Xbox Live: A Broken Retail Shelf

Last week the first chapter of Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness, was released onto Xbox Live Arcade, and besides aggravating reviewers with its tongue twisting title, consumers were baffled upon seeing such a pricey arcade game. But the truth is that despite costing a record setting $20, PA Adventures is, in reality, not an arcade game at all. At a seven to ten hour experience, with top notch writing and production values, the game could hardly be seen as a ripoff as far as episodic content goes. The dilemma is that games like PA Adventures have nowhere else to go other than the arcade, and it’s a problem that will have to be resolved for future episodes, and other series yet to come.

Going back to its origins on the original Xbox, the Arcade was an important first step, serving as Microsoft’s maiden voyage into the world of digital distribution through home consoles. Over the years Xbox Live Arcade has given us some enjoyable hours of bite-sized gaming treats for an average cost of $10, but the system has not quite evolved to be anything more than its original conception. Now there’s nothing wrong with some platforming action, or addictive puzzle games, but developers hoping to deliver long term, story driven series that would have us coming back like the loyal viewership of Lost are finding themselves being cut back because of the “arcade” label.

We’re not trying to bash the Arcade and call it outdated, and Microsoft has admirably tried to give developers more breathing room for their creative minds by extending the maximum size of an arcade game to 350 MB. However, the fact remains that we’re still talking about arcade games, and when it comes to hardcore episodic content, 350 megs is just not enough. Take Half Life 2: Episode 2, which when downloaded and installed to a PC takes up roughly 1336 MB.

Obviously a PC and 360 can only be compared in so many ways but we’re pretty sure that Valve won’t be able to squeeze Episode 3 down to a mere 349 MB. And what about Peter Jackson’s ever secretive episodic Halo series? Unless each chapter is about five minutes long it will not fall within the Arcade limit, making the epic experience of the Halo series much less, well, epic.

The bottom line is that either a Half Life or Halo episodic entry just plain doesn’t fit into the Arcade any more than a circle does in Tetris. Before the 360 launched, and gamers everywhere didn’t associate red lights with excrutaiting pain, we were told that the Marketplace was going to be the future of online transactions, including episodic content. Well, the future is knocking on the door, and it’s not going to be pleased about having to room with Metal Slug 3. Gamers are never receptive to anything they believe is an underhanded attack on their wallets, which could hurt sales of PA Adventures unless content like it is properly presented and categorized.

Microsoft obviously has the capacity to sell content weighing in at over 350 MB, and Xbox Live needs no serious engineering revamps for such distribution. Why? Because it’s already happening. Free demos and Xbox Live Originals show that the service can indeed deliver the goods. Sony’s PlayStation Store has gone even further by selling full versions of PS3 games such as Warhawk and Grand Turismo Prologue. The misconception that must be resolved is that although smaller, episodic games do not necessarily mean an arcade experience.

All that’s really needed is for the Arcade to branch out, and not just retreat to old memories, but become a full-fledged game store. The Arcade can stay, but should be made into a section of the shop, rather than being the name out front, because anyone looking for something more than a side scroller isn’t likely to come in and browse. The cost of episodic content probably isn’t much of an issue either, as long as those purchasing it are aware they’re paying for a gaming experience that goes beyond the small scale ones found in the arcade. This crucial differentiation is what episodic games being distributed on Xbox Live will need, and the first step is a totally new venue not named after a long dead establishment associated with loose change.

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