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XBLIG and Creative Freedom
by Jon F on 09/08/12 05:31:00 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.

 

I’ve always wanted to express how amazing XBLIG is for allowing creative freedom.  This article may also apply to other markets, but I’m only going to relate it to XBLIG for experience sake.

My name’s Jon from Silver Dollar Games and creative freedom has been the single most important reason why we enjoy making games on XBLIG.  We recently won the 2012 Dream.Build.Play contest for our game One Finger Death Punch and when a friend asked us how we felt, this was our response.

One Finger Death Punch 

“Last week our four year old nephew was trying to avoid finishing his dinner.  We thought, what if that was a game, and laughed to ourselves.  When we were that age we used a similar bag of tricks to avoid eating our vegetables.  So we started to invent game mechanics. Will other developers let us make our “Eat Your Dinner” game? If some had it their way they’d say ‘Not on XBLIG you won’t’.  We’re very thankful just to be involved in the Dream.Build.Play this year, but we’re more thankful that Microsoft allows everyone the creative freedom to pursue any idea. I believe XBLIG is an incredible place because it lets everyone explore their own ideas without a tribunal vote.”

Developers and indie fans have often said that there are reams of crap on XBLIG and they can’t find the gems they’re looking for.  XBLIG allows anyone to make a game, no matter what skill, education, or idea someone may have.  But it’s that freedom that frustrates some.  We need to talk about the frustrated few who blame many first time developers, or quirky developers like Silver Dollar Games for the “failures” of XBLIG before we can get to the good stuff, so let’s just get that out of the way now.  I put quotes around “failure” because I feel XBLIG is anything but.  There are easily 250 games that have made good money.  You can see for yourself by going to Xbox.com, select ‘Xbox Games’, select ‘Indie Games’, sort by ‘Best selling all-time’ and you’ll see the top 250 games which have made money ranging from $5000 to $2,000,000.  There are only 2600 games on XBLIG at the moment and easily 10% of them have worked out ok for the developer.  This is old news because I’ve mentioned it before in this blog post.

http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JonathanFlook/20111102/90527/XBLIG__Taking_Ownership_Of_Your_Own_Successes_And_Failures.php

DigitalDNA, who I personally feel is the most successful XBLIG developer of all time, broke some serious myths about XBLIG in his blog post a month ago.

http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/ThomasSteinke/20120726/174826/The_Myths_about_Xbox_Live_Indie_Game_Development.php

It’s important to read those blogs because they provide perspective and really show how disconnected some people are to what’s really going on in the XBLIG world.  From time to time I see “reviews” for XBLIG games that were simply learning experiences or small little experiments.  I put quotes around “reviews” because really, why is anyone reviewing a student’s first game or a game a father made for his son?  Some of these scathing reviews of XBLIG are the equivalent of someone watching a bunch of short films by students and saying they look like student films.  XBLIG is treated with way too much reverence.  Some people feel that developers on XBLIG should all abide by a special code enforced by the most noble that states “thou shall not make a game that I don’t approve of”.

What’s the quality standard we’re aiming for?  XBLA standards?  No, if that was the case everyone would simply skip right over XBLIG and go straight to XBLA?  I remember at one time, a group of people got together and wanted to create a ‘Seal of Approval’ that a developer can put on their XBLIG game that showed the customer their game was a cut above the rest.  Who was going to judge who got a seal and who didn’t?  Well, are you friends with me?  Do we talk regularly on twitter?  That doesn’t seem fair, how about we make one almighty judge?  Maybe God?  No no, how about we make Silver Dollar Games the judge?  Hell no, anyone but them.  After all, they’re the worst people in the world according to this guy.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aba8etwtnco

Some developers have suggested special tabs separating the “junk” from the good games.  I put quotes around “junk” because I don’t see developer’s hard work as junk.  There are tabs to find gems, all kinds of tabs.  There’s a ‘Picks’ tab, ‘Kotaku’s Hand Picked Favorites’ tab, ‘Contest Finalist’ tab (which SDG has been on for three years), and a ‘Spot Light’ tab.  You can even search by Most Popular and Top Rated.  In fact the Top Rated is kind of like a ‘Seal of Approval’ now that I think of it, except you can’t give it out to your friends as easily.  I have a question, who are these people that can’t find the games they want on XBLIG?  I’d like to meet them so I can show them firsthand how easy it is.  Thousands of people figure it out every single day.  The bottom line is if you can’t find what you want on XBLIG maybe the service isn’t for you.

