In a recent Gamasutra interview, indie developer Jonathan Blow argued that Steam and iOS are also simpler for developers to deal with than with Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade service.
Blow's platform plans for his next game – a 3D adventure called The Witness – haven't been decided yet, even though his first game, Braid, was first published in August 2008 on XBLA, where it became a huge hit.
He estimated that The Witness will have a $2-million budget and that "if the goal is to make that $2 million ... I'm pretty sure we could make that back just off Steam and the iPad safely. Like, it's not even a gamble to say that."
He added that he can "live a comfortable life and just put my game on Steam without that much of a hassle, or I can have the XBLA business people dick me around and give me asshole contracts that I need to spend three months negotiating back to somewhere reasonable ... it's like, at some point, the question 'Why should I do that?' arises."
Blow admitted, however, that XBLA does still have its appeal since it "does have a big audience, and it's still probably bigger than Steam for certain kinds of games." Still, he said, "the argument that XBLA is the biggest market is starting to come into question."
Number None's The Witness
Zeboyd's Boyd had considered trying XBLA, but had heard about how high the barriers are to entry.
"Before we released on PC, we were really thinking about trying XBLA, but given our success with Steam, I'm not quite sure it's worth the bother," he admits. "Especially if we're going to get the same or even better sales on PC as we would on a console. Why make the extra effort to make certain we meet all of Microsoft's requirements to get their official approval if we don't have to?"
According to David Edery, XBLA's worldwide games portfolio planner from 2006 to 2009 and now principal of consulting firm Fuzbi LLC, XBLA's first party group has had a high barrier to entry for years now.
"Back when a slot on the platform was considered a 'golden ticket,' it didn't matter," he says. "You were practically guaranteed to turn a profit if you released a decent game on the platform."
He adds, "if the platform were even remotely as reliably profitable for developers as it once was," the high barrier wouldn't matter. "But we're not hearing those boom stories anymore. Maybe they're still happening, and they just aren't getting talked about; I don't know. But it's bad for Microsoft. They need those inspirational stories to be told loudly and often. Otherwise, there's just no reason for a developer to put up with the uncertainty and the hassle commonly associated with the platform."
Edery believes the most promising digital platform is currently the open web where, he says, there are hundreds of web-based gaming portals hungry for good content. These range from relatively small sites to bigger players like Armor Games, Kongregate, the Chrome Web Store, and so on. He describes that market as the best of all worlds – fragmented enough to prevent any given player from exerting undo control over developers and yet unified by common technologies and conventions (such as Flash and, soon, HTML5) which make it very easy to work across portals.
Unfortunately, he says, some web-based portals – particularly some of the larger ones – "seem to be stuck in the Stone Ages," he says. "They haven't embraced free-to-play monetization systems yet, and they still treat developers like unimportant distributors of disposable content. Those portals will change or die," he predicts.