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Microsoft MVP Steps Up To Defend Xbox Live Indie Games, Admit Failings & Discuss Solutions

Jonathan Lester
Games news, interview, Microsoft, MVP, Xbox Live Indie Games

Microsoft MVP Steps Up To Defend Xbox Live Indie Games, Admit Failings & Discuss Solutions

Our earlier heartbreaking interview with MStar Games' Mike Bergenstjerna righteously slammed the state of the Xbox Live Indie marketplace; stating that Microsoft have "utterly failed" to provide independent developers with enough support to succeed. However, George Clingerman, a Microsoft MVP, has spoken out to defend the service and candidly admit their failings... as well a number of solutions that could help the channel move forward.

Mr. Clingerman isn't a faceless corporate goon with a party line and a gag order. He's a pillar of the Xbox Live Indie community - and an independent developer in his own right who experiences the XBLIG front line every single day.

I'm not going to dilute or adulterate this with any commentary of my own. It's too important. Here is the statement he sent us in its entirety, and I'd urge you to give it the attention it deserves.

Xbox Live Indie Games: Rainbows & Kittens or Death & Darkness?

George Clingerman: Every few months the Xbox LIVE Indie Games community sees posts circulate that are talking about how Xbox LIVE Indie Games is dead or dying or how Microsoft is running them into the ground or abandoning them. Around that time you'll also get a flurry of defenders making their own posts and comments explaining how wrong those thoughts are and proceeding to point out why. So rainbows and kittens or death and darkness, which is it for Xbox LIVE Indie Games? Like most of life, reality lives somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.

Let's take a look at the three key points just about every Xbox LIVE Indie Games is dead post/comment mention.

  • Communication from Microsoft is horrible
  • Xbox LIVE Indie Game developers aren't making any money
  • Xbox LIVE Indie Games is neglected for other projects

When you add those three points together you get a post title about how Xbox LIVE Indie Games is a failure and that it has a very uncertain future. How could you blame someone that seems like a pretty bleak outlook!

Microsoft MVP Steps Up To Defend Xbox Live Indie Games, Admit Failings & Discuss Solutions

Steam Heroes: a great game only managed to sell ~150 copies

Now let's take a look at the key points just about every response to an "Xbox LIVE Indie Games is gasping it's last breath" post gets:

  • The XNA/Xbox LIVE Indie Game community is an active and growing one
  • Xbox LIVE Indie Game developers are making money
  • Be patient, Microsoft is of course are going to focus on things like Windows Phone 7 and Kinect but they'll be back

(We also read a lot of "Shut up and quit whining. Go develop on some other platform!" type comments, but I filtered those out since they're not really making much of a point)

If you're a sharp reader you might be thinking to yourself, "hey, what gives?" since a few of those points are in direct contradiction to one another and most are at least partly contradictory. Which group then is right? The answer believe it or not is that BOTH are right. I don't mean that in the let’s all hold hands and let's all get along sort of way. I mean that in actuality both groups are correct.

Let's look at the first doom and gloom point, "Communication from Microsoft is horrible". This is true...but only for the last six months and even then "horrible" might be an exaggeration but not by much. Six months ago, Xbox LIVE Community Games had a community manager and she was fantastic. Communicating news to the developers, chatting on twitter and just generally a face for Xbox LIVE Indie Games and the XNA team. She moved onto a new job within Microsoft around September of 2010 and that spot was left empty. After she left the communication dried up quite a bit. There has been communication from the XNA team, but it's been sparse and that leaves a lot of gaps for silences. In those silences people fill in their own ideas of what must be going on. It doesn't help that during those long silences a LOT of things happened within the Xbox LIVE Indie Game community.

Microsoft MVP Steps Up To Defend Xbox Live Indie Games, Admit Failings & Discuss Solutions

What were a few things happening?

  • The XNA Forums got merged into the App Hub forums making a single XNA community for WP7 and XBLIG developers, this was not a smooth transition
  • The Xbox 360 had a new dashboard update that moved XBLIGs into a virtually hidden section of the dashboard
  • The Xbox 360 Dashboard Xbox LIVE Indie Games lists freeze" preventing newly released games from having a chance to get onto the Top Rated, Top Downloads lists

Some pretty major events there and all were causing a lot of pain for the Xbox LIVE Indie Game developers. Without that point of contact that used to exist in the form of a community manager, people were quite irate with no one to talk and complain to.

