Latest in Gaming

Image credit:

Joystiq interviews XBLA's Ross Erickson

Hate your job? You're about to hate it a whole lot more. We discovered why Ross Erickson, as the Worldwide Games Portfolio Manager for Xbox Live Arcade, has one of the greatest jobs on the planet. We chatted for a couple (untranscribed) minutes about his time at the Salt Lake Games Group (his boss was actually
Tex Murphy) before getting into questions about the merits of the portfolio strategy, the value of the indie game scene, his game collection and, of course, what he actually does for a living.

Your title is Worldwide Games Portfolio Manager, which is a big way of saying what?

It's a big way of saying finding and picking and identifying the games we want to put on Arcade and then working with all the publishers and developers around the world. Both on an inbound basis, when those guys are interested in getting a title on Arcade, original ideas come through me first and I vet out the ideas and justify the choices and sort of pick out which ones fit in the portfolio best, which ones magnify the goals and objectives of Arcade, and also really assess the risks of working with said developers to determine if this is great in the idea stage or is this something that can make it all the way to the finish line and be a real productive game and a game that people are going to love.

The other side of it is going outbound, which is to go and find the kinds of games that we're looking for, evangelize the goals and ideals of the platform both on a 360 macro level and on the Arcade level, the kinds of features and things that we want and the kind the kind of game experiences we want to get into the hands of customers at various stages in the lifecycle of the whole console. Clearly right now we're in the early adopter stage still, the first twelve months of people really enthusiastic about the console, primarily male, hardcore gamers. But they have significant others and spouses and wives and girlfriends and whatever in their lives as well and many of them are having kids and Arcade's sort of becoming this thing where, as an entire portfolio, we sort of want it to look like there's eventually something there. There's many choices in Arcade and there's something there for everybody in the Xbox household.

So my job, summed up, is the guy who find and picks the titles and rationalizes the whole portfolio on a global basis for what we think we want to do. I take those choices and make sure they're fully vetted out and discussed back and forth and then, when we get to a point where it sort of passes muster on my side, I bring those titles to a portfolio committee of which I'm a part of and our group manager and our test lead and development manager, program managers, etc. and we discuss the concepts, along with marketing to make sure we're all in agreement on the choices effectively at that stage. I'm kind of the one defending or justifying the choices I've made so far to the rest of the team and making sure everyone's bought into the same thing. There's certainly a collected effort making sure it's a good choice and that marketing has clearly signed off as well as far as the messaging they have to make around the game. A big part of the process is trying to validate a schedule -- as you know we just announced this Arcade Wednesdays program -- a lot of this has to do with figuring out what is a realistic time frame to launch a title and make sure that i has the appropriate amount of attention and focus from a marketing and a PR standpoint too.

Have there been any games that passed your alpha stage of screening and been shot down by the committee?

Without going into a lot of detail, there are a lot of concepts that ... I've become fairly well trained at understanding what goals and ideals we have and I'd say not so much shot down per se but more looking at the investigation stage. There's a certain lens that I'm looking at games through that's not the same focus that a program manager would look at. We'll have kind of a due diligence effort with that developer to ensure that they are past the technical standards of making sure that they are staffed up appropriately that they have the appropriate resources to make it. And our program manager may come back from that due diligence and say, you know, this really looks like a great game in concept but we're very concerned that this game really may not be able to make it out of the conceptual stage into full production for a variety of reasons like simply resources or financing on the developer's side.

What do you think qualifies you for that position? It seems like a lot of responsibility to rest on one person's shoulders; to screen what I can only imagine is an avalanche of interest in the platform, to screen that down to a handful of titles.

