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MStar Games Developer Interview: Microsoft Has "Totally, Utterly Failed"

Jonathan Lester
Fail, interview, Microsoft, Mike Bergenstjerna, MSTAR games, Xbox Live Indie Games

MStar Games Developer Interview: Microsoft Has "Totally, Utterly Failed"

The Xbox Live Indie scene is one of the Xbox 360's most impressive unique selling points, but there's no doubt that it's only fulfilling a fraction of its potential. I recently sat down with Mike "Dr Mistry" Bergenstjerna, the veteran game designer behind MStar Games and winner of our Xbox Live Indie Game Of The Year award to discuss the state of the service... which turns out to be sadly lacking. In fact, the good Doctor believes that Microsoft - and the marketplace itself - has "totally, utterly failed." It's a truly heartbreaking interview, and one that contains many lessons for Microsoft to learn.

Jonathan Lester: Thanks for talking to us, Mike - and congratulations for last year's awards! Your current title, YoYoYo, is now on hold due to poor sales - so what are your current plans?

Mike Bergenstjerna: I’ve started to take more of a back seat in the XBLIG community over the last few weeks to be honest, and I’m starting to focus on moving over to another platform. That’s mostly because of what DJArcas was talking about in your earlier interview– MS’ basic philosophy seems to be diametrically opposed to commercial success! Sure it’s a nice idea to let anyone write games, but ultimately that philosophy has failed because it doesn’t take account of the laziness, incompetence, opportunism and cynicism of fly-by-night developers.

The system just doesn’t work on XBLIG and we’re now at the point where devs are saying “I can’t be done with all this crap just to make $250 for 4 months work”. I used to get angry about this, but frankly now I’m passed caring.

Jonathan Lester: So what projects do you have in the pipeline?

Mike Bergenstjerna: I’ve got one more game which will be “XBLIG only” which is a bit of a button-masher but after that it’ll be PC first, XBLIG if I can justify the time to add 360 controls. I’ve already got Space Pirates running on Windows, along with Xenocide and Blazin’ Balls XE so I’m kind of letting things simmer until the new IndieCity.Com system is up and running. DBP is a waste of time, the main channel is a waste of time, trying to get support from MS is a waste of time. It’s hard enough banging code together as it is, without worrying about all the junk and keeping an eye on other community members to make sure your new game isn’t upsetting anyone. Everyone who reviewed Xenocide said it was a real advance on the classic Space Invaders but we’ve sold less than $200-worth of game. That’s not just nonsense, that’s bank-breaking.

MStar Games Developer Interview: Microsoft Has "Totally, Utterly Failed"

Xenocide: a great game that no-one played

Jonathan Lester: We rated Xenocide, for the record. So what are the major problems with the service that Microsoft should be sorting out?

Mike Bergenstjerna: We’ve been over this ground in the community time after time after time for years (just like with all the other problems!) and got nowhere. For me it’s all about MS a) not thinking the basic idea behind the channel through b) not allocating enough resource to channel management c) being unwilling to see the relationship between devs and the channel as a business relationship and d) being unable or unwilling to address any of our concerns.

If I had a friend who treated me and the other devs the way MS treat us, I’d have told them to shove off in pretty short order. Their size makes them feel like they’re either too big to fail or that the failure/atrophy of XBLIG is too small a deal to impact on their reputation but that’s really stupid. If you’ve got the option of releasing Wintel games, XBLIG, iPhone or Android then the attitude of Microsoft becomes an important factor in your considerations. This is seen most keenly with Wintel-based titles because XNA works very nicely on the PC, meaning that the only difference between XBLIG and XNA-based Windows games is the release channel.

MStar Games Developer Interview: Microsoft Has "Totally, Utterly Failed"

Jonathan Lester: So are you definitely going to hop platforms? What incentives do the other marketplaces offer over XBLIG?

Mike Bergenstjerna: I’d choose Windows over XBLIG every time (and indeed I now am) because you don’t get spoon-fed bullshit and ignored when you have a problem. Not only that but a couple of years down the line when developers have gained lots of business and design experience – we’re talking about the next generation of studios here. Why would any of us do business with the chumps at Microsoft who’ve let us down so badly? Xbox LIVE generally is starting to show cracks and Microsoft will need enthusiastic developers if they’re going to halt and reverse that.

XBLA is losing its appeal for developers and gamers right now, so what does that tell us about their on-console, on-line strategy? Sony must be rubbing their hands and laughing. But then again MS don’t care about that either because they’ve got Kinect. It seems they’re betting the homestead on staying ahead of Sony simply on the strength of Kinect. Sure it’s a nice bit of hardware, but sustaining playability for a AAA game using Kinect is going to be very, very, very hard.