There's no denying it, Microsoft did a TERRIBLE job of communicating with Xbox LIVE Indie Game developers during this period but did they not communicate at all? No there were blog posts, occasional tweets, forum posts and site news posted by the team during this time. There were even things implemented by the XNA team for Xbox LIVE Indie game developers. The dashboard change was fixed, the list freezes were escalated internally and are happening far less frequently, educational samples were released and there's even been some attempt to improve the App Hub forum experience. Unfortunately because of the splintered fashion of the communication and often just not letting the community know when something was fixed, it still feels like this huge silent void from Microsoft.

Microsoft MVP Steps Up To Defend Xbox Live Indie Games, Admit Failings & Discuss Solutions

So is communication from Microsoft pretty bad? Yeah it has been, the community hasn't been 100% ignored but there's no way to deny that a lot of the angst about things happening in the Xbox LIVE Indie Game community is simply because Microsoft is being too silent.

But wait, Microsoft is silent yet the XNA and Xbox LIVE Indie game community is growing? That's also true. We have more XBLIG developers than ever and there's about 3-4 new Xbox LIVE Indie Games being released every day for the Xbox 360. There's more review sites popping up and larger sites like Kotaku, Joystick, Destructoid are doing their own reviews of Xbox LIVE Indie Games. These aren’t just sensational negative press stories either but actual positive takes on things happening with Xbox LIVE Indie Games. So even with the silence and all the issues, people are still increasing in the amount of talk they're doing with Xbox LIVE Indie Games. Every week I do an XNA Notes, which rounds up things happening in the XNA/XBLIG community, and it's always filled with stories about Xbox LIVE Indie Games and the developers who make them.

In summary of point one, Microsoft is silent and they need to figure out how to replace that silence with communication (there's really no excuse that it's taking them six months to get that figured out), but it's not an indication that the community is dying or that Microsoft is abandoning XNA.

What about the sales? How can Xbox LIVE Indie Game developers both not be making any money AND making money? This is an interesting one. Xbox LIVE Indie Games is many things to many people. With it's low entry fee and the ease of developing in C# and the XNA API, lots of people can give a go at making a game for the Xbox 360. That means anyone from an 18 year old dinking around in his bedroom, to some business coder who's always dreamed of making a game working in his off hours, to guys wanting to quit their day job and start their own game studio to small companies can all make and release a game. Some of those guys are going to make more money than they ever expected off a game and be completely thrilled and others are not going to make enough for the amount of time and effort they put in.

If you want to start your own studio and live purely off the sales of XBLIG games, it's going to be tough to do right now. I wouldn't recommend anyone trying to start a business invest 100% in making an Xbox LIVE Indie Game and hoping to stay afloat. The channel traffic is just not there right now and your success is based entirely on luck, not just making consistently good games. For you to quit your job temporarily, you'd have to get lucky and make a game that goes viral similar to how IMAGWZII!!1! did.

Microsoft MVP Steps Up To Defend Xbox Live Indie Games, Admit Failings & Discuss Solutions

Does this then mean that Xbox LIVE Indie Game developers aren't making any money? No way. Lots of the top developers ARE making money, for most they're making more than enough for a part time hobby but what's missing are those sales numbers that mean they can all quit their day job. So Xbox LIVE Indie Game developers are both making and not making money depending on what they're goals and expectations were. This is why you see such dramatic sides to that discussion. If you're a college student and your game just earned you $5,000, you're completely thrilled! But if you're trying to replace a $80,000 a year salary and that game that made you $5,000 took half a year, you're going to be pretty upset at your sales figures.

