When mind-bender Braid came to Xbox Live Arcade in 2008, it felt emblematic of a curated platform: a boutique in which unique concepts and independent developers could gain exposure. Now the boutique is long gone and independent games are plentiful, mingling with AAA games right there in the living room, for better or worse.
Games like the time-stopping shooter, Super Hot, are now regularly shown beneath lit-up Xbox and PlayStation logos at major press briefings, though they're not typically explored in depth. Instead, the presentation format seems to be cramming every confirmed game into a montage and shotgunning them into the audience. In the years since Braid, independent creations have gone from oddities to commodities, and they're "coming to our console first" – that's how the line goes.
From his perspective, says Xbox Marketing VP Mike Nichols, it's not really about moving the needle bit by bit, but strengthening the allure of diverse experiences on a single machine. "I think a lot of gamers, they like games of all types," says Nichols. "They like competition, they like to test themselves, and that can come in all different kinds of forms. I mean, right now I'd go back and play Donkey Kong and be happy, on an arcade setup, and I'd be pumped about it despite the fact that I love Call of Duty or Forza Horizon or whatever as well. What we're trying to do is to say, hey, regardless of whatever type of game you want to play, Xbox is a great system for you."
PlayStation has a team of game seekers hunting the best of the best; Microsoft accepts submissions to its "ID@Xbox" program; both hope to curate a version of diversity that promotes their systems. It's not like a big-enough arrangement of the best independent games could congeal into an "exclusive" blob as widely known as a Sunset Overdrive or a Quantum Break. Well, not without some help.
"There's such a wide variety of creativity," says Nichols, "and there are some things you might not ever know were even available unless you were at a show and saw what these small developers without big marketing budgets could necessarily do." Nichols thinks the Xbox's Games with Gold program – much like Sony's PlayStation Plus – is becoming a key way to expose those smaller games. Strike Suit Zero became a freebie in August, for example, and before that Microsoft made Guacamelee: Super Turbo Championship Edition free at launch for Gold subscribers.
"We do find, actually, that games that participate in the program are ones that people try, and all of a sudden are like, 'Oh my god, this is great,' and they want to tell their friends about it. Some of the independent games are great candidates. We've had some that went through that program and are amongst the most heavily used games on Xbox as a result of being part of it."