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A Fresh Defense of XBLIG
by Ryan Rigney on 03/20/12 09:40:00 am   Featured Blogs

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

 

Here are some prevailing notions amongst developers about the Xbox Live Indie Games Channel:

- Most of the games on the marketplace are crap.
- It’s impossible to make substantial money unless you create a Minecraft clone.
- Microsoft hides the channel from its users so it can show more Doritos ads.

And yet, we at Utah Raptor Games will be launching our first game (called FAST FAST LASER LASER––check out our floundering Kickstarter campaign here), for the Xbox Live Indie Games Channel.

Are we stupid?

Maybe. Maybe not. We’ve read all the articles, so we know what we’re getting into. We’re aware of XNA’s flaws, but we think that it’s still the best possible platform for FFLL. Here’s why:

 

Our Game Would Suck on iPhone/iPad/PC/Mac/etc.

I’ve spoken with dozens upon dozens of developers about the thought processes behind their games, and it seems like most games come from a designer thinking about how to make something fun using the tools they have at hand. Flight Control was a result of Robert Murray trying to invent fun ways to interact with a touch screen. Halcyon came from Zach Gage’s desperation to build a simple, engaging game for the iPad.

FAST FAST LASER LASER didn’t come about that way. It was born out of our love for Bomberman ’93 and a realization that nobody is currently making games in that vein. We want to make a great competitive multiplayer game that people can play on the couch with their friends, and it just so happens that the iPhone would totally suck for that. Sure, we could slap some virtual controls on it and release it on iOS, but that’d be evil.

So mobile is out of the question, and PCs aren’t great for local, same-screen multiplayer, so consoles are the only thing that make sense for us. Given that the Wii is already a dead console in the minds of traditional gamers (our target audience) and that Playstation Minis is a bit too restrictive for our purposes, XBLIG is the only reasonable platform for FFLL. Plus, everyone who would buy a game like FFLL already owns an Xbox 360.

 

Ease of visibility in the marketplace

With FFLL, we’re filling a void. There aren’t any games like FFLL on the Indie Game Marketplace (or on any other distribution platform available to Xbox 360 owners, for that matter). We’re not making another shm’up, a creepy dating sim, or a side-scrolling whatever, so our hope is that people will latch onto FFLL for its originality. More than once, I’ve scrolled the XBLIG channel searching for a solid multiplayer game to play with friends. With few exceptions, there isn’t much out there.

Also, I feel confident enough to throw this out there. We have better box art than every other game on the XBLIG Marketplace.

 

Microsoft and the XNA Community Are A++

Lee Dubose and Jonathan Broom are handling coding duties for FAST FAST LASER LASER. I’ll let them speak to this:

“Microsoft has made almost every resource that they could available to programmers to create things on XNA. That’s what the essence of the XNA platform is––the drawing methods, the update methods, everything is designed so that we don’t have to completely reinvent the wheel. Their tutorials, code samples, and APIs have been really well done. It’s extensible to any sort of project you’re working on. For every aspect of video game programming, they have tutorials or code samples, which greatly reduces the learning curve of coding for Xbox.” – Lee Dubose

“The XNA community is also very helpful. There are a lot of devs who are willing to take the time to help you with problems that they’ve encountered before. The Creator’s Club is full of people who know what they’re doing. I lurk so hard on those forums.” – Jonathan Broom

 

C# Is For Cool Kids

“A language as robust as C plus added features like garbage collection (because memory allocation sucks) is exceedingly user friendly. The library is large, too. It’s very extensive. It’s an easy language to learn. I didn’t know any C# before beginning this project. Building off of my own knowledge of Java and C, I had no problem picking up C#. It’s an efficient language that’s been optimized for projects like this. In my case, I’ve also had some previous experience with Visual Studios.” – Jonathan Broom.

 “Its [Visual Studio’s] enumeration abilities are fab.” – Lee Dubose.

 

Proportional Potential for Profitability

This one’s the most important.

