AGDC '07: How to get a game on XBLA

Microsoft's game-platform strategist touts latest stats, tells indie developers how to get their work on the Xbox 360 service.

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AUSTIN, Texas--While the Thursday afternoon session from Microsoft game-platform strategist Kim Pallister was intended for independent developers looking to get their games on Xbox Live Arcade, the advice given during the talk should give gamers a good idea of what types of games will be featured on the service in the future. Considering that Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Store, and the forthcoming Wii Ware channel are independent developers' best hopes for landing a high-profile game on the newest generation of console systems, there was no shortage of attendees, who filled the conference room to stiflingly warm capacity.

Pallister started off with a recap of the latest stats. With an installed user base for the Xbox 360 of 11.4 million, Pallister said more than 7 million have registered for Xbox Live, with Live Arcade having delivered more than 45 million downloads. For achievement addicts, Pallister said Xbox 360 gamers have earned more than 45 million of the gaming merit badges, with a cumulative gamer score of about 550 million.

For 2007, the top five Live Arcade games (ranked by number of users) are Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Worms, Uno, Castlevania, and 3D Ultra Minigolf Adventures. Pallister said Live Arcade hits are bringing in about $125,000 in revenue their first week, but have much more staying power than their retail counterparts. Showing a graph of the "long tail" on Live Arcade games, Pallister said that the first two months of a downloadable game's release so far have accounted for an average 35 percent of its lifetime sales volume.

Moving on to the actual topic of his presentation, Pallister explained the two different ways developers can get their games on Xbox Live. The first option is to go through an existing Microsoft publishing partner, like Konami, Capcom, or any other company that already makes retail Xbox 360 games. The second option is to submit the game to Microsoft's Arcade publishing division, which would fulfill many of the same roles as a traditional publisher, handling the ratings submission process, supplying development kits, and so on. But no matter what way a game is submitted, the final say rests with Microsoft's portfolio-management team.

There are a few things Microsoft wants to see out of any prospective Live Arcade game. The well-known basics are that it must be a stand-alone game, it must fall under the 150MB size limit, there must be a free trial version for people to download, and it has to make use of leaderboards, achievements, cross-game invites, and other 360 standard features.

That's the bare minimum. Pallister said that when a game concept is submitted, there are a few questions that get asked. First and foremost, is it a good game, and one that displays originality? If so, is it a good fit for Xbox Live Arcade? Does it make innovative use of the system? Is the game proposed technically possible on the system, and finally, do the developers submitting the idea have both the skill and financial backing to complete the game?

Innovation and differentiation from existing offerings are especially important, Pallister said, given that Microsoft is deluged with inquiries about Live Arcade games and currently has about 80 titles in the pipeline. With such a wealth of incoming titles, Pallister told developers to assume that any glaring holes in the Live Arcade catalog have been filled, so a good idea might not be enough. Instead, developers should make sure they're submitting the best version of a good idea.

Some qualities that make for the best version of a good idea are innovation, inclusion of multiplayer and social aspects, and global appeal. With Live Arcade currently available in more than two dozen countries, Pallister said it's important that games have a broad appeal, and that developers show a willingness to spend time localizing the game for different regions.

And when it comes to multiplayer, the "two players shooting each other" model doesn't quite cut it. Pallister said that cooperative play of any kind is underrepresented on Live Arcade, and noted that games with cooperative modes tend to sell better. Two especially important forms of co-op for Microsoft are local play ("couch play," as Pallister called it), and asymmetric cooperative play (as in Guitar Hero II, where two players of different skill levels can fare equally well). Pallister also wants to see more focus on kids in Live Arcade games, and "sandbox" modes where players can explore with no timer and no punishment for poor performance. However, independent developers may have trouble filling that gap for Microsoft; Pallister noted that, as with other child-oriented products, having a big-name license attached is a definite bonus.

Other genres Pallister said were less prevalent in developer submissions were simulation games, genre-defying experimental projects, and "pub sports" games. On the other hand, there's plenty of competition in the 2D and 3D shooting genres, as well as racing games, and Diner Dash-style casual offerings.

Going beyond genres, Pallister said there are specific features and qualities Microsoft looks for in submissions. Games that inspire physical and mental fitness are welcome, as are titles that contain some form of real-world educational value. Pallister even encouraged developers to think of new ways to use peripherals like the Xbox Live Vision camera, the steering wheel attachment, the upcoming Scene-It controllers, or even the Guitar Hero II controller in their games. Such peripherals make games more approachable to nongamers and break some of the stigmas surrounding gaming.

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