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The XBLA Exodus: Can Microsoft Reinvigorate Xbox Live Arcade?

Microsoft has a mixed track record with indie games on its XBLA platform. As indie developers flock to other platforms, can Microsoft reinvigorate Xbox Live Arcade?

Note: This article originally appeared in Game Informer issue 242.

Brian Provinciano knew he did not want to release his game, Retro City Rampage (above), 24 hours after New Year's Day. When doing his homework almost two years ago at PAX, the independent developer asked everyone he could about the Xbox Live Arcade marketplace, and he didn't hear good things about the release window near the celebratory date.

The developer doesn't know why it is a bad date (though one can speculate that it has to do with the influx of new retail games out for the holiday season, or people more concerned with going out to celebrate than buying a new downloadable game). Unfortunately for Provinciano, his game came out on January 2, and he didn't have a choice in the matter. Microsoft gets to choose when a game releases on XBLA, not the developer. Some games end up releasing during busy holiday seasons, or so suddenly that developers don't have time to put together their own marketing initiative.

Provinciano eventually made Retro City Rampage, his love letter to Grand Theft Auto and the Nintendo Entertainment System, available for the widest possible market. This meant jumping through all the necessary hoops to port the game to WiiWare, Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, PC, and the Vita. After selling 100,000 units and taking some time to reflect on the process, Provinciano says he won't spend the time and energy needed to put another game on a Microsoft platform. 

"It's just so needlessly difficult to get your game out on XBLA, and at the end of the day your game is feature identical on all of the platforms," Provinciano says. "The XBLA one was over a year total of work, and I don't know how many man-months of work, but it was a lot of time and money. The Xbox sales really got hurt by Microsoft's policies, which were trying to benefit [Microsoft]."

 Provinciano isn't the only developer to feel this way, and it's causing Microsoft – once a mecca for indie developers – to lose games to other platforms such as Steam, the PlayStation Network, and iOS.

THE REBIRTH OF INDIE

Downloadable games didn't hit their stride on consoles until the 2005 version of Xbox Live Arcade on Xbox 360. For the first time, there was a way for independent developers to widely distribute a video game for a console. 

Though a few titles like Geometry Wars found success early on, the moment Xbox Live Arcade found wider acceptance can be traced back to the Summer of Arcade promotion in 2008. Jonathan Blow's Braid
and The Behemoth's Castle Crashers released during this promotion – two of the most successful indie games of all time, both critically and commercially.  Braid turned Jonathan Blow into an overnight millionaire, and more than 2.6 million people have purchased Castle Crashers to date.

Games like these paved the way for more indie success stories such as PlayDead's Limbo and Team Meat's Super Meat Boy.  

"Back then, Xbox was the only console you could make money off of realistically," says Team Meat's Edmund McMillen. "It was the only console platform."

PlayStation Network, Steam, and WiiWare were ramping up at the same time, and though World of Goo did well on the Nintendo platform, the service never found the widespread success XBLA enjoyed.

"The games that did well on the Wii sucked sales-wise compared to stuff on Xbox Live because this was back when Steam was just still building steam," McMillen says. 

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