The last time GamesIndustry.biz spoke with Xbox Live Arcade's David Edery he told us how excited his team were about the possibilities of getting user-generated content on Xbox Live. Since then, at GDC 2008, the company revealed its Community Games initiative, where through development tool XNA anyone from indie developers to keen amateurs will be able to create modest titles for the service and see them rated by users and creators.
At the recent Nordic Game event in Malmo, Sweden, Edery expanded on the integration of XNA titles into the Xbox Live Arcade portfolio, how he hopes these titles will differentiate Microsoft's download service in the face of increased competition from Nintendo's WiiWare and Sony's PSN, and how a left-field idea could become the next big thing in games.
Q: How is the application and integration of Community Games coming along with Xbox Live Arcade? Are you getting toward where you want to be at this point in time?
David Edery: Internally, the executives have locked down how it should work and so and on, and we're preparing for an announcement very shortly. There's not a lot more I can say at this point, but it's just a matter of timing and it's really rolling along.
Q: Do you think with Community Games - titles that have been created using XNA and uploaded for users to rate and play and offer feedback on - do you see that as the key differentiator between Xbox Live Arcade and PSN or WiiWare?
David Edery: To some extent it will certainly help us have more innovative content than either of them, just by definition. With all this random stuff coming from the community, every once in a while there's going to be a real gem in there that you just couldn't have found otherwise, it wouldn't have found its way on to a console. So I certainly think from an innovation perspective it's going to help us leapfrog the competition, effectively until they find a way to duplicate it, assuming they ever do. I've thought of it less in terms of whether it gives us an edge over them, and more in terms of what does this bring to the console that otherwise it would not have seen.
So, can we start serving niche markets that we wouldn't have been able to properly serve before? The example I always like to give is will someone finally make that scuba diving game, where there's really only 15,000 people interested in a hardcore scuba diving simulation, but they really, really want one. And maybe through XNA someone can profitably get one out there. Maybe it's not even a question of profit and they want to get one out there regardless of making money because they're scuba diving fans. Today, there's not really a venue for that. I'm not going to green light a hardcore scuba diving game for Xbox Live Arcade today because there are not enough people who are interested in that. But with XNA it's perfectly possible. So I'm much more interested in it from a perspective of can it be used to satisfy more people, with more diverse content, than anything else.
Q: So it will create niches that you didn't even know were there, that no amount of planning, focus testing and research would ever find?
David Edery: That's it, that's exactly right. One of the other things I hope will happen is that you'll start to see established game developers do new things. With Xbox Live Arcade today, if you wanted to test out a concept before you take it to a retailer you still have to spend x-thousand dollars to get it through certification, it still takes a few guys, six months of their time and so on and so forth. With XNA, who knows, maybe a guy like Will Wright will spin out a game in three weeks, toss it out on XNA and see what happens. Because today, you can't do that, there's no way to reach a console audience like that. This could become a wonderful test bed and you'll start to see super-cool stuff coming from guys who wouldn't really have that opportunity to do that kind of test marketing.
Q: I interviewed a developer recently who said while on holiday he programmed a couple of mobile phone games to help him relax. If he had XNA, we could have seen that on Xbox Live Arcade...
David Edery: That's it, it's just two weeks of his time. Some of the coolest things that happen with XNA are some of the things that no one is talking about right now. People are much too focused on whether the next fl0w will come out of XNA, or the next Geometry Wars. They will, by the way, but a lot of other interesting things will come from there, things that could potentially broaden the games industry and make it more interesting.
Q: Once the community titles start arriving are we going see an increase in the rate of releases on Xbox Live Arcade rather than just one game a week?
David Edery: We have done some weeks with two titles released. It's not clear yet. You will see an increasing number of weeks with more than one game released, there's no question about that. But we're really sensitive to the fact that Xbox Live Arcade developers, even if they are not investing tens of millions of dollars, you have two or three man companies investing hundreds of thousands of dollars and for them it might as well be millions. It's there lives. So we're very sensitive to them being able to make a reasonable return. While Xbox Live Arcade games are incredibly successful by industry standards, there's no question that today it's harder to have a hit than it was two year's ago when XBLA was new. If we don't watch that carefully, indie developers will lose the opportunities they once had on Xbox Live Arcade, and the only people who will be able to take risks on XBLA will be the publishers who can afford to spread their bets around.
Q: And you're upping the size of Xbox Live Arcade games as well to 350 megabytes?
David Edery: Yeah, it's a steady progress. We've been listening to our partners, listening to our customers to try and get a feel for what's right. We don't want the size limit to hit the roof because we think there's some value in promoting small pick and play experiences that don't cost USD 20 million, it's good for the ecosystem.
Q: How about scheduling of titles – how far ahead are games lined-up for release?
David Edery: We have a big backlog but one thing we've found is that precisely because we've been working with a lot of independent developers or those making a console game for the first time, they may target September 2008, but they'll miss it by a year. We have a big pipeline, and I bet you something that we may have announced from small indies in the past three months – you won't see it for the next two years.
Q: There have been some rumblings that developers finish a game and hand it over and it doesn't appear on Live for a number of months...
David Edery: Oh, it's almost never like that. There have been some stories in the press – like Jeff Minter complaining about the certification process – but in general what happens is a developer realises that there's a lot more going on in console development than they first realised. Of the three consoles our tools are by far the best, but even then making a console multiplayer game is still damned hard, making a well-tuned, not broken, Live game. Especially indies who've never made a console game before, they always underestimate how hard it's going to be. And with smaller developers if something is delayed by two months it could be the difference between the company going bankrupt and not going bankrupt. So they take on another project to pay the bills and although the game might have only needed another two months, it now takes another two years. Castle Crashers (from The Behemoth) is a great example. Everyone keeps asking us when it's coming out, and it's going to be great, but I couldn't even tell you what those guys are doing. I'm sure it's going to be great because I've been seeing builds... [laughs]
Q: So when Minter was moaning about the process, that was an isolated incident?
David Edery: Well, it wouldn't be fair to say “Jeff is completely on crack”. Console development is just more difficult. Technical requirements are there for a reason, there's a reason why consumers find it so easy and so enjoyable to play XBLA games. There's consistency. Some of those things can be onerous, but the certification process serves a very important purpose.
Q: Last time we spoke we touched upon episodic gaming over Xbox Live Arcade, and the closest you're getting seems to be the Penny Arcade game, which is out this month. But that's not scheduled in like a TV show is episodic. With TV shows I know CSI is on each week, each day, at a certain time. But episodic for games seems to be something else, and I'm not sure what it is yet, no one seems to be defining episodic gaming. You know, Half-Life episodes aren't episodic in that same sense...
David Edery: I think we are getting closer although Penny Arcade isn't gong to be coming out every week or anything like that. In general we've seen people like TellTale get close with Sam and Max. We've been talking to them and they've been thinking about all kinds of stuff that might come out on a more frequent basis, and there are other developers who have various experiences exploring these options. I've been pitched more things that meet the definition of episodic in the last six months than in the year before that – the rate of pitches is increasing.
Q: Developers are exploring the ideas of episodic gaming and coming to you with more ideas about practicalities and business models?
David Edery: I'll be honest with you, I still think a lot of them are going to flame out, a lot of people are going to learn the hard way that it's not as easy as it looks. There's still a lot of uncertainty too. You and I think it would be cool if there was one hour of gameplay that came out once a week but we don't actually know if that would work. But someone's got to do it. And maybe XNA will lead the way.
David Edery is worldwide games portfolio planner for Xbox Live Arcade. Interview by Matt Martin.