That is a good assessment relative to the avalanche or tidal wave or whatever you want to call it, there is a lot of interest. My background is working with games for the last 25 years, so I've spent a lot of times with the classics and frankly my job is to be a game expert here; to look at what IPs float well. But it's more than just the games in a lot of cases, it also has a lot to do with the strategic relationships with various groups and companies and ensuring that we have all of the evaluation done correctly. So from the standpoint of what qualifies me more than any other person, I guess I could say that as a long time avid gamer, I've developed a bit of a sense for what games make sense for various demographics and certainly this platform has some specific parameters around its borders that define what an Arcade title is that will be successful based on the objectives that we're trying to achieve in Arcade and on 360. My job is effectively to make sure that we're filtering the correct titles to the top.

You as an entity with Joystiq, of course have lots of readers and I'm reading daily everything that everybody says on various blogs and websites. This isn't a wish-list, per se, for everyone to just get their dreams to come true because we really are rationalizing the games that we want to put on the platform on the basis of the key objectives of the demographic. Right now we're clearly trying to make sure that core gamers really have something cool that they want to play like a Geometry Wars for example, something near and dear to your guys' hearts ...

... mmm hmmm ...

... but at the same time why is Bejeweled there, or Hardwood Backgammon there at launch as well, and other games of a more casual nature? Well, it's clearly to demonstrate that we have a very well rounded view of the portfolio and that the sort of invitation to the audience out there really does spring to something that's there in the portfolio for everybody and we want to continue growing that as an objective and moving that forward from a portfolio point of view.

How about the indie games space? You guys have games like Cloning Clyde, which just got released last Wednesday, and now there's the announcement that The Behemoth is bringing Alien Hominid and their new title, Castle Crashers, to the platform.

It's probably my favorite part of the job and I'm exceptionally enthusiastic and constantly impressed with what the indie games scene is producing. As a point of record, I certainly have a high degree of respect for the classics. Hall of fame games in that category are always going to be evergreen titles. Personally as a gamer I'm more fascinated with how to take something of the old school creativity in game design and mix that with a new school sense of graphical possibilities of what you get with an engine that powers the 360. And certainly in high-definition and widescreen the possibilities there are really exciting.

I'm a big collector of old school games from past generations and a long time PC game player, and have grown up over the course of more than a couple decades now seeing great game mechanics sort of die off in terms of being able to see their life continue on at retail effectively. Those games just have a hard time ever getting any shelf space anymore on a disc or in a box. So what Arcade really brings a lot to the indie scene is almost a rebirth of this old school mentality of designing great fun gameplay mechanics ala Geometry Wars or Mutant Storm Reloaded to pick a couple shooters or a Cloning Clyde type game in terms of old school 2D platformers and on and on and being able to go into the indie games scene and there's just a huge host of really talented people in that space to facilitate them in terms of getting their creativity productized so to speak and brought out in the Xbox Live format and through this channel is the best part of my job.

You said that you were a game collector and that you've been gaming for a long time, I can only imagine, someone in a position like yours, one of the primary job responsibilities is probably, like you said, having an encyclopedic knowledge of games. How big's your collection?

Oh gosh, I've never really counted it honestly. I guess my first gaming experiences were back in the early 80s on the PC. I never really got too much into the 2600 stuff or early NES. My cartridge/console days really began mostly with the Genesis and I missed out on a lot of the early early stuff on cartridge and console. I played a lot of it at friend's places and so forth but my collection days really started with the Genesis and moved forward from that. I have a pretty healthy collection of old cartridges sitting here in my office that I refer to a lot and I really refer back to a lot of those classic games that have such great gameplay mechanics.

I've gone on record on other interviews and talked about my favorite game of all time is Lode Runner and a classic game like that with that kind of a mechanic and others that you see, you talked about Alien Hominid, that hearken back to the old school days of game design is sort of nirvana for this space now because you have a super high powered engine -- you don't necessarily have to do everything with normal mapped textures, and 3D models and meshes tied up to making a great game, some of the best games ever made are still classic, 2D camera focused games. But the idea of being able to take some of these old mechanics, which have been released and long since forgotten but were great games, and evangelizing the idea of bringing them back to life through a totally repainted experience on the 360 and then combining that with the fact that with Live you have the ability to bring multiplayer to some of those games that in their day, of course, never could see that beyond perhaps multiplayer on the same console, but now being able to envision some great 2 player, 4 player, or beyond 4 player games over Live with your friends all over the country or the world. That's really super exciting for me.

