This week sure has been lively and my blood is cooled only to a simmer. After a long and pointless debate with other individuals I’ve come to see the larger picture that is forming around the Xbox LIVE Indie Games platform.
In the Beginning
I must admit that when I started using XNA 3 years ago that my expectations were low, but they quickly escalated when I realized that it was possible to produce high quality content. With enough elbow grease and determination, a polished experience that is worthy of any XBLA title could be achieved. Working in the confines of a virtual language meant that problems often needed creative solutions, but the challenge was a welcome one.
As the years passed on, the chasm between quality titles from serious developers and the novelty “experiences” from hobbyists was growing wider and wider. This of course lead to some class warfare in the forums over how to stop the flood of fire-and-forget titles from taking up valuable slots on the limited list of games available on the Dashboard. This is further amplified by the fact that it is much easier to pump out terrible experiences than it is to iterate and mold a carefully crafted experience found in any quality title.
Ultimately, this cycle resulted in what we see today; a quality title appearing between every 10 fire-and-forget titles who purpose is purely to cash in on a couple hundred impulse buys at a time, leaching another slot from a serious developer.
Yes Yes, Xbox Dashboard Sucks
The general consensus is that if Xbox had a Dashboard that was better suited for content discovery, this would not be an issue. This coupled with a few aging faults like no ability to rate games from the user’s game list has cultivated an environment where every and any game will sit comfortably between 3 – 3.5 unless people have taken serious offense, earning it a 2.5 at worst. As a result, the rating system does little to deter would-be buyers and they continue to be nickel and dime 80 Microsoft points at a time. I do wonder how long that will last before the consumer is burned out and never returns.
Accepting the fact that the structure of their Dashboard will not ever replicate the PC experience on Steam or even the many Flash-game sites due to a lack of mouse and keyboard, we are subject to certain restrictions. The question then becomes, given these restrictions what can be done?
We Should All Just Give Up
I remember when I first started commenting in the forums, it was a lively crew. People were throwing suggestions around, spouting off crazy game ideas, posting really quirky games with a good, if unpolished, feel to them. If was an enjoyable experience and individuals had the heart to create grass roots promotions like the Uprising events. It all felt very garage band but for the console instead of PC where this usually happens, and I kind of liked it.
I was out of the scene for a little less than a year to work on my book, and when I returned it was like someone turned off the lights and the furniture was missing. What happened?!
Now, I browse onto the wasteland forum and it’s every man for himself. There seem to be more people pushing games into Review than people actually reviewing those games. There seems to be a constant flux of shady dealings with getting games into the marketplace and inflating their ratings. The moral has reached an all-time low and even the moderators just seem agitated by the mention of trying to do something about it. The overall defeated attitude on the forums feels like everyone is sitting next to Indie Game’s bed, waiting for death to come.
I returned to a world where respected community members like George Clingerman are blogging about the end of days for XNA and websites are starting to form to “keep XNA alive” like it was the BeOS movement all over again.
There is no Other Option
XBLIG is far from perfect but I would hate to see it disappear because of a few miscalculations on Microsoft’s part. They underestimated the greed of the individual, assuming that a community of faceless internet personalities can govern itself. I can understand their concern over dedicating any resources to XBLIG, but with the millions of dollars being generated by the service now it seems like hardly an issue to dedicate some official muscle to controlling the quality of games that reach the marketplace or dedicate some XNA staff to support more than Windows Phone.
Right now, Xbox is the only console where you can pay $160 ($100 + Gold Membership) to develop and sell your products. This pricing model fits perfectly with the other development frameworks like iOS but it also opens the floodgates to anyone with $160 in their pockets and a free weekend.
I have not contacted Sony or Nintendo for their rates since I do my Indie development from my house. This alone invalidates me as a candidate for Nintendo and I suspect that to be the same for Sony. On top of that, unless something has changed in the last few years, I am guessing that development kits still run in the many thousands of dollars for PSN games on PSP or PS3, and the same is to be said for Nintendo’s online service. With that said, it seems that Xbox is not the best option, it’s the only option available to the developer who stands somewhere between the novelty hobbyist and the AAA developer.
In other words, I got nowhere else to go.