sizedindie.jpg[In this group interview, Gamasutra correspondent John Polson peeks at the plans of six of the most critically acclaimed developers for the Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIG) service. While not all of the developers are committing to the platform in the near future, each offers valuable suggestions as to how the service can grow. They share their views on the strengths and weaknesses of the service, which has lead them to the projects and platforms they are working on today.]

Xbox Live Indie Games, once called Xbox Live Community Games, has existed for over two years and currently hosts over 1,600 games in the US market alone. The following companies not only have some of the top user-rated games, but they have managed to garner positive press by both indie and mainstream websites.

Despite these accolades, most have failed to see their financial books in the black. Camille Guermonprez of Arkedo Studios earlier revealed XBLIG sales figures and says mostly positive things about the service, with a suggestion for sorting the storefront.

Luke Schneider of Radian Games asserts that leaderboards, offline play, and Kinect support should be addressed. Robert Boyd of Zeboyd Games feels XBLIG is a distinguishing factor for Microsoft; in addition to echoing Luke's suggestions, he thinks XBLIG support should reach more countries, especially Australia.

Matthew Doucette, from international award winning studio Xona Games, offers mathematically sound suggestions for Gamerpoints and more. Nathan Fouts of Mommy's Best Games (MBG) concurs that something must be done about Achievements and Gamerpoints but offers his own take on the solution.

Deejay of Binary Tweed quickly saw a need to branch out his skills beyond XBLIG after Clover failed to succeed financially; he feels the narrowness of the storefront is the biggest issue.

Despite fighting setbacks and a once negative view of working on a specialty idea service, these developers present enough positive experiences and suggestions to help XBLIG thrive as a viable, respectable platform.


Can you verify your company's present status with regards to developing for the Xbox Live Indie Games service?

Matthew, Xona: We are staying but seeking other platforms out of necessity. We have a few XBLIG ideas we want to finish off. Afterwards, our future on XBLIG is uncertain.

Camille, Arkedo: I think it will best be described as "staying away for business" from it for 15-18 months. We are currently living an indie studio's dream: have a major publisher push our own IP, with a multiplatform release planned in approximately 18 months. Nothing to do with the Indie Games ecosystem; all to do with our current situation.

Luke, Radian: Ballistic will be my last XBLIG for a little while. I would like to do more on XBLIG, but this is definitely the last of my monthly series. The earliest I'd probably return is to enter a game into Dream.Build.Play 2011.

Deejay, Binary: I was self-employed writing XBLIGs full-time. I've since taken a permanent job in the games industry working on IndieCity. I have several unannounced indie game projects in development in my spare time, and I'd like to release them on XBLIG if I get the time!

Robert, Zeboyd: We are staying with XBLIG, but we're also expanding to the PC.

Nathan, MBG: We are developing for XBLIG and other platforms and hoping for further improvements to XBLIG.

What experiences with XBLIG impacted your present disposition towards the service?

Matthew, Xona: The decision to leave, or rather seek out additional platforms, is based solely on XBLIG's underperforming financial state. It's great that XBLIG development is essentially free in terms of fees, aside the $120/year membership fee, but developer and game content expenses can be massive to a start-up.

Camille, Arkedo: It is fast and easy to use. We could make 3 games in 5 months with a team of 2 people: the framework is that good. Your games are available on millions of consoles a few hours after you made them. If you are good, nice people cheer you up, and you can even prototype your next big game with it.

Luke, Radian: My sales hit a plateau after my third game was released, but that plateau is lower than the amount of money I need to make a living. I thought they'd continue to slowly creep up, but even with three new games since then, I've never made enough money in a month to cover all my living expenses.

Deejay, Binary: For me, the two greatest strengths of XBLIG have been the community and the market reach. I'd never have started indie games development without the prospect of being able to sell my work to a potential audience of millions. Whilst I was working on Clover, the play-testing community was a great help.

