Talking at an interview conducted by Gamasutra during the 2006 Tokyo Game Show, Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade head Greg Canessa explained the future of the successful Xbox 360 digital download service, including the concept of an 'Imports' area on XBLA to highlight the best foreign-territory titles, and upcoming improvements to the service.
Japan And Xbox Live Arcade
Since the meeting was taking place at TGS, a natural starting point was a discussion of Japanese support for Xbox Live Arcade. Canessa commented that Microsoft was in the process of developing "deeper and broader support" from Japanese developers and publishers, pointing to deals with companies such as SNK, which is to debut Fatal Fury Special
as an Asia-exclusive title for the service, joining another Asian-specific XBLA title, Konami's Yie Ar Kung Fu
Canessa also referenced the Q Entertainment agreement for Lumines Live
, as well as Namco and Konami's continuing deals for worldwide distributed games including Gyruss, Rush 'N Attack, Super Contra
, and Track 'N Field
. (As an aside, when asked about Metal Slug
's possible appearance on Xbox Live Arcade in the near future, hinted at by an SNK brochure distributed at Tokyo Game Show, Canessa simply commented: "We haven't finalized or announced [titles with SNK] apart from Fatal Fury Special
But why tie some of these relatively simple retro arcade titles just to the Asian market, when some players in the rest of the world might want to play them? When asked if territorial rights had anything to do with the decisions, Canessa commented: "It's not so much rights-related as where the audience is going to be" - suggesting, for example, that classic title Yie Ar Kung Fu
was much better known in Japan.
As for development of Japanese indie titles for Xbox Live Arcade, the Microsoft exec admits that the Japanese market has "lagged a little bit behind", but suggested: "We're beginning to see a lot of interest." He noted that he was hoping to see Japan-centric titles such as Shogi
sourced for XBLA in the future (though he made it clear that Microsoft has no specific announcements of that kind just yet.)
An XBLA 'Imports' Section?
Canessa revealed a possible solution for those niche Xbox Live Arcade gamers who want to check out foreign content: "We're evaluating the possibility of having an imports area". The concept is that, from a developer perspective, the costs of localizing a niche title from Japanese (or another foreign language) to English may be too high compared to the return on investment. But Canessa asked: "What if we could create a dedicated area where you can get some of that [non-localized, but still playable] content?" There isn't yet enough XBLA content of this kind to justify such a section in the West, of course, but it's certainly an interesting concept.
The conversation moved on to improvements to the Xbox Live Arcade menu and download system, part of Xbox Live itself, and Canessa revealed that "better capabilities [to] search and sort", as well as other collection management-related functions, will be coming to the service in the future. He explained: "We will be making improvements as part of the Fall update and the subsequent Spring  update" - though specifics for each are not yet revealed.
First-Party XBLA Game Aims
Finally, the conversation turned to first-party publishing and development for Xbox Live Arcade. A select amount of titles for the platform, including games such as Hexic HD
are developed internally by Microsoft, but almost no external games are funded by the company at this point. This appears to be in some contrast to the forthcoming PlayStation 3 game download service, for which little is known, but apparently has multiple internal Sony and external Sony-funded titles (including indie title Fl0w
) in development.
Canessa explained of external funding: "We don't necessarily need to fund other people's games at this time." And indeed, it's true there's no shortage of people stepping forward with enough funding to make Xbox 360 Live Arcade titles, basically proving his point. As for first-party development, such as the Carbonated Games-developed Uno
, Canessa explained that the games are developed "...against a set of strategic criteria to showcase the platform."
For example, Uno
was inteded to be a "broad appeal title... which showcased premium downloadable content" in the shape of theme decks, as well as showing off the Xbox Live Vision camera and multiplayer play over Live. He noted that this type of first-party title will be the sort Microsoft will continue to do.
XNA Studio To Bridge Indie Gap?
But how about those people who can't afford the "low hundreds of thousands of dollars" needed to fund an Xbox Live Arcade title right now (some independent reports put the current XBLA budgets at between $100,000 and $300,000, including staff costs)? For the "Average Joe" or those lacking start-up money, Canessa indicated: "That's where XNA comes in, and XNA Studio Express in particular."
The recently announced
XNA plans for "user-generated content" aren't necessarily designed for XBLA development through the lower-end XNA Studio Express - in fact, that's what the higher-cost XNA Studio Professional is for, but Canessa notes that in the longer-term, "there's an opportunity to bubble [XNA Studio Express games] up onto Xbox Live Arcade", using the service as a possible "on-ramp vehicle" for the best XNA Studio Express games.
Concluding, the Xbox Live Arcade head also again contrasted Microsoft's extra-value approach to retro titles, compared to its competitors "as they begin to think about replicating our service" - noting that those competitors (which presumably include Nintendo and its Virtual Console software) have "more of an emulated approach" - whereas Microsoft's games add enhanced graphics and networked high score tables, for example.
He also again stressed the company's commitment to the indie space on XBLA, mentioning that more than 100 indie game developers are working with Microsoft, and there are 85 titles currently in development from that space.
As a result of the new milestones XBLA is reaching (10 million arcade downloads - both trial and full versions, as of TGS), Microsoft will be again stepping up its release schedule, with 30 games on the service today, and "1 and sometimes 2 titles [to debut] per week through the end of year", bringing it to around 50 titles on Xbox Live Arcade by the end of 2006.