How about a game like Lode Runner coming to Live Arcade? It seems like that would be really well suited with high scores, downloadable maps, map editing, etc..

There are a lot of games like that one that are certainly in the investigation stage. We're not making any announcements or committing to anything, in large measure because those are not our announcements to make anyway. Those games are owned by other IP holders and are subject to their announcement and marketing plans, so we're not announcing any titles. There are dozens and dozens and dozens of games in the investigation stage based on who the original IP holders are and, frankly, does the IP still even exist in that state anymore. While that's a favorite of mine there are plenty more that we're off investigating to see how those might be built and where they reside and then the questions of course is what kind of treatment do you do to a game like that so rather than just sort of do it again, but rather innovate within the confines of what the IP means when you say Lode Runner to someone and you're indicating a certain kind of game if they've played it before. For people who haven't, it's obviously a brand new experience so you have to make sure you're delivering a great game for the platform. The detective part of my job is finding who holds the rights to them in the first place, doing some convincing relative to our business model and that it makes sense to bring them to Arcade. With the success we've had, it's becoming an easier sort of sell job. And then more after that, which is really the fine tuning and art of making a great game which resonates really well on the console as opposed to releasing an emulator of a 20 year old game again.

Could you walk us through the process of getting a game onto Arcade? The process of finding a game, talking to publishers, getting it up and running, how long does that take on average, how many people are involved? Now that you guys are trying to get a game out a week, there's been stuff held back and you're trying to ramp up, but how large of a process is this?

It might even be easier to answer that by looking at a case study with our friends at Wahoo studios who've just released Cloning Clyde. This is an interesting experience, and I would encourage you to be speaking to Steve Taylor at Wahoo Studios as well to get it form the developer perspective. From my side, we worked with these guys early on on the release of Outpost Kaloki, sort of a light strategy game for Arcade, and found them to be great to work with, a really solid developer with good technical skills but also with a good amount of malleability to sort of understand what our key benchmarks are for quality. Frankly, a developer like Wahoo sort of sees Arcade as sort of a godsend because of the publishing model we talked about before with games like Kaloki or Cloning Clyde. This would have an immensely hard time of getting to retail anymore. In working with the principals at Wahoo, it's sort of my job at the beginning to flesh out what are the various ideas of games that they would want to do and, of course, I have the view of the entire portfolio so as to make sure that they're not trying to build a game that would completely collide with another one on the portfolio. We want to make sure that the game choices are providing a bit of diversity across the platform at least in the early stages of the portfolio. So in working with Wahoo it was a question of floating a variety of ideas out on the table and looking at these kinds of games, and a particular designer there that had a real cool thing about tongue-in-cheek kind of funny, 2D platforming game that hearkens back to some old school days with a 360 approach. It has a bit of a Wahoo trademark presentation of kind of Saturday morning cartoon like things to it.

What I asked them to do was put together kind of a concept submission and I asked developers to really address in their proposals for a game four really key pillars of what makes a great Arcade title and the first is, of course, the pick up and play nature of the game itself. These are not hugely complicated games. They shouldn't have difficult controls to learn and memorize. Ala Geometry Wars there's this sort of jump in pick up and play . You might be playing them for five minutes and that turns into playing on for hours on end. The idea of the game should be all about this sort of jump in nature of Arcade. We talked about things like the file size issue with the games, we are at this point making games 50MB in size and enforcing some guidelines for that. So in terms of just evaluating what the overall content strategy is for a game, that's pillar number one.

