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XNACG Renames To Xbox Live Indie Games, Adding User Ratings To XBLA, Add-Ons
XNACG Renames To Xbox Live Indie Games, Adding User Ratings To XBLA, Add-Ons
June 11, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander

Alongside its latest update to XNA Game Studio, Microsoft reveals a name change for Xbox Live Community Games: Aiming to increase "understanding and discoverability" of titles on the service, it'll now call it Xbox Live Indie Games.

The name change will appear on the consumer side of Xbox Live sometime after late July, according to official Microsoft statements on its official XNACG website.

Microsoft also revealed that, in response to user feedback, it would add user ratings to both community games and "much of the Xbox Live marketplace content", including Xbox Live Arcade and game add-ons. Ultimately, the company will add the ability for users to sort content by rating.

The company also says that it's also incorporated user feedback into its decision to upgrade the whole Xbox Live service for performance and stability, enhanced friends sorting and improved matchmaking support.

These additions and the User Ratings update have no set release date, but Microsoft says they're expected some time in the Fall.

Getting into technical specifics, XNA Game Studio 3.1 adds several new features to the community-oriented game creation toolset, including support for Xbox Live avatars, eight-way Xbox Live Party group chat and video playback in games.

Notably, you will now be able to "render and animate Avatars to use in your game to represent gamers and other characters within your game", according to Microsoft. (This feature was previously reserved only for retail and Xbox Live Arcade games.)

In addition, Xbox Live Indie Games will now support Xbox Live Party, which "...enables gamers to communicate, even when each gamer is not playing the same game in the same multiplayer session."

Video can be used for splash and logo scenes, cut scenes or in-game video, and the feature's new XNA Framework APIs support fullscreen playback, video playback to simple textures, start-stop playback control, and more.

A full list of updates to XNA Game Studio 3.1 is available on Microsoft's official 'What's New?' website for the application, which is free to download but requires a $99 yearly Creators Club Online subscription to upload games to Xbox 360.

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Mike Lopez
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User ratings will be helpful to help find quality entrants but MS needs to go further to feature the best titles with a mechanism to sort by quality rating. Apple's App Store has the ratings but not the sort and users still needlessly have lots of trouble slogging through the crap to find the relatively few gems. It seems logical to me that the more the publisher helps feature quality titles and ensure their success the more they will raise the bar and further expose the greatest achievements of software on the platform. Currently Apple only features Most Popular apps and so they continue to promote silly/low value/low quality novelty apps like iFart, which in my mind does the platform a huge disservice.

Getting back to Microsoft, they should change the name again from XBL Indie to GTPHCABTDGA (Games That People Hardly Care About Because They Don't Get Achievements). ;-)

Anatoly Ropotov
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How long will it take to actually allow games to connect to the internet? Let's make bets: 2011?

Bob McIntyre
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The "YouTube of games" idea sounded great. I guess I'd rather have an "iTunes of games," but...on the 360. We have the App Store already, I'd just like to see a nice searchable place where good games can rise to the top based purely (or as close as possible) on merit. Allowing a few achievement points wouldn't hurt, either.

Mike, I personally find something anthropological in the level of technology represented by the iPhone and the fact that one of the most popular apps on it is a fart-noise maker.

Adam Bishop
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I'm not really sure what you mean, Anatoly. Xbox Live Indie Games already allow for multiplayer gaming, and some games have implemented peer-to-peer high score lists.

Anatoly Ropotov
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I've released 15+ products for XBLA and after I've moved on to MMO games, my team worked on XBCG title.

Adam: who cares about being locked in a box? How about some freedom out there, ability to connect to the real internets! Widgets, games as services, etc.

Duong Nguyen
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That won't happen, since Microsoft makes too much money keeping people locked in their proprietary network (XboxLive). Makes sense from a business standpoint but not so good for the consumer. I believe the PS3 allows you to connect directly to the internet, so there is always that route if your an indie developer wanting to make a MMO on the console (not sure if Sony has anything like XNA though).

Anatoly Ropotov
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ddn d - right on point! As soon as an indie will be able to produce a more engaging experience in 2 months without certification than a 14 month project with a certification the days of traditional gamedev models will be counted.

That's why you'll never see a decent consumer-targeted explanation of what XBLA:IG is. It's portfolio will still be poorly sorted and confusing enough to detract mass players from the whole "crappy experience of $0.99 crap games". That's why there will be no achievements and no presence information on which great XBLA:IG game your friends are playing, etcetc.

