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XBLIG & Taking Ownership Of Your Own Successes And Failures
by Jonathan Flook on 11/02/11 11:59:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Xbox Indie Games, a failed venture, at least according to IGN back in January of 2010.  It’s a hot topic for bloggers and critics.  With so many frustrated developers wondering why their game didn’t succeed, no wonder it’s the only thing people can talk about.

FortressCraft Chapter 1 is the best selling game on Xbox Indie Games.  It’s moved more units at 240 Microsoft Points than any other game.  Grossing over a million dollars and well on its way to two million by the end of the year.  I believe it happened to be a great game at the right time.  Shortly after the release of FortressCraft we saw the releases of the tremendously successful Total Miner: Forge and Castle Miner.  Xbox Indie Game success stories aren’t all about mining.  We can’t forget such awesome games as Avatar Golf, Head Shot 2, Beat Hazard, Zombie Estate, Home Run Challenge, Drum Kit, Colosseum, and Weapon of Choice.  Actually the top one-hundred sold Xbox Indie Games games have all moved over fifteen thousand units each.  I know that hundreds of developers have had trouble selling their game, but there’s also dozens of developers with success stories.  Let’s not forget that a lot of the games on the market are created by hobbyists, students and other enthusiasts.  When you’re making a game in your parents’ basement and it doesn’t make you ten thousand dollars, I wouldn’t call it a failure.  It’s a venture and a learning experience, with or without profit.  But the fact is that some people are making games in their basement and have made a lot of money from it.  That’s reason enough to give Xbox Indie Games a try. 

JForce’s Avatar Showdown and James Silva’s I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES!!!1 were both smash hits.  DigitalDNA’s Avatar Paintball is still selling a year after its release.  These are the kinds of success stories that are happening each year.  The $1 Zombie Game, Angry Fish, Ninja War STOLEN SCROLLS and MotoJump are all new games that are big sellers on the market.  The fact is that if a game didn’t sell it could be for a variety of reason, but if you keep trying you might make the next hit.  The best way to jump back from a bomb is to keep doing what you love, making games.

My name’s Jon from Silver Dollar Games.  For all those who haven’t found success on Xbox Indie Games why not blame us?  Often our games don’t perform as well as we’ve hoped, probably because we’re amateurs, but we have no one to blame but ourselves.  For others, they have the luxury of pointing the finger in our direction.  One developer wrote “Silver Dollar Games has driven people away from looking at the Indie Games Channel all together... Their constant stream of shitty games means that other games get removed off the "new games" list.”  Maybe they’re referring to these ‘shitty games’, Sins of the Flesh, The Jump Hero and Head Shot Z.

I think this is a good time to explain the whole “bumped off the new games list thing” they’re talking about.  The first exposure an Xbox Indie Game will have is when it’s on the new releases tab on the Xbox dash board.  Without that tab a customer would have to search for a game manually by letter, which just isn’t practical.  In fact, just finding the Xbox Indie Game tab is tricky.   You can see the new releases by going to Xbox.com, Games, Indie Games and sort by release date.  From there you can see the release date for every game.  Typically there’s two games released a day and it’s been that way since the beginning.  When Xbox Indie Games first launched on November 21st 2008 its new release list was fifteen games long.  So if you’re the sixteenth game released, you’re no longer on the list and your exposure is virtually gone.  With the new release list only fifteen games long a game typically had about a week of exposure before it would be bumped off the list.  Hopefully it managed to sneak its way onto the top downloads tab by selling a few copies during this time.

Fortunately for the developers the new releases tab has been extended to fifty games.  With a list this long a game usually stays on the new releases for just under a month.  This gives developers three sometimes four times more exposure than before.  Let me tell you from experience.  If a game didn’t sell enough in three weeks to get on the top downloads, it’s never going to.  No updates or press exposure is ever going to change that.  Further to this point I’ve never seen a successful game get pushed off the new releases and miss its chance in the spot light.

