Or: Dear Microsoft: What The Hell Are You Doing?! Part II
Nearly a year ago, I penned an angry open letter to Microsoft discussing the state of the Xbox Live Indie Games service - containing plenty of commentary from hard-working developers who were having difficulty making ends meet despite making some truly exceptional games. A year on, seemingly little has changed, and many of the devs I contacted have since moved onto newer pastures simply in order to make a little scratch and keep doing what they love: making great games for less than a couple of quid. Many have even had to go back to their day jobs and leave their passion behind.
It's a ridiculous situation on the face of things, and a heartbreaking one to boot. Xbox Live Indie games are nothing less than a unique killer app that ought to be making bank for everybody, yet another year has passed and the service continues to only make headlines when a particularly bad or derivative game hits the virtual shelves. As far as I know, most Xbox 360 owners haven't even bought a single game from the library, and annoyingly Microsoft seems to be absolutely fine with that.
But actually, there have been a fair few improvements throughout 2011, many of which are subtle and small yet make a seriously big impact to the growing platform. So, dear reader, allow me to highlight what I'd consider to be the major problems facing the XBLIG service at the moment - and how Microsoft, journalists and us gamers can continue to work on helping it fulfil its potential.
Publicity & Exposure
Microsoft were the first major console manufacturer (unless you count the Amiga) to launch a truly open gaming platform that grants players access to a wealth of cut-price gems and gives developers the opportunity to release games without investing in pricey dev kits - which is something that even Sony still can't provide. As mentioned, Xbox Live Indie Games are a killer app that you simply can't find on other consoles. You'd expect Microsoft to trumpet it from the rooftops, hell, to actually put it on the back of the box as a major system-seller. But the reality is that, beyond a couple of dashboard adverts for the Dream Build Play Competition and the Summer Uprising, the Redmond giant has completely clammed up. Why isn't there a weekly press release that lists the games along with links and a description? Adverts? Banners? An E3 and Gamescom demonstration booth? Anything, and I mean literally anything, would be good for publicity - which is something that most Indie outfits simply can't afford to do to any great extent.
A regular show on the dashboard couldn't hurt. I've publicly stated that the Independent Charles Show was a bit of a farce while it lasted, but at least it was a step in the right direction. What the service needs is a show that doesn't try to be 'funny' or 'quirky' - just a few minutes of footage and commentary about the best games to release each week. Interestingly, the new "Hot Apps" show on Windows Phone 7 seems to be doing just that, and I hope that it catches on. Well done, and credit where it's due.
It's almost enough to make us forget about the rating system scandal. At least it was fixed, to a point - and didn't damage sales anywhere near as heavily as last year's Speciality Shop shocker.
In fairness, us journalists aren't above reproach. Many gamers are of the opinion that XBLIG games consist of complete and utter tat, which is down to many of the bigger sites failing to report on the best games that the service has to offer. There are a few great Indie sites on the interweb (Armless Octopus and Indie Gamer Chick are particular highlights), and there's no doubt that Destructoid and EG have been significantly increasing their output, but on the whole there's still a massive disparity between the quality and quantity of the XBLIG journalism compared to other platforms. For example, Radiangames' Super Crossfire barely registered a mention on many major organs... until Luke Schneider defected to iOS. Even EDGE gave it a full review then.
And yes, I readily admit that I've had to put our Xbox Live Indie Game Of The Week column on hiatus to cope with the holiday season workload. It stinks, and I'm sorry. I'm part of the problem. With any luck, I should be able to re-launch soon with a new format that takes in more than just a handful of games per week.
I hate to bang on about this (since countless devs do it much better), but developers need an open point of contact with their distributor. Merging the App Hub forums was a great idea, but sadly, the responsibility still comes down to heroic volunteer MVPs like George Clingerman rather than a dedicated team. Being ignored makes developers feel unwelcome and under-valued, which isn't ideal (to put it mildly) when you're balancing hard graft with tight budgets. A recent report labels working with MS as "excruciating," and it's one of the main reasons why veteran outfits are considering jumping ship to other platforms. Or have already done so.
All the developers want, all they need in fact, is just open and honest communication. Whether this comes down to a community manager, community team or a revamp of the MVP system remains to be seen.
Kinect & Windows Phone 7: Great Strides
The XNA dev kit allow titles to be developed for Windows Phone 7 as well as for the Xbox 360 - which is an absolutely brilliant idea. In fact, the App Store demonstrates the (patently obvious) fact that demand for cheap apps is much bigger on mobile devices rather than consoles. Again, though, Microsoft just aren't giving it enough exposure at the moment, but with right the right amount of coverage and continuation of initiatives like the Inside Xbox videos, this should hopefully take off once Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and the next Xbox converge.
Kinect Fun Labs is another neat idea that just isn't pulling its weight. I've met a number of developers who have been stonewalled by what ought to be a completely inclusive service, including the university team behind the fantastic Kinect title GravityPull who just haven't heard word one despite the outstanding quality of their game. I recently talked to an Xbox Live brand manager at Gamescom who told me that Microsoft are still deciding whether to include the Kinect SDK as part of XNA, and since Kinect lends itself to quick casual experiences, there's a host of untapped potential in this direction.
Xbox Live Indie Games Are Still Here... And Still Growing
But here's the major point - and one that, despite my grumblings, needs to be made. There are more Xbox Live Indie games coming out per week than ever before, and plenty of developers are still queueing up to support the platform. XBLIG isn't dying out; it's actually growing - and it's important that Microsoft and the gaming community in general recognises its potential and gives its developers the coverage, communication and new platforms they need to thrive.
To my knowledge, no XBLIG title has managed to sell over a million copies. Here's hoping that I can't say the same next year.