Why then is this Microsoft's fault? Shouldn't the developers just make better games and market them better? To some degree this might be true, but on the other hand I've witnessed very good developers make very appealing games and they still didn't sell well enough for them to continue on with Xbox LIVE Indie Games (hence the entire reasons that article came out of GDC). Microsoft could potentially be doing a lot to improve this. They could feature Xbox LIVE Indie Games on the dashboard more often, talk about it more. Make sure Xbox LIVE Indie Games have a presence at game conferences like PAX and GDC. They could also be helping Xbox LIVE Indie developers out by giving them access to gamerscore, leaderboards and achievements allowing serious developers to attract the serious gamers. There's 30 million LIVE subscribers and with Xbox LIVE Indie Games lost price point, there's got to be ways to attract more of those gamers to the channel.

Does it seem like this improving? Yes both from Microsoft and from the community. With more promotions being placed on the Dashboard (The Winter Uprising dashboard promotion and XBLIGs are even being included in Deal of the Week promotions!) that will only help. The community has also been stepping up and getting word of Xbox LIVE Indie games out there. I think we're really seeing an increase in the number of unique visitors/purchasers a month for Xbox LIVE Indie Games and I think with a major push we might start seeing a few more people who can become full fledged studios simply from Xbox LIVE Indie Games.

Microsoft MVP Steps Up To Defend Xbox Live Indie Games, Admit Failings & Discuss Solutions

In conclusion of points two, Xbox LIVE Indie Games are both making money (from $0-$300,0000) and not making money (low number of studios supported by XBLIG). Starting a studio is tough (it's tough on any platform) and you're probably not going to be able to support yourself by simply doing Xbox LIVE Indie Games. There are things Microsoft could and should be doing to help with that and there are things the community should be doing.

I want to take this time to make a call to gamers. You, yes, you, the GAMER If you want something like Xbox LIVE Indie Games to stick around, then take the time to learn about it. Don’t just read a short snippet or glance at the “New Releases” list one time and say, “this must suck!”. Learn about the service, find the good games (lots of review sites out there that will tell you the top 100 games they'd recommend) and go buy some $1 games for your Xbox 360. If you want to see better games on Xbox LIVE Indie Games, then buy the games from the better developers. The more indie studios that start reporting Xbox LIVE Indie games is their permanent home, the more indie studios that will come to Xbox LIVE Indie Games.

It's really all in the gamer’s hands! So come on you proud-to-be-a-gamer-type-people, go do what you do best and game. There’s some really cool Xbox LIVE Indie Games out there and they need you!

Microsoft MVP Steps Up To Defend Xbox Live Indie Games, Admit Failings & Discuss Solutions

Personal message to gamers done, now on to point number three. Xbox LIVE Indie Games is neglected and the counterpoint, be patient, Microsoft will be back. These aren't really contradictory as much as different ways of viewing the same thing. The truth is Microsoft has invested heavily in Kinect and Windows Phone 7 and there's been a lot of Xbox and XNA team attention devoted to each of those respectively. And while those teams were working on their brand new toys, it did seem that Xbox LIVE Indie Games wasn't getting much attention from Microsoft. Did that mean that Microsoft was planning on killing Xbox LIVE Indie Games? Or did that just mean that due to the large investment they had to make sure those other projects were launched successfully and that their attention will eventually come back when those teams have some time and bandwidth?

Microsoft is again definitely at fault on this one. If you're going to invest in something, that investment shouldn't come at the cost of everything else that you're investing in. So ideally they should be able to focus on their new toys while still giving time and attention to their old toys. The reality however is that they're a company and companies like to maximize profits. So from a business standpoint it makes sense to do as much as possible with as few as resources as possible.

Does this mean that they're not invested in Xbox LIVE Indie Games? Well if you take a gander at the latest Dream Build Play, it's for the Xbox 360 so I'm guessing they're still moving forward with Xbox LIVE Indie Games. Microsoft’s attention definitely has been taken by a new sibling (Windows Phone 7) and I think once things get going with that we'll see things equalizing and stabilizing. Again those, this all comes back to communication. Had any of this been communicated, there would be no speculation and no posts from the community saying things like, "Microsoft is killing Xbox LIVE Indie Games".

Wrapping up points three, yes Microsoft HAS neglected the channel but no it doesn't seem like that's a sign that they're no longer invested in Xbox LIVE Indie Games and many signs point to quite the opposite.