A critic wrote this in reference to our games “You guys act like kids, spam the marketplace with stuff you know to be worthless or intentionally unentertaining, and worst of all, drown out other people’s hard work just for laughs. Shame on you.”  So let me get this straight, when there’s one of our games on the new releases tab that’s fifty games long, we’re ‘drowning out’ the other forty-nine games?  They also wrote this about our unreleased joke game Xbox 360 On The Go.  “it will bump a game that someone else worked hard on off the new release list, which is pretty much the only time most indie games have any visibility to consumers.”  It’s fun to blame Silver Dollar Games, but it’s just not practical to use the old ‘bumped off the new releases tab’ excuse.  Every game has just under a month on the new releases tab.  One game on a list of fifty isn’t the reason a game didn’t succeed.  We don’t secretly plot with other developers to release all our games in the same week to bump off the competition.  No, every game has plenty of time on the new releases tab.  Every game that’s been a big seller has sold thousands of units in its first day.  Those hit games go on to sell thousands more in the following weeks while on the top downloads tab.  A game doesn’t need more than three weeks on the new releases tab.  It just has to be something the consumer wants.

There was a time where the top downloads tab would freeze for a few days at time, leaving every game locked in its current position.  No new games would enter the list and no old games would leave the list during the freeze.  Back when the new releases tab was only fifteen games long it was possible for a game to enter and leave the new releases tab during one of these freezes.  If the game sold well but fell off the new releases tab before it could be placed on the top downloads tab, then it will lose visibility altogether.  The game would miss its opportunity to get on the top downloads tab when the list unfreezes.  This is because it had bad sales for a few days while it was off both the new releases and top downloads.

With the new releases tab at fifty games, that’s simply not a problem anymore.  No one is robbed of their chance on the top downloads.  If your game is popular it will continue to sell on the new releases tab for the three weeks it’s up there.  A freeze can’t stop it from entering the top downloads.  It just doesn’t happen anymore.

Don’t worry though there are still plenty of reasons to blame Silver Dollar Games.  It’s as easy as the following.

They (Silver Dollar Games) get their kicks making pathetic "games" while hurting the reputation of XBLIG, driving away potential customers, and making indie developers like myself to never use the XNA service again. They are hurting other developers. If anyone shares the heaviest responsibility for games like "Take Arms" and "Call of Cthulu" doing so poorly, I'd point the finger at Silver Dollar Games.  Microsoft should not let them continue with this. They've gotten away with it for far too long. Biggest trolls on the internet. Their memberships should be banned.”

What have we ‘gotten away with for far too long’?  Did we get away with making games in an environment where we have creative freedom?  When I see comments like the one above I’m left asking myself how we’re driving away potential customers.  Thankfully this critic has the answer to that.

I would like to think we’re all adults here, but that’s probably giving Silver Dollar Games too much credit. They make titles with attention-grabbing names and “mature” themes and it lures people in, at least for a demo. Once they see the shoddy graphics and horrible gameplay, or that the “adult games” have dialog that sounds like a recess time conversation among third graders, they not only quit the game, but they leave the entire channel. I know it’s true because I did it once, and I am pretty much the average gamer. So whether you guys at Silver Dollar believe it or not, you’re taking money from other developers by driving players away... For most developers this is (and should be) strictly a hobby, but there’s real money involved in it, and you’re costing others a chance at making more of it.

There’s real money involved in Xbox Indie Games as they stated above.  I know Fortress Craft has made over a million dollars and will probably reach two million by the end of the year.  I guess we owe them an apology.  If we weren’t around to drive potential customers away from the service they probably would have made four million dollars.  We should probably say sorry to every developer who had a hit game if that’s the case.  Who knows how many more thousands of units The Impossible Game, Avatar Legends, Toy Stunt Bike, Trailer Park Kings, College Lacrosse, Nuclear Wasteland and Avatar Ninja would have sold?

I’m curious about something though.  We’ve been making Xbox Indie Games since the first day it launched.  That’s three years of driving customers away.  You’d think there would be no one left by now.  How is it that some of the best selling games have been released this year like Dead Pixel and Avatar Adventures Online?  Also a handful of cult classics are still selling strong like I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES!!!1 and Miner Dig Deep.  Let’s rephrase this statement.  Perhaps we’re not driving them all away.  Maybe we’re just stunting the growth of Xbox Indie Games?  That’s one theory. 