XBLIG development wasn't a financial success for me, but it did open doors to getting my game published on PC and then to job opportunities within the games industry. Since giving up work in the financial sector to make games, I've been interviewed by websites, magazines, radio shows, spoken on industry conference panels, and have plans lined up to help indie developers at future conferences.

Robert, Zeboyd: Interacting with the XBLIG community has been great -- I've learned a lot about programming from various members and made a few friends, as well. The success of the Indie Games Winter Uprising along with the fact that Microsoft took official notice of it is another great recent experience that has endeared the service to me.

Nathan, MBG: It’s been great bringing wild and racy games like Shoot 1UP and Weapon of Choice to the Xbox 360 without any publisher interference. We love the open nature of XBLIG. However, frequent dashboard issues which can cripple a game launch and many small but substantial handicaps to the service have forced Mommy’s Best Games to develop for other platforms.

What is your next game development project, and on what platform will we see its release?

Matthew, Xona: Depending on our success on PC digital distribution platforms (our eyes are on Steam and Direct2Drive), we will stay on XBLIG if we produce PC-based games. But to stay only on XBLIG makes no financial sense at the moment.

We have met with Valve already, at MIGS 2009, and they were interested in our work. We plan to meet with them at the end of the month at GDC 2011, and have submitted our games for review. There's more in the works at Xona Games and hopefully something will come out of all of this.

Camille, Arkedo: Multiplatform. All major ones.

Luke, Radian: Super Crossfire will be coming to PC/Mac, then iPhone/iPad.

Deejay, Binary: I've got two projects in active development and two on the back burner. Currently I'm flat-out working on IndieCity and don't get much free time, but of the two that are in development one will definitely be releasing on XBLIG.

The other is much less interesting and novel from a gameplay viewpoint but could appeal to a much larger audience on a variety of devices. I'm currently toying with switching to Unity so the game can be browser-based and also stand a chance of getting published on XBLA and PSN.

Robert, Zeboyd: After we finish porting our existing games to the PC, we're going to be working on a new secret RPG project for both the PC and XBLIG. Unfortunately, I can't say more than that at this time.

Nathan, MBG: We are currently developing Explosionade for the PC. Explosionade is currently available on XBLIG, and a hugely expanded version will be coming to PC later this year. We’re also looking carefully at XBLA and Windows Phone 7 development.

What improvements to XBLIG would ultimately enhance developers' and gamers' experiences?

Matthew, Xona: Platform fixes could have a quality assurance solution, which I have detailed in my proposed changes to XBLIG, as well as the inclusion of achievements with Gamerscore and leaderboards. That will fix everything. Sales will increase 10- to 100-times certainly the moment you give gamers credit for playing indie games.

I respect the difficulties of both solutions, with the potential abuse by indie developers. My proposal addresses developer abuse wonderfully, but how to give games achievements is much harder considering regulations need to be brought into an essentially unregulated system.

Camille, Arkedo: Sort the games by popularity by default and keep the secondary default for new arrivals. Let the good things shine.

Luke, Radian: True leaderboards (instead of the hacked-in ones many of us currently implement) and Kinect support are two large issues that could be addressed as is the inability to play the games offline. Another issue is the overall reputation of the service.

But the biggest issue is definitely Achievements. Many gamers simply won't consider paying for a game on the 360 that doesn't reward their play time with achievements.

Deejay, Binary: The biggest problem with XBLIG is the narrowness of the storefront. There is no long tail in the Xbox LIVE Marketplace because the product discovery tools are so weak - a few top 10 lists, and an alphabetical browse feature. Can you imagine Amazon without a search? Without recommendations?

The fact that only a few great games sell tens of thousands on XBLIG whilst many other equally-great games sell in the hundreds is a clear symptom of the narrow storefront problem. Getting in the Top 10 is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Robert, Zeboyd: For developers, more frequent royalty payment dates (WP7 developers get paid once a month, but XBLIG devs only get paid once every 3 months), the ability to set a release date in advance, and more reliable sales data and list updating are the three biggest changes I'd like to see.

