Q&A: Microsoft's Wacksman Talks XBLA Business

At GDC, Gamasutra talked with Microsoft's Jeremy Wacksman, global marketing manager of Xbox Live marketing, about some of the controversial news coming out of the show as regards realignment of Xbox Live developer profit structures, the XNA announcements,
On the Friday of GDC, Gamasutra got a chance to talk to Microsoft's Jeremy Wacksman, global marketing manager of Xbox Live marketing. We asked him about some of the controversial news coming out of the show as regards realignment of Xbox Live developer profit structures, the XNA announcements, and more. The obvious first question we have to get through is what about all these news stories that are coming out talking about the decrease in take the developers are going to be getting from all the XBLA games going forward? Jeremy Wacksman: Is there something new coming out? Today. This morning. JW: We don't typically comment on business contracts. All I can say is that XBLA remains the premier place to develop games, and I think the games speak for themselves. Well, sure, but will they speak for themselves that much longer? JW: Yeah. I mean, look at the audience size. One of the things we announced on Wednesday was some of our momentum stats, which we don't do that often at the Arcade level. We typically roll up [the stats with general statistics]. 150 percent growth every year in sales, 145 percent growth in gaming consumers and gamers. That's the more telling one, because that says that not only are people buying more, but it's more people buying more. As Live grows, this continues to be the forefront of it. So it's a great place to be to make these games. There's no doubt that people have had a lot of success on it and it's a very viable platform, but I've also heard some comments that new games that come out aren't doing quite the numbers that the old games did, when there were fewer games on the service. JW: Yeah, I've heard that, and like I said, the growth of the community is a rising tide that lifts all boats. We're at 10 million members now, and we're still releasing one or two games a week. It's a managed portfolio for that reason, so you're seeing games get their Xbox Live Arcade moment in the sun. Look at Rez. Look at some of the games that are being shown off. Look at Castle Crashers and Penny Arcade Adventures. These games are going to be fantastic and push the envelope for us. Do you have any word on how Rez did so far? JW: Well, we don't comment on how specific games and downloads do, but you can always tell by how much your friends list is playing it, and the anticipation build-up for the game. We're really proud of that game, and I think Q is really proud of that game. It's been a fan favorite. I did get to talk to Mizuguchi about it, when they came around. It was great to see that game again and to see it get its due. I think at the time, when it was released, I think it was a little bit ahead of its time. I think it fits perfectly in the XBLA model. JW: I think you said it exactly right. It got heritage out there and got its start out there on the Dreamcast and PlayStation 2, but the HD version that they built is just the perfect fit for Arcade. It's at the right price point, it's the right experience, and even for a game that is that experimental, it's very approachable. If you have never seen Rez and pick up the trial, it's actually a lot of fun, and the people who wanted to see Rez again can get into it as well. It looks great in widescreen. And Q does a great job for us. All of Q's games on our service are just fantastic. I don't know if you saw, but just today, we announced the winners of our 2007 developer awards, so you can see in there some games that are really fan favorites with the consumers. Consumers voted on those, and some of those are data-driven. You can look through the categories. People are starting to bump up against the size limit again. It was raised once, and that was really beneficial, but I've been hearing more reports from developers as they try to get a little more ambitious as the service gets more mature that they are sort of banging against that size limit wall. What do you think about that? JW: We haven't heard that too much. We raised it when we did because of the ecosystem and the development community, but we have no plans to change that right now. It ensures small, pick-up-and-play games, and I think people are finding... look at Undertow that just came out. Unreal Engine 3, single and multiplayer, with cutscenes in audio, under 50 [megs]. Not even under 150 megabytes. Developers are finding incredible ways to fit into our platform, and that's part of why I say that. Do you think it matters that the PlayStation 3 does not have a size limit? Some developers, if they're going to do a multiplatform download game, the way they're planning, or the issue of what they have to work with becomes more complex for them. JW: It's always case-by-case. I think we granted a one-time exception for Street Fighter [HD Remix], because it's such a good game with so much put into it, but in general, Live Arcade is all about pick-up-and-play games and accessible games. That's part of that guideline. And like I said, look at the games that we have coming. Look at Castle Crashers. 20 levels, 4-player co-op, hand-drawn HD art... that's a game that fits well with the model. How do you think the announcements about XNA impact the viability of the commercial games on the service? JW: I think it's great. We're continuing to lower the barrier. When they say they're democratizing game development, they really are. One of the things we always talk about is that you hear about people having trouble getting access to dev kits, and concepts that come out as PC games. You've got games and prototypes out there. Everybody's got access to the tools to make games. It's another avenue for us and publishers to look at great games. We're really excited. I can't wait, as a gamer and as an employee of Microsoft. The publishing model of XBLA is obviously different than making a disc-based game. What percentage of first-party developed games are coming out? What was the last first-party developed game, what you would consider, on XBLA? JW: I can tell you that we just announced another one with the Fable 2 Pub Games [where you can play an Xbox Live Arcade title to build up in-game money ahead of the release of Fable 2]. I don't know if you saw that with Peter, but he showed off one of the three Pub Games, and that's built as a project between Carbonated Studio inside Microsoft and Lionhead with Peter. Which, by the way, is really cool. When we first heard about it, we could not wait for those guys to announce that. We talk about where Arcade is going and pushing innovation. Tying a set of arcade Pub Games to the Fable world, it's so cool. We all know that it takes a long time from the point of getting a game submitted and ready to go on Arcade for it to debut. If you want to tie in something like that, like Fable did, if you're a third-party publisher, is that feasible? Is that going to be too tough to get all the ducks in a row? JW: Part of the reason why you guys don't have a calendar of what's coming out is that as soon as games are ready, we're getting them out. We do manage what comes out to ensure that publisher's interests are met, partner's interests are met, and the game's got certifications for high-quality. We were talking with someone about this yesterday. They were like, "Why don't you have a calendar?" Well, we could. We could hit the bricks for six months and give you guys June, July, and August, but that's not what consumers want. That's not what we want, and that's not what partners want. When they get through cert, they want to get out. We run pretty close to what's ready. We look at the pipeline and bring stuff. Aren't there delays sometimes, even post-certification, though? JW: You'll see comments from developers [on this]... some of them will say, "Here's when the game's going under cert," and then very shortly thereafter, you'll see it. Sometimes they underestimate their cert challenges and their work challenges. These games are high-quality. They go through the same process that this game does. They've got to hit all of the TCRs that this game does, hit all the Live requirements, and the same stack of code. That ensures quality. Sometimes with a really small project, you'll underestimate that part of it, but in general, once they get through, they're getting out to you guys. Okay. The guys who did N+ said that they think the baseline budget to get a game on XBLA they think would be about $125,000, and they spent I think $214,000. Does that inline with what you guys think, or do you guys have estimations or figures? JW: We don't comment on that.

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