Number two is definitely all about the visual bar. In the case of Cloning Clyde, we're asking developers to really sort of put a statement that this game really does reinforce our position that the 360 really is a next gen, HD console. So the presentation of the game in widescreen in 720p or 1080i resolution really does say, "Yeah, I belong on the 360." This isn't to say that every game is going to be pushing the technical power of the 360 but it is to say that we're not looking for games that are quick and easy ports from other platforms. So the visual bar is number two.

Number three is to really address how multiplayer may be engaged in this title. Certainly some of our best selling games, like Geometry Wars, are not multiplayer, but as we move further and further into the life cycle we're asking developers to really be thinking about the community aspects of the game, be they competitive or cooperative, and even multiplayer on the same console versus over the network. The multiplayer -- while not absolutely critical, we're not ruling out single player only games -- is certainly becoming a more appealing factor for concepts we're reviewing.

Number four is what kind of extensions to the game can be built in terms of downloadable content through Marketplace. It varies all over the map from free items to ad-bonus opportunities to make the game more appealing over time to micro-transactional items for a small charge, the equivalent of spending a dime on an item, all the way up to full-blown expansion packs or episodes that are truly extending the life of the game in a significant way beyond the first release of a title. Again, every game doesn't necessarily have to have premium downloadable content, but it's certainly a way for us to expand and value the Marketplace opportunity we have with Xbox Live.

All things told, those things come together in a submission and through a pitch document and I review those in a very collaborative way with the developers to make sure they are hitting on all of their cylinders and then providing me the opportunity to ask questions and clarify submission docs and, in some cases, even looking at a prototype or demo version of something. And then a little bit of collaboration on that part I take that whole sequence of documents and materials over to the portfolio team for a weekly review and ultimately looking for a green light. And then we get back with developers and with our team and begin going into full scale production once the title is fully greenlit.

So that turnaround time, it obviously can be pretty long. Take a case like Street Fighter II for example ...

In terms of getting back to developers certainly one thing that is an issue that we have. We're enormously pleased with the success of Arcade, but it's certainly created a bit of a log-jam for us with so many developers wanting to get on Arcade, and this is not a platform where we're throwing the doors wide open and letting anybody publish anything and then let customers figure it out. It's more of a managed portfolio to make sure that we create the avenues or lanes on the highway for every game to succeed in some small or large fashion based on which audience the game is targeted for.

As far as development time, yeah, it's very much empowering the developer, along with guidelines that we have for quality and the TCRs that we have for making a game be able to pass certification yeah, as far as how long does it take? It varies from game to game. Card and board games, maybe pretty quick to get through the whole cycle, while more complex games are going to take longer. I would say, on average, the length of time is around six to nine months and could be longer than that and, in some small number of cases, could be a little shorter. But generally speaking it's in that window.

You mentioned the file sizes being limited to about 50MBs. Is there any decision in the works to increase that size based on the upcoming larger memory units?

We're always evaluating this. Certainly those memory units are not available yet. And when they become available we'll reevaluate. We're constantly evaluating this not on just the size of the memory unit available, but in terms of what the quality bar is that we're asking for from developers. This is a very feedback driven loop as well, between the developer community and us. We hear loud and clear what their feelings are. For some games, 50MB is an enormous amount of space for doing a great title. Other types of games that are considered, that may be a little bit of a squeeze in some cases. At this time and for the foreseeable future we're sticking to our position that 50MBs is what defines an Arcade title so that portability between system and system can work and so that those users who do not have a hard drive, don't think there's many of them, but for those that don't have a storage solution for getting their games onto their system. It's also an example of the mentality of the impulse nature of Arcade. These are not huge demos that take a long, long time to download. You're not sitting around and waiting for more than one or two minutes tops, you're jumping in and playing the game, checking it out and it's all about promoting this impulsive nature of what you do in an arcade anyway.

You mentioned that you guys weren't interested in quick and easy ports. Some of your upcoming competition in the form of the Wii Virtual Console, we anticipate, we don't really know much about it, that it will be an emulation system. There's been some talk of graphical upgrades, but the assumption is that it'll be a back catalog with tons of games. You'll download them and they'll be identical to their counterparts. Do you think the portfolio strategy removes you from competition with that? That you're offering a unique product that isn't just the same old game?

