Xbox Live Indie Games: How To Survive
Some of the most successful XNA developers discuss how to score a hit on Microsoft's indie channel
It's been a tough year for the Xbox Live Indie Games service. What once seemed like a forward thinking and relatively benevolent offering from Microsoft has been somewhat demonised, taking flak from developers and customers alike for its discoverability issues, promotional mechanics and lack of prominence on the dash, as well as its fair share of scandal.
Microsoft has sometimes listened to its users after controversial decisions, moving the service back from a speciality section to games after developer uproar, but XBLIG has never seemed like a core part of the Live strategy, despite Microsoft's mission statement.
"We're proud of Xbox Live Indie Games as an option for developers who want to create and publish games on an open platform," a spokesperson told GamesIndustry.biz.
"We want to continue to deliver great games to our consumers - that's our number one priority, and we're excited to work with our development partners to make the process of doing that even more streamlined."
XNA is still quite an esoteric language, you've got to get at the guts of the machine. But compared to anything short of, possibly, Unity, it's so good.
Adam Sawkins, Fortresscraft creator
And in truth, behind the more negative headlines, the service has its champions and successes. Adam Sawkins' Fortresscraft is the most notable - selling incredible numbers and making a tidy sum for its creator, who calls the experience "life changing" after selling over 1.3 million copies.
Sawkins began programming when he was just a child, learning BASIC on a friend's VIC 20 and writing Lightcycle clones for the Atari and in DoS. Years later a career in professional game development beckoned, but for Sawkins, XNA gave him a route to express himself and lead his own project.
"I've released 55 commercial SKUs in my time," Sawkins told GamesIndustry.biz. "This was even more exciting than seeing my game at the top of the real charts, because obviously there I'm only one of 100 people. This was pretty much me and a friend whose house I went to, bought him a pizza and said, write me some music."
But experience isn't absolutely necessary for success, says Sawkins. XNA is designed to be accessible, something which he feels it largely achieves.
"It's still quite an esoteric language, you've got to get at the guts of the machine. But compared to anything short of, possibly, Unity, it's so good. It's so user friendly, so powerful. We get loads of support on technical stuff.
"Because it's so ubiquitous if I've got a problem I can just Google it and somebody else will have had it. Plus, C# is so much better than C++. The only way I've written the indie games so quickly is because the language, instead of getting in your way like C++, it actually helps."
Tom Steinke of Digital DNA games was also a pro, but has managed to not only increase his happiness, but also his income since embarking on XBLIG development.
"I keep telling people that XBLIG, isn't just a great platform for Indies, it is the best one out there right now," Steinke evangelises.
"If you look at the amount of people that are playing the Xbox every night, and the amount of exposure you can get as an Indie it is amazing. Coupled with the low barrier to entry and the ultra easy to use (and cheap) XNA platform, I don't know why anyone wouldn't make games for XBLIG.
"I had an idea for a game but I was sceptical at first. I needed to buy a $200 monitor to make my development easier in the first three nights of playing with XNA. I made my first game, Avatar Avenue, to offset the cost of the monitor I needed to buy.
"The game ultimately made in excess of $25,000. After that I was hooked, and really realised the potential of XBLIG. Since then I have made 13 titles, most of them best sellers. To date, somewhere around 2 million people have played my games."
For Matt Davis of Barker's Crest, creators of Avatar Golf, money wasn't the main motivation for becoming an XNA developer, but it certainly helps to justify the time spent working on his games.
"Money was not a very big factor at first and to a degree it still isn't," Davis told GamesIndustry.biz.
"If I didn't enjoy what I was doing I wouldn't do it at all. However, building the kind of games I do and being the only developer on the project requires a tonne of time and resources. It would make very little sense to invest the time and money that I do into these projects if there wasn't the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
"I'll not even go into the sacrifices family members make to help make these games a reality. It is nice to have a very understanding wife." With 600,000 combined trials and purchases of his games, Davis sees his XBLIG programming a sincerely professional pursuit, but is still very appreciative of the opportunities offered by the service.
It would make very little sense to invest the time and money into these projects if there wasn't the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Matt Davis, Barker's Crest
"The main advantage the XBLIG offers is giving the couch game developer the ability to sell one's game to hundreds of thousands of people all around the world. All while not having to worry about business issues like transaction fees, returns, exchange rate... the list goes on and on.
"While distribution channels like this are available on many other platforms XBLIG is the only one available to a hobbyist on a game console. I'm still blown away that Microsoft has made something like this available to us."