Microsoft MVP Steps Up To Defend Xbox Live Indie Games, Admit Failings & Discuss Solutions

There you have it. The truth that lies somewhere in between. Microsoft has created a fantastic thing with Xbox LIVE Indie games. No it's not dying, no it can't currently support people wanting to quit their day jobs, yes it's something pretty cool for people looking to get started with game development, yes you can find some pretty dang awesome games, yes people are making money and it definitely has a future.

There's a lot more that Microsoft could be doing and I think that's where most of the frustration lies. Xbox LIVE Indie Games isn't dying, but it's certainly not at it's full potential. I'm looking for Microsoft to step up, roll up its sleeves and get to work on that. It's been a diamond in the rough for too long and it's time for everyone to see that shine.

In all honesty there are only a few things they need to start doing:

  • Communicate with the community (both the gamers and developers)
  • Fix some key issues with the service (like frozen dashboard lists, lack of gamerscore, achievements and leaderboards)

If they can jump on those few things, the “XBLIG is gasping it’s last!” posts are going to dry up. There would be nothing to talk about when the silence is gone. I also think we’d see an increase in sales and then more studios coming to stay supported only by Xbox LIVE Indie Games.

While they're doing that, it's up to indies, game developers hopefuls and gamers to do their part as well. Gamers, learn about the channel, don’t by into the sensationalized press. Learn the places to go to find the good games, understand what the channel represents and why the new releases look like they do. Game developers; be realistic about where things are. If you’re a game studio trying to get started, diversify! Xbox LIVE Indie Games should be one part of your portfolio but not the full part. Invest your time wisely. Spending 1 year on a game to make $200 is silly if you need to make $80,000. Use the channel for what it’s great at right now, building your game development skills and building a your name into a brand. Lastly talk about Xbox LIVE Indie Games, make some noise for Microsoft to hear your passion and most of all make and play some kick ass games.

In conclusion: Xbox LIVE Indie Games is neither dead nor the diamond it could be, the truth, like always, lies somewhere in between.

Add a comment12 comments
MrK  Mar. 28, 2011 at 17:26

I couldn't agree least with the last paragraph. I mean... diversify? yes, of course! But the problem is that you spend 1 year to get 200$, not because the game is a failure but because of microsoft bugs in a web page, accounting, or Lacrosse fans.

Take it the other way: imagine you do a game in iPhone, android, PC and then you want to port the game to 360.
What's the point then in trying to spend a month to support a platform that you have a random chance to get almost nothing?

Jim Perry  Mar. 28, 2011 at 17:27

Nice response to the somewhat sensationalistic previous article. :)

Now that WP7 is out the door, I hope to see some attention shifted back to XBLIG, especially with the DBP contest going.

QuimbyRBG  Mar. 28, 2011 at 17:27

As George said many times in this article, it may seem contradictory but I agree both with Dr. Mistry and George completely.
Mr. Clingerman is the eternal optimist and we all love him for it; I really really hope he's right and XBLIG is something I can return to as a primary platform in the future.
Attn: Microsoft. You need George Clingerman as XBLIG community manager. That is all.

James Johnston  Mar. 28, 2011 at 17:31

As always a fantastic article by George. This guy may not be the best XNA coder, but no one knows the scene quite like him. Why MS havent employed him as the community manager I'll never know.

To add my two cents, I would consider myself one of the XBLIG successes. My game, ezmuze+ has sold over 25,000 copies (at $10 a pop) during its 2 year life. It has funded my full time employment for nearly a year, and only now am I beginning to struggle (because I'm dumb enough to not have a follow up release yet)

Could MS have made things better during that time. Sure. If you think about even IMAGWZII's sales (300,000) - its NOTHING compared to the live userbase (10% at best). Us XBLIG authors are partially to blame for this situation - if i see one more game where the only selling point is the fact you use avatars I may drown myself in a bowl of soup.

To say you CANT make money on XBLIG is just down right wrong. You need to make a GOOD - UNIQUE product. just because IMAGWZII sold well doesnt mean a pixel perfect clone will - that has already been, the customers already have the game, they dont need a clone.

