[In a new opinion piece, GamerBytes editor Ryan Langley looks at the five top ways for Xbox Live Community Games creators to get their game noticed, from canny box art to smart marketing.]
It's no secret that Xbox Live Community Games haven't been selling too well. A lot of it has to do with the lack of advertising of the games on the Xbox Dashboard and gaming websites generally ignoring them, but it also has a lot to do with the games themselves. A lot of the games just aren't very good, while others come close to greatness, but end up falling short in some way.
We've collected five different ways that we think will help developers both make better games, and help those games sell better. They may appear to be simple and a little bit obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people don't realize how a little extra effort will go a long way.
Make your game unique
There are over 200 titles available on XNA Community Games and it's difficult to make a name for yourself, but you're not doing yourself any favors by creating a game with a boring concept.
An example would be the Pong knockoffs that are currently available. Now already you're stretching things with being a Pong game, but we already have several clones that are almost exactly the same.
Aaron's Ping Pong and A Game Of Tennis are essentially the same game. Neon Paddles is again, the same game but with some new options and some ugly neon blocks making up the landscape.
Meanwhile Jackpot Stadium, while still being a variant of Pong, has a complete makeover in a pinball machine aesthetic, a far more exciting premise and in the end that is different enough to be something worth checking out.
Another example I'll use is one of the first XBLCG games that was available - Fruit Attack. In essence, the game is not much more than a clone of Columns, but it's a very good clone. The problem with the game is the boring premise - fruit? With a dull wooden background through the whole thing? It just sounds so boring.
If you're making a game, have a bit of fun with its designs, and don't do just the bare minimum. Some imagination is required.
Your boxart sucks -- make it better
You have to make your game appealing from the outset - and that means your "boxart" needs to make your game worth checking out.
Boxart comes in two flavors for XNA Community Games - the standard 219x300 version used on the marketplace, and an 85x120 version used in the online marketplace and the creator club catalog.
The screens above are the smaller ones seen on the marketplace. A lot of them do not stand out at all, and have a logo so small that you can barely see it. They're blurry messes which you cannot make out.
A lot of XNACG boxart uses simple text and a piece of art, both slapped together, which just looks cheap. Why should anyone check out your game if your boxart looks ugly and uninteresting? Just have a look at the iPhone Apps marketplace inside iTunes and see all the icons that represent every game. Every top selling game has a nice, bright icon which catches your eye.
Creating a logo is a good start. The worst logos are ones which bleed into the background easily (perhaps, in this case, you should have a border around it separating it from the backdrop). The artwork itself should be easy to see and not very busy. It should show a character in the game or at the very least represent what you will be doing in the game even if it is a tad exaggerated, like the boxart for Shoot The Rocks.
Here are a few pieces of box artwork that do look good on XBL Community Games. They have an easy to read logo, and portray what the game is in a single shot.
It's not going too far to say that most programmers out there aren't much in the art department. That's fine, but if you need some help, ask one of your friends who can draw to help you out, or even find someone online who is either willing to do it for free or for a small commission fee. If you frequent any message boards, ask them if they're willing to help.
Your user interface sucks, make a better one
Even the best of games can be faulted by having a horrible user interface. There are a lot of XBL Community Games where two problems occur.
First, the menu system within the game is generally awful. Many games use an off-center UI with the same font used in almost all XBL games -- it's distracting and can put off a player straight away. The above example is from the game Solar, which has a menu system with grey text on a grey background, making it difficult to read.
Second, the game's UI can also be ugly - such as text without any background to keep it from getting hidden over the backdrop, text which doesn't really fit inside its set area, counters which don't have set spacing between numbers, and poor color choices.
Getting your UI right is one of the last steps when you're creating a game, but you mustn't skip this step. If you're not willing to put time and effort into your UI, the game will automatically feel half-finished.
Announce your game to the press, release a trailer
So you're about to release your game, but what have you done to promote your title? Most XBLCG developers don't promote their game to the wider audience.
You should create a press release. A press release must describe what the game is, a bit of its storyline as well as a list of features that the game entails, followed by the price and instructions on how to get the game.
There have been a couple of Community Game developers who have sent press releases in the past, including Fitba developer Triple B Games and Matt Mitman on his Ping-Time clock.
If you want to see how other major publishers deal with press releases, check out the Activision archives, or alternatively join Gamespress.com which archives all press releases.
Make sure you don't write something incredibly generic - you want to be noticed. Just looking at the front page of the XNA Games Catalog page I can already see four games describing themselves as a "fast paced puzzler". Make it eye catching, make me care.
One you're done writing your press release send it out to everyone. This includes Gamespress, Joystiq, IGN, Destructoid, Kotaku, anyone who you think should care - even us at GamerBytes.
You can contact GameTrailers here. Send them your video directly as a developer. They've previously added trailers for games like Galax-E-Mail, which has got over 2,000 views for it in just a few days. It's not a whole lot, but any publicity is good. Try and make the trailer in HD when possible - again give details on the game such as price and amount of levels and where to get the game.
Keep track of your community, and be a part of it
If you're going to have your game be released, let it be known. Websites like xnPlay and xblcg.info are dedicated to XBL Community Games, and there are numerous forums out there to discuss Community Games all the time, including the Penny Arcade forums, the official NeoGAF forum, or even your very own Xbox.com forum.
If your game comes up in the news, be it the IGN weekly XNA Communal Shower or the XNA Roundup Podcast you should post in their topics as well.
Doing these things won't mean that your game will instantly start selling, but you must do everything in your power to have your game noticed.