Can Hybrid Survive The XBLA Death Sentence?
Launching a multiplayer game on XBLA can be akin to putting a product on life support right out of the gate. Hop into the vast majority of XBLA titles released over a year ago and you could hit the Quick Match button for hours without a single result. For some titles, the death sentence is closer to a few weeks. With 5th Cell's Hybrid right around the corner, those excited about the game have to wonder how long they'll actually get to play it.
For a long time, maintaining a community on XBLA was more an issue of the marketplace's presence. Most people didn't even know you could buy games digitally, so it was a matter of finding a customer to play the game at all. As a result, older XBLA titles that focus on multiplayer are almost useless. Nothing short of a re-release and an advertising blitz could revive them.
Things have improved substantially in recent years. Everyone knows XBLA exists, and some of the top-selling games, like Minecraft and Trials Evolution, achieved the success of a retail disc release. In fact, it seems that the problem now isn't visibility, but a crowded marketplace with far too many multiplayer games to choose from.
In terms of online shooters alone, XBLA has a pretty big pile to choose from—Gotham City Imposters, Section 8: Prejudice, Monday Night Combat, Nexuiz, Quake III Arena, Battlefield 1943, and Blacklight: Tango Down comprise a list too large for each game to sustain decent communities. When you consider the fact that they're up against Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Halo, the situation becomes even more dire.
This has resulted in a stigma in the gaming community. I've heard that multiplayer games on XBLA die out quickly from friends, press, and forum-goers alike. I'd even started to believe it myself. What's the point of putting out a game like Hybrid? Why bother with just another shooter in the crowd when the games don't even maintain communities for more than a few weeks? Why would a creative developer like 5th Cell take such a chance and why would I want to buy it?
But in returning to some of the best shooters XBLA has to offer, I found them to be surprisingly playable, even months after release. Gotham City Imposters maintains one of the most lively communities, making Major Nelson's Top 20 list every time it's posted. Section 8: Prejudice packs 32 players into at least one server at any given time that I tried it. I couldn't find a full game in Battlefield: 1943, but considering most players probably upgraded to BF3 long ago, I was willing to accept an 8 vs 8 match.
At the very least, if Hybrid manages to be as good as it seems, players can expect to find a small community of players well into the game's lifespan. If they can push out regular releases of free DLC a la Gotham City Imposters, Hybrid could meet or even exceed that game's popularity.
That's enough to justify the price of admission, but to truly sustain a healthy community, developers of online multiplayer digital releases like this will have to be more diligent. While these games are playable, compared to the communities of their disc-based siblings, their player base is a drop in the ocean. Sure you can get a match going, but is there a large enough pool of players for proper matchmaking to occur? Not even remotely. The vast majority of matches in Gotham City Imposters are woefully one-sided. In Section 8, the 32-player matches usually comprise the game's entire community playing at the time.
It will be the job of not just 5th Cell, but Microsoft to keep Hybrid players playing and new players coming. Games like this live and die on advertising and sales, and it will be up to MS to step up their efforts. With a $15 starting price, they'll have some room to play with sales. They'll also have to offer free DLC and quick patches if they want to keep the diehard fans playing.
In an ideal world, Hybrid wouldn't just be an XBLA release, but the multiplayer mode in a larger retail game. Imagine how many more people would be playing Gotham City Imposters if it was built into the main menu of Arkham City!
Ultimately the goal should be to do anything to keep a strong community. It may seem that free DLC or, dare I say, cross-platform 360-to-PS3 play wouldn't be in the platform holder's best interests, but neither is a marketplace full of failed games. How many more multiplayer games will the XBLA marketplace sustain before fans write it off as a waste of money?
For Hybrid, these questions are too little to late. I don't think it will be dead on arrival, but I don't think it will maintain anything beyond a niche group of dedicated players. That's a step up from a few years ago, and enough to safely justify picking up the game. But is it enough to keep releasing multiplayer games in this way? I don't think it is, and it will be up to Microsoft, a clever developer, or the next Xbox altogether to find a solution.