Platform exclusivity is nothing new for major publishers. We live in an era where multi-million dollar deals are a regular occurrence in the constant quest to get one over the competition, whether that be to keep a franchise solely on one platform or even tempt one away from another; as demonstrated by the rather high profile “theft” of Final Fantasy XIII from it’s traditional PlayStation home at last years E3. For a development studio, the dangling of the golden carrot can be a temptation too sweet to ignore in exchange for platform exclusive DLC or a timed release window, but what about the little guys? The indie studio’s and bedroom developers? What happens when a smaller team choose to remain exclusive to one platform at their own descretion?
It’s an issue that Hello Games co-founder Sean Murray has been discussing today at the Brighton Develop conference, with intriguing results.
Hello Games – for those currently unaware – are the development team behind the currently PlayStation Network only title Joe Danger. Comprised of an experienced but humble team of 4 developers, Hello Games have appeared rather open with their decision to stay away from Xbox Live, likening Microsoft’s online service to that of a “slaughterhouse”.
“Why choose PSN? It was the only way we could self-publish. XBLA is kind of a slaughterhouse for smaller developers. There are games that do amazingly well. But there’s two titles released every week and a lot of those are falling in that 25,000 or less category.”
Murray even went on to provide some statistics to support his view, claiming that 47 percent of self-published titles on Xbox Live Arcade sold less than 25,000 copies. 23 percent allegedly sold 100,000 copies whilst 13 percent sold 200,000 and the remaining 17 percent sold over 200,000. Following up such claims, Murray did concede that his figures were not official numbers – instead merely the products of his own research – although he did confirm that Joe Danger had managed to shift 50,000 copies on PlayStation Network within a single week. According to Murray, who as co-founder really should know these things, Hello Games managed to break even on the cost of development within a day of the games digital shelf life.
So what could this mean in reality? Despite the manner in which this story seems to have been reported elsewhere, it almost certainly doesn’t mean that the days of successful development for XBLA are coming to an end. Murray’s comments certainly seem to suggest something of a double edged sword in that regard. With such a diverse and far reaching range of smaller downloadable titles across Xbox Live, the service is clearly one that retains a degree of popularity and profitability for self-published developers. Or at least some of them. That multiple games being released weekly is seen as a problem for Hello Games certainly doesn’t suggest a wider issue for the future of Xbox Live Arcade as a service.
Having said that, XBLA is not without it’s own problems. The “New Xbox Experience” dashboard update released in 2008 did much for the Xbox 360’s aesthetic design but little for the functionality or ease of use of the dashboard itself. Finding hidden gems or older classics can be a fiddly and cumbersome process, meaning that word of mouth is often how the most niche of titles make their mark. The Arcade also shares an inherent problem with Apple’s App Store and other digital distribution platforms, in that while download figures and 5-star ratings will keep the cream offerings at the top, the competition are often left to curdle within the store’s depths, with new flavors and tastes finding it increasingly difficult to rise to the top as a result. In light of Murray’s comments, it’ll be interesting to see what Microsoft’s already announced Destination Arcade store front re-design will do to alleviate such issues when it lands alongside Limbo on July 21.
It could also be argued that Microsoft’s own service standards simply offer a more natural and coherent pattern with regards to which games find success and which games don’t. A playable trial with a built in full purchase option is a mandatory requirement for all XBLA offerings, and I can personally vouch for the fact that this is a feature I use before putting my hard earned forward for any downloadable offerings. As a consumer, it’s a feature which benefits me greatly and one I wish was replicated on both Apple’s App Store and Sony’s PlayStation Network, but from a developers point of view there could be repercussions. How many of those 50,000 PSN sales were made up of “blind” purchases? How many of those might have been lost had a trial option been provided?
That said, Joe Danger has received a warm reception critically and is a title that Hello Games should be justly proud of and have full confidence in. Perhaps the question should be how many more sales could have been garnered from convincing XBLA gamers with a trial version had the game been released on both systems? As someone who purchased Trials HD last summer in similar circumstances, I’d be intrigued by the results.
Still, Murray and his team are entitled to do what they feel is best for the fruits of their own labour. Hello Games should certainly be congratulated on a strong critical and commercial reception to their title, which will hopefully pave the way for more quality titles from the studio. Whether those titles will ever make it to XBLA however remains to be seen.
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