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The State Of Xbox Live Indie Games

A brilliant idea now overran with avatar games and cheap cash in stuff. Where did it all go wrong? Not listening to developers and not listening to the audience for sure but there's more...

Robert Fearon, Blogger

October 24, 2011

6 Min Read

I used to get angry about Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIG). Mainly out of frustration.

It was a wonderful thing but a wonderful thing with issues. It had visibility problems in that too few people knew it was there. It had location based problems because vast swathes of the buying public couldn’t buy your game from it even if they had access to Xbox Live normal.

It had price problems because developers were forced to choose from fixed tiers of pricing, all priced below that of the rest of the content on Xbox Live – an issue brought to the forefront when avatars were introduced and along with them avatar gear that generally cost more than most of the indie games on display.

It had paranoia problems, no achievements allowed because achievements are for the big boys only and we can’t trust you not to wreck our system. Timed demos because it’s just easier, ok? A peer review and release system that left you with little to no idea when your game would actually be available to buy existed for a lot of the services life. A major limit on the amount of free game codes you could generate to use for press or the public and no way to replenish said codes.

I’d get angry because all these things, they were brought up and raised by developers, by users, by pretty much anyone who gave a monkeys. Some were given more weight than others but generally, they weren’t being asked for just because. They were being asked for because changing even just one of these things would significantly enhance the service. It’d make the service more desirable to develop for. It’d make the service more desirable to buy from.

All of them could, in one way or another have been fixed by Microsoft given the will. Given the want to evolve the service, to change things around, to make it a success (and here I don’t give a toss about the MS is a big company stuff, where there’s a will at a company, it can be made to happen). Very little ever, really, did change. Some things did but often the changes were small or too slow to emerge.

XNA grew stronger as a language and tool but the service you deployed to remained predominantly a ghetto. An enforced ghetto at that.

That was where XBLIG truly got it wrong. MS, whether through intent or not, consistently sent a message to indie developers on XBLIG.

You are second class. You are not our premium tier. We will keep you apart.

Sure, there was an initial promise of XBLIG-XBLA upselling but that became a crazy dream as rapidly as the promise had first appeared. XBLIG and XBLA would forever be apart.

I used to get angry about XBLIG. Mainly out of frustration. Now I just get sad.

I get sad because XBLIG still has potential. I get sad because XBLIG allows amateur developers to make the daftest things and have them there on a console alongside big name titles yet they get treated as second class developers regardless of skills or talent. Regardless of the quality of the games, and let it be known that there are fantastic games on XBLIG, they can never break through the ceiling MS have put in place for them.

I get sad because now, even if MS made a lot of the things right that they got wrong, XBLIG has become a cesspool of crapware that’s hard to wade through. Deliberate crapware at that. Often from developers who started off with the best of intentions to make great games, to make wonderful things. But when there’s no hope to shine, sod it, we’ll just take a dump here anyway. And dump there they have.

A recent GI.biz article (login required) seemed to offer hope to wannabe upcoming XBLIG developers, there’s money still in them thar hills. There’s hope for us all. That the money is in tatware, cloneware and avatarware (not all avatarware is bad) seemed to be entirely glossed over in favour of just looking that there’s money to be made.

Rather than the creative hotbed of indies-on-consoles it could have been (and for a while, was), XBLIG is now home to a flood of tat and thanks to the relatively self perpetuating nature of top lists, a flood of tat that you’d have to wade through to even be aware that anything truly original, truly out there or sparkling exists on the service. Now, I like tat at times but there’s only so much tat one can take wading through, y’know? And when the service is propped up on these things and other developers are jumping ship? Your service has larger problems than those that you could have fixed early on.

It’s noticeable in the amount of quality releases. Up until late last year, I was still checking on a daily basis to see what would drop. Now, I can go a few weeks and not miss anything of note or importance. I want to be able to say “yeah, there’s a cool game here” to lots of people the same way I do for iOS, the same way I do for the PC but that’s becoming increasingly rare. The amount of essential releases from the past 10 months I could probably count on one and a bit hands.

The move to selling XNA games through Steam and other PC digital distribution channels is becoming an increasingly popular thing. When you can make a good game for XBLIG and sell more on the PC and sell it at a (still inexpensive) premium and without the restrictions that XBLIG places on you, it becomes a no brainer choice. When you can reach more people with less restriction for a similar buy in price on the App Store also*, why wouldn’t you choose there? When you can update your work and address other peoples issues with it at your own discretion and in good time without roadblock, why wouldn’t you choose that service instead?

Games, generally, exist to be played. People, generally, want their games to be played. You go where that happens. And if tat thrives on one service whilst you can sell something wonderful on another, you treat those services accordingly. Crap here, shine there.

And it’s no surprise that people have moved on with their wonderful things. They were never really offered much hope in the first place.

*I’ll just leave you to think about that for a while.

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