The release of the recent update to the Xbox 360’s dashboard has caused quite a commotion among the Xbox LIVE Indie Games (“XBLIG”) community. The primary reasons for this have been a negative response to various changes that have occurred in regards to XBLIG’s look and presence on the Xbox. Unfortunately, what was an “Indie Developers Unhappy With Dashboard Changes” story has been slowly corrupted into a “Microsoft Wants To Kill XBLIG” story.
I undoubtedly played a part in that with my post here on the AppHub forums. I said, in relevant part, “XBLIG is dead”, and it doesn’t take too many rephrasings to go from that to the “Microsoft is Euthanizing XBLIG” story. Rather than try to weasel out of whatever responsibility I might bear for the latter story taking hold, I’ll instead just share my thoughts on what I think happened and what I think needs to happen going forward.
First, I don’t think Microsoft was trying to kill XBLIG. If they wanted to do that, they would’ve just done it. They wouldn’t have released a public version of XNA 4.0 with support for the Xbox 360 and they wouldn’t have publically released a new version of XNA Game Studio Connect (which is the software that runs on the Xbox itself that allows developers to deploy games to the Xbox for testing). Instead they would’ve announced a winding up time frame – say 6 months out from now or so – after which new submissions to the play testing & peer review system would’ve been closed and some additional time afterwards for those games in the pipeline at that point to try to make it through the peer review process. They would’ve put out a nice press release talking about how great an experiment it has been so far and how many lovely games have been created. They would’ve had all sorts of talking points about how the purpose of the XNA Creators Club’s XBLCG/XBLIG program was to give indie studios a chance to use Microsoft’s great platforms to reach large numbers of gamers and how that experiment is continuing and evolving with the introduction of the Windows Phone 7 platform. It would’ve talked about the unique opportunity WP7 presents to indie studios to access a brand new platform right from the very beginning, one which is projected to reach __ million users by the end of 2011 alone, and how mobile gaming is a wonderful fit for indie developers since the average mobile gamer is looking for a more casual gaming experience that is less asset-intensive and more focused on simple and quirky fun, which is exactly the sort of experience that indie developers excel at delivering. It would’ve talked up how the amazing XNA Game Studio Framework makes it easy for even beginning game developers to create exciting games and how access to LIVE on Windows Phone 7 is available not only to existing Xbox LIVE and Games for Windows LIVE partners but will also be made available to indie developers who build and demo top notch games that deliver the fun, satisfying, and captivating game experience that members associate with the LIVE name.
Much of the above, of course, is true. In fact, it’s all true except for the parts about closing XBLIG. Because they didn’t close it and instead have created a new version of Game Studio Connect that supports XNA 4.0 and will be opening the submission pipeline for play test and peer review to XNA 4.0 games on or about Monday Nov. 8th.
The chief XBLIG-specific complaints I’ve come across about the new dashboard are:
- XBLIG is not in Games & Demos/Genres/Titles A-Z, but instead is inside a (for lack of a better term) plate group called “Specialty Shops”.
- The image used for the XBLIG plate is three avatars standing amongst some clouds and that this is both misrepresentative (since there are far more non-Avatar games than Avatar games among XBLIG titles) and confusing (since XBLIG is to the immediate right of the Avatar Marketplace such that someone glancing casually might just see Avatars and move on).
- The Game Library interface for XBLIG titles is deficient in that the launch screen consists solely of "[Game Name (truncated if it’s beyond some certain length)]” “Play Game” and “Delete Game” without the game description, box art, or anything else.
- The Game Library itself shows the game tile and description but the description is truncated if it’s too long and none of the content rating (e.g. violence and language) are displayed.
- It’s impossible to rate games (i.e. 1-5 star rating system) from the Game Library; gamers need to go back to the Marketplace and hunt down your game again if they want to actually rate it.
Much of the initial complaint was over the “Specialty Shops” placement. Me, I’m not super bothered by it, but downloads of trials and sales of full games have been down quite a bit for according to a number of devs with popular games. I can understand Microsoft’s reasoning on putting it there – Avatars are quite popular and a ton of Avatar accessories have been purchased, and that tab also have the Rock Band and Guitar Hero music stores as well as the Game Room and the Lips music store. The problem is that while people buy a lot of Avatar accessories and a lot of music for Rock Band and Guitar Hero, many (most?) do so in the Avatar editor and in the respective games. I don’t think anyone ever asked the “where do people buy this stuff” question though and so something that looks really good from a raw numbers perspective probably doesn’t hold up once you look at the point-of-sale locations for Avatar stuff and downloadable music tracks.
The image with the three avatars looks really good. But it doesn’t represent the channel well – most games don’t use Avatars – and when placed right next to the Avatar Marketplace, it’s easy to have gamers who are just flicking quickly through see two tiles of avatars and the Game Room and just keep on flicking to the next plate group, never even realizing that the second plate was “Indie Games”. When the beta of the dashboard first expanded to the large-scale public beta (around the end of September/beginning of October), there was a great interface for browsing New Releases, Top Downloads, and Top Rated. You’d choose one (e.g. New Releases) and then there were several plate groups of games, with each type (e.g. Arcade, Games on Demand, and Indie) getting its own plate group. This was an awesome interface for browsing games – not just for Indies (which were included but still separate from XBLA, etc.,) but for ALL games. But either something didn’t work from a technical perspective or else one or more of the big game studios/publishers didn’t like it because it vanished within a week or so and never turned up again. I think this was a big loss for all LIVE subscribers and the remaining interfaces were much more confusing as a result. I’d love to see Microsoft bring that interface back but I’m not holding my breath; unless XBLA sales are down quite a lot, I don’t see them making any changes to the dashboard given the time and money that goes into making such changes (even if it is simply a matter of restoring an interface that had already been tested by many users).