Jonathan Lester: Not looking forward to this year's influx of Kinect titles, then?

Mike Bergenstjerna: Wanna try completing the next Star Wars title in one sitting with a Kinect? No, nor do I. Kinect would be an ideal match for XBLA/XBLIG because it’s geared toward short, sharp gameplay rather than long, complex games. Anyone can see that – people just aren’t going to play with Kinect for more than about 45 minutes and if I had to stop playing a AAA game because I was too physically tired I would put the game back on the shelf or trade that sucker in. If I’d have paid $1 for a game which gave me 15 minutes of frantic, fun arm-waving and jumping around well then I’m more interested – I get my reward, I’m not getting chest cramps, and I feel good about spending $100+ on a fancy-Dan camera system.

MS have totally missed the boat with what punters want from Kinect. And rather than give us access to the API, they’re using the PC tinkerer community to develop apps for Kinect on Windows. Some might say “hurrah, MS are being open”, but to me it looks much more like “let’s get people to do it for free!” Someone’s getting mugged, and it ain’t MS.

MStar Games Developer Interview: Microsoft Has "Totally, Utterly Failed"

Jonathan Lester: Let's get back to Xbox Live Indie Games. Can it be saved? Is it completely broken?

Mike Bergenstjerna: Microsoft is a great big milk machine, and everyone wants a teat. If you’re willing to put up with the stink of cowshit and very little milk then go right ahead and grab yourself one, but sooner or later the milk will run out or spoil and – forgive the coarseness of the image – you’ll be left sucking and getting nothing.

In every meaningful, measureable way (title quality, title popularity, sales, ratings, press coverage) XBLIG has totally, utterly failed. As an experiment in reaching out to independent devs it’s a disaster. As a marketplace it’s a joke.

MS have been holding back on giving the community what it needs – what it’s been begging for – in what seems to me to be a deliberate strategy. Still no community manager, still no fix on stats and lists, a complete inability to address basic questions about the system and how it’s being run in to the ground. Any contact between management and the community has been pure and simple window dressing with no concrete actions or changes. Any other company, any other business relationship, and people would be walking away in droves. The only things stopping them right now is the pride in releasing a game for the 360 and the faint hope that MS will actually turn the milk on properly and manage the flow properly. For me, those saving graces have run out.

Jonathan Lester: Finally, what do you have to say to new developers who might want to start writing games for the service?

Mike Bergenstjerna: There will always be people willingly and enthusiastically writing titles for the channel, and who knows once in a while there might be a hit, but the people who’ve done well are few and far between and tend to be folk who are already experienced in the games business. Even a cursory glance at the channel tells you it’s not working. It’s just another one of those Microsoft “projects” which hasn’t worked, and history tells us that projects like this just slowly disappear. Development is stopped, support withdrawn, the last few pitiful paycheques written out and the project slowly dies. Who remembers Windows Millennium Edition? Or Microsoft Bob? Or Windows CE? Not many, and those who do remember them aren’t lamenting their demise. How long before XBLIG goes the same way?

How long indeed. Stay tuned for a response from George Clingerman, a Microsoft MVP who's heavily involved with the XNA indie scene.

Add a comment17 comments
ODB  Mar. 28, 2011 at 13:49

I don't think I've ever seen an American (I assume he's American by the fact he mentioned $Dollars$) say the word 'punter'?!!

Nick  Mar. 28, 2011 at 14:03

He's not American :) I think he's from the UK.

QuimbyRBG  Mar. 28, 2011 at 14:17

That's because Dr. Mistry is a brit :)
Also, I concur wholeheartedly with pretty much everything he has said during this article and I know a lot of our peers hold more of less the same views.
Those of us that are still producing titles for the channel are either finishing up one off two titles that wouldn't work as well on other platforms, or are simply using the current title to transition.

QuimbyRBG  Mar. 28, 2011 at 14:21

I think a lot of my friends from the indie channel will lament leaving as it represents a definite failure in bringing a lot of hopes and dream-lined plans to fruition, but I think the blame there rests firmly on Microsoft's inability to interact properly with developers. (Perhaps through a community manager...)
I'm personally planning to release a few really quick titles as I prepare them for a PC bundle; Then I'm going to go check out that IndieCity site Dr Mistry keeps flapping on about. :)

Jim Perry  Mar. 28, 2011 at 14:43

While I'm hoping all the negative PR that's been done on XBLIG will wake up the people in charge of making decisions about the platform, I'm not holding my breath. IMO, MS should have thought at the start about hooking GFWL into the service along with XBLIG. It's been left up to the community to give gamers a Steam-like service for XNA games on the PC (indiecity.com is just one). Maybe it's just because I'm not a "suit" that I think it's extremely short-sighted of MS to miss something like this as a no-brainer. MS's vaunted "three screens" reason for XNA is really only two - WP7 and 360 because of all the problems with distribution of XNA games on the PC.