We’ve seen a lot of independently reported numbers, and we know that not many XNA devs “make it big.” Luckily for us, FFLL isn’t the sort of project that needs to sell 100,000 units to be considered a success. It’s a small game; there’s no story mode, no fancy ranking system in multiplayer, and no plans for post-launch DLC of any sort. It’s a simple game based on some inventive mechanics that we think make it a really fun multiplayer game. Oh, and there’s bots.

FFLL is being built on a very restrained budget. Other than our $5,000 Kickstarter campaign (which might not be successful), it’s being funded entirely out of our own pockets. 

We’ll be selling FFLL for only 240 MSP ($3). That’s a low number, but it’s a good value for what the game is. It’s low enough to ensure that people get their money’s worth, but high enough to reflect the time we’ve put into crafting FFLL into a really solid game.

With all that in mind, we’d be happy with as few as 5,000 downloads. That’s all it would take for us to consider FFLL a success. We’re believing/hoping that it will sell many more units than that, of course, but we’re trying to be reasonable about things.


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Comments


Robert Boyd
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I welcome your enthusiasm, but I don't think you've thought your business plan through very well.

"With FFLL, we’re filling a void. There aren’t any games like FFLL on the Indie Game Marketplace (or on any other distribution platform available to Xbox 360 owners, for that matter)."

That's not true. On the cheap end, you have Explosive Gas for 80 MS points (http://marketplace.xbox.com/en-US/Product/Explosive-Gas/66acd000-
77fe-1000-9115-d8025855084c). On the more expensive end, you have the actual Bomberman Live for 800 MS points. As of 2009, Bomberman Live has sold over half a million copies and I imagine that number is noticeably larger today. With so much of the potential audience already owning Bomberman Live, your game is going to have to be extremely impressive to manage to persuade them to buy it when they already have a perfectly good game of that style.

"With all that in mind, we’d be happy with as few as 5,000 downloads."

5,000 sales at $3 is not a low-end estimate. If anything, that's very ambitious for a studio with their first release. Your average $3 XBLIG title from a new studio struggles to break even 500 sales with most selling only a hundred or two if that.

In general, multiplayer-centric games do very poorly on XBLIG. It's hard enough to convince one person to take a chance on a low budget game but with multiplayer games, you have to convince multiple people each time.

Michael Wilson
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Online multiplayer games always do poorly for the reason you mention (even the excellent Take Arms and Creed Arena). Local multiplayer like this doesn't suffer from the 'have to buy more than one copy to play with friends' problem, but most local-multiplayer XBLIGs have no or awful AI which makes them demo badly (who has friends around to try XBLIG demos) and worthless when you're on your own.

I agree though that relentless downwards price pressure in XBLIG (due to top downloads not being price-weighted) means that 400 MSP is effectively dead and only the very best titles can even hope to justify 240 MSP. It's ridiculous when you see the same games selling on Steam for twice that, but that's the state of the channel. I can't see a bomberman clone selling well above 80 MSP.

Ryan Rigney
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Hey Robert, and thanks for the response (I love your games). I'm going to have to check out Explosive Gas, thanks for that!

To be more clear, when I say "Bomberman-style game," I don't actually mean a mechanical clone of Bomberman. FFLL shares traits with Bomberman (it's in an arena, it's top-down, 2D, and competitive), but the combat mechanics are completely different.

And the game does have great multiplayer AI, so people won't have to convince others to join them in order to make a purchase. Sure, the game is way better with friends, but that's just because playing against bots isn't a social experience.

Admittedly, I'm no expert on the marketplace, but has there been much evidence out there to suggest that developers with existing XBLIG titles do any better than those without? I'd always suspected that Cthulhu Saves the World did so well because it's a great, eye-catching premise for a game, moreso than because of any preexisting fanbase that built up after the release of Breath of Death VII.

