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Why Did PC Strategy Game Dev Stardock Release A Christmas XBLIG Game?
Why Did PC Strategy Game Dev Stardock Release A Christmas XBLIG Game? Exclusive
December 13, 2011 | By Mike Rose

Stardock is best known for its hardcore PC strategy titles, and is currently in talks to release its back catalog via Steam, after it sold its Impulse digital distribution service to GameStop last Spring.

Who would have guessed, then, that the developer would publish a title for the Xbox Live Indie Games platform quite out of the blue -- and a Christmas-themed game, no less?

Yet this is exactly what happened, and Elfsquad7 is currently available to download for 80 Microsoft Points, or $1, with 1-4 player local co-op platform gaming the main course.

Understandably, Gamasutra's first question for Scott Tykoski, lead artist at Stardock and developer at Elfsquad7's indie team Tykocom, is: Why Xbox Live Indie Games? Why the rather odd jump from PC strategy titles to colorful and very silly multiplayer platformer?

"We've been playing with XNA on the side for a while," he explains. "Its multi-platform appeal, where a Microsoft designed codebase would run on PC and Xbox, has us intrigued from the beginning. It's an impressive toolset for sure."

He notes that, when it came to making a game with a rather limited theme, the platform made even more sense to his team.

"When making a Christmas game, you're always aware of its limited appeal, so you scope the game accordingly. While it certainly could have been designed with a bit more 'epic-ness' for the Arcade channel, we knew that a small, one dollar holiday title would be our best bet," explains Tykoski.

"At the moment, only the Indie Channel allows that price point on a console. Plus we're indies at heart, so hopefully our involvement encourages pessimistic gamers to take another look at the channel (which has a fair share of gaming gems)."

That indie spirit which Tykoski mentions is even more present in that Stardock has created its own spin-off indie company called Tykocom, under which everything Elfsquad7-based has been released.

Going back to the Christmas theme, again Gamasutra must ask the question: Why? Was Elfsquad7 always a Christmas game, or did a similar concept take on a Christmas theme with the holidays fast approaching?

"It was always a Christmas game," says Tykoski. "I knew it could be made in a few months and once I had a polished prototype up and running, we quickly saw its appeal and Stardock was happy to put some marketing muscle behind it."

He continues, "Granted, now that the holiday season is half over I wish it was a genre that would sell year-round, but regardless, it's been successful and it was a fun side project -- and there's always next Christmas for updates and another bite at the apple!"

Regarding sales and expectations of the title, Tykoski explains that sales reports for the game have not yet come in, although attention from press and gamers has been good. "The coverage and comments for Elfsquad7 have been steady and positive, which we see translating into some impressive holiday sales," he suggests.

Stardock lead designer Derek Paxton adds that the team would definitely release a game via Xbox Live Indie Games again, "if it was the right game, especially if Scott wants to release another version of Elfsquad7 next year."

As for what's next for Stardock outside of XBLIG, Paxton explains that Stardock is sticking to its usual guns. "Next up for Stardock are two PC strategy titles. Elemental: Fallen Enchantress is a turn based strategy game set in dark fantasy world and Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion is a real time strategy game and the next chapter to IGN's 2008 'Best PC Game of the Year.'"

[Update: Stardock has received sales figures since the interview took place, and apparently the game hasn't sold as well as first hoped. Stardock's Brad Wardell has since tweeted, "So clearly, the indie game channel on the Xbox is a waste of time from any sort of commercial POV."]

[Update 2: Wardell has clarified the above statement to Gamasutra, explaining that the comment was made in response to "some other indies who ... believed that we were probably making 'big bucks.'" According to Wardell, the company never expected to make money on the game, which Wardell says has sold less than 1,000 units so far.

"The issue with the XBLIG is it's too buried, the typical gamer is never going to find it," he said. "It's a good channel for those who want to dip their toes in Xbox game development, which is what we were doing. But if you wouldn't want to try to make a living making games that way."]

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Matthew Mouras
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I like Stardock. It's nice to see a bit of love for Indie Arcade as well. Indie games are almost featured more prominently in the recent dashboard update.

Curtis Turner - IceIYIaN
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XBLIG, now PC? And what's the rush?

