November 1st marked a monumental day for the Xbox 360. The dashboard received a shiny new update to better integrate the “Kinect” experience with the 360, leaving people to argue over the virtues of the “new” New Xbox Live Experience. However, many people overlooked one of the most important changes to have affected the XBLIG community since the service was rebranded from community games to indie games.
Several sites have reported on the fact that the indie games section has been thoroughly bumped from the Games & Demos section to a sub-section known as Specialty Shops. The Specialty Shops section of the new dashboard houses the avatar marketplace, the probably soon to be defunct Game Room (Krome Studios is dead), and the Rock Band marketplace. This new classification that Microsoft has branded the indie games section with seems to be a nail in the coffin of obscurity that Microsoft seems intent to bury its independent creators underneath.
First of all, what exactly is a specialty shop? The term seems almost seedy in origin. When I first learned of it, my brain imagined walking into an early ’90s video store with the curtain over the “back” part of the store that housed the adult films. Is that what indie games have become to Microsoft? Are they considered the seedy underbelly of gaming you need a special password to access? Perhaps.
There is no question that content released on the platform is truly like finding a diamond in the rough, but instead of improving the peer review process to improve the quality of games, Microsoft seems content to sweep indie games under the rug and away from the eyes of consumers in favor of the Xbox Live Arcade.
Understandably, most indie developers who have utilized the service are upset. The service has always been the red-headed step child of the Xbox 360′s game offerings and this update feels as though Microsoft is attempting to cement that within the developer’s minds. As for the response to the update on the App Hub forums, users seem to be in agreement that this update is a bad thing.
“I’d like to know the rationale behind it – at least then the community could try and come up with constructive alternatives, rather than being pushed further into obscurity.”
- Deej, developer of Clover: A Curious Tale
“It just.. boggles the mind. Clearly it’s not based on even the simplest logic.. which is what I’d assume gamers vaguely use when scrolling through those lists. It’s not like there’s not enough space (there’s only 3 boxes in Games and Demos.) It’s a categorical failure (literally).”
“The problem is while it’s advantageous to people making generic avatar games (no offense to those who make avatar games), it stifles the creation of more original games.”
As you can see, the sentiments echoed by developers of games available on XBLIG is pretty grim. Several developers are asking what can be done to improve the service to make Microsoft take notice. In our second episode, both Mahkia and myself have a look at some of the improvements that *could* be made to improve the service.
However, as many people on the App Hub forums have pointed out, it seems as if XNA 4.0 is geared more toward phone app development than actual indie game development, which suggests Microsoft wants to take the focus away from the indie games service it offers on the Xbox 360 and instead turn the developer’s attention to developing games and apps for Windows Phone 7.
Recently on Twitter, I compiled a small poll using Poll Daddy and asked indie game developers about their feelings on the recent changes and some of the improvements they feel could be made to the XBLIG section. I was reasonably overwhelmed by the response I got, as many developers were eager to voice their opinions as to why the change was made, how they feel about the change, and what they feel can be done to improve the service.
After reading over the response from 30+ developers, it is clear that something needs to be done to address the main flaw of the XBLIG publishing platform, which is the quality of releases available. There is no denying the fact that 10 to 1, the games on the service are utter crap.
From massage apps to farting apps, there is little reason to take the service seriously despite truly wonderful and diverse games like Miner Dig Deep, Lumi, Kaleidoscope, Soulcaster, Breath of Death VII, Shoot 1Up, Apple Jack, and several others being available. So how can these problems be addressed? Several developers who answered the poll have the right idea. One anonymous responder had this to say:
Of course, the primary idea behind raising the cost of a Creator’s Club membership is to weed out those who produce massage apps and other crapware. However, that’s just what the peer review process is SUPPOSED to prevent. Instead, the apps are ferried along through peer review and as many developers have voiced on the App Hub forums as well as the survey, the blame for the mound of literal crap that contaminates XBLIG can be placed squarely on the shoulders of anyone who has approved a massage or fart app through peer review.
While Microsoft claims to support indie developers and this new placement is said to benefit indie developers, I think the real motive behind the move is pretty clear. The quality of product available through the Indie Games Channel was not sufficient enough to garner interest in being placed in the Games & Demos section. Aside from increasing the lists view from 20 to 50, not much has been done to improve the actual service. In fact, whereas you used to get detailed information and the ability to rate a game all from its menu, now you are greeted with this screen when you start an indie game:
It’s a low blow to morale for XBLIG indie developers, but there are steps that can be taken to improve the service so that customers and eventually Microsoft will take notice. During the course of the survey, I asked developers to respond with how long they had been developing games for the XNA platform. The response was rather varied, but of the 30 responders, 20 have been developing for the platform for 2 or more years. This says to me that these individuals are dedicated to the platform and its successes, so on the shoulders of these individuals does the monumental task of improving the service fall.
What can be done?
Of course, the proverbial question is how to improve the service so that it is noteworthy to both consumers and Microsoft. Breath of Death VII creator Zeboyd Games’ has offered an elegant solution that could have the potential to help consumers realize that the indie games’ marketplace is more than just avatar novelty games and massage apps.
“The concept: It’s easy to overlook the great games that come out on XBLIG because they come out here and there – a good game this week, a great game a week or two later. But what if we tried to pack a short period of time with as much XBLIG goodness as possible? Thus our proposal - we make the first week of December (November 29th to December 4th) the most awesome week in the history of XBLIG.”
The goal of this display is to ultimately show Microsoft that true quality can be produced and as such, the indie games channel deserves its place within the Games & Demos section of the dashboard. It’s certainly an ambitious project and one that I will keep my devoted indie gaming eye on, as participating games that I personally have an interest in include Soulcaster 2, Crossfire 2, and Epic Dungeon, among others.
However, my statement to indie developers who are looking to improve the situation is.. why stop there? Why only offer one week of quality games? Instead of passing through peer review numerous titles just to fulfill your peer review obligations, stop and think how a certain game or app could affect the marketplace. After all, you wouldn’t create a master painting, then go out into the pasture to fetch a cow pie and place it next to your painting on the mantle, so why do that with your game? If something stinks and you don’t feel like its worth the asking price, it’s simple: don’t approve it.
Adopting a stricter policy when it comes to peer reviews not only for the technical aspects of a game, but the content it provides will improve the overall image of the service and then many of the things indie developers asked for within the survey such as a spot in the Games & Demos section, showing up within traditional search, and dashboard promotion could all become possible. I would like to think those indie developers who took the time to respond to my survey and who are voicing their complaints adamantly in the mourning thread on the App Hub forums are the “300 indie Spartans” who will be the spark to improve the service beyond what it has become.