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A Mourning For Xbox Live Indie Games

With the latest Xbox 360 dashboard update, Microsoft has sent a clear warning sign to developers that the future of Xbox Live Indie Games is in dark jeopardy. What went wrong, and what could be done to fix it?

[Originally posted at my blog here.]

This week’s Xbox 360 dashboard update brought long-expected new functionality to the console. User interfaces were polished and streamlined, new features were added, and parts of the Xbox Live service were made more accessible. One area of the platform that received a significant step backwards was the Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIG) channel. An experimental service by Microsoft, XBLIG allowed any indie developer with $100 a year to create and publish console games for the Xbox 360.

As of the most recent dashboard update, the XBLIG channel has been moved out of the Games  Marketplace and stashed as a “Specialty Store” along with other unsuccessful experiments such as the Game Room platform and standalone music game stores. Furthermore, Microsoft removed box art, screenshots, and descriptions from the menus of these games after they are downloaded, removing their appeal as games and making them appear similar to an MP3 audio file. In addition, Indie Games no longer appear in the Games Marketplace’s condensed A-Z list of all games. It’s clear that the future of the service is bleak, if Microsoft hasn’t given up on it entirely. This postmortem seeks to analyze the causes of the failure of this particular project, particularly in light of the successes of other independent development stores on other platforms.

The most often cited complaint towards XBLIG is its lack of high-quality games; or rather, its overabundance of poor-quality content. However, the problem is more complicated than that. Every form of all-developers-welcome app store - from the iTunes App Store to the Android Marketplace to online Flash game portals to XBLIG - is inundated with all kinds of shoddy games, from rushed-together weekend projects to amateur-hour unpolished efforts to gimmicky attempts to cash in on a meme. XBLIG’s failures aren’t related to its abundance of low quality content; rather, they come from its inability to attract and showcase high-quality content.

Second-Class Citizens

From the service’s initial inception as Xbox Live Community Games, it was clear that Microsoft regarded XBLIGs to be of lesser value to the Xbox platform than Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) titles. Unlike Arcade developers, Indie Games developers were unable to take advantage of certain Xbox-unique functionalities, such as Achievements and Leaderboards. Rather than allowing developers to craft their own trial version experiences, XBLIG enforced an unbelievably short 4-minute time limit on trials, later extended to 8 minutes. Also, in contrast to Arcade, XBLIG creators were unable to make DLC available to their players, severely limiting the opportunities for developers to further monetize their properties.

Of course, Arcade games also enjoyed a sense of prestige and honor in the Games Marketplace inaccessible to Indie Games. Arcade games were actively promoted by Microsoft, featured on the front page of the Xbox dashboard, hyped by advocates like Major Nelson, and regularly reviewed by critics and journalists. To XBLIG developers, the XBLA store was the cool kids’ clique, and it was more desirable (in terms of both profit and prestige) to release a middling Arcade title than a high-performing XBLIG title. However, Microsoft had no mechanism for promoting an XBLIG title to an Arcade title. No amount of sales, positive press, or player enthusiasm would convince Microsoft to confer higher honors on an XBLIG game by moving it to the more prestigious marketplace. There was only one clear path to becoming an Arcade developer, so poorly thought out that its presence hurt the XBLIG service even more.

Dream, Build, Pray

Like an American Idol for independent developers, the yearly Dream-Build-Play competition was designed by Microsoft to give the best XBLIG developers a shot at stardom: the grand prize was a generous cash package and an Arcade contract, allowing indie developers a legitimate shot at being a part of the coveted Arcade community. However, by doggedly refusing to ever promote XBLIGs to XBLA games - even Dream-Build-Play winners - Microsoft created an ecosystem that discouraged developers from releasing quality games. In short, releasing a game to Indie Games disqualified developers from winning Dream-Build-Play’s grand prize.

Let’s work through a hypothetical scenario together. You’re an XBLIG developer who’s genuinely interested in the craft of developing games, and you know you’re putting far more effort into your unique concept than most other developers. You think your game has a legitimate shot at being successful. However, you could either release your game now on XBLIG, or wait a few months and enter it in the Dream-Build-Play competition, where you could have a shot at turning your game into an Arcade title and earning even more fame and fortune. If you release now on XBLIG, though, you lose your chance to turn this game into an Arcade title, even if you win the cash prize from Dream-Build-Play. If you lose Dream-Build-Play, you can still release the game on XBLIG afterwards for no penalty. Which would you choose?

Thus, while the goal of the Dream-Build-Play competition was to encourage XBLIG developers to create high-quality games, the terms and conditions of the competition (particularly the refusal to allow XBLIG-to-XBLA promotions) had the opposite effect: developers created high-quality games and then didn’t release them.

Popularity Contest

Unfortunately, Dream-Build-Play wasn’t the only thing discouraging developers from releasing high-quality games when they were done. The Indie Games store itself had numerous flaws and design oversights that served as hindrances to developers.

