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We're Indie, we like Microsoft. Too Controversial?

We're a small indie developer that's published three games through Microsoft in the last five years, and our experience has been nothing but great. Pass that along, please, because it's currently the best kept secret in the industry.

I wrote this post on our blog a few months ago to express how absolutely weird and unfortunate I thought it was that the trending perception of Microsoft and indies had gotten so bad that silly creative decisions of mine were being taken as Microsoft's ever-burgeoning evilness toward indies, or something.  My message was this: we're indie, we make the games we want to make, Microsoft publishes them, and the past five years of this have been great, and it's too bad that that's not super newsworthy, because this whole time it just feels like I must watch, powerless, as Lumbergh keeps taking my red stapler.

Then Xbox One happened, and a longtime fan of ours posted this on my facebook wall:

Questionable grammar aside, I was super glad he posted this, because through no fault of his own he's unwittingly illustrated what happens when these narratives blow up. You know that thing about no self-publishing on Xbox One?  The meaning of that quote was that the partner/publisher relationship is currently the same (i.e. what we, an indie studio, been doing for the last five years) but they're exploring ways to improve it.  Basically "everything's the same, stay tuned for improvements" mutated into "no indies on Xbox One, ever" in a few hours.

Finally, a disclaimer: I do not think there is a vast conspiracy to unjustly villify Microsoft. That would be weird, possibly an indicator of neurosis, even. I just wish I could add my "everything is fine" experience to the mix more often.

And with that, here's the original post:

In Charlie Murder, the whole band gets Windows Phones on the fictional t2f (short for ta2fön) network.  There’s a bunch of stuff you can use your phone for, like email (some of it rote, some of it interesting), camera phone, and squid-themed microblogging site  I thought it was a fun way to give your characters a bit of an info hub, and I’ve been a big fan of Windows Phone ever since my Samsung Focus and its marvelous bulging battery bomb (that’s another story). Also, we have a game on Windows Phone, and we definitely make a buck or two whenever someone buys it, so that’s cool. Yet still, I felt the need to tweet this:


In the comments in Joystiq’s rad Charlie Murder preview write up, there were a few begrudging Microsoft for what was (erroneously) interpreted as some sort of paid off order from up high to include the phone in the game.  This is obviously entirely untrue; if anyone’s guilty of some sort of slimy promotion, I guess that would be me, as I’d like to get more people interested in a pretty solid other alternative to iPhone (and, again, we’ve got Z0MB1ES on dat ph0ne!!!1)

Win Phone!

But I think this illuminates an underlying issue, namely that of Microsoft’s misunderstood role as indie games publisher, and how that ties to the trending media narrative on Microsoft being “bad for indies.”  Where do we stand on all this?  Read on:

So, Microsoft is publishing Charlie Murder. What does that mean?  Here are a few facts to set the record straight:

  • We have full creative control.  This is our game.  100% of the (non-localized) content in Charlie Murder was made by Michelle and me, or, in a few cases, by a few gaming celebrities who we got some rad cameos from (yes, celebrities).
  • Ska Studios is just Michelle and me. We work in our basement. We have two cats (you knew that).
  • Microsoft gives us localized text from our English text, finds bugs, tells us how to fix bugs when we’re stumped, tells us how close to passing cert we are, and takes us out to dinner when we’re in town.  They provide some great creative and design feedback (personal favorite: “More witches with handguns!”) and technical services that have helped us nail down some obscenely obscure bugs, and they host internal Charlie Murder playtest parties (“sessions”), which is awesome.
  • (We can’t talk about money, but rest assured we didn’t get paid to feature Windows Phone or write this blog. And shame on you for asking, seriously, who just asks people about their finances!?)

I can’t emphasize that first point enough: Charlie Murder is our game.  Four years ago I started working on what was meant to be an homage to early 90′s coin op brawlers set in a punk rock apocalypse universe, and when our then-producer at Microsoft told me they were interested in publishing it to XBLA, I jumped at the opportunity.  Charlie Murder was my baby until Michelle came along, and now it’s our baby.  Our friends at Microsoft love the game and are hugely supportive of it, but at the end of the day, Michelle and I are the only people who get to work on it.  Not to say we’ve ever really butted heads with them, because, quite franky…

Working with Microsoft is great.  I have heard a few stories that contradict my experience, and I know quite a few people who are happier on platforms other than XBLA, and that’s fine for them.  XBLA is a closed, carefully curated platform with its own set of fairly rigid standards and protocols.  For me, it was just a matter of “do the work, release the game,” and that’s exactly what we did.  Going from a hobbyist PC bedroom developer to having conference calls with Microsoft (admittedly, still from my bedroom) was such a rush that the supposed terrors of having to fill out lots of forms or fix messaging errors were absolutely lost on me.  And shortly afterThe Dishwasher: Dead Samurai launched, I absolutely spent a night at my producer’s cabin in Snoqualmie, drinking IPA and playing around with GarageBand.  Yes, it was fine, it was fun, and it’s unfortunate that “everything’s fine” doesn’t really register as newsworthy, because…

There is currently a “Microsoft is bad for indies” narrative trending in gaming news.  I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy nut, but narratives happen. When one indie says they’re never working with Microsoft again, the gaming public becomes curious as to whether this is an isolated incident, or part of some sort of ugly truth, and pretty soon everyone wants to know if I’ve just been secretly hiding my experience with the ugly truth, or if I’ll be moving to PS4 because of the ugly truth, when in fact this perceived ugly truth is nothing more than 4 or 5 data points.  My experience is and always has been “everything’s fine,” but, again, that’s not exactly newsworthy.  Nothing is more delicious than that ugly truth, which is also unfortunate, because…

Reinforcing the “Microsoft is bad for indies” narrative doesn’t hurt Microsoft, it hurts indies.  I vividly remember reading this IGN article calling XBLIG a failure roughly a year into its life and thinking basically the same thing: telling thousands of readers that Microsoft is failing at indie gaming is telling thousands of potential customers that Microsoft is failing at indie gaming.  And while everyone likes a sale, the ones who really, desperately need the money aren’t the Microsoft people who greenlight the projects, they’re the indie developers who are trying to quit their day jobs, trying to buy a house, trying to raise a baby.  As a consumer, would you think twice about buying a game from a “failed platform?” Would you hesitate at buying an indie game from a company that “screws indies?”  But that’s the current narrative, and while it sucks for Microsoft, it sucks a lot more for indie developers who are publishing on XBLA.

We’re human beings.  We love making games, and we want to keep making games for a really stupidly long time.  We think our publisher is great, but more importantly, we think our games are great.  Hopefully you do too.

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