I certainly can't speak to what Nintendo has officially announced. I don't know what they've announced in terms of specifics but, as you pointed out, they certainly have a large back catalog of games as does Sega and Hudson Soft who've also indicated some level of support for Virtual Console. I have a high, high degree of respect for those IPs and games and, I want to be clear here, there are a lot of games that I would put in the retro/old-school category that have no business being messed with at all. Our point of view across the board on these retro games is to pay homage to the original classics that they are and provide them – obviously it's a question of how much of the original code and art and music you can work with in getting a games over here first of all, there's quite an interesting set of stories when you end up starting to chase down where old IP and old code really resides and it's surprising to find what really still exists anymore – but our position is that you want to offer gamers a choice so a retro game from us is sort of, "Here's the original classic in its pretty much unchanged form as you grew up with and loved it and stuffed quarters by the dozens into the box."

At the same time, some of these games do lend themselves well to the re-envisioning of what the mechanic really offers. If you took a look at a game like Asteroids, obviously everyone in the North American market and probably most of the world would recognize an Asteroids game immediately for the whole black and white look that it had, and a lot of people, myself included, have a lot of memories playing that original classic. But that's not to say that the idea of the pure mechanic of what you do in that game on screen can't be maintained in its pure religious form and as a testament to that, and at the same time offer it up, now in the 2006 era with the incredible power we have available to us. I don't know what Nintendo or Sony are going to do in regards to some of these games, but the Microsoft position is we're keeping our eyes on our objectives that in fact quality is quantity of games, a certain number of these games you'd want to have in your portfolio. I'd venture to say that if you picked the top 200 games of a certain generation, probably the top 10% of those are the ones that most people really want to play most of the time and the remaining 90% you really start getting on the diminishing curve of value to a market that you're trying to serve. Is the game that's 197th on the list really worth bringing back out and can it be provided in such a way that the customers really do care about it or is it just a marketing checklist item?

That being said, have you guys looked at past console games? You really don't have any. There are a lot of classic arcade games or indie games, but there's nothing like Golden Axe.

You're right and the answer to that is yes. I'm constantly looking at console games. I have shelves and shelves full of them over here that hearken back to earlier generations. Of course that does raise the question of are those games available to Arcade? The question is who controls the rights to them. I think it's pretty safe to say at this point that we're not too likely we'll see any games that were released on a Nintendo platform on Xbox Live Arcade. One can only hope. At this point there's certainly a large collection of other games from lots of other publishers and developers out there. We've announced relationships with companies like Konami and Sega and Capcom and Namco and many others, and the questions is identifying what is the right game at the right time from these publishers and whether they want to devote their time and resources as well. It's a question of what did that particular game bring to Live versus another five titles that you could line up right beside them. It's a question of prioritization.

Peter Moore said there was going to be 160 games on the console by the holidays. Unless there's some huge amount of 360 titles we don't know about, a lot of those games are going to be Arcade games. You've announced 21-30 games by the fall. Do you think you're going to be able to hit the once a week until the end of the year.

It's a daily issue for us to continue working with the developers as they move towards their final milestones. We certainly have enough games in the pipeline – more than enough, in fact – to achieve that goal on a weekly basis. We're not announcing anything in terms of what's beyond Pac-Man at this point; there are enough games in the pipeline to last for a very, very long time.

I'm sure that's reassuring to everyone who's been waiting so long to get more Arcade games coming out.

It's important to remember that as we identify what should we do in this space that you were always constantly gauging the response from the market and then adjusting accordingly. So the market has definitely voted with their buttons on the controller that Arcade titles are cool and we love this and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. It's important for us now to gear up and continue to always push the quality bar and also improving and increasing the quantity of games being released as well. So, Arcade Wednesdays shows up.

