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Lessons From CastleMiner & Avatar Paintball: How to make it on Xbox Live Indie Games

One of the most successful Xbox Live Indie developer offers advice on how to make a successful Xbox Live Indie title.

Thomas Steinke, Blogger

July 31, 2012

12 Min Read

Hi my name is Thomas Steinke. I am the owner of DigitalDNA Games and I am an ex-pro game developer that now has become a full time Indie game developer. DigitalDNA Games is a company that has been making Xbox Live Indie Games exclusively for years now. We are also arguably the most successful developer on the system. If you are not familiar with us, here is our list of titles:

If you take a look at all time top selling Xbox Live Indie Games you will notice 5 of my games in the top 30; 3 in the top 10. My games CastleMiner and CastleMiner Z have broke records, holding the top selling slots for about a year, and have become the highest grossing franchise on XBLIG at over 1.5M units sold.

In general, almost all of my games have either been #1 bestselling titles or at least top 5. Almost every game I have made has grossed at least a 5 figure return (even our first title “Avatar Avenue”). At one point we held 5 slots in the top 20 best selling games.


A lot of people come to me and ask advice on how they can improve the sales of their games. I figured I would take some time and share some of my secrets to making successful games on XBLIG. A lot of this seems more like common sense to me, but yet I see a lot of developers do things I don’t understand. I think there are a lot of different reasons people make Indie games, but sometimes making the game you want and making the game that works is two different things. I talked a little about this in my last blog entry


So before I get started on my list. I want to talk about the essence of what makes a game successful on XBLIG, to do this we have to take a look at how the XBLIG marketplace works. Every night 10’s of millions of people log on to their Xbox and peruse the dashboard. The unique thing about this experience is that for the most part these people are serious gamers, they are only there for one reason, and they are sitting in a situation where they are ready to play games (i.e. relaxing in front of their TV, without distraction). This is different from other marketplaces i.e. the iPhone AppStore, where there is a wide diversity of customers on the platform, many of which may have no interest in games at all.

These customers also have money in hand locked and loaded, due to the way that the Xbox Live purchasing system works. Indie games vary from $1-$5, which is about the cheapest thing on the dashboard to buy. So presenting some value beyond what is there at that price point, is typically not that difficult. (i.e. a $5 piece of Avatar Clothing)

Given the sheer number of people and the fact that all of these people are the exact demographic you are looking for. You start to realize why external marketing makes no difference on XBLIG. You could most likely run national TV commercials for your game, and not get the same potent type of viewership as being on the Xbox Dashboard. This should make you realize how special XBLIG really is.

So with this understanding lets think about what would make an XBLIG “work”. This is how I approach it.

  • The premise sells the game

  • The box sells the premise

  • The trial experience converts the game.

So starting off we need to have a premise that will work, bringing us to our first item

#1 Make a game people want to buy

Duh… This seems either really obvious or really vague, but it isn’t. The users are telling you what they want, just listen to them. Every morning the first thing I do when wake up is look at the top selling list from the previous day.  There are obvious trends that shift from time to time and the developers that consistently make money on XBLIG are very in tune to these trends. Although this seems really obvious, there are so many people that don’t seem to pay attention to this. For example I see people make puzzle games a lot, which is fine, lots of them are really good but I have yet to see one sell very well. So when a developer comes back and says “it’s impossible to make money on XBLIG” it makes me wonder if that was their goal when they started making the game.

Here is a list of game types that typically are not highly successful on XBLIG

  • Puzzle games

  • 8 bit “retro” games

  • Twin stick shooters (With one notable exception, which happen to have zombies in it)

  • Space games

I could try to offer explanations why this is, but what would be the point? It is like asking why the sky is blue, it is what it is, and neither you nor I have control over that. You sort of have to choose to accept the world the way it is and do what you can with it.

“But then I will be stuck making Avatar Games and Minecraft clones…”

Well… The problem is that the user has demonstrated demand for these things. Although there might have been a time where that was enough to make a successful game it defiantly isn’t anymore.  You still need to do something relatively unique and execute it well. If you don’t like this and want to make games despite the customer, I can almost guarantee you are going to have problems.

Does this mean you have to scrap the cool game idea you have? By all means no. But you might have to make compromises on what you are making to make it more palatable to the general public. Which brings us to point #2.

#2 Compromise your vision

Okay this sound horrible but let me explain... Now we have a better idea of what works on the system, let’s just keep this in mind when we pick our title or decide how to make it. For example why NOT use the XBox Avatars? Xbox users love them. Does it really compromise your idea to do that?

