Following a jam-packed two-hour press briefing, Microsoft Xbox Live general manager Marc Whitten hosted a Gamasutra-attended press luncheon that revealed a few more important details about the strategy behind Xbox's online community and distribution service.
Whitten announced "Games On Demand" for Xbox 360, a feature launching this August that will allow users to download full retail games to the console's hard drive. Whitten called the the feature a "natural progression" of Xbox Live's current offerings.
The service will launch initially with 30 games, including titles such as Mass Effect, BioShock, Assassin's Creed, Crackdown, Oblivion
and Call of Duty 2
. Prices will be in line with physical retail, and new games will be added regularly.
The service will also allow for direct credit card purchases, instead of the typical Microsoft Point value used for Xbox Live purchases today.
In line with the community aspect of Xbox Live, users will be able to give the games a star rating, recommending games for other users. Xbox Live boasts 20 million members, and sees 6 million members daily, Whitten said.
Rival PlayStation 3 already has full retail game downloads available via PlayStation Network. The addition of yet another major console player adopting the digital distribution feature may raise red flags amongst the retail community, as digital downloads essentially cut brick-and-mortar retailers like GameStop out of the equation.
But answering Gamasutra during a Q&A session during the luncheon, Whitten insisted that retail is still here to stay, despite the advancements.
"We've been talking closely with our retail partners," he said. "This isn't some zero-sum game where there is a winner or loser. I personally believe that going into a store and seeing that back of the box of the game, talking about the game--that's not going away." He said that digital distribution and retail can coexist in the current ecosystem.
Deluge Of New Community Features
During Microsoft's press briefing on Monday, the company made a slew of community announcements for Xbox Live, including Twitter and Facebook integration.
But one of Microsoft's most highly-touted Xbox Live elements--avatars--have fallen by the wayside, with few games implementing the cartoonish representations of players. Virtual accessories for avatars have also been generally drab and unexciting.
Whitten said that will change, as Microsoft is now promising more avatar support and an increased focus on avatar accessories, both free and paid (or as Whitten put it, "slightly more than free").
"I think you're going to continue seeing avatars show up in lots of different places," Whitten said. The kart racing-style game for Xbox Live, Joyride
, will be one upcoming game that uses players' avatars.
Microsoft will also add more interesting accessories, making such virtual items more appealing to gamers. He showed off an avatar modeled after a Halo
ODST character, fully decked out in armor. The ODST character sported a poms-poms accessory that added an amusing cheerleader animation, as well as radio-controlled Warthog from Halo
Answering demand from the Xbox Live community, Whitten also revealed in-game awardables for avatars, a feature that will allow games to earn avatar content by completing objectives in both first- and third-party games. "I think you're going to see a ton of avatar content," he said.
"We're really, really pushing the boundaries of what makes Xbox Live Arcade special."
Whitten said that Xbox Live will also evolve through performance updates based on customer feedback. In a letter to the press, he said, "First and foremost, the entire Xbox Live service is being upgraded for improved performance including better guide and friends access. Some other things we’ve done based on your feedback include revamping the friends sorting list, Achievement views and improving our matchmaking support. There’s always room to improve, and your input really matters to us…so keep it coming!"
From XBLA Games To Instant Video
Whitten also showed off upcoming Xbox Live Arcade games, including Joyride,
Epic Games and Chair Entertainment's hardcore side-scroller Shadow Complex
, Marvel vs. Capcom 2
, the 3D-rendered Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition, Battlefield 1943, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles In Time: Re-Shelled
, and the motocross racer Trials HD
. Also shown was Splosion Man
, Twisted Pixel's platformer in which the titular character gets from place to place by exploding in a certain direction and sticking to surfaces.
Aside from games, Whitten also expanded on a the revised Zune HD video service that will allow users to play streaming movies on their Xbox 360s as if they were being played via a local physical disc.
Demoing the new feature, Zune HD showed no buffering times, and the example video began instantly, with the ability to fast foward and rewind without waiting for load times. Whitten said that the feature is the result of "progressive codecs" and Microsoft's work on service-side cloud computing.