Sorry, but that had to be covered before we can move on to why XBLIG is so great. All the magic happens on The App Hub.  It’s a place where anyone can help shape future games with input and ideas.  For less than $100 you can get an annual App Hub membership.  Even if you have no interest in programming you can still download games in development and try them out before they’re released.  There’s also a neat place where developers can put their games up for playtest so other App Hub members can give feedback.  For the last four years there have been consistently ten to fifteen games in playtest and each one has had some great constructive feedback from play testers.   That’s something anyone can do, programmer or not.  People say “stop making rubbish games”, how about you stop complaining, get active, get on The App Hub and help someone make something special.  And heck, you can play the games for free while you do it. 

Steam Greenlight’s a great place for developers.  We all know it, and everyone’s on it.  Maybe enough people will vote for your game and you’ll get it on Steam, I wish the best of luck to all the developers on there.  One way Greenlight and XBLIG differ is that there’s no vote or popularity contest on XBLIG.  Few people know how refreshing it is to simply make your game, your way.  There’s no one there to write comments like:

"Why is this even attempting to be a standalone game?"

"Horrible.... just horrible."

"Terrible graphics = retro. This is just bad."

You can do any idea you wish, not what someone else tells you to do in a forum.  We don’t have much experience, but when we try to make a game for someone else, it can be a challenge.  When we try to make a game for our own enjoyment it’s like magic.  It’s always fun, always exciting, and a positive experience all around.  We know because many of our games were things we’d want to try ourselves, first and foremost.

That’s why XBLIG is special, because you can be you.  You can make whatever your heart desires.  I know you can make your own game, your way on other platforms.  My point is, there are no exceptions on XBLIG, and anything is a go.  Many people say, “Make a game for yourself, just don’t release it.”  I ask, why not?  Why can’t I share it with the world?  They say, “Because it clogs up the XBLIG system and makes it look like a joke.”  For the second and last time, nothing’s clogged, it’s really easy to find great games.  If you think XBLIG is a joke than you should tell that to the thousands of people buying these awesome games...  Avatar Golf, Beat Hazard, Zombie Estate, College Lacrosse 2011, Flight Adventures 2, Head Shot 2, ZP2K9 because I don’t think they’re in on the joke.

Head Shot Z 

Another reason why XBLIG is so special is because you can share your deepest most personal ideas with the world.  That’s why you release it.  That’s why you don’t just make a game and not show anyone.  Even if your game’s a Pong clone.  You share it with others because the hurdles you conquered made it a personal triumph.  It’s about sharing a part of you with others.  Even if only one person connects with your idea, that’s an achievement (and I’m not talking about the Xbox 360 kind).  For us, it’s our strange humor that we love to share.  Like our unreleased game Xbox 360 on the Go!, or our unreleased game You Will Buy This Terrible Game.  I know these two examples are strange because, they’re “unreleased”, but they show the uncensored us.  Our other 60 games are around for people to find.  This is us, we like to joke around and have fun. (Not at other peoples expenses, please read this if you think otherwise.)

Here’s a few little stories about how some of our game ideas came to be.

