The Xbox Live Arcade service is arguably Microsoft’s greatest gift to contemporary video games. Originally intended to revive the high score competitive frisson of 1980s arcades, XBLA provided a place for developers to rediscover smaller titles that would never have been commercially viable as full-priced boxed products.
The seminal PlayStation/ Saturn game Castlevania: Symphony of the Night may have inspired Microsoft to up the size limit of XBLA games (Konami’s game was the first to break the original 50MB ceiling), leading to ever more ambitious releases, but the bite-sized spirit of the service has remained largely intact. It’s one perhaps best exemplified by XBLA’s inaugural release, Geometry Wars, whose simple depths defined Microsoft’s contemporary arcade with pitch perfection, inspiring the kind of high score rivalries amongst friends that hadn’t been seen since the Atari’s heyday.
Microsoft’s most recent dashboard update (a bi-annual-ish freshening of the Xbox 360’s menu screen that rearranges its form and tweaks its function) has been widely-criticized. Its haphazard arrangement bespeaks Microsoft’s muddled vision for their console’s twilight months – ballooning the size of advertisements, emphasizing the system’s media hub capacity by putting movies, TV and apps front and centre and, largely, ghettoizing the ‘game’ aspects of the system.
It’s a short-sighted repositioning, as the idea of a plug-in piece of hardware acting as a household’s media hub is already out-dated with the rise of Wi-Fi enabled Smart TVs. The Xbox 360 dashboard redesign will only become more of an anachronism as Smart TVs improve in providing intuitive, quicker gateways to our entertainment.
Visiting the XBLA shop window in the Xbox 30 dashboard today is especially upsetting. Where once it was possible to browse games with ease, filter results by genre and so on, today there isn’t even an XBLA exclusive section. Rather, we must browse downloadable and non-downloadable games, all lumped in together into a muddy, impenetrable mass.
Games On Demand (that is, boxed games that have been made available to download) sit alongside XBLA games, which sit alongside games that cannot be downloaded but have downloadable content available for them. There is no rhyme or reason to the arrangement. No care. You can browse Skulls of the Shogun (17-bit’s XBLA title that isn’t out till later in the year) and even leave your review of the game, articulated in a one to five star rating. It’s a disastrous mess that complicates browsing and there appears to be no tangible benefit to the arrangement.
Shop windows are important.
It’s here that shopkeepers have the opportunity to draw attention to their brightest and best products, to draw links between complementary items, to educate, inform, even inspire – as well as to merely sell. If XBLA is Microsoft’s greatest gift to contemporary video games, it’s a gift that few will have the tenacity to unwrap in its current state. That’s heartbreaking.
But as Microsoft focuses its full attention on the Xbox 360’s successor, there is a chance refit the XBLA shop, to draw attention to the jewels therein based on some merit other than them simply being on sale that week.
XBLA offers one of the richest and most diverse game services today. Believe it in. Celebrate it. Create an XBLA-specific shop window that arranges Treasure’s oeuvre in one corner (Gunstar Heroes, Guardian Heroes, Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun are all available on XBLA), that promotes its blockbusters (Braid, Limbo, Trials HD) that collects games from one designer (Mizuguchi’s Rez, Space Channel 5) and tells people why these collections are important, interesting, worth their 800 MSP.
Deep within Microsoft’s walls exist external producers who care deeply about the games that appear on the service, who understand the importance of the platform and the wonder of many of the game’s it’s produced, that work tirelessly with studios to make the best possible games they can for XBLA. But someone forgot to hire a shopkeeper.