Speaking of monitoring and analyzing what gamers have been responding to. Greg Canessa recently said that UNO had the largest sell through rate of any of the Arcade titles thus far. 50% maybe, maybe that high ...

There's a couple ways to measure success on an Arcade space. There's the gross numbers of downloads and consequently the gross number of sales of a game after it's been tried, that's what we call converted. So just the raw numbers of games downloaded and purchased, but there's also another way to look at success is the conversion rate percentage as well. How many people once they try a game, how many people actually convert it as a percentage of the whole number of trial downloads. UNO has been wildly successful in both metrics.

There have been a lot of great successes in the Arcade platform. The major fault so far has been a dearth of games. Gamers have responded so well to it that they were disappointed there hadn't been any in so long.

If you could only know how much stuff is coming. Our biggest challenge is just getting all this really good stuff scheduled and out there on a regular basis. I'm glad Wednesdays have kicked off. Barring unforeseen development issues from the developers themselves -- our issue was to fill the pipeline with a lot of titles on the upfront because of the inevitable schedule delays we'll have -- we'll still have enough queued up in our certification process we'll always be able to have something coming out once a week.

There is no guarantee to that. We did not say every Wednesday would have an Arcade title, but I can say we've certainly put enough games into the pipeline and it's certainly our target.

So you're at least partially responsible for bringing Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers to the system?

Everything about Arcade is a team effort though certainly the concepts, ideas, and conversations with developers start with me. John Baez from The Behemoth and I got into contact with each other, quite some time ago, and we've been going back and forth as to what kind of treatments for Hominid and of course their new game that was recently announced what are the principals of what they're up to and how do those line up with what we're looking for in Arcade and on 360. We're very happy with how that came together and ultimately I think they'll be absolutely the best of breed games on any platform when they show up on Arcade. We're really super psyched about both of them.

I have a feeling those are going to be very popular. Exact kind of arcade title people have been asking for. There was a poll on IGN some time ago where probably 5 of the top 10 titles people wanted to see on Xbox Live Arcade were all four player arcade beat 'em ups.

I saw those as well. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Streets of Rage, and Final Fight ...

... X-Men, Simpsons ...

... Simpsons, yeah. They go on and on. Double Dragon keeps popping up frequently. Those titles are not lost on me in terms of the frequency people keep asking for them.

Developers like The Behemoth are saying, "You've given me everything I need. You've given me a super powerful platform that's standardized, so I don't have to worry about lowest common denominator PCs and which graphics cards they have, you've given me a platform with a very well know, well used and well populated multiplayer community so I can bring that together, and an incredibly easy system wherein to transact those kinds of games in terms of customer purchase and selection and preview." For those guys, everything's lined up perfectly. Hence my inbox fills up every day with developers asking how to get started making an Arcade title.

As far as lowest common denominator goes, there's been mention of cross platform compatibility in Live Anywhere titles. Is that the kind of thing that you guys are working on now, getting games that will have two standards or three versions ready to run?

The Live Anywhere vision as presented by Bill Gates at E3 is that, it's visionary, and it presents a variety of directions we can go with this. In Arcade, over the longer term, we're certainly looking at how certain game mechanics and game types lend themselves to bringing games that are potentially cross platform playable, certainly the idea of achievements and systems that Bill presented at E3. An Arcade title in that respect is no different than a 360 title as far as seeing how my achievements are lining up against my friends over a mobile phone or any of the other scenarios he presented. In that respect an Arcade title and a full retail title are really no different as it pertains to a Live Anywhere scenario. It's early on this and we're going through the phases of discovering how this should be put together and how all the plumbing and the back ends should work. It's certainly something that is being considered across the board. It's not something we'll be rolling out in the next few months, but it's certainly something we're thinking of for Arcade.

Much thanks to Ross for taking the (considerable amount of) time out of his busy day, chocked full of cherry picking great games, to talk with us.

From around the web

ear iconeye icontext filevr