Email notification when sales data has updated would also be a very welcome improvement. For both developers and gamers, I'd like to see achievements, leaderboards, Kinect support, the ability to play XBLIGs when offline, and XBLIG support added to additional countries (especially Australia).

Nathan, MBG: The inclusion of official Achievements in XBLIG which grant players Gamerpoints would go a long way to bringing in new traffic to the service. Achievements are far and away the most requested feature and most common reason gamers cite online as to why they don’t buy or download XBLIG.

How should Microsoft implement these improvements?

Matthew, Xona: The indie game system should have tiered achievements based on the price of the game: 80 MSP = 20 GS, 240 MSP = 60 GS, and 400 MSP = 100 GS. There was a push to have all indie games having the same Gamerscore, comparing the consistency to XBLA and retail, but the thoughts behind such an idea are flawed. XBLA games are essentially the same price, as are retail, minus sales and a few obscure cases that cause no damage.

XBLIG games are sometimes five times the price as others ($5 vs. $1) and I argue that a $1 game has a different "format" than a $5 game, in terms of expected quality, gameplay, mileage, and investment in general. Plus the system fights abuse of making games just to sell Gamerscore.

If you have 800 MSP, you can get 200 Gamerscore points either by a single 800 MPS XBLA game, two 400 MSP XBLIG games, three 240 MSP and one 80 MSP XBLIG games, or ten 80 MSP XBLIG games. There is no way to abuse the system, while maximizing XBLIG's Gamerscore, which adds the most possible value to our games.

Luke, Radian: It doesn't really matter to me how they implement Achievements if they do. But if they want to make a commitment to making XBLIG more than a niche product, they'll need to commit the resources (aka testing and standards) necessary to approve Achievements for some or all.

If they won't be for all Indie Games due to testing and other costs, then make developers pay some portion and use different pricing ($5-$10 for games with Achievements, $1-$3 for games without). Even if that means adding a new section of games to the dashboard, I think it's worth it because it'll be an opportunity to change the perception at the same time.

Deejay, Binary: Microsoft could fix these problems but it's very likely that they won't be able to. They have ongoing relationships worth millions of dollars with publishers that far outweigh the needs of the indie development scene.

The shelves in a supermarket are very strictly controlled - only the suppliers giving the supermarket the very best deals and discounts will have their wares stocked. Where exactly products feature on shelves and in the store is micro-managed by the supermarket. The way customers walk around the store is designed and controlled to give exposure to certain products at certain times.

XBLIG getting any meaningful improvements in terms of eCommerce experience is as likely as a local farmer walking into Walmart, demanding they take his stock, and then insisting that customers should be able to walk straight to his products without going past anything made by Kraft or any of the other big suppliers.

Robert, Zeboyd: [They can] by making XBLIG a bigger priority than it has in the past. More than anything else, I think XBLIG is the huge unique thing that Microsoft has to distinguish themselves from their competitors. Microsoft should be doing all they can to nurture and group the community and service. I'd be more than happy to exclusively develop for the Xbox 360, but the numbers just aren't there on XBLIG at the moment, so multiplatform development is just about a necessity.

Nathan, MBG: There’s a few ways Microsoft could implement Achievements for XBLIG without throwing the Gamerpoints economy out of whack. The simplest method would be to assign each XBLIG a set amount of Gamerpoints, like boxed and XBLA games.

Boxed games give out 1,000 points and Arcade games give out 200 Gamerpoints. The average XBLA costs 800 MS points and yields potentially 200 Gamerpoints. If you consider the lowest cost XBLIG is a tenth XBLA at 80 MS points to buy, then each game could yield 20 Gamerpoints.

I think most developers are worried the service would be flooded with quick games just to give out Gamerpoints to attract sales. As long as actual Achievements can’t be granted in trial mode, gamers would have to spend the equivalent amount of money on XBLIG, without getting any more Gamerpoints than they could get through boxed or Arcade games.