[Should developers drop Microsoft's online services in favor of Steam or even the open web? We speak to independent developers and Microsoft itself to discover what developers should be weighing in their decisions when choosing platforms.]
The digital landscape is shifting, and the current platform of choice may not be the same as it was just a short time ago, say several developers recently interviewed by Gamasutra.
They suggest one is more likely to find success by heading over to Valve Software's Steam digital distribution platform than to rely on some of the other digital mainstays, like Microsoft's Xbox Live Marketplace or Apple's iOS.
Case in point: Robert Boyd, founder of Lake Arrowhead, CA-based Zeboyd Games, whose first RPG – Breath Of Death VII: The Beginning – came out in April 2010 and sold about 50,000 copies on Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIG) at $1 each.
After toiling another eight months, he released a larger RPG -- Cthulhu Saves The World -- on Dec. 30, again on XBLIG, this time charging $3 because of the additional work that went into it.
"So far we've sold about 16,000 copies," he says, "which means it's earned just about the same amount of money as our first game -- even though we spent so much more time creating it."
Disappointed in the outcome, and encouraged by other developers to drop XBLIG and shift from Xbox 360 to PC games, he spent the next few months adding new features and porting the two RPGs over to PC. He released them – bundled together for $3 -- on Valve's Steam platform on July 13.
"In just five days, our Steam revenue had already surpassed our annual revenue on XBLIG," he reports. While he prefers not to give exact figures, he estimates his five-day Steam earnings to be over $100,000 -- "which, as you can imagine, really impressed us, and has motivated us to make PC games much more of a priority than Xbox."
Cthulhu Saves The World
In Boyd's opinion, the advantage of working with Steam is that it treats indie games and AAA games "pretty much the same. When we released our titles on Steam, we got a front page ad that lasted about a week, and we were placed in the 'new releases' and 'top sellers' lists, which gave us a huge promotional push that XBLIG never gave us."
Boyd says his experience with Steam isn't all that unusual, having heard from other developers that they had similar experiences – not selling well on XBLIG and achieving much more success with sequels or other games on Steam.
"XBLIG is a good place for beginners," he says. "The software is all free and there's a lot of documentation online to teach you how to use it. But it doesn't really pay well for most people unless you get lucky, have a couple of standout games, and sell hundreds of thousands of copies. My recommendation is to start with XBLIG, get some experience and exposure, and then move on to Steam or to the official Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) platform."
In a recent Gamasutra interview, indie developer Jonathan Blow argued that Steam and iOS are also simpler for developers to deal with than with Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade service.
Blow's platform plans for his next game – a 3D adventure called The Witness – haven't been decided yet, even though his first game, Braid, was first published in August 2008 on XBLA, where it became a huge hit.
He estimated that The Witness will have a $2-million budget and that "if the goal is to make that $2 million ... I'm pretty sure we could make that back just off Steam and the iPad safely. Like, it's not even a gamble to say that."
He added that he can "live a comfortable life and just put my game on Steam without that much of a hassle, or I can have the XBLA business people dick me around and give me asshole contracts that I need to spend three months negotiating back to somewhere reasonable ... it's like, at some point, the question 'Why should I do that?' arises."
Blow admitted, however, that XBLA does still have its appeal since it "does have a big audience, and it's still probably bigger than Steam for certain kinds of games." Still, he said, "the argument that XBLA is the biggest market is starting to come into question."
Number None's The Witness
Zeboyd's Boyd had considered trying XBLA, but had heard about how high the barriers are to entry.
"Before we released on PC, we were really thinking about trying XBLA, but given our success with Steam, I'm not quite sure it's worth the bother," he admits. "Especially if we're going to get the same or even better sales on PC as we would on a console. Why make the extra effort to make certain we meet all of Microsoft's requirements to get their official approval if we don't have to?"
According to David Edery, XBLA's worldwide games portfolio planner from 2006 to 2009 and now principal of consulting firm Fuzbi LLC, XBLA's first party group has had a high barrier to entry for years now.