I remember someone calling us sexiest because of games like “Who’s The Daddy?”.  The “EVIL ONES” are at it again…  But this is how Who’s The Daddy came to be, not through sexist evilness, but just a story about watching too much TV.  My brother use to work at a grocery store and during his lunch break he would sit in a small room that had an old TV that only picked up a couple stations. Well, during his lunch break the only thing he could watch was the Maury Show. Every day on the Maury Show, Maury would bring a girl on stage followed by a bunch of potential fathers.  Like always they do a paternity test to see who the father is. It’s very Jerry Springer like of course, but that’s the fun of it. Well one day we were laughing about the show and starting to think of a game just as ridiculous. After joking around a while and we started to think of gameplay mechanics. The next thing you know we were laughing at the idea of a game called ‘Who’s The Daddy?’.

Who's The Daddy 

My dad joked about a fortune cookie game one day at the dinner table.  We laughed and thought it would be hilarious to see.  So we did it, Fortune Cookies In Bed.  The game’s description is “The most advance fortune cookie game every made”.  Clearly we’re just having fun with it. 

Fortune Cookies In Bed 

My sister and I were camping one night and she said, “Wouldn’t it be funny to have a game that combines sniping and dating?”  She then said, “You can call it, Shoot or Date”.  So we did it, and Shoot or Date came out on May 10th 2011.  Its tag line is “If only there was a third option.”

Shoot or Date 

Our sister makes strange animals sounds so… you bet, Cassie’s Animal Sounds.

Cassie's Animal Sounds 

Sometimes I think, can’t we just make games without people losing their minds?  Do we have to make a retro RPG, a voxel FPS or a twin stick shooter to appease the masses?  Well that’s all part of a bigger concept my brother and I call “The Indie Advantage”.

The Indie Advantage

So you don’t have a team of programmers and artists?  You don’t have huge budget for development and marketing?  You have to make the coffee yourself?  So what’s so great about being “Indie”?

The answer is “freedom”.  Because an indie game developer has less overhead and comparatively low development costs, they can assume greater risk.  This allows the indie developer to create a project that has the potential to completely tank in the marketplace and still remain is business.  A few thousand dollars in labour and assets is nothing compared to the tens of millions of dollars many AAA games demand.

To make the most out of being “indie” you need to explore your unique advantages.  Making extremely low budget versions of XBLA or AAA games is fine but you’d be neglecting the most important opportunity the indie developer has.

Creative Freedom

It means creating concepts that players have never been exposed to.  It means introducing new ideas to the gaming community and watching the reaction whether it be good or bad.  It means thinking “I have no idea if this will work” and doing it anyway because it’s unproven.

Creative freedom does have its price and the magnitude of the cost depends entirely on the attitude of the developer.

The Price of Freedom

The more creative and different the game, the more divided the audience.  Just like the music industry, if you create a pop album (“Call of Duty”), you’ll attract the largest audience.  However, if you decide to release an album of cats meowing advertising jungles (“Try Not To Fart”), your audience will be significantly...less.

Try Not To Fart 

It’s not just a simple matter of having a smaller audience.  The opinions of the players become more passionate as the game wanes further from the “norm”.  As an example; a diehard “Call of Duty” player may dislike an overhead mini-game shooter like “RAID” but would absolutely abhor a game like “Don’t B Nervous Talking 2 Girls”.

RAID 

Don't Be Nervous Talking To Girls 

On the flip side of the coin, you have the potential to acquire a base of hardcore fans that are equally passionate about your creativity.  There are a very large number of players out there.  It’s nearly impossible to create a game nobody likes (we haven’t seen it yet).  There’s no reason why an indie developer shouldn’t create exactly what they want to.

Or is there?

The internet has given everyone a voice and they’re not afraid to use it.  Anger incites people to speak out much more than contentment or satisfaction.  You need to grow a thick skin and know that there are many more entertained players out there than negative emails or tweets.  We have the numbers to prove it and the numbers don’t lie.

There are a few people in the App Hub community that purposely try to make life difficult for developers and games they don’t see as ‘up to their standards’.  They bend the rules in an attempt to cull what they would call “crap” from XBLIG.  They rarely add constructive criticism and can slow down your review process.  However there are ten times more people working hard to help others in a positive way and I assure you the App Hub is an all-round good experience.  Avoiding the bad apples is easy and making new friends is even easier.

