Our spies on the ground at E3 have been checking out Signal's asynchronous online action title Ascend: New Gods, and it sounds like quite the chin-stroker. An XBLA game from the developers of Toy Soldiers, Ascend lets you assist or inconvenience players in 'neighbouring' worlds as you explore, and will launch alongside a mobile app which constitutes the earliest working application of Microsoft's new SmartGlass to a videogame.
Ascend's revenue and content distribution models are an interesting enigma. The game will be continually enriched with new bad guys, items, quests, abilities. You name it, you'll get more of it, but not in the timeworn 'pay for it, download it' fashion Xbox Live subscribers are used to.
Instead, Signal adopts an approach familiar to Battlefield 3 players, where you can choose to pay for certain unlocks (see below) or earn them in-game. "Our model for unlocking content to the player doesn't involve going to Marketplace and buying individual things," Microsoft's Cesar Felori told OXM at E3. "Content is simply unlocked. You will get the game with a ton of content built right into it and it gets simply unlocked by the player. It is going to be a game as a service though, so we are going to be constantly adding more quests, more items, just more stuff to the game world."
All this stuff will show up automatically in Ascend's world as you earn it, rather than via a digital storefront, but you can buy in-game currency from the Marketplace if you wish. "What we want to have is a really seamless easy experience of staying in the game world," Felori explained. "And not having to go out to a store or to do clunky downloads, and all this other stuff - it doesn't sound fun to me."
Ascend's "behind the scenes" delivery systems have obliged its creators to comb Xbox Live's policy documents for potential bones of contention. "I had to do a lot of work in terms of understanding our policies and how we can navigate those things for a game as a service, and actually we didn't really have to change a lot in terms of policy to do what we're doing," Felori went on. "It is allowed for us to push down content."
One possible business model Signal may be toying with is free-to-play - a first for Xbox Live Arcade - where money is made either via micro-transactions or indirectly from adverts. "We're exploring a range of business model opportunities like I said," Felori replied with a sinister laugh when we pushed on this front. "But nothing official."
Look out for more on Ascend soon. Here's the reveal trailer.