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Commentary > Game Over
Xbox hugs Ms. Pac Man
Microsoft harkens back to the golden age with Xbox Live Arcade, but its efforts may fall short.
October 14, 2004: 10:34 AM EDT
Game Over is a weekly column by Chris Morris

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) Since it hit streets three years ago, Microsoft's Xbox has been a machine that has catered to the hard-core gamer.

While there have been some exceptions, the general rule of thumb for the console has been enthusiast-centric games do much better than ones targeted for a mainstream audience. Basically, titles like "Halo" and "Splinter Cell" have cleaned the floor with ones like "Blinx: The Time Sweeper" and "Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee".

On Nov. 3, Microsoft will try once again to attract a new type of customer, launching Xbox Live Arcade. Instead of first person shooters and fast-paced racing games, the service will offer classic arcade games like "Galaga" and casual gamer favorites like "Solitaire" and "Bejeweled".

In theory, it's a pretty good idea. Retro games are hot. Jakks Pacific's "plug and play" TV games (featuring several 80s arcade classics), for example, are once again expected to be one of the biggest gifts of the holiday season.

In practice, though, Microsoft is taking steps that could hamper the progress of Xbox Live Arcade, launching with too few games and charging surprisingly high prices.

Here's how the system will work: The free starter disc for Xbox Live Arcade will come with "Ms. Pac Man". To play it, all you need is an Xbox. If you (or someone in your family) have an Xbox Live account, you can log onto the service and browse the other available games. Curious about a title? They all give you 30 minutes of free play. See one you want to buy? Just press a few buttons and it's yours, billed automatically to your credit card.

While it's tied to the Xbox Live online service, Arcade doesn't require you to log in to play. However, maintaining an online connection while you play allows you to upload your score to a leader board and some Arcade titles will let you play against friends with an Xbox Live account.

So far, so good. Purchasing individual titles, instead of offering a wide assortment for a fixed price, might be offsetting to some folks, but could prove to be more lucrative for Microsoft and its partners.

Xbox Live Arcade will launch Nov. 3  
Xbox Live Arcade will launch Nov. 3

Here's the catch, though. At launch, Xbox Live Arcade will have only have roughly seven games. Even though some will be assortment packs (such as "Namco Vintage" which will feature arcade classics "Dig Dug," "Galaga" and "Pole Position"), most will offer single games. That's an astonishingly limited selection, given the vast number of quality downloadable games that are available.

The number gets even more astonishing when you consider who has partnered with Microsoft on this venture. On the retro arcade side, publishers Midway (Research) (whose catalog includes "Defender" and "Robotron") and Namco are confirmed. Other publishers with arcade roots, such as Atari, have existing relations with Microsoft through the Xbox, so it's likely they'll join in the program as well, if they haven't already. Independent game publisher GarageGames has previously announced plans to contribute titles. And PopCap Games (which makes "Bejeweled") has several other extraordinarily popular titles that would fit well with the service.

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Microsoft told me part of the reason for the low number was getting games through the certification process. Basically, before it will approve a game for Xbox, Microsoft vigorously tests a game and checks its security to prevent piracy. With so many games coming out for Xbox this holiday season, Arcade titles haven't exactly been put at the front of the line.

The company said it plans to add three to five new Arcade games per month and will likely import many games from its own MSN Zone as well. It has also struck a deal with Oberon Media, a publisher of digitally distributed games, which will give it a conduit for smaller development houses and publishers.

Even if Xbox Live Arcade hits a critical mass of titles, though, its pricing structure might turn people away. Each game you buy from the service will cost between $10 and $20. For something like "Bejeweled" or "Alien Sky," that price range is pretty normal. But when you get into the classic arcade titles, it's extremely high.

Want more gaming news and commentary? Click Mario Morris!

Look, for example, at The site contains over 27 classic Atari games which can be purchased for as little as $2 each (though, admittedly, you need a bit more tech knowledge to configure those for play). Those Jakks Pacific games I mentioned earlier? You can get five titles bundled together for under $18.

Pursuing an audience that hasn't embraced consoles yet is a smart move on Microsoft's (Research) part. And as the Xbox nears the twilight of its life-cycle, it's a perfect time to go after that audience without alienating core Xbox enthusiasts.

But at present, the company seems to be taking a half-hearted approach to something that could be not only profitable but a heck of a lot of fun.  Top of page

Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an email.

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