There’s always a price to be paid for standing out.  Silver Dollar Games gladly pays that price.  The comments we get for better or worse remind us that we’re free.  Free to make the games we want to make.  Free to make games that strike a nerve, form a guilty smile, and remind people that video games are entertainment.  Love us or hate us, we’ll continue to bring a unique brand of entertainment to the video game industry.  XBLIG is all about the “Indie Advantage” and we’re thankful every day to be a part of it.  We encourage everyone to join the App Hub and here are eight reasons why you should make an XBLIG.

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Comments


Kyle Redd
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You should rethink your frequent praise of XBLIG as a place where anything goes. Try and put an educational game about human reproductive health on XBLIG, then ask Size Five Games why Microsoft won't let you "make whatever your heart desires" on their service.

Jon F
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XBLIG does have a set of rules for violence, drug use, sexuality, and other content of that nature. There are a handful of things you canít do, but from my experience thatís pretty much the same on other platforms like Steam and the App Store. However, Iím not 100% sure on the exact restrictions on each platform. One thing Iím sure, not many platforms will let you release a porn game, or a terrorist game. Itís generally extreme content like that which is not allowed on XBLIG.

Itís a shame an educational game of that nature isnít allowed on Xbox. Thereís another article on that topic Iím sure. Why canít someone make a game that has adult content if itís purely for educational reasons? Because developers like Silver Dollar Games may try to make a joke out of it? Well, thatís not really our thing even though we do have a game called LOAD, which is about a sperm. Actually we released a game on XBLIG called ďHelp Fight Breast CancerĒ. All the money we raised we donated to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. It was purely educational and unfortunately we probably failed to make it entertainment enough. The game covered things like risk factors for breast cancer in both woman and men, to statistics and treatments for patients with breast cancer. We raised a pathetic amount, something like $300. We ended up donating $500 in total because we just couldnít bear the thought of donating less than that.

We learned a few things about making educational games from our game ĎHelp Fight Breast Cancerí. Hopefully we can try something else in the future and have more success with it.
For now Iím still going to praise XBLIG as a place where anything goes, because weíve been able to do anything weíve dreamt up. For us, itís very exciting to make games like Toad Manís Bizarre Quest or Sins of the Flesh and I believe games like those would never be on a console if not for the amazing opportunity XBLIG has given us.

Nick Harris
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Presumably, you reuse code? I'm just wondering what secrets you have to your high levels of productivity. I think it is always worthwhile to put time and resources into boosting productivity with better tools. Eskil Steenberg spent a lot of time making custom 3D tools for his game LOVE that worked the way he wanted to work, rather than struggle along with baroque monstrosities like Maya - assuming he could even afford it!

I've never even tried one of your games, but good luck nevertheless with your business strategy.

k s
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My only issue with XBLIG is the sheer amount of 2D platformers and twin stick shooters there are on there. I've found some really awesome games too but I kind of have to dig through piles of platformers and shooters to get to them.

Jon F
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I have a thought, and I could be wrong, but I'll share it anyways. I think there are many twin stick shooters and other 2D platformers because of the XNA programming language. XNA does a really great job making 2D games. Not that XNA can't do spectacular 3D games, as we've seen the rise of a handful of highly successful voxel and Avatar FPS games. I feel that XNA has a significant amount of tools to help the beginner put together 2D games. Actually that's exactly why Silver Dollar Games doesn't have a 3D game. We aren't skilled enough, don't have the tools, and XNA has been so 2D friendly to us.

Of course one could ask, "So you say that XNA makes 2D games easier? Cool, but why specifically twin stick shooters and 2D platformers? Why not try something else? It doesn't have to be a cat eating a bowl of cereal, but anything else."

I'm thinking maybe it's harder to get original when it comes to 2D, I'm not sure. That's a good idea for an article. Getting original in a 2D environment.


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