I would like to propose a second theory.  A theory that states there’s no evidence that we’ve driven away thousands of consumers.  A theory that looks at the millions of users that download games like Avatar Laser Wars and RC-AirSim.  A theory supporting the notion that indie games has thousands and thousands of people buying games each day.  We’ve had a game in every position in the top downloads and we can tell you from experience, the service is making thousands of sales each day with hundreds of thousands of trial downloads each week.  Some people will say that’s in spite of Silver Dollar Games.  Or they can just simply blame us like this developer did. “I blame Silver Dollar Games for the overall state of XBLIG and the poor sales of every hard-working developer who put all their effort into making a good game.”  Poor sales like the hundred-and-twenty thousand units Baby Make Extreme sold?  Ok, maybe not ‘every’ hard-working developer.  One developer wrote

Developers such as Silver Dollar Games have opted to bombard the service with dozens of less thoughtful titles, and I understand their reasoning.  They are just one example of the many out there who have chosen to treat XBLIG as a quirky and fun experiment.  Unfortunately this frame of mind, I feel, has tarnished the thought that the Indie service could someday be treated like a grownup.  Instead, it will likely continue to live in the hollows underneath the stairs of the better known XBLA service and the recent Games On Demand service.

It’s hard for me to sympathize with developers who blame us for general problems they have with Xbox Indie Games.  When they say we ‘bombard the service with dozens of less thoughtful titles’, I say we worked hard for over three years and will continue to make games we love.  When they say we’ve “tarnished the thought that the Indie service could someday be treated like a grownup”, I say we made plenty of grownup games like Boom Chick Chick and Raid.  Let’s get real for a minute though.  We really do like to have fun with our games.  After all, we have a WTF category on our website.  Believe it or not, games like Try Not To Fart allow us to stand out from Xbox Live Arcade.  It helps us separate the word pretentious from the word indie.

Every time I hear comments like this:

And while you might have one or two “fans” who egg you guys on, so does the slow kid at school who eats worms and touches his tongue to toilet seats. The thing is, nobody actually likes that kid. They just want to see what a mess he makes of himself. And the blunt honest truth is, nobody likes you guys either. People laugh at you, not with you. And by the way, it’s not because you’re funny.

I hear twice as many like this:

You guys make really good games don't stop :) Just make more like your horror games.” 

Fatal Seduction is awesome, so original and story driven

Do you have plans to make Office Affairs 2 or something similar? Love that game!! Nice work!

I like your style of games, they're short but have good replay value which means a lot ;)

I have Deus Ex HR, Serious Sam DD, and Rock of Ages all waiting to be played and yet I can't stop playing The Jump Hero...

Ranger is an awesome game!!!!! Love the combos and shooting down scores of enemies!!!!

I’m going to propose a third and last theory.  One that explores the possibility that some people like conventional games, but there’s just as many outside the video game community that are looking for something different.  You don’t hear from these people because they’re not the ones following you on Twitter.  They’re not the ones looking at reviews or reading blogs.  They’re not fellow developers.  They’re not the many many thousands at PAX and GDC (I really want to go next year!).  They’re not the industry professionals looking at Xbox Indie Games with too much reverence.  Don’t think because you don’t hear from them they don’t exist.  We know because they e-mail us all the time.  They’re just the millions of Xbox users who want to try something different.  I don’t think many people have seen too many games like Fatal Seduction, Mirror, or Blow?

My third theory is based on the assumption that comments like the following simply aren’t accurate. “What the hell is wrong with you? Are you guys that self-centered and dickish that you don’t care who you hurt as long as you have your laughs?”  All the magic behind Xbox Indie Games happens on the App Hub.  It’s a place where we have more peer reviews and play tests than anyone else.  It’s a place where we’ve helped out countless developers over the years and make promotional videos featuring other people’s games to simply help promote others and Xbox Indie Games as a whole.

One App Hub member wrote the following “I don't agree with the assessment that they (Silver Dollar Games) are some kind of "shadowy power-broker" somehow controlling what gets on XBLIG. I've got four games released on the service and have been deeply involved in the community and have never seen this sort of behaviour from them.” 

I hear all the time from developers that they want a two tiered system for Xbox Indie Games.  A place to put the premium titles and place to put what they would call ‘shovelware’, as they deem fit.  I usually point to the top rated tab when I hear comments like that.  It is a two tiered system though.  If you’re a developer who thinks your game is really special you can always pitch it to Xbox Live Arcade.  It’s open to anyone who has a game idea.  If the XBLA team thinks it’s an awesome game they’ll help you put it on XBLA. 

