Who needs triple-A titles? That's the message from studios as the support for digital distribution swells, but beware: games for such platforms are now more complex – and more expensive to make.

Special Report: UK devs declare digital love

Recent word from heavyweight studios, established smaller teams and new companies shows that demand for these games from publishers is only outstripped by developers’ enthusiasm as the number of contracts signing up games for the PlayStation Network Platform and Xbox Live Arcade rises.

Team 17’s Worms is set to debut on XBLA soon, as is its PS3 PNP version of Lemmings. Isle of Wight team Stainless has signed a number of XBLA deals, too, including new game Novadrome for Buena Vista Games and a range of arcade classic remakes based on Atari’s various retro IPs.

Meanwhile London-based Curve is hard at work on a number of downloadable games, including PNP games for PS3 and PSP, plus a concept that will be available for both Sony’s formats and the 360.

And established names such as Climax, Blitz and Sumo are taking the category very seriously – Sumo’s Go Sudoku! will roll out to the PlayStation Store for the PS3 very soon.

While the programming environments for the PS3 and 360 are quite different – with download size caps between the two wildly contrasting at around 500MB and 50MB respectively (although the PS3 figure seems to be rising almost by the day) – there’s plenty of space for developers to use the environment to create games to rival the big budget titles that usually head for store shelves.

Stainless’ Novadrome is a retooling of a concept the team originally had planned for the PS2 and Xbox. On Live Arcade, it will be almost identical, offering eight-man multiplayer and other bells and whistles, while further down the line download content packs are expected to boost the game beyond what it might have been as a retail product.

”I presume Novadrome is at the highest end of Live Arcade,” said studio CEO Patrick Buckland, explaining: “To write Novadrome for the PS2 three years ago, it would’ve had a seven-figure budget. The scope of the game is not that different to what would’ve been considered a triple-A retail game not that long ago. You don’t have to look that far back to see the complexity of it is right up there with what would’ve been released straight into stores.”

However, while there’s arguably more space for new IP to flourish in the wider download channels than on the finite store shelves, developers are fast finding themselves in a competitive environment – the big budget in-house productions that dominate chains of GAME and Gamestation have, in the e-distribution tubes, been simply replaced with retro games and already established casual titles. Is there not a worry that developers using a cutting edge delivery mechanism to deliver cutting edge games will find themselves competing with games long-thought dead?

“I think there’s room for both,” Buckland commented. “When it comes down to it you’re talking to an audience that simply enjoys playing games, so I think there’s space in people’s attentions for both.”

And remember, says Climax’s CEO Karl Jeffery, that Wii’s own Virtual Console will grow to include over 100 retro games within the next year, meaning the onus will be on Xbox and PlayStation to claim a share of the original game category: “Wii will come along and take a lot of Xbox Live Arcade’s thunder away because it has cheaper prices and a lot of classic games on there.”

Ultimately, Buckland said, the concept of ‘infinite bandwidth’ which has convinced publishers to root through their IP back catalogue in turn draws in customers who could go from sampling a retro game to buying a brand new concept.

He added that the bigger picture to think about is the knock-on consequence this will have on consumer behaviour . “My personal opinion is that retail will die,” he said. “In 20 years time consumers will laugh at the idea of going into a shop. This is a more efficient way of getting content to consumers.”

But it seems that PNP and XBLA games won’t remain a low-budget luxury much longer.
Estimates coming from the US already suggest that budgets for future XBLA games are edging close to the symbolic $1m barrier. With Xbox Live Arcade having been open for just 12 months, that’s quite a big step.

Buckland confirmed that the cost of developing Novadrome has been higher than that spent on Stainless’ first game, XBLA launch title Crystal Quest: “Sure, the production cycle is smaller because there is less content in there, but the full cycle in terms of testing a game and getting it towards a publishable state is comparable to a full game.”

For some of the bigger studios, too, it seems that there won’t be a major switch to having an e-distribution-focused portfolio any time soon. The margin on such games, while perfect for smaller, newer teams, won’t feed a superstudio.

Said Jeffery: “XBLA is an awesome casual gaming platform, but frankly at the moment we can’t compete in that market because of our cost base. The games going up there are so suited to one or two man teams. Whereas if we start a project and say we’ll need an artist and a programmer and three months analysing the technology needed, what the strategy is and all that – and before you know it we’ve spent £100,000.”

But don’t take that as a sign of defeat: “We are going to do an XBLA game purely as a loss leader and a statement of intent,” Jeffery added.

Team 17 MD Martyn Brown added: “The appeal of developing such titles are many: it’s an option to develop smaller, tighter and more cohesive development teams; it’s generally shorter design periods with less financial risk; they provide opportunity to innovate (due to associated risk reduction); and also there is significant financial upside for the developer on digital formats as opposed to the royalty on traditional published media.”

But he added: “Although it has to be said, at the current time, mainstream development remains our ‘bread and butter’ development activity.”

There are upsides for the bigger companies, explained Brown, pointing out that the release of Worms signifies a return to self-publishing for the studio (although it’s worth noting that Stainless’ view differs here, saying the choice for partnering with a publisher being that “they can market our game in a way that we never could”).

Brown believes e-distribution games are also a great answer not just to the business and creative side of games development, but omnipresent recruitment issues.

“By doing this, we can recruit on a high-talent basis first and foremost to create small core teams, rather than having to find ourselves recruiting large quantities of staff simply to put names on seats – I believe the selective, targeted approach bodes better for the continued development of our studio.”

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