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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.