Robert Boyd
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Actually, CSTW sold drastically less copies than Breath of Death VII did on XBLIG (although overall revenue was higher) and I imagine the main reason was price. Minecraft clones aside, $3 is a really tough sale on XBLIG. For another example, Escape Goat only sold 560 sales at $3 in its first month or so and that's a game from a respected developer (he did the Soulcaster games).

WILLIAM STIERNBERG
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I like your enthusiasm, but I don't see how this defense of XBLIG is fresh at all, as it is an extremely common perspective among newer XBLIG devs to the scene, and one that has been stated numerous times by numerous devs over the years. That the tools are awesome, the community excellent, the service reasonably open, and that it's an outlet for a certain type of games are a defense that has been reiterated many times, by many people, over the past few years.

This really isn't a defense so much as a "Here's what I think is nice about the service." Which is great! Don't get me wrong, I don't think XBLIG is all that bad - I love it. It's not a huge money-making machine for many types of games, but it has strengths there.


I believe that your opinion will change a bit after about 1 week after your game's release. While I believe you might maybe hit 5k downloads of your game's trial, I do not believe you will attain 5,000 sales. I've seen very high quality games with great concepts (and box art) struggle to attain 3k in sales, even at 80 msp.

Besides few instances of MP-focused games doing well on the service, your 240 MSP price might be a great deal, and it certainly isn't a high price point in general. But on XBLIG, you're competing with a LOT of high quality games at 240 MSP and at 80 MSP. As such while you might hit 5k downloads, expect your conversion ratio to be somewhat limited.

I would also note that there is, indeed, a Bomberman game on XBLA called Bomberman Live. It sold exceptionally well and provides an outlet for this type of game on the "upper tier" of XBox Live's marketplace.

Nicholas Wilson
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"We’ll be selling FFLL for only 240 MSP ($3). That’s a low number, but it’s a good value for what the game is. It’s low enough to ensure that people get their money’s worth, but high enough to reflect the time we’ve put into crafting FFLL into a really solid game."

I haven't played the game, so I can't say for certain, but a 240msp a game is usually reserved for pretty high end games on the XBLIG. I've seen too many fantastic games on the XBLIG price their games at 240 only to have virtually no sales. Heck I've seen great 80msp games that haven't sold well. I would play your game and see how it matches up to other 80msp games like Explosive Gas, Little Racers Street and other fun multiplayer games. Is your game 3 times better than these games? Is it that much more attractive to the average consumer?

As much as many XBLIG feel their game is worth more than a $1 it's hard to prove that in a market that is so crowded such as the XBLIG. (For example there are a ton of $1 games on the XBLIG that I believe on a Wii or 3ds E-Shop market could easily sell for $5 dollars or more.)

For the record I'm not saying don't attempt making an XBLIG and the marketplace is terrible, but you need to understand what the market is in order to sell your game and price it properly.

Ryan Rigney
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As someone who has written critically about iOS games for years, I HAAAAAAAAAATE the "this game is $2.99, therefore it should be three times better than this $0.99 game" argument. That said, it seems that you and others in this thread are in unanimous agreement that 80msp would be a wiser price point. I'll take it to heart.

Ryan Rigney
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Heya William,

Yeah, I probably should have titled the article "Why We're Putting Our Lasers In Your XBLIG."

I appreciate your honesty about the sales thing. I really hope you're wrong, but I feel like I have every reason to believe you. How did your games do, first week-wise?

WILLIAM STIERNBERG
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I don't recall the exact first week numbers, but BODVII took a couple of weeks to hit 5k in sales, at 80 msp / 1 dollar. CSTW took about a month to hit a similar number at 240msp, but had a lot more media coverage, the Winter Uprising, and a dashboard promotion. (overall CSTW sold far fewer copies than BODVII but the revenue was higher). If you're curious to see how well numerous games do on XBLIG their first day/week/month, you should check out the sales thread in the xna community forums. I just want to point out that 5k sales at 240msp is not a low, conservative guess; it's actually a really ambitious number for an XBLIG game.Side note, there are also numerous post mortems out there talking about sales data and such.Anyway, I don't mean to be a downer or anything, I just want to provide another perspective.