We hear comments like “You clearly have no shame.”  No.  We have no shame because we’re not ashamed of our games.  Our games take a lot of work.  We’re just two brothers making games because we love to make games.  You can read all about it here.  For all those people that think Xbox Indie Games is full of junk, I invite you to make a good game yourself.  I think it would be a lot more constructive than complaining about other people’s games.  We’d love to play it and maybe learn a few things from it too.  The great thing about XNA and Xbox Indie Games is that anyone can do it.  It’s a great experience and I think everyone that’s interested in video games should try it at least once.  We take great pride in all our games, even our lesser known ones like Ranger and Hockey Fights.

James Silva, the developer of I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES!!!1 says in this wired article that he finds it “pretty disheartening to see some of the more bloodthirsty critics denounce the platform that makes your livelihood possible, as a failure.”  I personally feel that critics must do whatever they need to do to get more readers, so I don’t blame them.  I feel it’s disheartening to see other developers denounce the platform.  This is a message to all the developers who are thinking of giving up on Xbox Indie Games.  Don’t, here’s eight reasons why you shouldn’t.  When you start taking ownership of your own games performance only then will you start seeing success.


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Comments


K Gadd
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You claim that nothing is wrong with XBLIG and that developers only have themselves to blame for poor performance. How do you reconcile that with reports that even relatively successful XBLIG developers like Zeboyd are able to bring in significantly larger revenues on PC via services like Steam without having to put up with the App Hub approval process, shitty developer tools, and hardware constraints?

Robert Boyd
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Actually, the XNA tools that Microsoft provides are really good for being free. And the Steam approval process is much more difficult than the App Hub approval process. As for hardware constraints - yes, the XBLIG environment is more restrictive than developing for super computers, but on the other hand, it's nice to know exactly what kind of hardware your game is going to be played on.

Jonathan Flook
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In my blog post 'Eight Reasons To Make An Xbox Indie Game', my #2 reason is the following:



Xbox Indie Games has also helped many developers get their game on Steam. From what Iíve read in the App Hub forums itís hard to get an indie game on Steam, but many developers have used their Xbox Indie Game as a sales pitch to Steam. Beat Hazard, Defy Gravity, Your Doodles Are Bugged, Cthulhu Saves the World and Breath of Death VII are all example of games on Xbox Indie Games that are now on Steam. Itís amazing to see exceptional games get twice the exposure, I believe partly thanks to the amazing opportunity Xbox Indie Games provides.

Robert Boyd
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It's true that XBLIG has been a great stepping stone for many developers to bigger and better things. I had just hoped that the service itself could have done better. It's a bit discouraging to look at the top downloads list and see the top 3 slots dominated by blatant Minecraft clones.



Though I'm fine with the whole indie jam sort of mentality to Silver Dollar Games's rapid release of games (and have even occasionally enjoyed some of their more arcade style offerings), I'd be interested to see how they justify blatantly sexist games like So Many Girls So Little Time, Dont B Nervous Talking 2 Girls, Who Did I Date Last Night?, and The Perfect Pickup Line.

Jonathan Flook
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Donít forget our upcoming games 'Whoís The Daddy?' and 'Cassieís Animal Sounds'. Our wives and girlfriends were fine with it.

Michael Celey
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I have an Xbox Indie Game of my own, For Glory. It's been out for just over a year and sold around 1800ish copies in that year. I don't consider the game to be an over the top success, nor do I think it was a failure. The game was a good learning experience and I'm working on the sequel to it right now. Who is to credit or blame for my middle of the road experience with XBLIG though? That would be me, and to an extent Microsoft since I released two days before the market redesign that screwed over all of the indie marketplace for like a week, but mostly me (I could've picked a better time to release).



I don't blame any other developer for my game not being a hit. I had long load times that took away from gameplay. I wasn't active enough in the community to draw attention. I was lax on sending out review requests and game codes. Hell, I released next to Steam Heroes which is a great game and I don't blame them either. I think all XBLIG developers should take responsibility for their games doing poorly or otherwise flopping. You pick yourself up, make a better game than you did last time, market it better, and work for your success. It's not just gonna fall into your lap and no other game on the service will detract from what you've made if it's truly great.

james sadler
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I think he App Hub element is one of the more important arguments provided here. XBLIG isn't like platforms such as iOS where the only approval process is one to make sure it works ok. App Hub is a filter that can prevent some game from getting through to consumers. You make good points about the amount of time games have on the new releases page and the reality is that with such an open platform if a developer can't get traction there they never will. I don't think Silver Dollar Games has ruined the platform, I just don't think it is a platform that people necessarily want right now. The thing about iOS and Facebook games is that those are platforms that people can take with them, that aren't tied to a console. Having those markets available diminishes the amount of potential customers that XBLIG has, so it is up to the developer to make a game that will draw as many of the existing customers to their game, not the platform's. There is a lot to be said about doing a little research into the market/platform one is developing for before getting pissed at anyone other than themselves if their game "fails."

