The Trials and Tribulations of Summer

For a couple weeks now, I’ve been getting calls from friends in the industry bemoaning their lack of inclusion in the upcoming Summer of Arcade promotion on XBLA. The tone of the calls has varied, but they’ve all shared one thing in common — frustration with Microsoft. As I’ve thought about it, I’ve come to the following conclusion: Summer of Arcade will have to change or, at very least, cease to be Microsoft’s ultimate promotion for the XBLA service.

First, a bit of history. Summer of Arcade was the brilliant brainchild of my good friend, Jeremy Wacksman. It was born of the realization that Microsoft desperately needed something that would draw positive attention to XBLA and make consumers, developers and the press take it seriously (bear in mind, this was during XBLA’s “inevitable misery” phase, when no one had anything good to say about the platform.) SoA served that purpose beautifully; it kicked off XBLA’s “triumphant return” and changed the tone of public conversation from “XBLA is full of crap” to “XBLA is the only place you can find games like Castle Crashers and Braid.” It also established the $15 price point on XBLA — an important and under-appreciated feat.

Dealing with rejection

Summer of Arcade still gives consumers and the press something positive to focus on. Unfortunately, SoA seems to be turning into a net negative for the developer/publisher community. Today, many companies will target a summer release in hopes of making it into SoA and may even choose to hold a finished game in their pockets for several months for that purpose. A couple months before SoA is scheduled to begin, ~five lucky development teams find out their games have been blessed; significantly more discover that they’ve been rejected.

You might be thinking, “oh well, that’s how the cookie crumbles; not everyone can get lucky.” Unfortunately, this isn’t simply a question of “getting lucky” or not. Rejected developers and publishers — aka the majority — find themselves faced with a difficult decision: rush to release their game before SoA or wait to release after SoA. If they release before SoA, it may compromise the game’s quality and/or pit the game against many other high quality games that were rejected and released early (it also truncates the time that a company has to execute marketing activities). If they release after SoA, they’re pitting their game against the SoA titles and/or the retail holiday titles… a scary proposition. Some developers might also lack the financial flexibility to delay launch for very long. Either way, this feels like a lose/lose situation to developers and publishers, and it makes many of them angry. The fact that Microsoft only distributes one game per week during SoA only exacerbates the situation because it contributes to an overabundance of competition before and after.

So what can Microsoft do to change things?

So what does this mean for Summer of Arcade? I can imagine four likely scenarios. The first scenario is that Summer of Arcade simply goes away, but I doubt that will happen. The second scenario is that Microsoft stops limiting which games can be released during Summer of Arcade, but only promotes “the chosen ones.” Unfortunately, this may confuse consumers, and it will still offend many developers and publishers who hoped to be “chosen” and now find themselves competing against overwhelming PR firepower, so it isn’t a great solution.

The third scenario is that Summer of Arcade becomes a pay-to-play event. In other words, if you pass Microsoft’s quality filter (an important caveat), your entry into SoA will depend entirely on whether you’re willing to pay for a slot (in direct payment or, more likely, in greater revenue share to Microsoft). Much like a 30 second ad slot during the Super Bowl, the SoA “slots” would be priced high enough that demand for them would be relatively measured (as opposed to today, where demand is insatiable.) And to those who complain, Microsoft would point out that much like physical retailers, Xbox LIVE has a right to sell some of its “shelf space” and to arrange special promotions for the purpose of attracting customers. In the retail world, one name for this is MDF, or Market Development Funds, and game publishers are very accustomed to MDF arrangements with the biggest retailers. (Before anyone gets too excited, I should note that not once in all my time working for Microsoft did I ever hear anyone discuss or even speculate about the possibility of selling SoA slots. This is my own imagination running wild here, and nothing more.)

The fourth and final scenario is simply: Microsoft introduces more “top-tier” promotions that developers and publishers care as much about as Summer of Arcade. There have already been attempts by Microsoft to do this, but I would argue that none of these new events have resonated with the community quite like SoA did when it first launched. It’s hard to know why, but perhaps the reason is that these new promotions have not been sufficiently differentiated from SoA. Bottom line: *if* Microsoft can somehow create a few more promotions as compelling as SoA, the net result should be greater total sales for the platform and fewer developers/publishers obsessed with getting into SoA.

I really don’t know which of these scenarios will play out. But no matter which, I’m confident that given the increasingly negative feelings developers and publishers have about Summer of Arcade, it’s only a matter of time before the promotion changes in some sort of significant way or at very least is rendered “less important” by the introduction of other, more meaningful promotions. So perhaps the real question underlying this post is: what kind of platform (and what kind of retailer) does Microsoft want XBLA to be? We’ll soon find out.

PS. A special thanks to Kim Pallister for his help with this post.

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