AAG Feature: Evolution of the Arcade Title

5th September 2011 - In the years following its release, the Xbox 360 would grow considerably. Its fan base would reach far, and its content continuing along with it. And by that, I don’t just mean the big, AAA retail games - what I refer to is the phenomenon that has become; digital distribution. In this case, the Xbox Live Arcade.

In the Beginning!
The Xbox 360 was released way back in November of 2005. I remember taking it home, opening it up and plugging it in like an excited little boy on Christmas day. One of the first things I noticed, though, upon surfing the many beautiful menu’s of my new console, was it seemed to suggest I had a whole game stored on my brand spanking new Hard drive.

What was this madness? I knew of no such thing, so upon investigating further, I discovered a little gem named Hexic. Yes, Hexic. Im sure almost everyone who owns a 360 lost many an hour to this games simplicity an addictive nature. It came bundled with every 360 Pro Package at launch (kudos to anyone who can elaborate whether its still stock on the consoles), and was the worlds introduction into the world of the Xbox Live Arcade (aka XBLA).

Other games released around the time of launch were rather small and simple, too. I was a late bloomer to the world of Online Gaming, so I didn’t have access to Xbox LIVE for a good 3 years after I got my 360. In that time, im sure I missed out on a lot of great digital titles. But I did, however, come into possession of a disc of a few nifty little Arcade titles. Among them were Outpost Kaloki X and Bejewelled. I also happened across a little arcade shooter by the name of Geometry Wars 2 hidden at the back of my Project Gotham 3 garage.

These games blew me away, not from any kind of astonishing development standpoint, but the fact that they opened my eyes to all the great titles I was missing out on downloading right to my Xbox 360 from home. Were there more of these types of awesome puzzle games on my 360’s Marketplace? While I didn’t know it at the time, the answer was; yes, definitely.

The Evolution Starts
It was about 2008 when things really started to take off. The XBLA community had been given the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog, Bomberman LIVE, and countless other quality remakes of classic games. It was also now home to modern RPG’s, puzzle games and action titles created in all manners of unique styles, from classic genre defining styles to more advance takes on old school scrolling shooters and fighters. It was starting to become a beacon for the games industry in just what was possible in advancing the constantly growing medium of DLC (or, Downloadable Content) and Direct Download titles. Gamers were amazed, critics were amazed and developers were struggling to better their games and push the medium further.

Soon small-time developers that had made online PC games and flash-based time wasters were focusing their untouched talents to the XBLA. One of the finer, earlier examples of this was N+, which originally developed as a flash-based browser game was now becoming one of the highest rated and most played DLC title on the Marketplace. The crowds ate this type of thing up, and soon we were given more.

It was also in the year of 2008 that the true evolution of the platform was to take place. Critics weren’t prepared and gamers couldn’t have been ready for what was about to land; Castle Crashers. Another flash-based original redesigned and developed for the XBLA, this game was an instant classic. Receiving higher aggregated review scores than most full-priced retail titles of the year, Castle Crashers went on to receive countless awards and top countless lists of ‘Best Of’, ‘Most Played’, ‘Best Value’, and it goes on and on. Even today the game is one of the most played and downloaded Xbox Live Arcade games and still trumps ‘Best Of’ lists for the medium and platform.

More and more developers were now realising the potential of the platform and from that point on, the XBLA was no longer considered an addition to the Xbox’s core gaming entertainment, but a fully recognized and respected part of what the console had to offer.

In addition to the great revived classics and new original titles being published over Xbox LIVE, publishers had also taken to releasing some old original Xbox favourites, titled Xbox Originals. Ranging from little-known gems like Fahrenheit and Psychonauts, to the bigger console exclusives like the original Halo and Fable.

But upon the release of both Max Payne and Max Payne 2 in mid-2009, the service of Xbox Originals got the axe. The titles were still able to be downloaded, but no new games were to be released on the service, as to make way for Microsoft’s new Games on Demand service, which was essentially the same deal but with newer, current-gen titles being offered. It was a shame to deny the population the ability to experience original Xbox games they may have missed out on, but Games on Demand would go on to be an important player in the digital distribution game.

Then came the Fireworks…
About this time, a lot of big name developers and publishers had now started to recognize and invest in the XBLA. We even receiving games developed by some of the worlds leading studios, such as Square Enix, EA, id Software, Capcom and THQ, not to mention quite a few more. We were seeing brilliant ports of genre classics like Doom and Duke Nukem, Metal Slug and even Worms. And the originals were starting to pile up even further.

But even with big name dev’s behind some of the games, it seemed the community had more interest in what some of the smaller developers were throwing at them. People started to recognize the XBLA-focused developers in their own league. It was no longer “Look at this cool game I downloaded that is similar to [insert generic genre classic]”, it had now become “Look at this sweet new game from [insert momentum-gaining XBLA developer]”

And as a consumer point of view, this kicked ass. Im sure it did for the developers, too.

