- If you haven't been reading Jeff Minter's Livejournal recently (and you probably haven't, unless you like sheep gazing happily at a clearish blue sky!), then you won't have spotted his extended, increasingly manic posts about the complicated nature of Xbox 360 Live Arcade certification - which Space Giraffe is currently somewhere near the end of.

The Problem

Particularly notable is a recent post called 'Limbo part infinity', in which Minter takes us through the multiple stages of getting your game approved (Australian ratings were slowing things down, though that's now fixed!), and his partner Giles notes in the comments: "Even after months and months of all this 'crap' we still are in a phase where theoretically "things could still go wrong and get a rejection" so as you can imagine the situation here is well explosive."

Minter further complains: "Why this process isn't just handled in the one interactive phase I have no idea; all I can see is that it adds two more weeks of f*cked up stress to a process that has been more than drawn out and absolutely excruciating, and I really don't know what I'd do if they kicked us back; I think I'd be heading for nervous breakdown territory right there. I used to tell how final test on T2K for Atari was the most stressful thing I'd ever done in the biz. I now wholeheartedly rescind that. Final test at Atari was a holiday, it was a finite process with an end that occurred in just a few weeks."

Looking back to doublecheck how long it's been (pressure can warp the mind!), looks like it's been about 9 weeks thus far in the various post-'code complete' submission stages, which certainly feels like a good while for me for a submission which appears to have been reasonably clean thus far - as I recall (from my deep dark past in development), a single clean submission for the PlayStation 1 was multiples less than that.

In fact, the Microsoft blogger breakfast I attended at GDC discussed some of the frustrations back in March - but that was when content was flowing much less well. Actually, I don't think the approval process has got a lot easier, I just think the XBLA team shoving lots more content through the pipe and the point at which 'approval' starts is much earlier than normal.

The Factors

Here are the things (anecdotally) I believe are contributing to make XBLA cert take a good while:

- Multiple country ratings board approvals (I'd forgotten about this until Minter brought it up, but there's at least the [EDIT: Thanks to commenters for some updates here!] ESRB (America), the USK (Germany), PEGI (pan-European), CERO (in Japan) and the BBFC (England, if over a certain ratings threshold), and others. Each of these needs to individually rate an XBLA title, which is timeconsuming to do and co-ordinate.

- As I noted in the original GDC post (though I don't think this applies to Space Giraffe): "The significant amounts of network-specific testing needed end up taking large amounts of time, because there can be some significant bugs in there. This is something that the Small Arms team mentioned (in their IGS postmortem lecture) as particularly problematic for them, because you can have any combination of AI, same-machine, and online players jousting together in their game."

- In general, indie studios doing games don't always/often have their own in-depth testing facilities, unlike publishers. This presumably means that more pre-'submission' testing is being done directly with Microsoft, as opposed to the old style of game submission, where you made sure the game was completely clean before submitting.

- Localization and checking in multiple languages, both European and in many cases Japanese, can be a massive burden even for small games - both co-ordinating the translators on your end and checking the results with testers on the Microsoft end. This is particularly true for indie/self-published games, where you may be using volunteers or contractors for much of the localization specifics.

- The resettable nature of the final submission process: as Jamie Fristrom mentions when discussing upcoming XBLA title Schizoid: "Coming up later is the certification or TRC - the "technical requirements checklist" - all the console manufacturers do this. And games that have network play have much more elaborate requirements than ones that don't. It takes two weeks to get through cert - and if you fail, it resets. You have to take another two weeks." This isn't that different to conventional TRC standards from Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, though.

So, I seem to remember Chris Satchell pointing the finger just a little bit at developers too at the GDC blogger roundtables, and I was a bit skeptical. But now I note, for example, NinjaBee's Steve Taylor commenting on Band Of Bugs: "To take some responsibility for this (as opposed to claiming it's Microsoft's fault): we certainly thought we were closer to done than we really were. I have to say that including a level editor has not made the final stages very easy!" So there you have it - go light on the Microsoft tarring and feathering, eh?

I believe (and again, please correct me, if it's allowed under NDAs) that part of submitting an Xbox Live Arcade game involves a certain amount of mandatory Microsoft-overseen game testing that you must pay for as the title's developer. Therefore, most indies are likely to leave the majority of their external testing (besides unpaid beta testers, etc) to this part of the project, for obvious cost reasons.

In addition, as we've seen, XBLA developers often announce when their game has _entered_ the final cert/testing phase, and since people are preconditioned to think of this as a 'going gold' type event, they will tend to presume they'll see the game on XBLA 2-4 weeks later. When it's actually more like 8-12 weeks, because there's maybe 2-3 weeks of testing, and then the ratings submission paperwork, then some overlap while all the ratings are grabbed, and THEN a 2 week submission process which can be failed and restarted.

Conclusion

So... six of one and half a dozen of the other - and it's the radical transparency which is really an issue in some ways, alongside the often necessary rigors (and yes, sometimes irksome bureaucracy!) of launching a game worldwide. Of course, this is all a major reason for XBLA indies to sign up with a publisher, and pay them to deal with all the submission, ratings, and localization stress.

But at that point, a lot of the indie advantages in terms of actually getting paid competitively are lost. *sigh*. Someone should set up a not-for-profit service bureau to help all those poor XBLA self-publishers not lose their mind, really. Still, let's all look at Katamari Ramacy 'til we feel better, eh?