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.
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.
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.
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.