Why does a patch take so long to be released (this goes for many retail games, too)? For all the checks and balances MS seems to have for the service, there are still far too many games that are released when they obviously shouldn't be.

Back to the games, there have been some great retro titles on the service (see Smash TV, Gauntlet, UMK3, etc.), but why are we getting releases like Ms. Pac-Man, New Rally X, and Dig Dug? I know some of these games were on the previous iteration of the service and you'd kind of expect them to show up at some point, but do they really need their own weekly slot? Can't there be two games that week? Are people really clamoring for New Rally X when they crank up their Xbox 360s? It just seems like for every original game that gets released on Live Arcade, there are about five 8-bit retro ports to go with it. Further to this, why don't more of these ports have some sort of multiplayer? MS is obviously big on the concept because of the success of Xbox Live, so it's definitely odd that more games aren't required to have it. But more to the retro point, why are there so many 8-bit retro ports? People have clearly stated that they want 16-bit era games (look at the sales of SFII: HF and UMK3), and many ? including myself ? have cited various examples such as arcade beat-em-ups from Konami (Turtles, X-Men) as natural choices for the service.

But even going simpler than those examples, where are all the trivia games, board games, and truly ?casual? games? Where's Tetris, checkers, and chess, or how about board games like Monopoly, Risk, and Pictionary? Why are such obvious examples of multiplayer entertainment being ignored for the service? Uno served as the clearest example that gamers want titles that are simple and accessible; well, what's more accessible than Risk with camera support or Monopoly for some good ol' eight player fun? It again seems like MS' silly 50MB limit and ?concept? for what constitutes a Live Arcade game is hindering natural and fun choices for the service.

For the XBLA to truly distinguish itself, more original titles will need to start showing up more frequently, as well. Yes, Small Arms provided some good times and Assault Heroes is entertaining in co-op, but what else is really there on the service that compelled gamers and got them talking? Again, MS needs to start building around these ?featured? original releases and giving people reasons to get excited about them. It seems that these titles barely get talked about and then they just sort of get dumped on the service without any real promotion.

The Live Arcade can have a bright future if MS makes the right choices for game content, pricing, and timing. Microsoft needs to realize that many things are still working in their favor, even with the missteps they've had. People have rallied around the truly good releases on XBLA, and they will continue to support the service if the content is fun, fairly priced, and released and promoted in a timely manner. If MS can get people properly hyped for the games coming out on the service, and then properly deliver a working game for a reasonable price, that's all the gamers really want. They still need to prove that they have what it takes to deliver on the vision they had for the Xbox Live Arcade from the beginning.

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