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JAW in talks with US publishers over Stranger's Wrath HD on Xbox 360

Accuses Microsoft of deliberately blocking the game.

Just Add Water has accused Microsoft of deliberately blocking the release of Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD on Xbox 360.

Yesterday Eurogamer reported that Stranger's Wrath HD was not coming to Xbox 360 after a JAW staff member posted on the official site that "the boat has really passed on that one".

Eurogamer followed up with JAW boss Stewart Gilray this morning, who told us that this isn't entirely accurate. The Leeds-based developer is in talks with two US publishers about bringing the much-loved first-person shooter to Xbox 360.

Microsoft is particularly strict when it comes to its XBLA and Games on Demand publishing rules. As exposed by Eurogamer in a November 2011 investigation, a number of indie developers have struggled with these regulations, which dictate that Microsoft reserves the right not to publish a game on Xbox 360 - be it a retail disc game or a downloadable game - if it has appeared on rival platforms, such as PlayStation Network, first.

In the case of Stranger's Wrath HD, Microsoft will only consider allowing its release on Xbox 360 if it features additional content, content Gilray told us is already mapped out.

Some have claimed that JAW has only itself to blame because it launched the game on PSN first knowing these rules. But Gilray rejected this outright, insisting JAW is "platform agnostic". He accused Microsoft of dragging its heels over an 18 month period, constantly rejecting the game for reasons he cannot understand.

"One of the big things that really irked me in the comments was someone saying, well if they want it on Xbox they shouldn't have gone for a PS3 release first, should they?" Gilray said.

"The big story on this is we've been talking with Microsoft since August 2010. In fact, they came to us asking if they could publish it on 360 and if we wanted to do it on 360. We said, yeah, we'll do it on 360, but we would have to go through their various submission processes, including concept approval. Every step of the way it's been no, no, no, but for different reasons every time.

"If Microsoft hadn't dragged their heels for a year-and-a-half, it would have been released at the same time on both platforms."

Gilray's timeline of events goes like this:

Late July 2010: JAW gets content approval from Sony.

August 2010: Microsoft contacts JAW asking if it would consider making an Xbox 360 version. JAW accepts. "They said, great, but you have to go through our usual content submission process. We said, fine, not a problem. What do we have to do? You have to fill in this documentation and supply us with some artwork, and have you got any examples of what you're doing to improve it? We did all that. We listed achievements. We showed them some of the comparison shots we put out afterwards."

December 2010: Microsoft tells JAW it is rejecting the game because it had already been on a Microsoft platform (the original Xbox) before. "We were like, what? Okay. Weird."

January 2011: Oddworld creator Lorne Lanning contacts higher ups at Microsoft, who suggest pitching for a Games on Demand release. JAW puts the game forward for Games on Demand.

Microsoft reject a Games on Demand release for three reasons:

  • With Games on Demand, if the title has already been released on another platform, it would have to be an HD remake. "Well we were doing that anyway."
  • Games on Demand games have to have achievements. "Well, we already added Trophies and Steam achievements so that's not a problem."
  • You have to have sold a million units at retail. "Well, we haven't done that."
  • The minimum retail price is the equivalent of $20 in Microsoft Points. "We said, we're releasing it at $15 on PS3. Why would we charge Xbox users more? They said, oh, we can maybe work to that but we'll have to do another submission process."

Gilray continues: "So we waited a month or so. They came to us again and said, do you still want to do it on Games on Demand? I said yes. They said, okay we'll put the paperwork through again."

January 2012: Microsoft rejects Stranger's Wrath as a Games on Demand title because it had already been released on PS3 and it wanted a simultaneous release. "We said, yeah, but we've been talking to you for 15 months at this point."

Microsoft also said games need a Metacritic of at least 80 to get on the service. "I said, yeah but the Xbox version is 88 and the PS3 version is 82. If you look at the Games on Demand list there are lots of games in the 60s in there."

Microsoft again reiterated its requirement for games to have sold one million copies at retail in order to make it on to Games on Demand.

Lorne and I decided they're deliberately blocking us. They didn't want us on their platform, and they strung us along for 15 months as we hoped they would be able to take it for us and release it - Just Add Water boss Stewart Gilray.

The upshot? "Lorne and I decided they're deliberately blocking us," Gilray said. "They didn't want us on their platform, and they strung us along for 15 months as we hoped they would be able to take it for us and release it.

"The crap thing is, unlike on PS3, you can't self-publish on 360 on XBLA. To be able to publish on XBLA you have to have done at least two discs at retail first - self-published at retail. You can't get someone else to publish for you. You have to do it yourself. You think about the costs involved..."

At Gamescom last year Chris Lewis, boss of Xbox in Europe, explained Microsoft's strong position on XBLA.

"We're a little biased, so obviously we're going to look to protect our own space as best we can and get exclusivity," he told Eurogamer.

"Whilst I can't be specific about the terms and conditions, you can be very confident we seek to maximise our own advantage to ensure the playing field is even, and certainly plays to our advantage wherever possible.

"As you can also imagine, our partners have to be mindful of the relationship they have with all platform holders, and they need to be equitable. But there are contractual situations where we get agreement with different people to do different things, and through what we have available on Xbox Live, we are able to offer things other people can't offer, that allows that exclusivity and unique elements to it that might not otherwise be available elsewhere.

"We just want what our consumers want from us. We want to be where they want us to be. We want the quality bar of what they experience from us to continue to go up. I think it has to happen. Everybody's got to do that. If we want to continue to command healthy average selling prices, which we all do, that which we offer our consumers has got to keep getting better.

"Despite the fact it can be irksome to have such strong competition all the time, it actually does keep us on our toes. It's great for everyone, and it makes for a very healthy race to higher and higher levels of quality of game experiences."

While there remains hope that Stranger's Wrath HD will one day launch on Xbox 360, it seems, for now at least, that it has found a welcoming home on PlayStation platforms. Next week PS Move and stereoscopic 3D support will be added to the PSN version by way of a significant update, and a PlayStation Vita version is planned for later this year.