This summer the inaugural batch of Xbox Live Creators Program games arrived on the Xbox Store, and ID@Xbox director Chris Charla seems legitimately psyched about it.
"There's a lot of devs today who got their start on XBLIG (Xbox Live Indie Games] and XNA," he told Gamasutra during a recent Xbox event.
"And so the moment -- whether it's 2 years or 5 years or whatever -- when we're at GDC and somebody's like "how did you get your start? Oh, Creators Program'....that's gonna be the best. And I have no doubt that it's gonna happen."
He's right about the pivotal role XBLIG and XNA played in many devs' careers; they told us as much a few years ago, after XBLIG and XNA were put to rest. He may prove right about the Creators Program having a similar impact, but it seems today's devs face a more crowded and competitive market than when XBLIG debuted in 2008.
For the moment, Creators Program games can be big fish in a small pond. When we talked to Charla earlier this month there were only 30 Creators Program games on the Xbox Store, and they were all grouped together under their own store category: the Creators Collection.
This walls them off from the rest of the marketplace, but if someone does choose to peruse the Creators Program games there's a decent chance they'll look at most of them. As more Creators Program games come to the platform, that chance will drop and discoverability may become an issue; Charla says Xbox hopes to counter that somewhat by introducing some degree of automated curation of Creators Program games.
"I think what you'll see eventually is that, in the same way we have categories here on the front page like Coming Soon, New Games, Top Rated, et cetera, we'll have the same kind of programmatic curation in the Creators collection as well," he said. "Right now, with only 30 games in it, you don't really need those categories because you can scroll through and see everything in a few seconds. But as more games come in there, we'll work on doing some programmatic curation in the store as well."
However, he demurred when asked about whether or not the company plans to do any promotional events for Creators Program games, a la the Indie Games Uprising events XBLIG devs organized years ago in an attempt to promote their work.
So what can devs do to help their games stand out amid everything else on the market?
"Obviously, have a cool game, right," said Charla. But that's not something we can help with, at Xbox. The number one piece of advice I can give a developer today is to focus, relentlessly, about a thousand times more than you think you need to, on your store text, and on the screenshots and video that accompany your store text or game details page on Xbox and presumably also on Steam, on PlayStation, on Switch, and every place else."
"The number one piece of advice I can give a developer today is to focus, relentlessly, about a thousand times more than you think you need to, on your store text, and on the screenshots and video that accompany [it]."
The number one mistake devs make when selling their games, according to Charla, is to wait until they're tired and burned out at the end of a project to create their store pages.
"They're really tired -- making video games is really hard -- and then they get to the point where they need to upload pictures for their game, and they literally hit the screenshot key six times and upload those six pictures. So their start menu, their options screen, right when the game starts and nothing's happening....and those pictures are not compelling to customers!"
"So the number one piece of advice I'd give is, make sure those pictures that accompany your game are the most compelling and evocative screenshots of your game possible," Charla continued. "Maybe it's a giant explosion, maybe it's a beautiful vista, but make sure that first screenshot is as much your game in a nutshell as humanly possible. Because you want to have great box art, and when a player gets into your details page, you want to make sure what they see is so visually cool, and the text is so compelling, they hit the 'Buy' button."
Beyond that, Charla also reminded Xbox devs to try and create store pages that are attractive and enticing to poeple who are sitting 8-10 feet away from a TV screen, rather than being right up against a PC monitor.
"Please understand that on Xbox, players are usually sitting quite a distance away from the TV when they play. So make sure you're making that box art at a size and scale that will resonate in a living room experience," he said.
"So that just comes down to composition and size of images and things like that. Just think about that. Even if it means printing out tiny little boxes of images or text and taping them to your TV and sitting back down. Just make sure it reads well at that scale, vs. you know, the 24-inch scale of a PC monitor right in front of your face."
As it turns out, Charla also has some strong feelings about what people are reading when they look at your game's store page. All too often, he said, devs who self-publish their games wait until the last minute to think about their store page text -- which can lead to confusing, long-winded, or otherwise off-putting copy.
Instead, Charla recommends devs try to "get that promise of your game across in the first two sentences."
"I would focus on what the game is gonna feel like, vs. backstory, you know. Say 'this is a compelling roguelike shooter' not '10,000 years ago, Lord Azimundus blah blah blah.' Show it to your friends, read other people's, see what works," he said.
As we wound down Charla acknowledged that a lot of this advice is fundamental, but reiterated that it's all based on the most common mistakes he sees devs making when they self-publish to a storefront like Steam or the Xbox Live Creators Program. In the rush to finish, promote, and launch your game, it's often the simplest and easiest tasks that fall by the wayside.
"I feel bad giving this kind of advice because it does seem obvious," Charla added, in closing. "But I think it's advice you need to internalize before you're so deep in production that you're just like.....I need some words so I can ship my game. And you don't think about it or proofread it, you just write it and hit send."