A word about Xbox Live Community Games/Indie Games

I haven’t done much with Xbox Community Games in awhile (this will change soon; I just need a break from Super Secret XNA Project 2.0), but that hasn’t stopped me from reading some fun articles lambasting the service for promising wealth, fame, and Princess-Bride-caliber true love, only to turn around and steal candy from orphans.

The main criticisms, as far as I can tell are:

  • Microsoft hasn’t done enough to market XBLCG
  • Microsoft has not made Community Games visible enough in the dash
  • Stupid apps are taking all of the sales

So put your money where your mouth is.  If XBLCG is such a tragic platform, why not release on Windows?

Here’s why:

  • Visibility: Criticize XBLCG’s lack of marketing all you want, but for any hobbyist developer with minimal connections and no budget, having your game show up on the New Arrivals list ensures that (wild guesstimate) hundreds of thousands of people will see it.  If it looks good, they’ll download it.  If it’s fun, they’ll buy it.  What’s the alternative?  Well, for a Windows release you’d want to send press releases to and review codes to all of the indie game review sites you know, enter IGF, try to generate some buzz here and there, and hope for the best.  Of course, if you make an XBLCG game, you can still send out press releases and enter IGF.  Couldn’t hurt!
  • Upselling: Speaking of review codes, how will you generate those?  For my first shareware game, I used a “give me your code and I’ll send you the unlock code” system, which meant I had to check my email every day (back in the era when email wasn’t quite as central to life) and drop everything, launch my “unlock” app, generate a key and send a form email reply.  XBLCG takes care of this automagically.
  • Payment Processing: I’m not sure what the scene for this is like today, but when I got started I was using Paypal, which, again, meant a lot of “send me your code and I’ll send you the unlock” nonsense.  There are payment processor sites like digitalriver and Esellerate, but these all have specific systems that are tedious to trudge through, and it’s obnoxious/impossible to make the transition from your site to the payment processor site less than majorly tacky.  None of this is particularly awful, but what is is that in order to buy your game, the user has to find a credit card, enter sensitive information onto a website he or she has never heard of, and maybe even sign up for yet another account.  People don’t like doing this.  On Xbox Live, the account is already there, the credit card is already there, and the points are there.
  • Installer/Uninstaller: On Windows I was using Nullsoft Install System.  It worked, but wasn’t pretty: lots of XML editing in Notepad.  I guess Installshield is wonderful, but expensive.  Of course, if you’ve pirated Installshield, you deserve all the bad karma you’ll get on the next point:
  • Piracy: You can’t pirate XBLCG games.  Indie games on Windows are, quite tragically, probably the easiest games to pirate.  While EA et al can invest lots of people and money into DRM, Indies can’t, and even when they try, they end up irritating a lot of people and getting cracked anyway.
  • Support: For a Windows release, you have to make sure the game runs.  If it doesn’t, the customer will come back asking for a refund.  Or they’ll want you to help them troubleshoot.  Frustration ensues, usually culminating in a refund.  On Xbox360, if it works on yours, it works on theirs.  Wonderfully enough, in the Marketplace, the description closes with a “there are no refunds for this item.”

If you get your game released on a portal (especially something like Steam), you nail some visibility, piracy, support, and payment issues.  But you’ve got to get approved.  Good luck getting on Steam; I assume they put a lot of attention into maintaining a diverse portfolio.  I’ve had a game on GarageGames and one on Reflexive, and both did pretty poorly.

So what about all the lack of marketing and abundance of craptastic apps on XBLCG?  XBLCG gets compared to the iPhone App Store a lot.  So why shouldn’t we see “there’s an app for that” ads from Microsoft? Well, it’s the economy, stupid.

Let’s say you buy an iPhone.  It makes calls.  It plays music.  And hey, I can’t believe this, I can play Tower Defense! Tower Defense, nay, an army of Tower Defense games, on a phone is a new, exciting phenomenon!  Everyone loves Tower Defense games.  Now, on iPhone, they’re playable on a touch screen, they’re cheap, and they look gorgeous.  It’s a step up.

Now try releasing a tower defense game on XBLCG.  The games machine that’s capable of pumping out 60 fps of glorious, high def  Command and Conquer or Halo Wars at 720p can also play… Fieldrunners.  Heck, you don’t even get the coolness of pinching to zoom.  It’s a step down.

This is why those stupid XBLCG apps that everyone loves to blame are doing well.  They hit markets that aren’t touched by the rest of the platform: painting, music creation, (ugh) massage apps, drum kits, etc.  In the Xbox360 market of painting, music creation, massage and drum kits, these apps are a step up.

And someone’s got to say it: all of the poor marketing, poor visibility and app overcrowding in the world can’t doom a game that wasn’t fun to play in the first place.  Make better games, people!  All of this blaming nonsense just hurts everyone, and tragically generates more blogroll buzz than any yay-XNA articles do.

Final word?  Quit complaining.  XBLCG is a great platform, but it’s not a magical money generator (unless you make yet-another-massage-game).  Just making a game does not guarantee you success and wealth and fame and happiness, but putting that game out on XBLCG definitely gives you a sweet head start.