XNA was launched as the platform for indie developers to spread their wings and take that leap of faith. It provides a lot of benefits in the form of ease of use and a direct path to potential game consumers. Microsoft gave it a nice forum for creators to collaborate, critique and build. But will it suit the needs of a person in a position as myself? Will it be a viable option for a developer to make that first step to game development and be able to support my self.
As a platform this is one of the most public about its services. Everything about development, pricing, royalties and publishing are set out straight forward for anyone. One does not have to even sign up for the creators club to read about it.
First, what would I need in order to get started making games for the XNA platform? Well, Microsoft has that answered in depth for those interested.
First, you need to sign up for the Creators Club website and download the tools and SDK. Everything is free to download and use. All you need is a PC with Windows XP or Vista. The only tools you need are a copy of either Visual Studios 2008 or the C# Express Edition 2008 IDEs and the XNA API.
Second and this is where the real necessities come in, if you want to actually develop for the Community Games you will need to purchase a Premium Membership, a $100 a year price, and an XBox 360 with a hard drive. Sorry Arcade owners, you will need to upgrade. You will also need a Live Gold or Silver membership and XNA Game Studio.
Finally, you can now start developing games for the XBox 360.
I won't go through all the details of making a game. If anyone is interested there is plenty of information out there for you to learn if you don't already know. But just a reminder, if you want to develop XNA games, you will need to know C# or be willing to learn it. The API is not compatible with any other language.
So now that you are done making your game, what is the next step? According to the link above, you must now submit it to the community. Further details are on the submission guide.
This step comprises compiling your game, adding your game to the community testing site and waiting. Submitting the game seems pretty straight forward. No surprises there. What comes next, however, is quite a bit different than most systems.It is then reviewed for accuracy and bugs by the community of developers.
The Peer Review process checks for the accuracy of the descriptions, screen shots, videos and ratings. They will also look for bugs that hinder gameplay. Microsoft is pretty tight lipped about how many reviewers need to pass the game and what sort of scores one must get for the game to be published. This is the first thing that worries me as a prospective developer. Up till this point, I have been rather interested.
The reason I am concerned is not because I am afraid my peers won't like the game. Microsoft has made it pretty clear that games cannot be rejected just because people don't like them. My concern is that not enough people will review it. As far as I can tell from the information available, there is no requirement that developers must review titles. Right now there doesn't seem to be an issue with developers being willing to review games as well as make them. Yet, the service is still new and being tried. Youtube at one point had a large number of the visitors to the site uploading videos, now it is estimated that less than 1% of the visitors ever upload a video. Will something similar happen here? Will developers eventually get tired of playing so many crap games that they will either leave or just submit games and go off to make their next one?
So far this will have to remain unanswered. Only time will tell. Perhaps the community surrounding XNA will continue to grow and foster itself.
After a game is reviewed and deemed bug free and appropriate, it is now ready to go live. There is nothing you really need to do here. You already set the price in the submission process. Once the game reaches that mysterious number of approving reviews, it automatically gets published to the XBox Marketplace.
Here is where it gets tricky. According to the FAQs page The developer makes 70% of the cost of the game in Microsoft points converted to US Dollars. Not bad really, yet there is a catch. Microsoft reserves the right to choose whatever games they want to promote even without the developer's approval. Currently they are not taking any extra cut of the game's profit, but that may change in the future.
So aside from all that, what does it look like in the long run? Recently Gamerbytes published a detailed listing of 'tens' of games, some others and their respective conversion rates and profits. Frankly, I am a little underwhelmed.
Very few games have made much money at all. Only three games in the first list made more than $5000. Some faster than others, but none at a rate to sustain a development house of more than one developer full time. Only one game has made some serious cash according to the information at hand has made a significant profit. Not a very good outlook.
Finally, Gamerbytes points to two developers and their take on the numbers. I would like to quote them before I close and pass my judgement.
Caffeine Monster Software said of their numbers:
We’ve mostly received positive reviews for DUOtrix, but it doesn’t make much of a difference because it quickly got buried by newer games, regardless of their quality. The issues of visibility and shelf space that plagues retail is just as prevalent here. What’s frustrating is that it’s very easily avoidable in the downloadable space.
Mommy's Best Games also lamented their numbers:
Although this number may look enticing to a hobbyist, we can only look at sales data and what it means for Mommy’s Best Games, taking into consideration
Although this is only 4 months of sales, except by the grace of God or a divine new marketing strategy, we do not anticipate seeing sales staying this strong.
What all that means to our bottom-line, we do not yet know, but it does not feel great.
From everything I have read, from the awkward review process and the difficult exposure issues, this may not be a platform for anyone wanting to get into anything beyond a hobby level of game development. To top it off, you will also have to compete with the professionally developed XBLA titles and the disk based games for the consumers' dollar.
My verdict in the end is that if you want to strike it out on your own, you will probably want to avoid XNA. However, if your goal is to eventually work at some awesome game development studio, this could be a great way to get your name some serious recognition.
Next up: XBLA