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The Changing Indie Landscape: Steam Beats Xbox?

September 13, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[Should developers drop Microsoft's online services in favor of Steam or even the open web? We speak to independent developers and Microsoft itself to discover what developers should be weighing in their decisions when choosing platforms.]

The digital landscape is shifting, and the current platform of choice may not be the same as it was just a short time ago, say several developers recently interviewed by Gamasutra.

They suggest one is more likely to find success by heading over to Valve Software's Steam digital distribution platform than to rely on some of the other digital mainstays, like Microsoft's Xbox Live Marketplace or Apple's iOS.

Case in point: Robert Boyd, founder of Lake Arrowhead, CA-based Zeboyd Games, whose first RPG – Breath Of Death VII: The Beginning – came out in April 2010 and sold about 50,000 copies on Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIG) at $1 each.

After toiling another eight months, he released a larger RPG -- Cthulhu Saves The World -- on Dec. 30, again on XBLIG, this time charging $3 because of the additional work that went into it.

"So far we've sold about 16,000 copies," he says, "which means it's earned just about the same amount of money as our first game -- even though we spent so much more time creating it."

Disappointed in the outcome, and encouraged by other developers to drop XBLIG and shift from Xbox 360 to PC games, he spent the next few months adding new features and porting the two RPGs over to PC. He released them – bundled together for $3 -- on Valve's Steam platform on July 13.

"In just five days, our Steam revenue had already surpassed our annual revenue on XBLIG," he reports. While he prefers not to give exact figures, he estimates his five-day Steam earnings to be over $100,000 -- "which, as you can imagine, really impressed us, and has motivated us to make PC games much more of a priority than Xbox."

Cthulhu Saves The World

In Boyd's opinion, the advantage of working with Steam is that it treats indie games and AAA games "pretty much the same. When we released our titles on Steam, we got a front page ad that lasted about a week, and we were placed in the 'new releases' and 'top sellers' lists, which gave us a huge promotional push that XBLIG never gave us."

Boyd says his experience with Steam isn't all that unusual, having heard from other developers that they had similar experiences – not selling well on XBLIG and achieving much more success with sequels or other games on Steam.

"XBLIG is a good place for beginners," he says. "The software is all free and there's a lot of documentation online to teach you how to use it. But it doesn't really pay well for most people unless you get lucky, have a couple of standout games, and sell hundreds of thousands of copies. My recommendation is to start with XBLIG, get some experience and exposure, and then move on to Steam or to the official Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) platform."

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Alfe Clemencio
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I think Nintendo did something like that with the Nintendo Seal of Quality. Well... maybe the approval process prevents .99 cent games like iPhone.

Still... much rather publish on Steam.

Robert DellaFave
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I don't really see the point of this article. Of course it's better to publish on Steam, but it's not like just anyone can do it. XBLIG accepts all games that pass some simple tests; quality is never measured. Steam accepts only the very best, or at least what they perceive to be the very best. Therefore this argument is null and void. I'm not a game developer but according to this guy we should all run out and have our games put on XBLIG and Steam right away and watch the millions roll in.

Megan Fox
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The article is a bit odd. I don't think anyone is arguing for open market (ie. Xbox Indie is not grand for sales) so much as curated marketplaces with indie-friendly policies.

The big difference between Steam and XBLA, beyond marketplace policies / sales / etc, is that an unrepresented indie can get onto Steam so long as they've demonstrated a kick-ass game (and even better if said kick-ass game already has some buzz behind it, etc). XBLA, on the other hand, requires a publishing arrangement - which necessitates all manner of negotiating with publishers - and being granted that ticket then assures no ad support on XBLA unless you have additional agreements in place / signed away more of your profits / etc.

XBLA's still a worthy target, depending, but the barrier for entry is likely higher than is necessary for a curated marketplace, as is pretty clearly demonstrated by Steam. That's the only point being made here.

The curated vs open market is an entirely different debate. Edery and I disagree on that, and it really just depends on the sort of product you want to create, the sort of profits you expect from it, and in general on the sort of company you want to run. Both are viable, and neither one should supplant the other.

Stephen Horn
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I find the disconnect between how indies view XBLA now and how Microsoft views it to be... I'm not sure if I should say "amusing", "troubling", or just "odd." I was at PAX Dev, and the "Corporate Devs Go Indie" panel was 5/5 (actually, I guess it was technically 6/6) against XBLA and XBLIG, as well.

I guess Microsoft must still be making an agreeable amount of money from the service, but I wonder for how long, if indies abandon the service.

Ken Cation
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I agree with Edery--the open web is the way to go. Flash games can easily be ported across different game portals. They can also be turned into executables for windows, linux, and mac with practically no effort, and then sold through Steam. Just don't commit to any one platform. Instead, plan to diversify your income stream as much as possible from the start. Shameless plug: I'm actually trying to start a niche flash game portal, so if you do decide to go that route, check out (possibly NSFW in the near future).

Denis Nickoleff
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Another barrier to xblig and xbla not listed is the one for international developers who have to register with the IRS to get an ITIN which they must the put on a form to get microsoft to send them due payments. Meanwhile pretty much everyone else will handle such things through their offices in those countries to make life easier for developers so that they can do some developing.

