If you want a sense of Xbox Live Arcade's significance, picture copies of Fez, Toy Soldiers: Cold War and LIMBO standing proudly at the head of an aisle in HMV, emblazoned with "must-buy" stickers and full-fat RRPs. Struggling? That's because the idea is improbable to the point of absurdity.
As the oldest and most successful downloadable gaming platform on consoles, Arcade is one of the main reasons we're still buying and playing games that aren't glossy, bloated renditions of a handful of racing, shooting and RPG concepts. With no packaging or distribution costs to worry about, and instantaneous access to millions of eyeballs, it's an environment where esoteric, sub-£10 gems can pay themselves off many times over.
Nevertheless, the service is starting to show its age alongside faster-evolving storefronts like the App Store and Steam, recently bolstered by the announcement of community curation project Steam Greenlight. With next gen hardware launches impending, Microsoft has big plans for online in general: the manufacturer aims to reinforce links between Xbox Live, smartphone apps and long-established PC software franchises like Internet Explorer, tying its various digital endeavours together into one, uber-profitable, non-platform-specific whole. But how should the firm expand and improve Xbox Live Arcade amid all this, to avoid losing development talent to competitors on other platforms? We contacted a number of big indie names to find out.
For Size Five Games' Dan Marshall, it's a question of minimising the fuss and expense of actually getting something onto Arcade. The British independent's raunchy edu-tainment title Privates was denied Xbox Live release in August 2010, as it broke Microsoft's guidelines on sexual content in games. Marshall harbours no grudges, thanking the publisher's "really supportive and helpful" staff, but echoes a wider sentiment that Xbox Live's content certification procedures are too much work.
"I'd like to see them introduce a little more wiggle room to help get more great games on the service," he said. "I'm aware there's currently a lot of red tape, a lot of to-and-fro. I've regularly met exhausted-looking indies who upon being asked how things are, they stare bleary-eyed and utter 'we're going through XBLA certification' and there are knowing nods of sympathy from other developers. It's a notorious nightmare in our circles, and that's not a great place for them to be."
According to a survey orchestrated by World of Goo co-creator Ron Carmel, 48 per cent of independent developers describe Xbox Live certification as an "excruciating" experience. In an excellent article over at Arstechnica, Braid designer Jonathan Blow questions the need for any form of certification whatsoever, pointing out that Apple imposes no such entry-point restrictions on App Store developers. Marshall feels some form of quality approval is necessary, however. "Clearly the total free-for-all of Xbox Live Indie Games hasn't worked particularly well, but I'd like to see Microsoft address the fact that times have changed, and see what they can do to make XBLA a more approachable service for everyone."
Introversion's Mark Morris takes a harder tack - according to him, Xbox Live is now well behind the PC's finest when it comes to ease of access. The studio's Tron-styled RTS Darwinia became an independent gaming figurehead following its PC release in 2005; a tuned, tucked version eventually made it to Live Arcade in 2010. "XBLA is still predicated on this view that every game must be perfectly polished and comply with seven million technical requirements," Morris insisted. "They just don't have the audience to support this extra development effort. It took us longer to port Darwinia to XBLA then it took us to write it in the first place - that can't be right."