"Back when a slot on the platform was considered a 'golden ticket,' it didn't matter," he says. "You were practically guaranteed to turn a profit if you released a decent game on the platform."
He adds, "if the platform were even remotely as reliably profitable for developers as it once was," the high barrier wouldn't matter. "But we're not hearing those boom stories anymore. Maybe they're still happening, and they just aren't getting talked about; I don't know. But it's bad for Microsoft. They need those inspirational stories to be told loudly and often. Otherwise, there's just no reason for a developer to put up with the uncertainty and the hassle commonly associated with the platform."
Edery believes the most promising digital platform is currently the open web where, he says, there are hundreds of web-based gaming portals hungry for good content. These range from relatively small sites to bigger players like Armor Games, Kongregate, the Chrome Web Store, and so on. He describes that market as the best of all worlds – fragmented enough to prevent any given player from exerting undo control over developers and yet unified by common technologies and conventions (such as Flash and, soon, HTML5) which make it very easy to work across portals.
Unfortunately, he says, some web-based portals – particularly some of the larger ones – "seem to be stuck in the Stone Ages," he says. "They haven't embraced free-to-play monetization systems yet, and they still treat developers like unimportant distributors of disposable content. Those portals will change or die," he predicts.
Edery apparently agrees with Boyd and Blow in his enthusiasm for Steam, "not only because it is a well-built and well-managed platform, but because Valve has consistently exhibited developer-friendly tendencies," he says. He believes that may stem from the fact that Valve is still first and foremost an independent developer itself.
While Edery was reluctant to recommend platforms that indies ought to focus on, he was quick to point out that his own studio, Spry Fox, currently has seven games in development – five are web-based free-to-play games and two are mobile free-to-play games.
"We have no console games and no games of any kind that require an up-front payment," he says. "That should tell you what we think is worth focusing on."
But Chris Charla, XBLA portfolio director at Microsoft Game Studios, defends XBLA's higher barriers for developers and doesn't see them changing any time soon.
"With XBLA, we've consciously developed a curated portfolio," he explains. "You need a Publisher License Agreement to release games on the service and, practically speaking, that means that developers either need to go through a third-party publisher or Microsoft Studios.
"The net result is that our customers know that every XBLA game is measured to the same bar – that the quality of games that indies like Signal Studios [Toy Soldiers] or Haunted Temple Studios [Skulls of the Shogun] bring us continues to get better and better, so the bar is always getting higher to get on the platform. I think that's ultimately beneficial to our customers. We want the best, most innovative, coolest games on XBLA."
Charla adds that, as a publisher, Microsoft Studios works very closely with XBLA's developers "to ensure that the certification process is transparent and straightforward. Obviously our developers sometimes have suggestions about how we can improve. We have always and will continue to foster a very open relationship with them. We love getting feedback. We always want to do a better job, and we're always working to improve our processes."
Asked about changes in the current digital landscape and whether indies are shifting their allegiance from one platform to another, Charla says he believes developers look at two main criteria when evaluating platforms – what platform is appropriate for the game and how can they reach the maximum number of potential players.
"Based on that, we think the Xbox 360 and XBLA is a fantastic, proven platform for developers," he says. "XBLA has a really vibrant ecosystem that supports a ton of game types, and it's great to see so many developers having a hit – or multiple hits – on XBLA.
"If you look at what we're now doing with motion control, such as with Fruit Ninja Kinect, it's just an amazing platform for a hugely broad audience and it has the potential for a really broad range of games. There's just so much room left to innovate on Xbox 360 and XBLA, it's very exciting to see what developers are experimenting with and what they're showing us."
Meanwhile, Zeboyd's Boyd says he intends to test the waters on additional platforms, and admits to being excited about being in talks with people who will help him port over Cthulhu to smartphones.
Fuzbi's Edery recommends that approach: "From a practical standpoint, there is no need to put all your eggs in one basket," he says. "I really want to emphasize that there is no holy grail of platforms. No perfect portal will meet all your needs for years to come. Life just isn't that easy."