The main goal of XBLIG is for more risk taking games. If we just make clones and sequals, how are we any different from the tripe that EA and the like turn out year after year? We dont have the big budgets so we cant compete on quality (though its still important) - we need to compete with uniqueness and fun.

But you have to judge the ADD nature of the audience. Like the previous article, a fun twist on space invaders didnt sell well. Since we have so little to be able to show the customer - and so many games to compete with, if they see screenshots that look like space invaders, they are going to expect space invaders. You arent going to get the trial to see the changes to the gameplay. And is any twist on space invaders really going to be that unique? I mean like Ikuraga level unique?

The best promotion we get is ratings and sales charts. Both of these require the game to be rating worthy and sales worthy. Its all about doing a lot of business in the first week. Changes to the system could diminish this a little, but there is SO MUCH we as devs can do. You need to make sure your game is out there, that people see it, you need to make the blurb and box art look awesomes - make people want to at least trial it. Every trial is a possible customer. Also, accept nothing but the best. If your game has bugs - dont release it (even if its supposed to be for a promotion like the uprising) - one thing worse than a poor start is a poor start that gets you a low rating - you will always be fighting against that overall average.

And i think i have proved (during the perioud when we were hidden away in speciality shops) if you shout loud enough in the right places, MS will listen - and sort stuff out. They arent evil, just a little dumb. Treat them like the retarded nephew they act like and you will get the responses you require. Sometimes a clip round the ear is required.

So to wrap up (in what seems more like $2 than $0.02) George is spot on, but MS are not the only ones to blame - if you release generic crap there is no way you can expect to blame poor sales / rating on MS. Its up to you to make a product thats worthy - and THEN you can shout at MS to keep them in line.

Jonathan Lester  Mar. 28, 2011 at 17:32

"Attn: Microsoft. You need George Clingerman as XBLIG community manager. That is all."


Leo  Mar. 28, 2011 at 17:34

I really wish that Microsoft would also push XBLIG in more countries where possible. I realise that sometimes they need to do trade agreements with countries to ship XBLIG there (in terms of sales, taxation, and selling unrated content) but i'm pretty sure that in Finland there'd be a huge load of people buying games at a low price point.

QuimbyRBG  Mar. 28, 2011 at 17:42

That was a topic I remember getting quite riled up about a year or so ago; The trials in xblig are so very restrictive and are counter intuitive for most games.
8 minutes is more than enough to figure out a massager, but when someone gets cut off halfway through figuring out a $5 epic RPG's story intro, it really puts a damper on your sales potential as it can leave a pretty bad taste. //End random off topic rant :)

NielsBrouwers  Mar. 28, 2011 at 17:46

I agree with George and, I too, am optimistic about the future of the channel. The quality of the games is definitely rising, just look at the Winter Uprising initiative.
My gut tells me that the upcoming DBP contest will also serve to fuel some great quality games! Once people realise this, they will visit the channel and sales should rise with the increased audience. So, go check it out!

DrMistry  Mar. 28, 2011 at 17:55

I've been looking forward to reading George's comments ever since I knew they were coming. And I absolutely agree with everything he's said. Of course we're not top of the MS priority list, of course resource is committed according to the needs of the business. The only thing I would add at this point is that there's a difference between explanation and justification. I honestly hope that the channel does improve in all the ways the community wants and more, I hope George is vindicated in his honestly held opinions and I hope that many many more gamers come along for the ride and see the variety of titles, the mad quirkiness of some and the simple playable brilliance of others.

Mark  Mar. 28, 2011 at 18:39

I really enjoy some of the stuff on XBLIG, Dealspwn is also very good at pointing a lot of the good stuff out too me!

the main problem for me is the constant internet connection being required(due to games being unrated), I would buy a lot more if this was not the case

Nick  Mar. 28, 2011 at 19:36

I love the Indie game trials, but cannot justify purchases for non A+ titles until they get achievements (even if they had, say, a cap at xGS and x/20 achievements where xMSP is the price). I look at review sites and get the demos from xbox.com, seems pretty easy to me.

CanMan  Mar. 28, 2011 at 22:15

I bought ezmuze and really enjoy it. I wish I could export the tracks I made though.

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