Commentary

The Long, Geeky Tail

Excuse me while I geek out for a moment. On Thursday, Microsoft announced that it will be bringing three board games--"The Settlers of Catan," "Carcassone," and "Alhambra"--to Xbox Live Arcade, allowing players to download them for a fee and play them online against other enthusiasts.

These games, along with a host of other titles to come out of Germany--which seems to have an inexplicable genius for making addictive board games--have replaced Monopoly, Life, Risk, and other dusty standbys as the board games of choice for the generations that make up that 18-34 demo marketers spend so much time thinking about.

But despite their popularity within the geek set--the Game Manufacturers Association, estimated that the sales of hobby games like these has tripled between 1994 and 2005, from $720 million to $2.6 billion--chances are, you'd never see any of them as a major Xbox title. No gamer in his right mind is going to spend $60 on a prettied-up Xbox360 version of his old Settlers board game, and developers likely would rather spend their big project time on making sure those "Halo 3" aliens splatter just right when you gun them down.

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This is the undeniable strength of the Xbox Live Arcade. There are some games out there that appeal only to a small, geeky niche, and other games that, no matter how enormously popular, just aren't worth the consumer dollars and developer man-hours that a major release entails. The Xbox Live Arcade platform gives developers a place to target smaller titles to those niches, selling fewer copies, but far, far more titles.

When I started looking at which of the next generation of consoles to buy, I started my search by looking at the big titles each system had exclusively. But all three systems have great launch titles--in this round of the console wars, having great titles is the cover charge. Xbox360 has a huge advantage in its Arcade platform, and without similar offerings, PS3 and Wii will be hard pressed in the chase for that long tail.

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