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Love, hate, and Xbox Live Indie Games

For all the bad press that Xbox Live Indie Games has received over the years, it's easy to forget that for some devs it's a dream come true -- a way to publish games to a proper home console in a relatively easy manner.

Mike Rose, Blogger

September 10, 2012

9 Min Read

For all the bad press that the Xbox Live Indie Games platform has received over the years, it's easy to forget that, for some developers, XBLIG is a dream come true -- a way for them to publish their games to a proper home console in a relatively easy manner. And while it's also easy to dismiss Xbox Live Indie Games as a breeding ground for Minecraft clones and silly Avatar games -- as I myself have done numerous times before -- there are, in fact, many wonderful gems to be found on the store if you know where to look. The Xbox Live Indie Games Uprising is an initiative run by indie developers to help promote the very best XBLIG titles. Microsoft has long since stopped promoting the platform in any way, shape or form, and so this group of devs has taken it upon itself to lead the charge. The first two Uprisings were relatively successful - the second one was even featured on the Xbox Dashboard by Microsoft. With this upcoming third Uprising, which begins today and features nine promising titles over the course of two weeks, XBLIG may well be the place to be this September for Xbox gamers.

Uprises and downfalls

"There is a love / hate relationship with XBLIG," Dave Voyles, co-organiser of the Uprising tells us. "For every step forward it takes, it takes two back. Where it was initially pitched as a marketplace for independent developers to share their wares on the console for the first time, it quickly turned into a showcase for gimmick-style games and heavy use of avatars." Voyles notes that, despite this, XBLIG is often a great starting point for some developers, allowing them to put out a game for the Xbox before moving on to games for other platforms or porting their XBLIG game elsewhere. Says Voyles, "That's the gift and the curse behind a publicly curated marketplace: It's open to any and everyone, but with that comes the opportunity to have excellent titles mixed in with less than ideal ones." Despite everything that has happened with the platform, the Uprising organizer still stands by it 100 percent and believes it is worth putting a game on the service. "Let's make no mistake about it - XBLIG has its issues," he admits, "but for $100 you have one of the best 2D frameworks around, no need for a publisher, and access to over 30 million active users. That's one hell of a bargain." He adds, "I think the issue most people run into is that they go in expecting to make a fortune, when they are making the games that they want to make, and not the ones that the marketplace wants them to make." The key to mastering the XBLIG platform, he says, is understanding what its consumers want -- as is the case with any games platform. "People often complain that the miner or craft-types are flooding the XBLIG marketplace, and they are, but for a reason: People are buying them!" he reasons. "It's one thing to flood a marketplace and not have gamers purchase a product, but when they flock toward a specific genre and you take notice, it would be silly to not fulfill a need." Of course, the type of content that floods the store is not the only issue that people complain about - visibility is also a huge problem on XBLIG. This is one area which Microsoft has simply dropped the ball on, Voyles notes. "Sorting through titles remains problematic, as there is really no way to see the best selling over a certain period of time," he says. He also notes that Microsoft can't support the Uprising campaign "for a number of legal reasons," although he hopes that the Uprising will be afforded Dashboard space again this time around. In fact, as time as gone on, Microsoft has slipped away from XBLIG more and more -- "Microsoft is probably less supportive of XBLIG now than ever," reckons Voyles. "Bear in mind though, that it isn't their job to market or promote our games, especially as Live takes a shift toward a different direction, specifically toward digital content in general. The Metro-style interface and heavy use of marketing has really changed the aesthetic and accessibility of many of the options available on Live, so understandably so XBLIG isn't a top priority."

