Firstly, can you take us though the process involved in submitting a game to Microsoft and seeing it up on Xbox Live Arcade?
There are two routes onto the platform.
One: you work with a major publisher, and they handle all the usual things a publisher does (such as getting you ratings in all the major territories, managing testing, and shepherding you through Microsoft’s certification process) Publishers still need to get their concepts approved by Microsoft, but most of the established publishers have a very good understanding of what we expect from a submission at this point.
Or, two: you submit directly to the Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) team. In which case, you’ll need to sign an NDA and work with a biz dev manager to fill out a concept submission form. We generally expect such submissions to include (at least) a very detailed description of the game, plus screen mockups, but we prefer a gameplay video or, better yet, a playable prototype.
Regardless of the path a developer chooses, once a concept is approved, it generally takes about nine months to get the game on the service. We’ve had games completed in as little as six months, and some that have taken over a year to complete. The vast majority of this time is spent on development and testing. It isn’t simply a case of making a good game (if such a thing can even be called simple!) You need to make a good game; you need to integrate with Live; you need to put together a fantastic trial experience that will encourage sales.
From a production point of view, many view XBLA games as ‘cheaper, quicker and easier to make’ than your normal big budget boxed game – how much of that statement is true?
Sure, in some regards an XBLA game is ‘cheaper, quicker, and easier’ to develop. You don’t have 100-man teams with a $20m budget working on XBLA games for over two years the way you do with triple-A console games. XBLA games tend to have anywhere from three to nine-man development teams, with development budgets ranging from as low as $100k for the simplest of ports to $900k for the most ambitious of projects. I’d say that average development budgets are somewhere around $450k. And of course, since XBLA games are digitally distributed, the hassles of physical distribution are a non-issue.
There are important development issues to consider, however. Because consumers can try an XBLA game before they buy it, developers need to produce an experience that literally sells itself within minutes. Designing, engineering, and testing a great Live experience is also very important, and can extend development schedules if it isn’t adequately planned for in advance.
How long until we see an XBLA game made with a multi-million dollar budget?
We’re committed to maintaining XBLA as a place where developers can effectively compete without spending millions of dollars. As long as that holds true, XBLA will attract more than its fair share of innovative games. Those games may not be the most consistently profitable, but over the long-term, they make the difference between growth and stagnation… between happy consumers and bored consumers.
There are concerns that some games will be declared finished but take a while to appear. What’s the cause for the bottleneck in releases?
Rumors of bottlenecks in the XBLA title schedule are precisely that: rumors.
Once an XBLA game clears certification, it almost always makes it onto the service right away. In fact, I’m proud to say that in the entire life of the service, we have never held a title for more than a few weeks. We keep the pipeline of approved games reasonably steady precisely so that we never find ourselves in too nasty of a schedule crunch.
That said, developers (of their own accord) occasionally choose to delay their games for a variety of reasons. For example, they may not wish to go up against a similar title, or they may desire more time to improve gameplay.
QA and certification seems to be a key part of the XBLA. Can you talk us through what that process entails and what studios should do to avoid potential problems?
The best way to get through certification smoothly is to work closely with your publishing partner. If you’re working with a third party publisher, they know how to handle certification – they’ve been doing it for years. Likewise, if you’re working directly with the XBLA team, then you have a dedicated project manager and test manager who will do everything they can to help you make a great game and get that game through certification quickly.
Ultimately, developers need to understand that the certification process helps us offer a consistent experience to customers and keeps our ecosystem healthy. In exchange, XBLA developers enjoy an average conversion rate that is many times higher than conversion rates for downloadable PC games. Seems like a pretty good tradeoff, if you ask me. I think it’s telling that many now-veteran XBLA developers are working on their second, third or fourth game for us.
Part two of this interview will be posted tomorrow.