The waning days of summer are upon us, and for the first time in six years Microsoft hasn't kept the release schedule moving with its annual Summer of Arcade promotion. Part of that is no doubt due to the promotion's title. It's named after a deliniation between downloadable "Arcade" games and larger retail games that Microsoft readily acknowledges isn't as relevant in the modern market. However, this summer passed us by without any similar promotion, even as Sony continued its PLAY program. Why? We can glean part of the answer by looking back at how the promotion developed over the years.
2008: The Booming Debut
The premiere of Summer of Arcade kicked it off with a bang and set the tone for all the years to follow. This was a great example of Microsoft hand-picking a blend of high-profile sequels, remakes, and indie games. Bionic Commando Rearmed is still regarded as a trendsetter for retro remakes, and Galaga Legions performed well enough at its revival task. Castle Crashers brought back an old genre with some fresh style and humor. Geometry Wars 2 improved and iterated on one of its most fondly remembered launch games. Finally, Braid served as the artistic showpiece of the bunch, launching indie developer Jonathan Blow into the spotlight.
2009: Gaining Traction
While lacking the artsy cred of its debut, the second year of Summer of Arcade showed that it was quickly becoming an enviable platform for developers to showcase their games. This was the year of Shadow Complex, a Metroid-styled action game that was so successful fans are still clammoring for a sequel. Splosion Man was the first time many players experienced the weird and wacky humor of Twisted Pixel. Trials HD was a deceptively styled action puzzle game that relied more on precision than the speed players might have expected from its motorbikes. Marvel vs Capcom 2 brought back a fan favorite fighting game. The one clunker of the group was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time Re-Shelled, a half-baked remake that didn't live up to the original's reputation.
2010: Franchise Revivals
In an age when classic franchises were struggling to find footing, Summer of Arcade provided solid ground in 2010. Tomb Raider got a new take with Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, and Castlevania: Harmony of Despair provided a home for the vampire series before the recent reboot. Monday Night Combat brought a purely multiplayer experience in the Team Fortress style, and Hydro Thunder Hurricaine provided racing representation. Limbo was the artistic choice of this year, featuring a haunting atmosphere and a shocking ending.
2011: Kinect Elbows Its Way In
Microsoft continued to highlight new talent throughout the promotion, and nowhere was that more evident than 2011. Both Bastion and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet were gambles, but they both paid off as highly polished and creative works. Even coming from a more noted developer, From Dust was a risky reunion with the god game genre that had long been considered dead and buried. It was only a middling attempt, but points for trying. The year was rounded out by Toy Soldiers: Cold War, a G.I. Joe inspired sequel to the original action-strategy game. However, Fruit Ninja Kinect seemed out of place to many players, and was interpreted mostly as an attempt to foist Kinect games on an apparently unwilling gaming population.
2012: The Magic Fades
In 2012, the magic was starting to fade. The offerings were decent, but standouts were more few and far between. The highlight was Dust: An Elysian Tail, a game that was the passion project of Dean Dodrill. Its fluid animations and solid design helped it stand above more average games like Deadlight and Hybrid. By this point, high-quality Arcade offerings were more common, and those two just didn't seem above average as we expected from the Summer feature. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD attempted to recapture a classic franchise, but just felt stale and boring. Finally, Wreckateer marked the second year in a row we got a Kinect game on-tap. Though it was fine for what it was, it confronted an audience that was just getting tired of the motion device as a whole.
2013: Mediocrity in a Half-Shell
The final year of Summer of Arcade, as far as we know, was more whimper than bang. Not only were the games more inconsistent in quality, but there were less of them. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was critically acclaimed, and Charlie Murder scratched the action itch for fans of the indie game The Dishwasher. Flashback, however, was a pale imitation of its former glory. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, the second TMNT game in a Summer of Arcade that failed to live up to the rest, was abysmal.
So What Happened?
Simply put, Summer of Arcade's slow decline in quality meant that fans couldn't count on it anymore. It housed some of the best games of each respective year, but on the whole, it became less and less reliable. In its opening years, we could buy any one of the games and be assured we were going to have a good time. As the promotion aged, the quality slipped, but we could at least count on a pretty good experience. Eventually, though, it turned the corner into a blend of greatness and mediocrity.
The numbers bear this out. Averaging the Metacritic scores from each year, the numbers were a steady downward slope. From an 84.2% average in 2008, to 80.6% in 2009, to 79% in 2010, then 78.8% in 2011, 73.4% in 2012, and finally 63% in 2013. To be fair, that last year is mostly the Turtles' fault.
We also have to consider the possibility that Microsoft will bring back some form of promotion in the future. This has been a transitional year for the Xbox team, with heavy restructuring and changes in leadership. Between the TV division shutdown, massive layoffs across the company, and the Xbox team's apparent eagerness to deshackle itself from decisions made by predecessors, the situation inside Microsoft may have simply been too chaotic to support it. We can hope it will return, rebranded and refreshed.
Even if Summer Arcade doesn't return, it has already had a lasting impact on the industry. It helped bolster the name recognition of several indie developers who are still actively creating new games. The success of XBLA, as aided by the popular promotion, helped blur the line between retail games and smaller downloadable games. It also made Microsoft's store more competitive, offering exclusivity periods on games and special deals for buying full sets--a trend we still see regularly on PSN with weekly sales and the PLAY program. We're also seeing more emphasis put into the Games with Gold promotion. It owes itself to Sony's PS Plus program but has the same potential as Summer of Arcade to highlight new games that may otherwise be overlooked.
As the new generation finds its footing and Microsoft adapts new ways to promote its games, it will undoubtedly follow the precedent set by its own summer-themed event, in spirit even if not by name. We may bid a farewell to Summer of Arcade, but it will be a fond one.