Achilles de Flandres
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Never new that XBLIG was even considered in the same running as Steam. PC Players tend to have more interest in the indie-scene than console players.

Tyrone Rodriguez
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Chris' responses read like they were written by MS' PR agency. I'd rather read some candid answers from him over crisis communication.

Marvin Hawkins
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I was thinking the same thing. Instead of giving his actual opinion, it sounded like a bullet point statement.

Bart Stewart
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Why don't most indies choose to self-publish, bypassing the Steam and XBLIG gatekeepers altogether?

Not every game is going to be a Minecraft, but Minecraft does prove that it is at least possible to do very, very well independently.

If the primary virtue of Steam and XBLIG is perceived to be the existing communities of players to whom a new game can be advertised, that makes some sense... but is the potential of getting your game in front of those eyeballs worth the effort of jumping through the associated hoops? If you're going to have to expend effort to market your game no matter what, why not do so directly instead of hoping that a third-party aggregator will be equally motivated to do it for you?

Robert Boyd
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The reason why most indies don't self-publish is because the #1 problem as an indie developer once you've actually finished making a game is to get people to realize that you've made a game. Having your game on a service that already gets immense traffic like Steam, XBox, Playstation, the Apple App store, etc. can be a huge boon to visibility. Plus there's the whole logistics of running your own store which a lot of indie developers would rather not bother with.

Minecraft is also an unusual case in that it's driven by player creations, thus making it a prime candidate for viral marketing and creating player communities. Minecraft's the kind of game that when people get into it, they REALLY get into it. Most games aren't like that.

Alfe Clemencio
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Why not just sell at Video game conventions? Huge concentration of the market is there right. Not to mention you can get press if people find your game interesting enough.

Daniel Campbell
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I think of the the biggest problems is the promotions the platforms do. How many times did you see Cuthulu Saves the World on the home channel of the Xbox? I counted 0. While on Steam, Cuthulu Saves the World was well featured on the front page.

Jamie Mann
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It's definitely unfair to compare Steam with XBLIG.


Low number of games on platform (284 indie games in total: first indie game published in 2005)

Low volume of releases (10-15 per month)

Games are put through a quality gate prior to approval

Channel owner generally provides at least some promotional support


High number of games (2035 in total; first game published in November 2008)

High volume of releases (approx. 50 per month)

Games are not put through a quality game prior to approval

Channel owner provides little or no promotional support

Altogether, it's not too surprising that games released on XBLIG generally don't sell as well, as there's significantly more competition and far less publicity - similar applies to the far more overloaded App Store for Apple devices.

Beyond that, there's two more points:

1) The publicity from the XBLIG release almost certainly helped CSTW - a presence on XBLIG has previously been seen to act as a gateway for other developers (e.g

2) As the number of games (and/or the volume of releases) rise on Steam, the increased competition means that sales for the vast majority of games are liable to drop - it's already happened with XBLA and the App Store. The only exceptions are high-profile titles and one-offs such as Angry Birds (which was accompanied by significant amounts of grass-roots promotion)

So sure: for the minute, Steam is the place to be *if* you can get on there. But it won't be that way forever...

Marvin Hawkins
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I agree with Jamie. XBLIG is a great platform for exposure. I am also sure that some devs would kill for a little under a 100k in sales. I'm sure that will vary, as some people's burn rate will be shorter than others. As a stepping stone thought, XBLIG seems fantastic. I haven't played his games, but I've seen them covered on nearly every major gaming blog. Some indies have even gotten larger publishing deals from this.

As far as the 'just publish to steam' thing. Steam is a closed platform. Zeboyd probably wouldn't have had interest from Valve had his games not been popular elsewhere.

All things aside, though the platforms (App Store, Xblig, Xbla, Steam) are not exactly an analogous comparison, they all have one thing in common: A dedicated audience. I would guess that it is easier to reach this audience than to try get traffic on an unknown dev's website. Each of them have their pros and cons, but the exposure and opportunity of each can't be discounted.

Jeremy Reaban
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Indeed. It's pretty doubtful they would be on Steam had they not gotten a lot of hype from being on XBIG and coming popular, because let's be honestly - the Zeboyd games are pretty much below RPGMaker quality.

Are they amusing? Yes. But in terms of their quality as RPGs, they leave a lot to be desired.

Raymond Benefield
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I'm with this.I am only planning on releasing for XBLIG because it is an open platform. Sure I could do flash portals and what not, but those are heavily saturated with great titles. The gems that do show up on XBLIG get a ton of exposure and as a result they are then able to push their titles towards more restrictive platforms like Steam. Note that I'm only really pointing towards the gems because there is a lot of really bad titles on XBLIG.

My plan is do it first with XBLIG cuz it is easy, then from there work my way up. I may be a special case because of the hundreds and hundreds of people that know me on the xbox due to my rep in the Halo community, but I know that I'll have an easier time if I target the xbox first and then move up from there. Once I break in and finally release a game then we can talk about moving forward.

First goal for us starting indies though is to get something done and released. Thousands of people talk about making a game, but very few actually finish one. I feel that working with XNA and XBLIG is a great and easy way to get your first game finished and out there with minimal competition. So my vote is XBLIG as a first step then move to bigger things after you've finally released something.