The store is divided into four menus: New Releases, Top Rated, Most Popular, and Featured. Since these menus were the way by which the vast majority of players discovered games (the search menu does little to help any user not looking for a specific title), the object of developers was for their title to remain in one of these lists as long as possible.

The Featured list, maintained manually by Microsoft, ostensibly featured the creme de la creme of indie titles; however, the menu was not updated frequently and thus had a tendency to display old games for a very long period of time. As a result, few users browsed the Featured list, as it almost always contained the same selection of titles. The Top Rated category suffered from similar problems: being consistently highly rated required getting lots of plays, and thus high-quality but forgotten games that had fallen off the four main menus would almost never make it to the Top Rated section. Thus, the only hope of profitability in the marketplace was to remain in the New Releases and Most Popular categories as long as possible.

Here’s how it worked: the New Releases list was, quite simply, a list of the most recently released XBLIG titles. The Most Popular list was a list of the titles that had been downloaded the most frequently since the last time the Most Popular list was updated. Consider two developers who each get 500 downloads split evenly between the first two days of their respective releases. Developer A releases his game the day before the Most Popular list is updated; Developer B releases hers the day after. Developer A will only have 250 downloads counted towards the new Most Popular cycle, while Developer B will have all 500 counted towards the new cycle. Thus, when the Most Popular list is updated again, Developer B will be more likely to be on the list, as the list only takes into account the most recent cycle.

The absurd practice developers are forced to follow is thus:
- finish the game and get it ready for release, then
- obsessively watch the Most Popular list until it changes, then
- guess an optimal time to release based on the flood of potential new releases (developers want to release early in the cycle, but not too early that they will get shoved off the New Releases list by other games), then
- hope that enough players downloaded the game to push it onto the Most Popular list

If a game doesn’t immediately make it onto the Most Popular list, it is highly unlikely that it will ever make more than chump change ever again. Thus, the timing of a game’s release is a very significant determining factor in the game’s success. (This should be a major warning sign that the ecosystem’s natural ability to identify quality content is broken.)

The App Sore

It would be impossible to list a litany of failures of the XBLIG platform without mentioning the intrusive presence of non-game apps in the Indie Games marketplace. These apps tended to be very simple titles that served a single purpose: using the controller’s vibrator as a massage tool, providing tips on how to talk to women or mix drinks, or displaying a fireplace or aquarium screensaver. Many game developers strongly disliked the presence of these games in the channel: a common claim was that they were rushed efforts by people trying to make a quick buck rather than innovate on the platform. It was called Xbox Live Indie Games, said the game creators: it was a service for games, and only games.

And they had a point. Microsoft could have easily made the choice to put non-game apps in their own channel. Instead, the apps shared the same space as games, and independent designers resented the fact that their works would have to compete for shelf space in an “Indie Games” store with things that weren’t games. With Microsoft’s choice to present apps and games in the same storefront, game developers felt like achieving wide recognition was even less likely. Indeed, the move also put a negative tarnish on the image of the channel - a common criticism of XBLIG is that it’s mostly non-game apps. On the contrary, the non-game apps aren’t the majority; they just take center stage due to a constant stream of curious new customers keeping them at the top of the Most Popular lists.

No Free Lunch

Bizarrely, in spite of the numerous issues with the store, Microsoft seemed to be particularly strict at enforcing one specific part of its terms of service - the store was to contain no free content whatsoever. The minimum price a game developer could charge for her game was 80 MS points ($1 USD) - no title could be given away for free. A trial period on each title was required, but these trials had a hard-locked timer imposed by Microsoft that would abruptly end the game session unless the full version was purchased. Attempts by the developers at circumventing this system (for example, providing a password system that allows users to continue this trial experience) were strictly forbidden.

In contrast to the generous trial experiences provided by XBLA titles (Monday Night Combat, for example, has a free hour-long timed demo), the message this system sent to players was “there’s no fun to be had here unless you pay up.” This hurt the service even more - players were less likely to spend their time browsing for new content when any given download would provide, at maximum, eight minutes of free fun. (If you have a smartphone, ask yourself: what’s the most amount of time I’ve spent having fun with a free app? Hours?) As such, the XBLIG store browsing experience was akin to looking for a needle in a haystack where the needle could only provide fun for a maximum of eight minutes.


The tragedy of Xbox Live Indie Games, of course, isn’t any one of these individual problems. It’s that the problems, as an aggregate, have sent developers looking to other avenues for exposure, and the XBLIG service itself to be forgotten, ignored, and dismissed by the players. Microsoft had every opportunity to correct these problems - these are not new complaints, and they have been raised numerous times on the XBLIG community forums - but seem to have chosen to ignore the service. Perhaps striking the old name of “Community Games” was not merely a coincidence, but a signifier that the service was never really built around community.

UPDATE 11/9/2010: Microsoft has restored the Indie Games store to the Games & Demos section of the Marketplace, where it belongs. While this does indicate that Microsoft still cares about the success of the service, there are many other changes that must be made (see above) before XBLIG can start thriving independently.

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