There's already a bunch of XBCG games that shine as bright as XBLA ones, but they'll be burried in alphabetical lists amongst the Fireplace screensavers (hey, didn't I pitch that in 2006?).

Amir Sharar
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Anatoly Ropotov said: "There's already a bunch of XBCG games that shine as bright as XBLA ones, but they'll be burried in alphabetical lists amongst the Fireplace screensavers..."

That is definitely the case at the moment. My hope is that user reviews would fix that issue, but that largely depends on how MS decides to implement it.

Sites like XNARatings.Com that depend on user ratings have been very good at featuring quality games. The top 30 titles listed there are all worth at least checking out. If MS can duplicate something similar to that then I think XBL IG should be alright. Then again, you could have all those who purchased the rumble games giving it a high rating...

Mike Lopez
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@ Anatoly: I agree there are some very good community games, but the percentage of good to crap is very small and they are hard to find unless featured externally. I personally do not look there much because it is such a long shot of finding something good. For those that have not tried it, check out CarneYvale for a great example on the community (now Indie) section of XBL.

@ Bob: My point is that low value titles are rewarded for their novelty, not for their quality. Apple (and XBL Indi) need to adopt new mechanisms like top rating lists or searches to help promote and celebrate the quality but they continue to fail to do so. They should likewise discourage the crap by having poorer quality titles filter off the promoted lists. Only when it becomes less profitable to shovel out minimal production quality will the platform evolve towards a higher standard.

Anatoly Ropotov
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@ Mike: The amount of initial crap was intentional to demolish competition against XBLA where publishers were spending high 3 number budgets to develop their games. The process of not setting a minimal rating barrier or content quality was created to discredit the initial idea.

MS: "Heyy!! we support indies!!!" (but we will not provide them with any visibility though so their sales with suck unless these are the guys who were pitching XNA for us to other indies or they will get freaking lucky! all xbox players will go into alphabetic catalog that will suck so hard they will never come back again. we don't want any competition so publishers will not be scared of a 17-year John who wrote that cool physics puzzle that sold million copies but their 29th re-release of emulated titles did not sell well)

Anatoly Ropotov
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@Amir: If they will implement it as "TOP10" versus "sorting in each place by rating", it will turn XBLA:IG into AppStore. Let's wait and see.

Jamie Mann
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@Anatoly: there's always going to be friction between XBLA and XBCG - it'll be interesting to see how Microsoft deal with this.

In terms of "access to the internet": the Xbox 360 is a closed system, for multiple reasons - anti-piracy, anti-cheating and (most important of all) a secured revenue stream. There's other factors too - if Microsoft offers too much internet-facing functionality on the X360, there's a risk of cannibalising their other markets - after all, with a HDTV and a mini-keyboard clipped onto the control pad, a lot of people may ditch their PCs and laptops!

That said, for all the negative points about XBCG, it's head and shoulders above anything offered by the Wii or PS3 - and the things Microsoft are doing now are definitely steps in the right direction. If people want to do something more, there's XBLA and/or the PC market, though both carry their own additional overheads and risks.

Overall, I think Microsoft have done their best to navigate a tricky path: on one hand they don't want to cannibalise sales, and on the other hand they need to be seen as engaging the community at all levels.

The main weakness with XBCG is the variable quality of the games and the sheer volume. Given that Microsoft are finally introducing ratings (which many people - including myself - think should have been included at the beginning), the next logical step would be to introduce a sandbox model: have new XBCG placed onto the platform in demo-only mode and define a set of criteria (e.g. 4 weeks to get a rating above 60% and at least 1000 downloads) which must be met for the game to be made commercially available. One of the benefits of a closed system is that this should be a lot harder to game.

On the other hand, I'm not entirely sure that I'd want the quality bar raising - going down that path runs the risk of XBCG effectively becoming a slightly cheaper cousin to XBLA and locking out the majority of the community it's meant to be fostering. Again, it's a tough path to walk...

Ultimately, I think Microsoft needs to produce a more abstracted rating and content model - the current system is better than what they used to have, but is starting to suffer volume overload. I'm a great fan of filtering via combination of tags (e.g. arcade, indie, action, mature, platform, puzzle), personally...

Anatoly Ropotov
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@juice uk: Anyone here willing to ditch their notebook in favor of HDTV with a long cord mini-keyboard? How about some internet browsing with TiVo or Wii? Bleh. Tried that, never worked, cause the whole TV+keyboard concept doesn't work. The text gets blurry, bad for your eyes, content rendering sucks, no Flash scaling, etc.