William Volk
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Don't they have CHARTS? As in, what's selling best?

Jonathan Flook
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Thereís a chart you can look at, although it doesnít give sales figures, it only sorts the games by best selling. You can view the chart on Xbox.com -> Indie Games -> Sort by: Best selling today or Sort by: Best selling all-time. You can also sort by top rated and release date as well. But note there are different charts such as U.S., Canada, U.K. and you must make sure you have the appropriate tag entered at the end of Xbox.com, for example: http://www.xbox.com/en-us vs. http://www.xbox.com/en-ca.

Michael Neel
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We keep a log of past charts for each region at XboxIndies.com - example http://www.xboxindies.com/game/the-jump-hero/stats



These charts are from xbox.com however and don't exactly match the charts players see on the xbox dashboard.

Curtis Turner - IceIYIaN
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I just started on a C# XNA GS 4.0 project... It's pretty simple to get a 2D game up and running. Well, at least the basics. I've always been a non-money making modder, so, being able to have WindowZ commercial use instantly and $99 a year for X-BoX LIG and WindowZ Phone is pretty tight. I think I'mma try and get it on Desura.NET(ModDB.CoM) and with any luck other services like Steam/XBLive.



As for getting more money and people aware, XBLIG are made by a few people... I have a feeling they don't surf the Internet enough and post about their game as much as they should.

Curtis Turner - IceIYIaN
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As for crappy games... Just look at WindowZ, there's endless and endless... That platform does amazing yet, because it has -amazing- games.

Dave Voyles
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It's a very well written and fair article. You raise a number of points here that I agree with as well. SDG has had a mixed bag of releases, there is no denying that, but it would be obnoxious and untrue to ever state that they have much to do with the failire of other developer's titles on XBLIG.



There's a plethora of issues wrong with the platform, many of which lie directly in the hands of Microsoft. It's a matter of whether or not they see it as a viable one worth supporting. It easily could be.



I can elaborate more when I'm on the computer, but just wanted to chime in while I could, and to demonstrate that a lot of us see it from both sides of the coin.

Denis Nickoleff
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Speaking from a consumer perspective, I think people have trouble with their indie games making money because they made the same game someone else made, and everyone already knows about ( like the large amount if zombie games and twin stick onslaught style shooters). Or they just made a crappy game, they didn't test it outside their team, 5 people thought it was fun and they thought that would equate to a few hundred at least.



Ive demoed many games in there, I've come to expect crappy cover art, minimalistic product descriptions, and vague screen shots so that's really the only way. The vast majority of the time it's a game I found marinally enjoyable. Of the volume in there, I have considered 5 worth purchasing, and the only one that still continues to hold replay value is Pixel the Cat. A fair amount of that comes down to preference, but the fact is that most people and developers making XBLIGs have really low production standards and are just as guilty as Silver Dollar Games for rushing to shovel the next ' I made a game with zombies' out the door for 80 points. If someone's product isn't selling they have only themselves to look at as they should have had a good idea of how it would do before they rolled it out the door.



Furthermore it is complete and utter foolishness to almost literally 'roll the dice' and leave your marketing in the hands of the recent releases and top downloads lists. You get 50 download codes generator for a reason, and while it's hit or miss sometimes, gaming journalists and reviewers make their contact information available for a reason.



All the good games I've found on XBLIG I found via reviews and told my friends about, which in turn caused forum discussions, etc. One developer isn't responsible for the low standards of every other one that uses the service.

Denis Nickoleff
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I should have said. I agree that XBLIG itself could have been done a lot better and is in need of an overhaul. That's a whole other rant though, it cannot be denied that it needs work, but a bad product is a bad product and the collective far outweighs what Silver Dollar puts out. Everyone has their following but if a developer wants more, it's really up to them. Games were selling long before XBLIG and steam came along. It's something called advertising, and also, your product being worth the asking price.


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