In-Depth: Xbox Live Indie Games Sales For 2009, Plus Some Perspective

We analyze performance data and sales for Xbox Live Indie Games in 2009 -- is the Xbox 360 service becoming a more promising way for developers to reach console gamers with hobbyist titles?
[GamerBytes editor Ryan Langley analyzes performance data and sales for Xbox Live Indie Games in 2009 -- and concludes the Xbox 360 service is becoming a much more promising way for developers to reach console gamers with hobbyist titles.] We've been keeping a close eye on the Xbox Live Indie Games scene for some time now, and while it had a bit of a rough beginning, we’ve seen numerous additions to the service: a ratings system, Avatar support, an entirely new name, and new pricing tiers. Finding the sweet spot for hobbyist and user-submitted indie games has been a long process, but there's definitely been some progress. Major Nelson may have released the Top 20 XBL Indie games for 2009, but it’s thanks to the participants of the official XNA forums -- including many of the developers -- that we have sales data for their games over the year, and thus a much clearer picture. The below graph shows the sales of the games, the amount of trial versions of the game that were downloaded, the conversion percentage from trial to sale, the price and the money made by the developer itself. The money made by a developer on any XBLIG game is 70% of its selling price – Microsoft picks up 30% of each sale:
The Win Of ZOMBIES! It’s not much of a surprise to see James Silva's GAM3 W1TH ZOMB1ES become the top selling game of the year. It’s an incredibly simple game, but also follows numerous traits of the top tier Indie games – a bizarre style, a weird song and an extremely low price. All of these points brought the game to the attention of gamers and game blogs everywhere – Kotaku, Joystiq, and many major news sutes mentioned it. And it had a personality, alongside being a pretty decent game. The Rise Of The Application One thing that has certainly gotten a lot of attention on Indie Games are applications. An application's not a game, per se, but something akin to iPhone's non-game Apps – simple programs that allow players to make use of their systems outside of gaming itself. DrumKit allows players to take control of Rock Band or Guitar Hero drums without the official games. Aquarium HD and myFishTank turn Xbox 360s into habitats for digital fish, and Rumble Massage and A Perfect Massage let users go crazy with the controller’s rumble ability. It may frustrate those who make “real” games to see these applications do so well, but it makes perfect sense, as many people are drawn to simple, alternative and inexpensive apps. Compare with the Fireplace DVDs, which cost 10 times as much money. Even the guy who made RC-Airsim has stated that any other simulation of remote control aeroplanes will ask for nearly $100 for it, so asking $2.50 for RC-AirSim is a bargain by comparison. And ezmuze+, which is a pretty complex audio looping system, made it to the list even at the $10 asking price. People aren't afraid of spending big money on Xbox Indies - but developers have to give people a reason to buy it at asking price. The Simple Game Other games that have done well are usually simple but direct – Headshot and Headshot 2 are among the top sellers on the system, while Avatar Drop and The Impossible Game, being very simple concepts, have also made it into the Top 20. By proving they're worth their asking price, they have enticed the player to click that “Buy Now” button at the end of the trial.
Those That Missed Out Other developers also appeared on the forums to discuss their Xbox Live Indie Games sales, revealing their 2009 sales and trial downloads to get a better understanding of the full spectrum of XBLIG creators. Some games that we’re big fans of, including Solar and Weapon Of Choice, did quite well for themselves. For some perspective, they’ve actually done better than some Xbox Live Arcade games (albeit XBLA games that will never make their development costs back) that we’ve been following in our sales data. There have been some games that have not sold well, but there's usually a reason – poor marketing, dull premise or bad box artwork. There are plenty of issues out there that can damage sales, but the idea that weak sales are the fault of the service doesn’t hold as much water as it once did. A Bit Of Perspective The Xbox Live Indie Scene has been catching some flack lately over less-than-epic game sales, but let's put this into a bit of perspective. Solar, which is one of the coolest Xbox Indie titles out there, has sold around 10,000 copies over its 9 months on the market. The Xbox 360 version of the game took around 4 months of work during the developer’s spare time. For the most part the game was sold at its original $2.50 price point, so overall it made a bit less than $17,500. $17,500 for 4 months of work is good money. That’s over a grand per week for that game's development. Now, obviously, that wouldn't support a larger team working full time, but even something like Lacrosse 2010 has done well for itself, considering the small coterie who created it. One of the main criticisms of the XBLIG space is also that people just aren’t looking at it. But the numbers are certainly increasing - 55,000 people downloaded the trial to Little Racers, 26,000 people have trialed Avatar Snowball fight, and NextWar had 30,000 people give it a go. People are looking at games, especially those in the top 20 lists, but it’s up to the developers to convince customers to make the purchase. Just having them download the demo is a huge step – that means the premise has piqued their interest, or the box art has made the game look interesting, or that the developer has strong marketing skills. But without good design underneath, the game won’t sell. That may be why a game like ZenHack only has a conversion rate of 3.5 percent while Groov has a rate of 25 percent, which is far higher than the usual rate you’d see on a trial-to-purchase. Failure? Not Quite To call Xbox Live Indie games a failure is short-sighted at this point. To expect the same top-line numbers as that of the iPhone’s App Store -- as some critics do -- is also ludicrous. The App Store is a different animal. Top games sell up to 30,000 copies a day, but often at bargain basement prices - and the vast majority of sell very few. Other comparison points, such as indie PC games on Steam aren't necessarily appropriate either. However, the ecosystem in terms of release volume is partway between XBLA and the App Store, perhaps -- it's worth noting that, since there's only one or two Xbox Live Arcade games released weekly, developers are guaranteed at least a little prominence. Yet for XBLIG titles, games can get lost in the shuffle quite swiftly after they disappear from the 'New Releases' page. After that, they can't do much to get back up - or at least, price cuts like those implemented in the App Store seem to have less of an effect. This leads to situations like a game that sold 21 units in the first month, when the larger, more professional developer needs 10,000 to break even, ouch. Can there still be criticism of XBLIG? Sure, there are several things that Microsoft could be doing to increase awareness of the Indie Games section, as mentioned in a recent article by Boing Boing but they can’t do everything. Developers need to keep the awareness up. I’ll mention again an article I wrote some time ago – send out press releases to weblogs, create trailers, Twitter about it, get on NeoGAF, and TIGSource and talk about your games. The more people you get to download your demo, the more purchases you ultimately get - simple, but the majority of developers aren't doing that. And meanwhile, at least for mid and high-level performers, XBLIG is becoming a viable platform for hobbyists and single-man shops to make some cash and get their game seen - and for end users to pick up some genuinely interesting games.

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