Funny that you bring anti-piracy in question. Before a product is accepted at XNA, it goes through some testing. Do you think someone will be able to squeeze a C# emulator into a mini-game that will get approved and they will provide a way to download mini-games from the internet? Nah, that same moment the app will be pulled and the system wouldn't be able to connect to the real internet before it's authenticated at LIVE and is verified against the blacklist.

Anti-cheating? LOL. How would enabling C# XNA access in a secure virtual machine would make cheating possible? There's no access to the file system anyway. (You were already able to cheat with cable plug-in/plug-outs to take advantage in some games, save games, etc. Most of it is either obsolete or blocked by now).

Actually Sony was one of the first to provide a real homebrew devkit with Yaroze. I remember playing so many Yaroze games from PSOne demo discs - that japanese sensible soccer clone was AWESOME.

Steps in the right direction? Well, the step in the right direction is an AppStore. "Guys, here is our platform, here's our devkit, sorry for the lame acceptance process and NDA, we've removed the last bit and FREAKING ENJOY THE PLATFORM!!! YOU MAKE OUR PLATFORM COME TRUE!"

So what is exactly the difference between XNA and AppStore? Restrictions. Restrictions. Restrictions.

The only reason they don't want to do it is to provide some strangers alternative ways of earning money. Basically MS flows along the stream and doesn't want to bring anything that could cannibalize their current biz model. How about free to play Facebook apps on Xbox as widgets that you could pop in during Gears of War?

If they would've delivered XBLA for PC with micro-transaction support (08/14/2007 - Microsoft has announced that they will be releasing a new update this holiday season for their Games for Windows Live development tools allowing developers to put their Xbox Live Arcade titles on the PC.) they would've revolutionized casual market with a great platform. But it's still nowhere to be seen, right? Besides that, have you tried the worst game launcher of all times "Games for Windows - LIVE 2.0 Setup"? I guess XBLA for PC at that rate is never coming in, unless Zune team will step in along with Windows 7 guys. These guys know the meaning of innovation.

Meanwhile, even Sony with their PS Store on PC managed to pull out a better solution...

Jamie Mann
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@Anatoly: taking each point in term:

1) On my HDTV running at 1080p (said TV being a mid-range model from LG about 2 years ago), text is nice and sharp. I often run my notebook through it for casual Youtube/social networking activities.

Equally, if Microsoft released a browser on the X360, I'd expect it to be competitive with the PC version of IE. Unfortunately, I doubt they can dump a straight port of IE onto the X360, which is part of the reason why it's highly unlikely that MS will ever move in this direction - the only other real alternatives are either embarrasing (opera) or involve direct competitors (Safari, Chrome, Firefox).

Admittedly, cannibalisation of OS sales may be unlikely, but things have evolved a lot since the first web-tv experiments. Opera on the Wii is surprisingly decent - the only two caveats are the resolution and the flash support.

2) anti-piracy: I never underestimate the ability of pirates to get around restrictions, especially on an open platform like the PC where the architecture is well understood and development and analysis tools are freely available. Sadly, I'd expect XBLA/XBCG games to be hacked and freely available within days of being released

3) anti-cheating: I was actually thinking of things like network-snooping aim-bots and the like, though I suppose this equally applies to the X360. In either case, the open nature of the PC makes it a lot easier to hack into things

4) First homebrew: agreed, Sony did provide the Yaroze for the PSX (and included a copy of BASIC for the PS2 in Europe to reduce taxes), but I don't think it's possible to argue that the Yaroze was mass-market: it carried a significant price premium and the distribution mechanism was highly limited. Conversely, Microsoft have given away the XBCG dev kit, created a community to foster development and defined a distribution mechanism which all X360 owners can access. I'd say that's a step in the right direction

5) AppStore: it's important to remember that the Appstore is essentially a marketing bulletpoint for Apple: they make their money from sales of the hardware. It's also important to look at the way the AppStore market has gone: the market was quickly saturated and the pricing of games has dropped to compensate. Apple doesn't particularly care about this - they get the same cut regardless of whether 50 games sell 1000 copies or 500 games sell 100 copies - but it has a significant impact on developers. There will always be big sellers, thanks to either word-of-mouth, advertising, good timing or novelty (e.g. iFart), but these will be the exception, not the rule.