Ryan Rigney
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I did see that sales thread in the XNA community forums. That FortressCraft guy makes everyone else look bad :/

And you're no downer, of course!

Sean Hayden
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I agree with you heartily about XNA and C#, especially in your case because if Xbox sales falter, modifying it for a PC release is rather easy. However, as far as Microsoft's support for XNA developers, I'd have to say that it is rather lacking in at least some areas. As an example, the App Hub/XNA Creator's Club/whatever it is now website lacks a number of essential features and really is poorly laid out.

A few issues I experienced personally were:
- no way to upgrade an account from non-paid (Student) to paid
- no way to discontinue or otherwise change annual payments (!)
- no way to cancel an account

It's entirely unprofessional that the above tasks cannot be performed online. And the above is just from my very brief interaction with the service.

Ryan Rigney
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I haven't personally run into any of those issues, yet, but I've definitely heard similar sentiments from other devs. What's the deal with the inability to change annual payments? If you change your bank, would you not be able to alter the payment destination?

Sean Hayden
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I wasn't able to. Granted, I specifically was searching for a way to cancel the payments, so I may have missed the option for just altering them, but as far as I could tell, the "how to change your billing" help page is inaccurate, and instructs you to press a link that does not actually exist.

Similarly, instructions for canceling one's account are given for most account types, but none exist for XNA Creator's Club.

Ryan Rigney
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Sometimes I wonder if these sorts of services aren't intentionally designed to make things difficult :P

Nathaniel Marlow
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C# being kickin' rad isn't really related to XBLIG, though.
There's actually a bit of non-XNA game middleware floating around out there that'll let you bite into that sweet, sweet C# potato. Unity comes to mind and is quite popular (and for good reason!). There's also several projects aimed at creating cross platform implementations of XNA with mono. Last I checked, none were quite 100% complete, but I think monogame is in a usable state these days.

Anyways, other people seem to be discussing your other points thoroughly and with more relevant experience than I can provide on the subject so I'll leave it at that. Good luck!

Curtis Turner - IceIYIaN
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Another XNA developer who passes on the bazillion WindowZ users. X-BoX controllers can be plugged in via usb or you need the wireless reciever. Not to mention all the other input devices. I guess there might be slight coding issues, but still.

Ryan Rigney
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You're right about there being far more potential customers on Windows, but I've never plugged four Xbox controllers into a PC, gathered around a monitor, and played a game with friends. I don't want people to have to go that far out of their way to play the game the way it was meant to be played.

Robert Boyd
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Oh and I hope I wasn't too negative. I wish your group and your game the best. I just don't want you to get your hopes up - plenty of good games have come out on the service and sold next to nothing (and pricing your game at anything above $1 increases that risk). It's definitely a good idea to try to hedge your bets by making a PC version as well (which if you're using XNA isn't that much extra work).

Ryan Rigney
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I think if we were to do a PC version, it would HAVE to have online play. We'll consider it, but only if it isn't a total flop on XBLIG.

And you weren't too negative. Honest feedback is the only feedback with any worth. Thanks!

Colter Haycock
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Ryan-

I agree with a lot of your points (C# being flexible and easy, XNA being a great framework to easily build games and your game sounding most fun with a controller and TV) but I have to stand with Robert and William when it comes to pricing. I'm certainly no XBLIG expert like they are, but I did release a game last May and follow a lot of XBLIG action. The one thing I tell anyone looking at XBLIG, it's stick to 80MSP. Almost no games sell well at 240MSP and a lot of devs have mentioned how much more revenue they made after dropping the price.

That being said, there IS money to made on XBLIG. It's not huge and it's certainly nowhere near what you can make on Steam, but it's there. The game I worked on, called "Minions!", reached 20,000 sales last week and continues to sell about 30 copies a day.