Jeremy Reaban
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So let me get this straight: A PC centric strategy game developer puts out a cutesy platformer on XBLIG without any fanfare or publicity (this is the first I've heard of it and I own most of Stardock's titles) and they are shocked when it doesn't sell well? And it's the XBLIG's fault?

They also picked a name (and art style/theme) that is probably forever tainted by one of the worst games ever created - Elf Bowling.

Brad Wardell
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Just to be clear here, I was tweeting in response to indie developers who wanted to know if they could make a living asking xblig titles to which I say no. It would be a waste of time.

As mentioned in te article, we wanted to ae a $1 Christmas Xbox game. We didn't have any sales expectations. We just wanted to make the game. :)

Freek Hoekstra
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it is nice how Twitter always pulls everything out of context..

anyways seems like a lovely game (although I have to admit that this is the first time I hear about it too)

and 4 player multiplayer game for 1 euro, that's always great :) so atleast you'll have 1 sale extra due to this article ;D

Vicente Cartas Espinel
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There are indie studios making a living of XBLIG right now. Milkstone is one of them for example ( They have very short release cycles (around 2-4 weeks per game at most), and while their last games didn't sell very well, they got a nice hit with Firing Range (top seller after all the Minecraft clones).

But it is true that it is very hard to live just from XBLIG, as it is very hard to live just from the App Store, the Android Market, PSP Minis,... But those markets help an starting indie developer to learn a lot of things (like polish, not many people pass peer-review the first time they try), how to promote your game,...

And if the game does reasonably well on those channels, you have a good case to present if you want to enter in a managed market like Steam (which lets be realistic, it is very hard to get Steam to sell your game).

Randy Napier
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This is very interesting to see. I downloaded the demo for this shortly after release and tried it out. When I loaded it up I thought "don't these guys know the name Stardock is already taken?" The production value and polish on the game was good, I just didn't find the gameplay that entertaining. That said I only tried it single player, and it's clearly made to be a multiplayer couch game, so there's probably more fun to be had there.

In the article Tykoski is quoted as saying "we quickly saw its appeal and Stardock was happy to put some marketing muscle behind it." How much marketing muscle has been put behind this? I've seen nothing so far, but supposedly (according to a Microsoft spokesman recently said:

"Indie developers have told us they are looking for an easy route to market, which is the biggest hurdle to overcome, and we've provided that for them with Xbox Live Indie Games," the spokesperson said. "But they've got to take that next step and do marketing after the launch. We encourage indie developers to work together and support each other in marketing efforts, like the Indie Games Winter and Summer Uprising promotions."

This was in response to the XBLIG developers complaining that with the new dashboard it is harder to get to the indie games section. If this game does have some real marketing muscle behind it (probably more than most of the hobbyists on that channel can afford anyway) then I'd love to see if that resulted in a significant increase in sales.

Scott Tykoski
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The most alarming statement I've seen concerning selling games on the Xbox Indie Channel comes from Ian Stocker (made Soulcaster I, II, and Escape Goat)...

"XBLIG is its own world....Soulcaster was mentioned twice in the Penny Arcade news section–a rare gift more valuable than many forms of advertising. Change in downloads after that? Not noticeable. Its [in its] own world."


So two mentions in Penny Arcade, known as 'King Makers' in gaming culture, had ZERO impact on sales. I'm still trying to wrap my head around this, but it seems to indicate that XBLIG has become its own microcosm, where the primary demographic is 13-18 year olds looking for a quick laugh.

Brad Wardell
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In terms of commercial viability, elf squad has been in the xblig top seller list. The fact you can get into the top seller list selling less than 30 units a day should kind of settle the argument.

Samuel Batista
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Hard to argue with the facts.

Matthew Mouras
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Wow... that's smaller than I would have expected.

Craig Page
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To be fair, sales are a lot lower right now because of Skyrim, Call of Duty, and Battlefield 3.

I would guess that by February when you're facing less competition for gamers attention, you would need to sell at least 35 copies a day to make the top seller list, maybe even 36!! :)

Vicente Cartas Espinel
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The facts may be wrong in this case. It seems the Top Downloads list of XBLIG is been sorted by Number of Trials, not by number of Sales. This would mean that the game actually got quite a lot of downloads, but it failed to convince people to buy it.