Names like The Behemoth (Alien Hominid HD, Castle Crashers) and PopCap Games (Bejewelled, Zuma, Peggle) had started to become household names for 360 gamers, and although not on par with the likes of retail-developers Bungie or Bethesda, these guys were in a league of their own, with legions of dedicated fans and with their games gathering pre-release hype that rivalled some AAA releases. Because, essentially, these games were starting to become AAA releases, just on a smaller scale and without the required trip to the store to pick the game up.

Things were really blowing up. Outside of the realm of the XBLA, digital downloads and the direct download mediums were becoming an ever-increasing source of cheap distribution and easy delivery that gamers were eating up. And at the helm of it all was Microsoft’s gold-plated Xbox 360 service, the Live Arcade. It was leading the online assault of the senses in the console world, and although the great Xbox Originals service was unfortunately cancelled, we were only still just seeing the start of it all.

Mid-2009 was the time when finally, a year after recovering from picking our jaws from the floor from  when we first played Castle Crashers, the rest of the world started to catch up to its quality. Starting with Battlefield 1943; this was a downloadable title that took reworked mechanics and levels from EA DICEs’ trademark PC title Battlefield 1942 and gave them the overhaul work over and release with full multiplayer accessibility for a dirt cheap price of 1200 Microsoft Points. This was a revolution in what was possible with multiplayer in a XBLA title, the ripple effect of which is still being felt in todays games.

We were also delivered one of the most addictive and accessible titles you will ever play; Trails HD. A physics-based Motor X game where you simply guide your rider over increasingly difficult 2 Dimensional tracks. It introduced and popularised the trial-and-error gameplay that has players playing, replaying and playing over again the same parts until they can get it perfect. And even when shit hits and fan and you feel like lobbing your controller through the TV, you’ll take just one more go. Then another. And another… You get the point.

I could go on and on explaining some of the great titles 2009 delivered, but will cut it short with name dropping just a few; Shadow Complex was a highly detailed ‘Metroid Clone’ that raised bars in a similar way that Castle Crashers had a year previous.

Another name that deserved learning was Twisted Pixel. Earlier in the year the developer had released its first title in The Maw, which was a well received adventure game and was one of the first games for people to question how much was actually able to be delivered in the relatively small 2GB XBLA cap. And now with releasing its second, higher rated and creatively unique ‘Splosion Man - it being a 2D puzzle platformer and still considered a classic today - Twisted Pixel were one of the forerunners in XBLA development.

So it all sorts of paints the picture; XBLA was no longer a small thing or just a gimmick for mini games - it was the real deal. The console industries leading way in the arms race that was the digital distribution medium.

The Future of XBLA
With such a fruitful past and with such deep and obvious evolution, the Xbox Live Arcade shows no sings of slowing down. In the gaming industry as a whole, digital distribution is becoming a mammoth of a service, offering gamers unparalleled accessibility to all manners of titles. It has also opened many doors for amateur game developers and designers, allowing for indie games to easily reach audiences and critics. So with such a strong back-bone and the entire industry behind it, what’s next for digital distribution?

That’s a question best left unanswered as we the consumers sit back and enjoy the show. But the XBLA on the other hand, it continues to grow and outshine the competition. While some services like Steam are still leading the way as an entity, XBLA is the premier console service for digital distribution.

Newer and newer titles are being released on the ever popular Games on Demand service, offering new and old AAA titles at discount prices and with such ease that’s its obvious this is the future. I wait for the day when we’ll begin to get the biggest games On Demand on time with their retail releases.

As I mentioned earlier, certain developers had started to become known simply for their XBLA efforts, gathering legions of dedicated fans. Well that phase continued even stronger than it had been, now with handfuls of dedicated XBLA developers who deliver some of the greatest smaller-budget games you can get your hand on.

The great Tim Schafer’s Double Fine studios are one such developer who has become known for their XBLA titles, and continues to developer solely for digital distribution purposes. With games releasing every few months, this is one of leading studios in the field, releasing the likes of Costume Quest and Stacking (on PSN as well as XBLA), both of which have received a very high response from fans and critics alike.

Another is the previously talked about Twisted Pixel, who upon starting out in the XBLA have since released a handful of great downloadable titles, all very well received and will soon be releasing one of more anticipated titles for Microsoft’s Kinect peripheral in Gunslinger. With titles like ‘Splosion Man, Comic Jumper and The Maw under their belt, these guys are looking to continue delivering the goods through digital methods.

Its easy to see just why the XBLA has been so successful, and perhaps even easier to see how much more successful it will become in the future. Its titles are becoming more and more elaborate and even holding the torch next to big retail releases in some instances. Games like Limbo, Shadow Complex, Super Meat Boy, Deadliest Warrior: Legends, Outland and more are receiving industry awards and very high review scores, even topping a lot of full priced retail games. And with cheap price tags and ease of accessibility, can only become stronger in the future. Very recent releases like Street Fighter III: Online Edition and Mortal Kombat Arcade only improve the popularity of XBLA.

Thanks for reading, folks. Let us know what you would like to see on the marketplace in the future and your thoughts on topics like Digital Distribution and XBLA over in our community forum.


Article by John Elliott