The third issue is pretty big to me. It’s the reason I made the “XBLIG is dead” comment, in fact. The Game Library launch screen for Indie games looks terrible and I think gamers who see that will draw negative conclusions both about the quality of XBLIG and about Microsoft’s interest in it (I also thought many developers would draw the same conclusion, having already been on edge due to the massive upheaval surrounding the sudden, without-any-warning termination of the XNA Creators Club, its replacement with the AppHub, and the numerous issues that cropped up surrounding that change). On the bright side, according to this Digital Spy article, “issues regarding missing game data, box art and ratings from downloaded games are still being looked into”. So there’s some chance that this might be fixed – though again if it would require any non-trivial change to the dashboard then the cost in both time and money could easily block it from happening. LIVE is a billion dollar business and you simply don’t take risks with such a thing – anything going into the production system must be tested both internally and in a large beta involving users in a wide variety of locales with lots of different hardware setups in order to try to identify and eliminate every potential problem. The fourth issue (description truncation, which is actually something I just noticed) falls into the same category of “is it a trivial fix or not” as to whether it’ll likely be fixed anytime soon.
The fifth issue, no rating in the Game Library, is something that might actually get fixed since it affects XBLA games too. To the extent that any publishers are dissatisfied with that, Microsoft is likely to build a patch to fix it and if that patch requires a full beta, then there’s a chance that most of the above issues could be corrected. But that’s only if publishers are dissatisfied and if the changes would require a large-scale beta (and if the patch isn’t considered so urgent that it’s the only thing that gets written, tested, and patched).
Many devs have made quite a few suggestions about what to do. While most of the suggestions sound good to me, I also know that most of the suggestion simply aren’t going to happen. Anything that requires Microsoft to make any changes to the dashboard won’t happen (time and money spent developing and testing are unlikely to ever be recouped by an uptick in XBLIG sales, assuming there even was an uptick in sales as a result). Quite a few of the suggestions are things that have been suggested many times before and the fact that they weren’t implemented in this dashboard update (or in any previous one) makes it very unlikely that they’d suddenly be implemented.
I think that the main problem XBLIG suffers from when it comes to attracting serious gamers is that XBLIG titles have no gamerscore and no official achievements that show up in a gamer’s profile. XBLIGs will never get gamerscore or achievements since XBLIGs are not reviewed by Microsoft (something I suspect is a requirement of the exemption from getting games rated by the ESRB, PEGI, and similar content ratings boards in the countries where the XBLIG marketplace is available; getting games rated would cost several thousand dollars, negating one of the main principles of XBLIG itself). So the only opportunity a serious game has is to win Dream-Build-Play or in some other way get accepted into XBLA (where it can use achievements and leaderboards and where it can have gamerscore). Otherwise what seems to sell well are games with simple controls, nice graphics, and non-complicated storylines. Humor is a plus but not strictly required. Other things randomly sell well, but it’s all just guesswork based on individual observations without any demographics on the XBLIG customer base (something that’s been requested many times over the years but never released; my suspicion is that Microsoft wants developers taking risks and trying random things rather than having almost everyone trying to make games that appeal to _________ since making games that appeal to ___________ would be ignoring the other ___% of the market thus shrinking the pool of XBLIG customers and oversaturating the market with games that are very similar to one another).
When I look through the above list, what shines through to me is the lack of a Community Manager. The former Community Manager left to take a new job in the middle of September, just a few weeks before a lot of the changes to the dashboard that have upset many developers were made and finalized. Other members of the XNA team have been filling in since she left (Note: I do not blame her at all for any of this; she fought the good fight for us for many years, seemed to be getting worn down in the last couple of months, and when a good opportunity came along took it just the same as anyone else would). While I’m certain that they’ve been doing the best they can, with the launch of WP7, the launch of Kinect, and getting everything set up to process XNA 4.0 games, the people covering have simply been overtaxed. A dedicated community manager, someone without a million other responsibilities eating into the limited supply of hours in a day, would’ve noticed those issues and would’ve fought to get them resolved in an acceptable way. Such a person would’ve been in the meetings speaking up on behalf of XBLIG developers. When that old, nice, early-beta interface was removed, they would’ve made sure that XBLIG still came out OK, and that the bland screen would’ve had the box art for the game. But a search of Microsoft’s careers website turns up no results as far as hiring such a person. I don’t know why such a job isn’t be advertised; maybe it’s being advertised internally first. But whatever the case may be, XBLIG needs a Community Manager.
Do I think XBLIG is dead? No. I engaged in some hyperbole in a forum that is usually only read by developers in a moment of strong frustration. But this issue has taken off and the more it antagonizes Microsoft, the more I get worried that what arose simply because of some unfortunate timing might instead actually come to be. That by people continuing to write about Microsoft “euthanizing” XBLIG, that executives who are getting sick of hearing about it might very well make the terrible choice to do just that. Because at the end of the day, Xbox LIVE Indie Games is an incredible opportunity. It has some quirks, but it’s always had some quirks. There are a couple of “new” problems but nothing that can’t be resolved in time. But if there’s no one in Microsoft whose job it is to represent XBLIG developers to Microsoft and represent Microsoft to XBLIG developers, then it’s going to be much, much harder to get things fixed and developers will continue to get frustrated by the perceived lack of response to their concerns. The new dashboard is something we’ll have to deal with at least until the publishers realize that the lack of a rating mechanism in the Game Library for their XBLA titles is making it impossible for their really good games to get on to the Top Rated list and demand that that problem be resolved. But if and when that day comes there’s still no dedicated XBLIG Community Manager, then it’ll all the more difficult to ensure that fixes for the problems XBLIG devs have are implemented. After all, if there’s nobody speaking on our behalf, how are the other people in the meeting supposed to know there’s even a problem?