Where are the originals (on Live Arcade)?

It’s a grayscale world in N+

The past few days has seen a minor uproar over an interview with the guys at Metanet, the developers of N and N+. Being the sensitive ninnies that gamers are, their quotes disparaging Microsoft and their various policies with Xbox Live Arcade has lead to much thrashing of teeth, enough for Metanet to post a defense of their words. So what’s all the commotion about? It centers around one specific quote where Raigan Burns discusses the general quality of Xbox Live Arcade games:

They all suck. It’s like, when we started out, we were excited, just like with N. There were 30 games on Live Arcade. If N was one of them, it would stand out. Now there’s like a hundred games, and they’re all shit.

As you can imagine, this has the dreaded arrogant tag being thrown about on the Metanet guys and the general firestorm has focused discussion away from the rest of the interview. Which is a shame since the Gamasutra talk runs through a number of relevant topics about the process of developing an indie game and trying to release it on Microsoft’s service.

But those concerns will need to be discussed another day. Focusing on the slight controversy at hand, the developers of Metanet within the context of their interview weren’t deriding every game as shit on the service (earlier they reference Pac-Man: CE and Geometry Wars as good titles to play and own), but were instead deriding the overwhelming amount of inferior cash–ins populating the service and crowding out original titles. As an example they discuss a friend’s inability to publish an original racing game influenced by Super Off Road because in the words of Microsoft the racing genre had been saturated by crap titles like Yaris on the service.

Raigan Burns and Mare Sheppard while clearly hyperbolic in their statement were addressing a concern that has become more pronounced in the 3rd year of Xbox Live Arcade. That Live Arcade for all its success has not fully–delivered on its promise of high–quality and original content. There do exist a number of good to great titles on Live Arcade, but a number of those are either ports, adaptations, or updated remakes of older titles. A quick and dirty list of non–crap titles currently available on Live Arcade (shamelessly stolen from user pswii60 on NeoGAF):

Alien Hominid, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Settlers of Catan, Carcassone, Cloning Clyde, Doom, Eets: Chowdown, EXIT, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, Heavy Weapon, Jetpac Refuelled, Lumines Live, Marble Blast Ultra, Mutant Storm Empire, Mutant Storm Reloaded, N+, Omega Five, Pac–Man C.E., Pinball FX, Prince of Persia Classic, Puzzle Fighter HD, Puzzle Quest, Rez HD, Sonic the Hedgehog, Streets of Rage 2, Switchball, Uno, Zuma

Out of those a number of those are either direct ports or slightly–updated releases of existing titles (Alien Hominid, Castlevania, Doom, Rez HD, Sonic, Streets of Rage, etc.). A number of those are translations of board or card games to the digital arena (Settlers of Catan, Uno, Carcassone). The number of original titles on that list is shockingly low especially for a service now in its 3rd year of existence.

Omega Five, Metal Storm Empire, and Pac–Man Championship Edition are among the few great original titles on Live Arcade

This inability to cultivate what by all accounts should be a bumper crop of great (or at the very least interesting) original titles is disheartening. If nothing else it represents a great missed opportunity for Microsoft to take advantage of its early status as the first major console download service. Certainly indie developers for the longest time have been going head over heels to get their games on the service as it also represented a proverbial golden ticket for game sales success.

However, the experiences of Metanet and other indie developers with dealing with Microsoft and the Xbox Live Arcade team point towards a general disinterest towards pushing original fare. Instead large retail publishers have found themselves using the service extensively as a way to extend the lifespans of their own game libraries. And combined with the recent cut in royalties for publishing through Microsoft and many small developers have found themselves with an environment that is unfriendly for the small fishes to say the least.

This certainly does not represent in any way a death toll for Live Arcade. Despite unfriendly policies and other obstacles the service still contains the highest amount of original fare among any of the console downloadable services. However Sony with their Playstation Network has found traction with titles such as flow, Everyday Shooter, and the Pixeljunk line. And Nintendo with their upcoming WiiWare lineup is fast becoming an attractive alternative for the indie developer. So for now Microsoft is the king of the mountain, but really only be default. And if the complaints of Metanet are as commonly felt as indicated by other developers, the reign of Live Arcade as the dominant downloadable service may not continue for much longer.