Do you remember the Xbox Live Arcade?
Before ID@Xbox, most game developers needed a publisher to hit the Xbox 360. Putting games onto the Xbox platform used to be a pretty expensive ordeal, and publishers would often float the bill in exchange for a cut of the profits. Xbox Live Arcade was a way for smaller developers to hit the Xbox 360 digitally, forgoing the expenses of physical distribution. Games on Xbox Live Arcade were priced anywhere between $10 to $40, and were never billed as competitors for the "AAA" players on the market.
While ID@Xbox has, for the most part, done away with the financial reasons for Xbox Live Arcade's existence, I think games like ReCore make the case for its return as an entity, and here's why.
ReCore reviews have been mixed at best. The game is currently sitting in the 60s on Metacritic, which is no doubt far below what Microsoft Studios would have hoped for.
Such average scores practically guarantee ReCore will not receive a sequel, despite the caliber of developers who worked on the title, and despite the game's solid foundation. ReCore is completely underrated. It harkens back to the golden age of 3D platforming, complete with great character designs, an intriguing premise, incredible music and addictive combat. I feel like at least some of the reasons for its poor review scores extend to expectations created around the game, some expectations a revived Xbox Live Arcade would help mitigate.
I spoke with ReCore's lead developer Mark Pacini at E3, and character designer Keiji Inafune and writer Joseph Staten both at Gamescom. After playing the game, it's plain to me that they were honest about the product. They were also enthusiastic, but reserved. They didn't make it sound like ReCore was the 3D platformer to end all 3D platformers, but they were humble about the game's goals, and their hopes for its reception.
It seems unfair to judge a smaller game like ReCore against a backdrop of major, established franchises with huge budgets.
The vast majority of gamers, and indeed, reviewers, didn't have their vision of ReCore tempered by speaking with the game's developers. That perspective set my expectations for a smaller, "AA" game, rather than full blown "AAA."
I played ReCore at E3 and Gamescom, as well as Insomnia in the UK, I knew exactly what I was coming back to when I did the review. I stand by my 4 out of 5 score because I saw the game for what it was. So do many Xbox fans I've spoken to, many of whom are just as perplexed by the game's harsh critical reception.
I'm not here to claim that we should write a firm rulebook on how review scores work, but I feel like it's unfair to judge smaller games on the same stage as an "AAA" games like Rise of the Tomb Raider and Fallout 4. Shouldn't review scores factor value into the equation?
If ReCore was selling for the $60 price tag, I would have felt a little bit cheated as a consumer. I haven't been receiving free review copies for as long as some of the veterans at some of the major, mainstream websites, but I still remember a time where I'd have to carefully consider where to direct my cash. Sometimes I wonder if reviewers forget what it meant to have to pay for games. If you want a contemporary sign that we factor pricing into our gaming choices, look no further than avalanche of drama and refunds surrounding the fully-priced No Man's Sky.
ReCore (and even No Man's Sky) might have fared better in reviews had it enjoyed a humbler launch under the Xbox Live Arcade, rather than sitting alongside the likes of similar explorative, action RPGs like The Witcher 3. It seems unfair to judge a smaller game like ReCore against a backdrop of major, established franchises with huge budgets.
Even when you disregard the other games that are launching under the Microsoft Studios brand, there are far too many open-world games that are at least superficially similar to ReCore, that simply offer way, way, way more content, or at the very least, additional bells and whistles.
Making room for "AA" games
Honestly, sometimes it feels a little like the industry has forgotten how to manage expectations. The most recent, most glaringly obvious example of this, as mentioned, is No Man's Sky. Sony marketed it as AAA, they proclaimed "we're treating it as first party" and they sold it for $60 at retail — it even has a pricier Collector's Edition. At least in my mind, No Man's Sky is by no means "AAA." It sits in the same frame as ID@Xbox's Everspace, which recently launched into the Xbox Game Preview to widespread praise. Everspace has enjoyed no major marketing effort, it is priced incredibly fairly, and is extremely transparent about missing features that will arrive in future patches.
Why was No Man's Sky billed to be something so much more than the superficially similar Everspace? Sure, by marketing No Man's Sky as "AAA," even though the game is, at least for now, pretty shallow, Sony and Hello Games ensured it would sell like hotcakes. Their short-sighted marketing has led Hello Games to go completely dark on Twitter, and has seen No Man's Sky's player-base dwindle to just 1000 concurrent users on Steam.
Did ReCore really need a cutting-edge CGI reveal trailer or an expensive Collector's Edition?
Gamers are wising up to these sorts of marketing techniques and growing weary of the hype that video games generate around themselves, but perhaps developers and publishers are not entirely at fault. This is a business after all, and with the rise of indie games, it feels like big publishers are are simply not willing to accept smaller "AA" investment bets anymore.
"AA" cult hits like Castle Crashers, Shadow Complex and State of Decay flourished under the Xbox Live Arcade, where expectations were tempered, foibles were tolerated and reviewers were lenient. When a game flies under the ID@Xbox flag, it's as though it is rightfully judged on how much fun it offers, rather than whether or not it has tennis mini-games or billions of side-quests.
Did a AA game like ReCore really need a cutting-edge CGI reveal trailer? Did it really need an expensive (but, admittedly awesome) Collector's Edition? These are the sorts of things that usually accompany blockbuster AAA franchises. I can't help but feel like these sorts of things inflate expectations, which are already on high simply because Microsoft.
Space to flourish
ReCore should have been given a chance for a quieter launch as part of a digital-only brand, to prove itself conceptually, instead of being marched out of the door among titles like Forza Horizon 3 and Gears of War 4. ReCore's pricing is an admission that the game isn't "AAA." If Microsoft Studios wants to fund new ventures and projects on a smaller, "AA" scale, doing so under a brand that manages expectations from the outset would only be a good thing. "Not quite ID@Xbox, not quite AAA."
Microsoft's philosophy of allowing the smallest indies to sit alongside the biggest budget blockbusters is a nice sentiment, but I do wonder whether if it's stifling creativity, as it forces smaller projects to compete with the odds stacked against them. Depending on your philosophy, that might only be a good thing — competition forces innovation and drives quality, but it feels increasingly like the goal posts are shifting at a pace that smaller games simply can't keep up with. Gameplay should always be the central thing that defines a game's quality, but value, effort and craftsmanship should count for something too.
We could catalog the complex logistical and financial factors behind all of this, and perhaps projects like ReCore wouldn't exist at all without a hype-train driving sales. I can only hope that's not the case.
The bottom line is that the ID@Xbox branding seems to work for smaller indie titles to some degree, but for those games that do have the opportunity to reach a little higher with publisher backing, a revived Xbox Live Arcade could be a place where those sorts of mid-range projects exist, and hopefully flourish.
We deserve to see more of Joule and Mack, even if it isn't via a "AAA" title.