Gateway platform

One of the developers involved in the Uprising is David Johnston of Smudged Cat Games, whose puzzle platformer Gateways is releasing on September 13. His view is that "the XBLIG system is better than it has ever been at the moment." "XBLIG is actually placed alongside XBLA on the Xbox dashboard now," he notes, "although you could argue that they're both a bit hidden behind non-games stuff like movies and social media." gateways.jpgHaving said that, XBLIG is still too much of a gamble in his eyes. "I don't have any other projects planned currently but when I start on something I'm not sure if it will be in XNA or not, it depends how the sales of Gateways go," he adds. "Microsoft has given up developing XNA further so I worry what that means for future development. I suspect when the next console from Microsoft is announced there will be some new framework introduced and XNA will slowly disappear." Fortunately, he says, this will not be the end for XNA. The MonoGame open source, OpenGL implementation of the XNA Framework allows devs to ports their XNA games to other platforms, and will continue to do so even after Microsoft has given up on the platform. Matt James of Hermit Games is also involved in this Uprising, having already released Leave Home via XBLIG back in 2009. His Uprising game is called qrth-phyl, and continues on from the algorithmic, generative arcade gameplay first seen in Leave Home. "I really like XBLIG," he says. "I like that you can put console games out without interference and make a bit of money back." Nowhere else would you see a title like Wirral Railway & Garden Planets on a console platform, he says -- even nonsense experiences should have their day. qrthphyl1.jpg"Microsoft could do loads more, and it's a shame they don't," he adds. "They could probably make more money and get some decent credibility by supporting it. I'd like to see them do decent curation based on game quality, to allow XBLIGS to be played offline, to make them show up in the played history, leaderboards." He's hoping to see the next generation of Xbox Live Indie Games appear on the next Xbox console, with Microsoft taking into account everything it has learned about how not to run an open platform. Chris Zukowski, the dev behind the long-awaited City Tuesday, is all for XBLIG in its current state. He tells Gamasutra that the real issue is that people are trying to make XBLIG out to be something that it isn't. "They keep hoping that it will someday bloom into a fully fledged marketplace like Steam or the iOS store, but it won't," he says. "But video games need a place like XBLIG just as television needs public access and small towns need community theater. There has to be a place for true amateurs to try out things. The market place that Microsoft setup for indie gamers is poorly presented, difficult to find, and full of crap, but you have to start somewhere." The ease of developing in C#, coupled with the cohesive XNA framework environment, means that any developer with a smaller knowledge of programming can have a crack at making a game for a home console. citytuesday.jpg"There is no other marketplace where you can almost totally ignore compatibility and focus on just trying to make a game," he adds. "Also, there are no contracts, and the entry fee is a reasonable $100. XBLIG is the most democratic platform and I love it for that. I know that most games on the store are ugly, but democracy is rough around the edges and full of strip joints and weed-filled vacant lots. It is outsider art and I love it." Zukowski admits that, after City Tuesday, he does not plan to release any more games for XBLIG. "But the true mark of success is not just how many units are sold or how much publicity has come out of it -- instead it is practice," he notes. "XBLIG is the star cradle for so many other developers. Halfbrick, the makers of Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride got their start here. Zeboyd Games did too. There are many other developers that you can tell are on there way up and out of XBLIG. It is the farm league of video games."

Doing the legwork

For the time being, this Indie Games Uprising is ready to change people's perspectives of what XBLIG can offer. "There's a lot of trash on the service, and it brings down the image of the otherwise excellent games on XBLIG," says Dave Voyles. "So we felt as though it was important to get the word out there." The nature of the self-policed platform means that developers are the ones who are responsible for creating their own promotions too, alongside the games, and Voyles is willing and ready to take up that challenge. "The sudden influx of additional marketplaces isn't helping either!" he adds. "When XBLIG launched there was no Google Play, Amazon Appstore, iOS App Store in its current state. With all of these other distractions and online marketplaces, it is only natural that gamers will gravitate towards them as time goes on." The Uprising release schedule is as follows: Week 1 Mon Sep 10th - qrth-phyl Tues Sep 11th - Sententia Wed Sep 12th - Diehard Dungeon Thurs Sep 13th - Gateways Fri Sep 14th - Smooth Operators Week 2 Mon Sep 17th – Entropy Tues Sep 18th - City Tuesday Wed Sep 19th - Xenominer Thurs Sep 20th - Pixel

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