I've been wanting to write this post summarizing my thoughts about the MVP summit but have been dragging my feet since it's a very difficult one to write. However seeing Andy (http://forums.create.msdn.com/forums/t/77625.aspx) and Catalin (http://www.catalinzima.com/2011/03/mvp-summit-2011/) and Chris (http://geekswithblogs.net/cwilliams/archive/2011/03/07/144229.aspx) post about it has encouraged me to finally take the plunge. I'm going to have to write carefully though because I'm going to be dancing around a ton of NDA mine fields as well as having to walk the tight-rope of not sending the wrong message or having people read too much into what I'm saying. I want to note that most of what I'm about to say is just based on my observations, they're not thoughts that Microsoft has asked me to pass along and they're not things I heard Microsoft say. It's just me sharing what I think after going to the MVP summit.
Let's start off with a short imaginary question and answer session.
- Has the App Hub forums and XBLIG management been rather poor by Microsoft? Yes.
- Do I think we're going to see changes to that overnight? No.
- Will it continue to look bad from the outside? Somewhat.
Confusing right? Well that's kind of how things are right now. Lots of confusion. XNA is doing AWESOME. Like, really, really awesome. As a result of that awesomeness, XNA is on three major platforms: Xbox 360, WP7 and PC. This means that internally Microsoft is really excited and invested in the technology.
That's fantastic for XNA and really should show you the future the framework has. It's here to stay. So why are Xbox LIVE Indie Game developers feeling so much pain? The ironic thing is that pain is being caused by the success of XNA.
When XNA was just a small thing, there was more freedom and more focus. It was just us and them. We were an only child. Now our family has grown and everyone has and wants some time with XNA. This gets XNA pulled in all directions and as it moves onto new platforms, it plays catch up trying to get those platforms up to speed to where Xbox LIVE Indie Games has grown. Forums, documentation, educational content. They all need to be there because Xbox LIVE Indie Games has all of that and more.
Along with the catch up in features/documentation/awesomeness there's the catch up that the people on the team have to play. New platforms and new areas of development mean new players and those new guys don't have the history of being around from the beginning. This leads to a lack of understanding at times just how important some things are because they seem so small and insignificant (Rich Text defaulting for new forum profiles would be one things that jumps to mind). If you're not aware that the forums have become more than just a basic Q&A, if you're not aware that they're a central hub to a very active community, then you don't understand why that small change should be prioritized over something else. New people have to get caught up and figure out how to make a framework and central forum site work for everyone it's now serving.
So yeah, a lot of our pain this last year has been simply that XNA is doing well and XBLIG is doing well so the focus was shifted to catch other things up. It hurts when a parent seems to not have any time for you and they're spending some much time with your new baby brother. Growing pains. All families and in our case our product family experience it to some degree. I think as WP7 matures we'll see the team figuring out how to give everyone the right amount of attention.
While we're talking about some of our growing pains, it is also important to note (although not really an excuse) that the Xbox LIVE Arcade developers complain about many of the same things that we do. If you paid attention to talks and information coming out of GDC 2011, most of the the XBLA guys were saying things that sounded eerily similar to what the XBLIG developers are saying (Scott Nichols from GayGamer.net noticed http://twitter.com/#!/NaviFairyGG/status/43540379206811650). Does this mean we should just accept the status quo since we're being treated exactly the same? No way. However it DOES show that the way we're being treated is no indication of the stability and future of the platform, it's just Microsoft dropping the communication ball on two playing fields. We're not alone and we're not even being treated worse. Not great, but also in a weird way a very good sign.
Now on to a few tidbits I think I CAN share from the summit (I'm really crossing my fingers I'm not stepping over some NDA line I shouldn't be). First, I discovered that the XBLIG user base is bigger than I personally had originally estimated. I won't give the exact numbers (although we did beg Microsoft to release some of these numbers so maybe someday?) but it was much larger than my original guestimates and I was pleasantly surprised. Maybe some of you guys had the right number when you were guessing, but I know that mine was much too low. And even MORE importantly the number of users/shoppers is growing at a steady pace as well. Our market is growing! That was fantastic news and really something that I had to share.
On to the community manager discussion. It was mentioned. I was mentioned. I blushed. Nothing more to report there than the blush in my cheeks was a light crimson color. If I ever see a job description posted for that position I have a resume waiting in the wings. I can't deny that I think that would be my dream job...
...so after I finished blushing, the MVPs did make it very, very clear that the communication has to improve. Community manager or not the single biggest pain point with the Xbox LIVE Indie Game community has been a lack of communication. I have seen dramatic improvement in the team responding to MVPs and I'm even seeing more communication from them on the forums so I'm hoping that's a long term change. I really think they understood the issue, the problem remains how to open that communication channel in a way that was sustainable. I think they'll get it figured out and hopefully that's sooner rather than later.
During the summit, you may have seen me tweeting about how I was "that guy" (http://twitter.com/#!/clingermangw/status/42740432471470081). You also may have noticed that Andy and Catalin both mentioned me in their summit write ups. I may have come on a bit strong while I was there...went a little out of character for myself. I've been agitated for a while with the way things have been and I've been listening to you guys and hearing you guys be agitated. I'm also watching some really awesome indie game developers looking elsewhere and leaving the platform. Some of them we might not have been able to keep even with changes, but others are only leaving because of perceptions and lack of communication from Microsoft. And that pisses me off. And I let Microsoft know that I was pissed off. You made your list and I took that list and verbalized it. I verbalized the hell out of it. [It was actually mentioned that I'm a lot nicer on the forums and in email than I am in person...I felt bad about that, but I couldn't stay silent]. Hopefully it did something guys, I really did try hard to get the message across.
Along with my agitation, I also brought some pride. I mentioned several things in person to the team that I was particularly proud of. From people in the community that are doing an awesome job, to the re-launch of XboxIndies that was going on that week and even gamers like Steven Hurdle (http://writingsofmassdeduction.com/) who have purchased one XBLIG every day for over 100 days now. The community is freaking rocking it and I made sure to highlight that.
So in conclusion, I'd just like to say hang in there (you know, like that picture of the cat).
If you've been worried about investing in Xbox LIVE Indie Games because you think it's on shaky ground. It's not. Dream Build Play being about the Xbox 360 should have helped a little to point that out. The team is really scrambling around trying to figure things out and make improvements all around. There’s quite a few new gals and guys and it's going to take them time to catch up and there are a lot of constantly shifting priorities. We all have one toy, one team and we're fighting for time with it.
It's also time for the community to continue spreading our wings and going out on our own more often. The Indie Game Winter Uprising was a fantastic example of that. We took things into our own hands and it got noticed and Microsoft got behind it. They do every time we stand up and do something (look at how many Microsoft employees tweeted, wrote about the re-launch of XboxIndies.com or the support I've gotten from them for my weekly XNA Notes). XNA is here to stay, it's time for us to stop being scared of that and figure out how to make our own games the successes they should be.
There's definitely a list of things that need to be fixed, things that should be improved and I think we should definitely keep vocal about that with Microsoft. Keep it short, focused and prioritized. There's also a lot of things we can do ourselves while we're waiting on them to fix and change things. Lots of ways we can compensate for particular weaknesses in the channel. The kind of stuff that we can step up and do ourselves.
Do it on our own, you know, the way Indies always do. And I'm really looking forward to watching us do just that.