The recent Gamasutra article "I want my 99c back" estimated an average gross revenue of $2668 per game. Even if you multiply by a factor of ten, that's not enough to support any significant resource, which in turn impacts the quality of the assets which can be produced. Which in turn means that the quality of games on the AppStore is likely to decline over time as people move to higher-margin markets.

Overall, neither fully-open nor fully-closed is a good model: the trick is to try and find a compromise somewhere in the middle.

Time will tell what the best solution is - I think we're a long way off things being resolved.

Anatoly Ropotov
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@juice uk:

1) Unfortunately HDTV penetration as decent as yours is still minor. A lot of casual people will never figure out which resolution to set to get crisp text, which TV filters to disable to avoid text blurring/burning and their viewing distances will be sub-optimal, thus it's not going mainstream until few year will pass. I'm sure MS will end up rolling it out by that time, they don't want to alienate their userbase by bringing a browser that will have to work on those crappy SDTV sets. I agree with you on Wii Opera experience. Also don't forget how mediocre PS3/PSP browser usability is when you throw in something half-baked for the sake of having an extra checkbox marked in a "Sony VS Microsoft" war. As for the IE on X360 - let's see which browser they will pull out on new Zune, it might be based on KTHML/WebKit.

Anyway, I didn't start the thread to comment on browser on X360, they have enough usability teams to make it reasonably cool.

2) As XBLA/XBCG is still unhacked, I do not believe things will change if Microsoft will open a way for C# to connect to internet. It will surely crash the VM and apps will have to gracefully handle service outages, disconnects, etc - but all of that was done on iPhone. As you know everything on Xbox runs inside under hypervisor control, so people should've figured out long time ago how to crash XNA VM and get higher privs, but that won't happen thanks to hardware protection.

A more valid concern is... they are scared of seeing avatars doing funky stuff with porn jpgs streamed from the net, but that could happen to any iPhone app as well, so it's a minor worry.

3) If you've ever tried to sniff Xbox traffic, it's actually encrypted. Providing XNA with a way to connect to the internet wouldn't magically allow it to access traffic from other games.

4) Agree, however it's not a step, it's a PR. DirectX on PC was stuck at version 9, Managed DirectX failed, XNA 1.0 was a failure, they had to move elsewhere and find a reason for it to exist.

5) I do not agree with the $2668 valuation per game as you should make a portfolio evaluation: blatantly throw out the crap, separate crapgames, casual games, branded games, etc. You'll hear "an average of $2668" story about PC indie games on some forums as well - it's the same issue = lack of visibility.

But I'm back to my original topic - internet access and games-as-a-service model. I'm talking about Zynga/PlayFish/etc styled games with micro-transactions and player interactions. That's what's hot.

Amir Sharar
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juice uk: "Ultimately, I think Microsoft needs to produce a more abstracted rating and content model - the current system is better than what they used to have, but is starting to suffer volume overload. I'm a great fan of filtering via combination of tags (e.g. arcade, indie, action, mature, platform, puzzle), personally..."

There seems to be a widespread issue regarding digital marketplaces. Web-based shopping has had the benefit of over a decade's worth of refinement..sites like Amazon have gone through many changes.

When you change it from a point and click interface to a controller based interface, "volume overload" as you put it seems to be the biggest issue. Implementing filters with a point & click interface is somewhat user-friendly. On a console's controller, it takes more "effort" on the part of the user. I totally agree though, filters are a good thing.

One interesting development is that an XNA developer is trying to make his own 3D interactive shopping interface (this program is currently not written in XNA as it queries, but he hopes to come up with a working prototype. You can walk into a virtual store, lined with shelves full of Community (now Indie) Games, and browse them. When you check a game you can see screenshots as you do on the Live Marketplace. I'm assuming that each genre has its own isle, and that Top 10 for each genre is featured.

My initial response was that this was a move in the right direction. We are all familiar with browsing rental stores for games. Though a counterpoint is that nowadays people want things quick with little delay, I'd argue if someone decides to browse, they've planned to invest some time in doing so. Secondly it ties in the videogame experience with the shopping experience very well. Gamers will know how to use it instantly. If they could meet other like-minded gamers in the store, and talk about their planned purchases, that's even better. Now that XNA 3.1 features Avatar support, this idea starts sounding a lot like Sony's Home, but focused on shopping.

Product visibility is a big issue and we can spend a lot of time discussing this. It's interesting to see MS address this somewhat with the NXE update, but with Community Games approaching the 350 game milestone, it's a relevant issue again.