The Xbox 360 is more than a games machine. Sure, it’s a Sky TV player, a movies marketplace, a social networking client, a DVD player and all that – but above all, it’s a platform. What does that mean?
A platform is much more than just a box of electronics, more than a set of APIs, certification requirements, legal policies, brands and logos. Underneath, a platform is like an ecosystem. It’s an environment that allows many different agencies to work together in a way that is, all being well, virtuously circular, supporting and benefiting everyone. A platform’s games are its flowers: alluring shapes and colours topping long stems of investment, which can be enjoyed in their own right while providing the pollen for new growth. Developers, as individuals learning to create ever-better experiences, are agents within as well as fruits of the system. Careers are built on platforms, too.
A platform is also a sort of collaboration. We, the platform provider, promise to build, maintain, develop and protect its capabilities so that you, the content creator, can use it to build your products, observing a few ground rules, and we share the spoils. This model works really well, especially for Xbox, whose ecosystem is generally very successful for the developers, publishers and retailers who inhabit it.
As a platform within a platform, Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) is arguably the most successful of the three console digital games channels; a cornerstone of the Xbox experience, with an ecosystem of its own that has matured over the years into a serious way to make profitable video games, particularly for small to mid-sized developers. These developers often ask our advice for getting their game onto XBLA. There are essentially two routes. Let me summarise them here.
One is to find a third-party publisher to sponsor your development. This is a pitch process much like any other, involving the usual routine of research, approaches, and, if things start to gain momentum, meetings and negotiations, all preceded by bags of business and design planning and the production of that killer demo to blow away the publisher. The key to finding a deal this way is to understand publishers’ needs – who is actively engaged with XBLA, which titles do they already publish, and what are they looking to sign?
The other is to approach Microsoft Game Studios (MGS), the first-party publisher on Xbox. MGS has published more XBLA titles than any other publisher – around half of the hundreds of games available to the service – so if you’re a dev looking to place your game, or with more questions about that process, you should contact them at email@example.com.
(It’s worth noting that we DAMs don’t work for MGS and so aren’t the people to try to pitch your game to, although this does happen – and we’re really happy to offer our opinion, or even put in a good word if we see something we think is great, if we’re visiting you on
Whether you pursue the first or third-party route, it’s important to understand what characterises an XBLA title. In my opinion the quality and production values on the service have been rising steadily in recent years, and while XBLA titles are usually smaller and shorter you’d do well to aim for retail Xbox title levels of quality in graphics and gameplay. Look at the big successes for inspiration. Last year alone Trials HD, Splosion Man (both built by small teams), Battlefield and Shadow Complex all had huge success. As with any other marketplace, if you’re selling the brightest trinkets, you’ll attract most of the attention.
I’ll close by mentioning two more routes to market that we provide to games developers. First is the Xbox Live Indie Games channel, previously known as Community Games, or XNA Games. Using Windows software that we provide, you can code up your games in C#, test them on the PC, then compile the same code for Xbox and deploy it across your home network to your retail console – no dev kit required. Better still you can then submit it to the channel and charge actual cash for it, and people are doing so, and making real money on Xbox.
Xbox is unique among the home consoles in offering that capability. Personally, I think that’s pretty damn awesome. If only I had more time... (and talent).
The second route is Windows Phone 7 Series, shipping at the end of the year. A bit of Bing sleuthing will lead you to the recently-released preview SDK that enables you to write games, also in C#, for the phone – at least, for the included emulator, until the handsets appear. Windows Phone will be the latest Microsoft gaming ecosystem: a new platform on which developers and publishers can grow their business.