I do have to disagree with Mike that DBP is a waste of time though, as long as you design your game appropriately. You get most of the work on a PC version and the chance to win a good chunk of change.

Roy T.  Mar. 28, 2011 at 14:43

Nice article to see the view of one indie developer, but there is no depth to his complaints (there might be a lot of depth to it, but never in this article he says what MS is doing wrong, he only keeps saying that there "are cracks in XBLIG/XBLA".

Jonathan Lester  Mar. 28, 2011 at 14:47

A response from George Clingerman, the Microsoft Indie MVP, will be going live at 5 to provide some balance. Stay tuned, guys.

ODB  Mar. 28, 2011 at 15:03

Then why on earth is he using dollars???

Kris  Mar. 28, 2011 at 15:08

There is definitely a lot of depth and truth to the issues w/ XBLIG. There is a viability issue (XBox Live has a ton of subscribers but few know of XBLIG, many countries cannot get XBLIG, etc), there are common technical issues that occur frequently and haven't been resolved for years (sales data being delayed / wrong, top downloads lists not working for days at a time, etc), there are quality perception issues (there are good games but the current list sorting puts way too much weight on new releases being the most visible games), etc.

When there are problems, MS typically doesn't respond and doesn't always seem to notice them until we scream bloody murder. MS seems very disconnected from the channel. There clearly are some inside MS that are passionate about XBLIG but they don't seem to have the power to make changes.

There are a lot of issues and many that could be resolved to make things a ton better. We've submitted emails, Connect Requests, etc but our ideas seemingly fall on deaf ears.

More than anything though it is becoming obvious to developers that want to do this as a business more than a hobby that financially, one cannot survive on XBLIG alone. If there was hope of things getting better, it would be easier to stay. But after years of neglect, that hope is fading fast.

games but

Jonathan Lester  Mar. 28, 2011 at 15:11

I think that the payout is in $US. It's engrained. ;)

QuimbyRBG  Mar. 28, 2011 at 16:15

It's easier for us all in the apphub to discuss money in $US as that is what we get paid in, so converting that to local currency would distort the amount depending on current exchange rates etc.

Sam  Mar. 28, 2011 at 16:16

Sure the XBLIG service has its problems, but how many of those can be sorted? It's rammed full of generic shovelware, but that's down to its accessibility to all; it's not too difficult to get a game on the store. Without its accessibility, it wouldn't be the same.

The development environment that M$ have created is really, really nice, and there's a good amount of documentation out there. The only problem is that sales volumes (I've sold 78 whole copies!) are too small to make it worthwhile as a profit venture.

DrMistry  Mar. 28, 2011 at 16:27

Maybe it was an oversight on my part to not include more background in what I said, I think that's a fair criticism. The main reason I didn't is that in the "scene" the problems are pretty well known and have been chewed over repeatedly for the last 2 or 3 years! But please remember - this is just /my/ opinion and I have no monopoly on that, and nor would I want one. The community - including ALL the MVPs - have been relentlessly supportive, inventive, encouraging and above all open and this just make the state of the channel all the more sad.

BTW I'm English, with a Swedish surname and faux-Asian gamertag, and dollars are saved and spent by more people so it just makes sense to me to talk in those terms. No biggie!

DB  Mar. 28, 2011 at 23:30

The opinions of one guy who failed. Meh.

AzBat360  Mar. 29, 2011 at 05:20

Sorry DrMistry but I never liked any of your games, so I don't give much credit to your complaints. But I will say that you have some good points about MS lack of interaction with the devs & public. However, had your complaints came from a high quality respected dev like James Silva, it would have held more weight & been way more newsworthy.

DrMistry  Mar. 29, 2011 at 15:07

Thank you AzBat and DB for those invaluable contributions to the debate. Do either of you work for Microsoft? Your attitudes seem to match theirs pretty closely.

AzBat360  Mar. 30, 2011 at 03:07

I don't work for Microsoft, but I've been their cheerleader for a long time. However, I'm not afraid to call them out when they're wrong. See my blog from a week ago. Sorry, but I don't believe our standing in the XBLIG community is really enough to raise the needed awareness to make change.

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