Bastion and the Slow Rise of Downloadable Console Games
Despite a growing stack of unplayed or unfinished video game discs in my living room, I spent a good chunk of last weekend playing Bastion, a downloadable Xbox Live Arcade game.
It's a beautiful game, with a grizzled narrator who turns your every move into the stuff of campfire legends, an addictive combat system that strings you along with new weapons and powers, and a colorful post-apocalyptic world that literally reassembles itself chunk-by-chunk as your character trudges forward. I easily spent eight hours playing Bastion from start to finish, all for the Microsoft Points equivalent of $15.
I've played some excellent Xbox Live Arcade games over the years - Braid, Limbo and Shadow Complex, to name a few - but Bastion feels more like a full retail title than any of them. And it does so for a fraction of the price of a new game on disc.
For a long time, I figured retail games would all become downloadable, bringing about the demise of brick-and-mortar game stores. But two years after Microsoft launched Games on Demand, you still can't download a big-budget game on the same day that it hits retail stores. For all the industry's complaints about the used game business, retailers are still too powerful. Offering up AAA titles for download on day one isn't worth risking a relationship with GameStop and Walmart.
That's why I'm starting to espouse a different theory: Slowly but surely, downloadable games will scale upward in production value, until you can be perfectly happy owning an Xbox 360 and never buying a game on disc.
Microsoft has hinted that downloadable games are moving in this direction. Chris Charla, Xbox Live Arcade's portfolio director, recently noted that the average price of XBLA games has gone up, and will keep rising along with an overall increase in game quality. This trend has been in motion for a couple years now, and it's only going to continue.
There may always be a chasm between downloadable and retail games - Bastion is no Skyrim, after all - but if a $15 Xbox Live Arcade title can keep a die-hard gamer like me from finishing Crysis 2 and L.A. Noire for an entire weekend, I'm not sure the gap in production value is all that important.