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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."

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