The Blood of the Indies

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 squ.iddl.us.  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:

Twits

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 after The 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.

March 29, 2013 posted by James

Filed under: Charlie Murder,Games,Life,Vampire Smile

9 Comments Comment away!

  • 1. Whipt1  |  March 30, 2013 at 12:38 AM

    Can’t wait to play Charlie Murder.

    I also completely understand where you are coming from, but I’ve felt there have been times during XBLIG short history that I thought Microsoft has failed the service in terms of promotion and dashboard accessibility. Then again I also think a lot of the gaming press has failed audiences in creating narratives (as you said) about indie games on the service that only on the negative.

    Hell, I wish they were paying you to include the Windows phone, I want to think developers who make games I like actually earn a living.

  • 2. Gerald  |  March 30, 2013 at 6:14 AM

    Hmmm … I very much doubt anyone would not buy an indiegame on Xbox Live because MS is the publisher. The reason many indies fled MS was because they were not taken to dinner, they were not able to publish to XBLA and they were largely ignored.
    A big loss for MS imo – and it also made the whole Xbox platform less interesting for people mainly focused on indies. I moved to PC for example and I don’t buy indies for the Xbox anymore. That has nothing to do because I think MS is evil, it’s just a result of my Xbox not getting turned on any longer.

    The best chances of indies getting noticed by me (as a customer) is on Steam. Or maybe iTunes when I use my iPad (which will get more action once summer arrives).

    Soon I will focus on indies that use the LEAP and/or the Oculus Rift, so even most Steam indies will have a hard time with me. Doesn’t mean I don’t like Steam.

    I love all the games of yours I have played and wish you all the best with Charlie Murder – but if people don’t buy as many copies, then the reason is more likely the shift in platforms than buyers boycotting MS published indies.

  • 3. James  |  March 30, 2013 at 9:38 AM

    Thanks! Just trying to add my experience into the pool.

  • 4. James  |  March 30, 2013 at 10:01 AM

    I’m talking about XBLA developers who get contracts, develop games, and yes, get taken out to dinner. And some of them have been very public about their displeasure with Microsoft, and their voices have basically driven the narrative. I’d like to fight that, because to some extent, the narrative affects us all.

    Saying that Microsoft is bad for indies because of XBLIG is unfair. XBLIG is currently the only open console platform for no entry barrier indie development, so in terms of promotion and exposure, XBLIG is by default the “best,” because it’s greater than zero (the rest). Ouya will change that, but the market will be radically smaller, and who’s to say your game will be more likely to get buried on XBLIG than Ouya? Of course, every developer wants more promotion, but the fact that XBLIG simply *exists* already makes it the best platform for no-barriers console development.

  • 5. DSebJ  |  March 30, 2013 at 8:41 PM

    There is a restriction about the type of phone that you can display inside a game, on a windows phone:

    http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windowsphone/develop/hh184842(v=vs.105).aspx

    “If an app depicts any mobile or wired telephone, handheld PDA, or any other data and voice communicator, it must be either generic or a Windows Phone device.”

    So they didn’t pay your for it but you didn’t have much of a choice if you wanted to use a recognisable phone.

  • 6. James  |  March 30, 2013 at 9:17 PM

    That’s for Windows Phone marketplace. Charlie Murder is XBLA, which has its own content approval process.

    Generally speaking, branding, logos, trademarks, etc. are dangerous territory without lots of legal work, so using generic devices is vastly preferable to trying to incorporate real brands. I was actually worried that using Windows Phone in an M rated horror punk game that definitely lets you use severed limbs as weapons might have been an issue with legal, but they ok’d it. Which is great, because I honestly do love Windows Phone, and I’m certainly not alone in that.

  • 7. Some guy  |  March 30, 2013 at 10:15 PM

    IGN always had that nice touch of stupidity as far as I can remember. just like that: http://i.imgur.com/V4YabcN.png
    Won’t talk about indies though, because it lost its meaning. Keep the good work and be sure that me and other fans will do advertising for Charlie Murder when it comes out.
    Still hoping for an option to turn off the excessive lighning effect too~

  • 8. James  |  March 31, 2013 at 10:32 AM

    Thanks!

    And I don’t think that IGN is horrible, but I’m sure its writers make mistakes from time to time. So may as well air my perspective, how I think certain conclusions are unfair and affect me, etc.

  • 9. David Amador  |  April 12, 2013 at 7:50 AM

    Never once did it crossed my mind that the Windows Phone alike gadget inside the game could be an imposition or suggestion from Microsoft.
    I think while Microsoft may be doing some stuff wrong (aren’t they all?), they are getting more hatred because of their carefully curated store.
    By one hand that’s good for consumers, on the other hand not everyone can get into there. It’s a double edge sword.
    For me, the rumor I listen to the most which I think is really wrong (if true), is that they won’t allow you to put a game on XBLA once you have it on other platforms first.

    Other that that is good to see someone step and not taking a stance but simply speaking about their experience.
    Good luck with Charlie Murder.

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