But is it seen as just a stepping stone to bigger and better things? Both Sawkins and Davis say they'll stick with it, essentially treating it as a full-time job, but for Steinke, the future may lay elsewhere.
"I am very interested in growing. I feel I am sort of hitting the upper bounds where I can grow on XBLIG. Currently my games make up 25 per cent of the top 20 selling titles on XBLIG, there aren't a lot of places to go from there.
"I would like to do some games that are worthy of a higher price point, on a marketplace that can sustain that. For instance I would love to the opportunity to make an XBLA game."
With its community ratings, low barriers to entry and minimal price points, XBLIG has more than a little in common with the App Store - something which Sawkins says he feels it increasingly resembles. Whilst he feels that storefront is "very well designed", the App Store is also renowned for less auspicious reasons, like burying great content and a lack of curation.
So was the XBLIG designed to capture the sort of casual zeitgeist which Apple's marketplace generated so profitably?
"Xbox Live Indie Games was formed with the idea of democratising the publication process on Xbox 360," a Microsoft spokesperson explains.
"By offering free tools, support, and a peer-review process through App Hub, we have provided developers with all the resources they need to launch a game on Xbox 360."
But even the service's big winners feel that it is sometimes neglected, that perhaps more could, and should be made of it. As Sawkins puts it when asked about promotion: "I would sort of agree that Microsoft don't tend to do enough.
"On the dashboard there's the avatar section. That's not been touched in about 6 months. I look at it and think, why's Fortresscraft not there? Avatar Drop has been there for so long, surely anyone who's going to buy would have done so by now?"
More promotion means more sales, says Sawkins, surely a win for all involved?
"I got one of my games promoted for Valentines day stuff last year and I've never seen such a turnaround in sales. Just wow, the graph did a vertical turn upwards. That was only in Canada and only on an obscure section of the dash. I don't know why those lists aren't updated, why they aren't pushed.
I got one of my games promoted for Valentines day last year and I've never seen such a turnaround in sales. I don't know why those lists aren't updated, why they aren't pushed.
"One of the differences I've noticed about Fortresscraft and my previous games was that when it came out, people already knew about it. My average sales on first day is about 40-50. That's quite cool. Fortresscraft did about 16,000. That's not people discovering it, they damn well knew it was there.
"We shipped about 65,000 on the first weekend. Our conversion rate is about 96 per cent. They're not randomly discovering it, they're being told by their friends or reading about it on the web. I got tired of telling people how to find it - people didn't know where the indie games section was.
"If you're bored of Call of Duty one evening, just sit there on the indie arcade and add fifty of them, play them through. Same thing with the App Store. I'd like MS to work on that, that browsing isn't really there on the indie dash. I'd like to see things like other games in the same genre, people who liked this game also liked... That sort of cross-polination."
Steinke agrees to a certain extent, but feels that what is offered is still nothing to be sniffed at.
"Being on the Xbox dashboard is a privilege that I couldn't possibly be more appreciative of Microsoft for, and has more impact than anything else. Those are where your customers are.
"However before the dashboard changed in November of 2010, it seemed we got nearly twice the exposure based on where were we located in the dash. My game Avatar Laser Wars was the number one selling game at the time of the change. Aside from putting us in a more prominent position like before, I couldn't ask for much more."
Barker's Crest's Matt Davis sees that promotion as being earned, reserved for the cream of the crop.
"I think we've been given quite a bit of exposure from Microsoft," he says.
"Three of our four games have been featured on dash promotions in one form or another. Avatar Golf was a daily deal during Christmas one year and Avatar Legends is currently featured on the August 'Most Wanted' promotion. I feel like we earned it by building fun and marketable games."
Perhaps the lesson to learn, here. Publishing a game on XBLIG doesn't get you XBLA levels of support. You won't have a marketing budget assigned to you and you'll be lucky, or will have earned it, if you get a prominent slot on the dash. One or two exceptions aside, you're not going to be able to give up the day job.
But, if you're willing to make it a labour of love, to take on a project for nothing more guaranteed than the warm glow of knowing it's out there, on the off chance that it could be in the hands of millions of gamers worldwide by the end of the week, XNA and XBLIG offer a nigh-on unique opportunity.
It's not the most glamorous system. It's probably neither the best subscribed, promoted nor advertised. But if the spirit of the bedroom coders who laid the foundations of this industry occupies a little corner of your soul, then maybe you should give it a try.