The other part about this is being realistic about what you are making; you are making a $1-$5 game that someone may only enjoy for an hour or two. Users are going to have a different set of expectations (and level of patience) than if they were playing a $50 game. So the good side of this is that you can get away with not doing a lot of the things that triple-A games do, the bad side is that if you make your experience confusing or tedious in any way, it is unlikely people will give it a chance. This sort of leads into my next item…

#3 Be realistic about what you are making

I know you want to make the next Call of Duty, Skyrim etc. However you’re most likely one or two guys in your basement. Some things just aren’t practical. This also sounds obvious but I see people go wrong with this so many times. A developer will go off and spend two years making a game, and then be devastated when it doesn’t sell well. I would be too. You would need to make an incredible amount of money on your title to make it worth it.

It is funny in a way that these people are repeating a lot of the same folly of the triple-A games industry, where production costs are so high, each title needs to sell more than any other title ever did in history just to break even. It is easy for a project to get away from you, how do you combat this? By making sure you concentrate exclusively on the features that will be the most important to your users, and your core experience.  Also realize that most people will probably be happy playing your game for an hour or two, since it may have only cost them a dollar. So scope down your content, i.e instead of 10 levels make 2. If your game is a hit your fans will be more than happy to pay for a sequel, if it isn’t you have greatly minimized your risk and can move on to other things.

#4 Be realistic about pricing

My guess is that people that get this wrong don’t fully understand the XBLIG ecosystem.  In short the daily best selling list is king, and you want to stay on there as long as possible. That list is sorted by actual unit sales, NOT gross dollars (which I actually think is one of the greatest disservices on XBLIG), and once you drop off that list your game is dead.  To summarize, if you ship your game for $3 you will need to sell 3 times as much as games that are selling for a dollar.

Does this mean it is impossible to sell something for more than a $1, no not at all… There are lots of games that have worked at higher price points. But if you choose this path you need to have something that is unique and/or executed very well. You need to be able to be very honest with yourself about if you truly feel this is sustainable for your game. This is difficult sometimes because the game that you slaved over for 6 months is always going to feel like a really big deal to you.

#5 Make an excellent box.

I can’t stress this enough. This is the only marketing you really get. It is EVERYTHING. The box not only has to be visually appealing but gets your premise across in a fraction of a second.  If you fail here I can guarantee you with 100% certainty your game will fail. A good box can make a mediocre game sell well, and a bad box will make an excellent product fail. That Avant Garde, minimalistic, black box might look good hanging in the Apple store, but it tells the user nothing about your game, and there are thousands of others to choose from.

#6 Make an excellent trial experience.

This is another place where I see people fail often. They liked your box they are trying you game, now close the deal. Your trial experience should be directed, with a clear call to action, tailored to selling your game. People may not give your experience more than a few seconds; make sure you get your point across fast, because if you lose the customer here, all your work is in vain. I am amazed sometimes at people’s trial experiences, for example not putting a purchasing option in the game at all. Do you really want people to have to dig to figure out how to buy your game? Here are some hints to making a good trial experience.

  • Avoid long load times, typically we shoot for <10 seconds, realize every extra second you add to this customers are dropping off.

  • Get to the action quickly; figure out a way, even if it is just for the trial to get the customer in the action fast. It isn’t fun to flip through menus, and your cinema is probably not that great, get the customer in the game.

  • Give them a call to action preferably at a punctuated moment. “You finished the trial level, now buy the game and you can continue. “These people know they are TRYING the game you don’t have to dance around it.

  • Make it obvious what purchasing the game gets them. There are a lot of times when I see games where this is not obvious. Would you spend money on something without having any idea what you are getting?

  • Don’t rely on Exit/up-sell screens. We have done a lot of study on this and realized that most users “dash out” of your game and never see these. They are fine to have but make sure your trial isn’t relying on them.

  • Make an obvious and seamless in game purchase option. Being able to do this is one of the cool things about XBLIG. Use it! Don’t make the user jump hoops when they finally decide to buy.

Making a good trial experience is a lot of extra work, and usually comes at a time in your project when you are sick of working on it. But just like your box, you have to do it and do it well.

#7 Learn from your mistakes, and don’t get discouraged

You learn when you ship, and it is okay to make mistakes. The trick is to make your mistakes without a lot of cost to you. That is why when I see people making “Epic” projects for their first games on XBLIG it makes be very nervous. The developers that have had a lot of success on XBLIG got to that point by starting out shipping smaller experiences and learning about the system. Although the community seems to frown on shipping “light weight” experiences, it is really the best way to learn. Try to strike a compromise between things that are simple and unique, and after a few you may realize that the big project you had planned either might not work out, or needs significant changes. 

Also if it doesn’t work out, you need the ability to be honest about yourself about why, and turn around and do something different next time. This is never fun but it is important to make your failures work for you instead of making you give up.

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