Keep up the good attitude and best of luck with your game! I hope it exceeds all our expectations :)

Ryan Rigney
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I'm definitely reconsidering the price point, now that I've gotten all this feedback from you guys. It feels wrong (this game is worth more than a $1), but I'm putting the option back on the table. Thanks a bunch for the well-wishes, too!

Camilo R
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It's not perfect but when it comes to tools and documentation I've found nothing better. There are countless samples, books, and start-up kits. I've yet to deal with payment options which seems to be their weak point. We have Sony doing similar now, so competition is always good. Other than that, what other venues would be better for indie devs?

I've tried iphone, the market may be there but the tools haven't been up to par. I've not done much with Android though. And Sony is just starting to do something similar, although they do sometimes take some devs under their wing but that's totally different than XNA. So what really is the silver bullet? what platform can you develop for and be guaranteed success?

Kris Steele
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There is no guaranteed success. I urge you to check out that sales data thread and see what games with similar graphics and gameplay are selling (if you can find something similar). 5,000 copies at 240 ms points isn't an easy target to hit. If you aren't realistic about expectations, you may find yourself very disappointed.

Porting to other platforms is a great way to get extra value out of your game though. My title Hypership Out of Control sold under 2,000 copies on XBLIG. The port to iOS took a month or two and has sold over 4,000 copies. That was much less work than creating a new game from scratch. I'd really consider PC (since you're doing XNA already) and possibly mobile platforms like iOS. WP7 is an option too (and easy to do the porting) but honestly my sales numbers are extremely low on that platform.

I also wouldn't tie great artwork to high trials. My best selling XBLIG title has crappy artwork that I created myself (I'm a programmer). The couple games I've contracted out professionals to create artwork for have sold considerably less.

Ryan Rigney
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Hey Kris, you just made another sale (the iOS version of HOoC).

Your artwork isn't actually that crappy––it's kinda endearing, actually. Before we hired Keith Burgun (of 100 Rogues fame) to do the art for FFLL, the placeholder art for the lasers in the game were just penises that our programmers drew in Microsoft paint.

james sadler
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I'll agree with a lot of the people on here that 5k on XBLIG at $3 is ambitious. It is one of the reason's that we've steered away from that market for our games. It is a tough platform to make it on, though I agree that it is a great platform (and what got me into actually making games). If I were you, and since XNA does it somewhat easily, I would port a version to PC and submit it to at least Desura and Steam. PC might not be the best platform for a local multiplayer, but that doesn't mean that it can't work on it. Plus it would give you more exposure which could increase sales on XBLIG. Having more games under your belt may help a little at least in helping you get exposure both inside and outside of XBLIG, but the market is so flooded now that it doesn't carry the weight it might have a few years ago. Whatever happens, good luck.

Achilles de Flandres
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Well, good luck to you and your team. I released my own game as XBLIG last year. I did 100% of the art, design, production, and hired a programmer to do engine-level code (I did most of the gameplay scripting). I pulled in 3K in sales, but after Microsoft's take and taxes, I only pocketed about $0.50 for every $1 it made (I sold the game for $1). I lost money on the game in the long run because it was too ambitious and had too many people involved. Ideally, if I could have just done everything myself, I would have made a decent haul. And, 3K in sales is actually really good considering the platform, the game did really well considering.

I would suggest that you guys look at this project as a team-building / experience-building enterprise. Make the game and have fun, don't worry about money.

James Petruzzi
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As others have mentioned, 240 points is a death wish on XBLIG. My game Take Arms started out at 240 pts, and we had the Indie Game Summer Uprising promotion behind us. We expected just like you, 5-10,000 sales and wed be happy. After 2 months we cleared 2,000 copies, then dropped to the bottom of the barrel selling just 1 or 2 copies a day. At the end of November we dropped the price to $1. Here's a chart that illustrates:

http://discordgames.com/?p=1348

Best of luck to you!

Ryan Rigney
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It's almost offensive how useful this is. Thanks so much, James!


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