GameFest: Microsoft's Coates On Creating An XBLA Success

Speaking as part of last week's GameFest lecture that produced previously unseen Xbox Live Arcade stats, Microsoft's XBLA platform manager Mark Coates further outlined key goals for
Speaking as part of last week's GameFest lecture that produced previously unseen Xbox Live Arcade stats, Microsoft's XBLA platform manager Mark Coates further outlined key goals for prospective XBLA developers, from multiplayer to achievements and more. Coates's first point was to note that every Live Arcade game, despite their bite-sized appeal, "needs to be a full game - not something that is pieced together over time. It needs to be an experience that stands on its own as a full game. It can be extended by premium DLC, but it can't be a plan for a skeleton of a game that can be build upon later." Classic games, some of the most popular on the service, should almost always be enhanced in some fashion, Coates advised, adding "in our mind, these are new original games." He also advised developers to consider localizing their titles to participate in international markets -- there are 25 countries involved, and an even broader market. "If you're making a game, there's a good chance you'll find an audience on XBLA," Coates said. And those titles have staying power, too, as he described: "We're seeing that titles that were released at the launch of the console, and in 2006 as well, are still being played by our community." Coates expanded on what gives an XBLA title that long lifespan in the community -- and it's precisely that community element, especially where achievements are involved. "Every title has to support leaderboards to a certain extent, so you should make the most of it," he advised. "It's important to choose the data you want on your leaderboard carefully. Don't just settle for the score as your primary data point... you can feature more than one leaderboard. You can draw people into your game more." "Most people find it compelling to see where they fall against their friends, so default the game to the friends view," he added. "It keeps people looking at the title, trying to figure things out about the title, and drawing them into the game." Coates says his team fields a lot of questions from developers as to why the heavy focus on friends lists and achievements has become such a requirement for XBLA titles. He says that as more games with long lifespans based on community interest are produced, there's just too much data; adding leaderboards and community elements keeps things relevant. "You can also do promotions or external events on your title," Coates adds, using weekly leaderboards as an example of how to continually freshen content. As for the achievements themselves, Coates advises: "You want to spread them across your game -- if you have a game that has different game modes and types, spread them out across them to get people to try them out." He added, "Something unique will drive conversation around your title." Coates also noted other highly recommended practices for Live Arcade titles, such as remappable controller functions. "It's not a requirement for us, but we're pushing pretty hard on it," he says. "Give the player the ability to change the control settings in-game." "Don't forget, it's on the Xbox 360. It's one of the most powerful consoles ever created by man," Coates boasts. Despite the relative success of retro games, Coates believes that more is possible: "Make your game look like it's on the Xbox 360. Take advantage of the system to really make the graphical elements shine." Coates had more advice regarding the multiplayer interface. "There are a lot of conventions out there that help solve the problems you face when trying to bring people together," he said. "Consider those for your titles, too. Take the time to really think about the design of your elements... multiplayer gameplay is really one of the key ways to foster community and drive awareness of your title in the XBLA ecosystem." Coates says that XBLA's development partners don't think about game trials early in the development process, but recommends that current and prospective developers start thinking about them early on. "You want to drive a high conversion rate for your title," he said. "We are finding that people are tuning in on Wednesday to find out what's going on on XBLA," Coates said. "They may not buy that game but they come, they see, [and] they may buy another game." "We're only just now starting to get enough games on the service to take a look at what works and what doesn't," he added in regards to the trial experience. But, he cautioned, "If you just try to tack it on at the end of the development of the game it's not going to be very compelling... and it's going to affect your conversion rate. Try to make the trial version limit content instead of time." "Use achievements," he concluded. "You can award achievements in a trial game. It's great to be able to have a player earn an achievement early on, in the first experience of the game. Tell them 'hey, if you upgrade to the full version of the game you can keep this achievement, you can keep this gamerscore.'"

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