Downloadable Games

Back in November 2004, Xbox Live Arcade had hardly been heard of. Granted many of the people reading this article may still not have heard of it, but with over 45 million unique downloads behind its back, a lot of people have.

When Xbox Live Arcade, an online distribution platform for downloadable games, first appeared on the original Xbox it was a very small affair with barely any games available (a total of 12). Today, Live Arcade offers the consumer a far wider variety of game types than could ever be offered through the retail sector. So what’s the point? surely I can get a much better, fuller experience from a £40 game than anything that can be offered to me through the Xbox Live Arcade? To some extent this is true, but the main reason this service has been so popular is that it gives the developers considerably more freedom in what they can try out.

{{ quote The three big hardware companies, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, do have different perspectives on how and what they offer to the consumer through these services. }}

Today it costs millions of dollars to create a full budget retail game (estimates range from $20 – $30 million); the increase in graphical fidelity from each generation to the next as well as gamers wanting more and more from the artificial intelligence that they play against, has caused game budgets to verge into film territory. Due to this, if a company sinks a large sum of money into a project, they need it to be a success. If they don’t make the necessary return on the title it is likely that they’ll be in financial trouble.

The best way to make sure your game is going to sell is to iterate on a game what has already sold well; this formula is used by a number of franchises, making a lot of games feel very similar to each other. Downloadable game services (Sony and Nintendo also have their own) therefore give developers an opportunity to explore different avenues in terms of game design. Be it art style or a completely different gameplay mechanic, they can take chances that they could not do with retail products. The risk is considerably less when you’re spending a fraction of the cost.

The service also acts as a great starting place for young talent. Many game designers may have fantastic ideas that they simply can’t implement when working on a large project for a major publisher. Downloadable game services allow these people to express concepts to an audience without having to go through the usual process of acquiring a publisher to release their game.

The cost of producing a game on Xbox Live Arcade, for example, would be well within a small company’s budget (i.e. under £80,000). An excellent example of this is “Everyday Shooter” on the Playstation Store (Sony’s equivalent to Xbox Live Arcade); the game is an old-school style shooter in which you control a small ship fighting-off a variety of enemies. What makes the game’s development unique is that it was single-handedly made by Jonathan Mak. He created the game in a span of a few months, doing the programming, graphics and even recording all the guitar based effects himself. A few years ago a project like this would have never made its way onto a home console.

The three big hardware companies, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, do have different perspectives on how and what they offer to the consumer through these services. Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) was first to be released and came with a file size limit for its games; originally this was 50MB making the games very limited in scope, now the limit stands at 350MB. This limit implies that Microsoft really want games on the Live Arcade to remain as small experiences; they want a clear distinction between Arcade titles and retail games. Nintendo offers a similar service, where you can purchase small chunks of games for a low price, called WiiWare. WiiWare was released considerably later on, in 2008. But due to the Wii’s limited storage capacity, isn’t really in the same league as XBLA or the Playstation Store, although it does still supply the consumer with innovative and original titles.

Sony’s Playstation Store (introduced about a year after XBLA) implemented a different approach. The service began with no size limit, offering games that effectively matched products available at retail in terms of scope, fidelity and support. Titles such as Warhawk offer a far more in-depth experience than anything offered on XBLA, although these games do approach retail prices; some also being released in stores. The Playstation Store does offer titles similar to those available on XBLA, though in my opinion, these titles are more experimental in how they build on established gameplay mechanics and with the art styles that they employ.

It really comes down to taste and what sort of a home console experience you prefer. Either way, each downloadable service offers something unique that a few years ago was completely unavailable to consumers. The best thing about having more than one of these services is competition; the services are continually supplying better and greater ranging products, making the games that you pick up at Gamestation or HMV only a small portion of what you could be playing on your system.

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