Back in 2008, the New Xbox Experience delivered arguably the most important advance in console gaming since the advent of Xbox Live and PSN. The Community Games channel, now reclassified as Xbox Live Indie Games, allows literally anyone to develop for the Xbox 360 and publish games without any moderation from Microsoft itself. A huge number of budget masterpieces now inhabit the channel, many equal or infinitely superior to what XBLA has to offer. In an era when Microsoft needs an edge, when their first party developers are at a significant ebb and every console has adopted motion control, this stable of willing developers represent nothing less than the Xbox 360's unique selling point.
Any pundit worth their salt would expect Microsoft to nurture the Indie scene. Hell, many of us would have expected them to plaster it on the box and shout "XBLIG" from the rooftops! Instead, however, the last two years have been miserable for independent developers- and it has now reached the point where they're considering jumping ship to Sony, Apple and Steam en masse in order to make a living.
If sales and downloads drop off dramatically due to reduced traffic, then I'll have to switch to a different platform because I'm slowly running out of money. I really enjoy working on XBLIG and I think I've been successful in doing what I wanted to do, which is create lots of small, high-quality games. XBLIG is the only way to do that on a console, and it'll be very upsetting if it's no longer a viable option for indie development. - Luke Schneider, RadianGames
The indie platform is the main reason we study XNA instead of other frameworks here at Blekinge Institute of Technology. I have heard many students talking about switching to alternative platforms recently for various reasons and I really don't think Microsoft is helping themselves. - Marcus Kellner, Jungle Friendzy Lead Designer
How did it get this bad? Why is Microsoft snatching discontent and misery from the jaws of financial success and pushing their willing developers into the hands of their rivals? I don't have all the answers- but I can certainly point you in the right direction.
The first major problem is that of communication. Every single Indie studio that I've contacted has bemoaned the fact that there's a lack of direct contact between them and Microsoft, despite paying an annual fee. This is damaging enough when devs run into trouble during the development cycle, but it's heartbreaking that there's no-one to reassure them when the faeces hits the fan. It breeds anger and resentment far faster than anything else. I'll let community guru and MStar Games head honcho Mike "DrMistry" Bergenstjema fill you in.
The saddest thing is that developers are getting very similar treatment from MS at the moment too – unanswered questions, problems with developer ID verification, problems with the submission/review process…and a lot of them are slowly getting up, walking out and heading back to Android and iPhone. It’s hard enough to write a good game without having your publisher stab you in the back.
To counter this, Microsoft ought to employ a dedicated community liason to facilitate communication between publisher and developers. Even the recent press release about the dashboard update was sent to Eurogamer rather than the developers directly... and a little open, honest communication would go miles towards placating the righteously discontented masses. With Microsoft entirely focused on Kinect, there's unfortunately little chance of that happening for a while.
The second major issue is exposure. Without the financial capital for flashy marketing campaigns, Indie developers rely on top sales lists and sheer goodwill to shift their merchandise, the former of which frequently bricks causing massive slips and delays. As a publisher, Microsoft really ought to be doing a lot more to get the word out. It wouldn't take much. After all, a weekly press release about the best titles, refitting the browser marketplace with links to devblogs or a "best of" tab on the Inside Xbox channel would go a long way to pushing people in the right direction.
Microsoft aren't the only party at fault here. Us journalists have a lot to answer for. While a fair few smaller sites deliver decent independent coverage (you know you you are), many of the bigger organs either ignore the scene completely or tend to run highly publicised articles about the worst games on the service! This is negative publicity that actually perpetuates the ridiculous stereotype that the Indie scene only produces avatar massage apps and one-dimensional cash grabs, and we all need to take a bigger interest in actually playing the games and getting the word out about the good ones!
While we're talking about exposure, it's worth mentioning that the Independent Charles Show was a good idea while it lasted. I've publicly never seen eye to eye with the way it was presented, but at least it provided a high profile outlet for a few titles to get noticed. Quite frankly, the Indie scene deserves a show that has no motive beyond showing off five or more of the best Indie titles every week. Again, every game bought means that everybody wins!
You may well be aware of the third and most immediate ordeal that the Indie scene faced over the last week... but at least it's finally been sorted. The latest dashboard update shafted and sidelined the marketplace into the speciality shops; whisking it away from passing trade and letting it slowly atrophy next to the decaying corpse of Game Room. I could bang on for hours about how terrible an idea this was... but you know what? Don't take my word for it.
Having the nicest shop in the world is absolutely no use if no-one goes into it. Some of the more popular games are beginning to release their previous-week's sales figures now, and it looks like most people are getting between a third and a quarter of the traffic/sales they did previously. - Adam from Projector Games
I think it's definitely a logical step backwards for gamers. We have this burgeoning area of lower priced games which is now more unintuitive to find. How is that helpful? Even if it happens that some people stop by the Avatar Marketplace and then see Indie Games, it's a lot more obvious to place Indie Games in the Games and Demos section. On the flip side we do feel more SPECIAL now being in the Specialty Shop. Mommy knows we're all very SPECIAL. - Nathan Fouts, Mommy's Best Games
I couldn't have put it better myself. This latest step smacked of trendy marketing research- and despite a few rumours that XBLA developers prompted the change (fearing lost profits in the long run), it's probably down to people who have never actually used the service designing the dashboard update. At least Microsoft have now seen sense and put the Indie Games back where they belong: safely back in the games channel. Be under no illusions though, this has just restored the status quo. There's still a lot of work to do in order to restore faith and sales to the service.
What's really galling is that Microsoft has taken some major strides forward over the last year or two. Xbox.com's recent revamp was a step in the right direction. Mingling the Indie games in with the demos and new releases was a great idea. What's more, the feedback from developers on the layout of the new Indie Marketplace has been overwhelmingly positive. Grouping games by genre as well as sales is ensuring that they don't slip off of the radar anywhere near as quickly as they used to. It seems bizarre that these innovations have been eclipsed by this latest debacle and destructive wall of silence.
In conclusion, Microsoft, I would ask simply this. Now that you've restored the Indie Games back to where they belong: what the hell are you doing? You need to restore confidence and sales to the service before you're left with an empty, shrivelled husk of wasted potential where a thriving community of quality developers used to be. I can't imagine that Sony and Apple will make the same mistakes.
To the rest of you, I have only one thing to say: support Indie developers. Check out the flashy and easy new hub on Xbox.com and actually download some demos every once in a while. It's in our hands, folks- and we all have a part to play.
Update: This will certainly be a good statement of intent.