The Myths about Xbox Live Indie Game Development.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Hi my name is Thomas Steinke. I am the owner of DigitalDNA Games and I am an ex-pro game developer that now has become a full time Indie game developer. DigitalDNA Games is a company that has been making Xbox Live Indie Games exclusively for years now. We are also arguably the most successful developer on the system. If you are not familiar with us, here is our list of titles:
- CastleMiner Z
- Avatar Connection
- Avatar Superstar
- Avatar Paintball
- Avatar Laser Wars
- Voice Changer 360
- Avatar Snowball Fight
- Avatar Avenue
- Guitar Tuner 360
- Avatar Aquarium
- Avatar Alarm Clock
- Audio Diagnostics
- Ask Angela!
If you take a look at all time top selling Xbox Live Indie Games you will notice 5 of my games in the top 30; 3 in the top 10. My games CastleMiner and CastleMiner Z have broke records, holding the top selling slots for about a year, and have become the highest grossing franchise on XBLIG at over 1.5M units sold. In general, almost all of my games have either been #1 bestselling titles or at least top 5. Almost every game I have made has grossed at least a 5 figure return (even our first title “Avatar Avenue”). At one point we held 5 slots in the top 20 best selling games.
The media seems to do a lot of disproportional coverage of XBLIG. They seem to skew coverage directed at developers that have not been successful, painting a dismal picture of XBLIG. After reading many of these articles, I am very surprised that the authors don’t seek information from some of the more successful developers on the system. I thought I would take some time to dispel some of the most common misconceptions about the system.
It seems to me that for a long time people have been gunning for XBLIG to fail for some reason. I have a theory about this. XBLIG is a very effective marketplace, where customer sales and game interest almost completely drive the success of a title on the system. Reviews and media coverage make almost no impact. I think this upsets a lot of people that have a more idealistic idea of how a marketplace should work and what titles should be successful. As a result they tend to gravitate towards people and stories that validate their perspective. The reality (possibly a sad one based on your particular perspective) is that the titles that the general population enjoy are usually not the ones that the critics appreciate. I think this idea sort of stabs at the hearts of people interested in “Indie” game development, where there is a romantic idea that the population is starving for a particular type of game.
This brings me to the first item on my list:
Myth #1: There is no money to be made on XBLIG.
It is true that the vast majority of games on the system make little to no money (I would estimate that probably 90% of games make less than $1000). The system is skewed toward the highest sellers, which enter a self propagating system where they get continuous exposure, based on sustained sales. Some people may argue that this is unfair, but I would argue that there really isn’t anything more democratic than a system that rewards developers based on consumer choices. Isn’t delivering what the consumer wants the goal of any good marketplace? Some people may argue this is “broken” but if you look at the data, I don’t think you will find anything unusual about this versus any other free marketplace, i.e. IOS.
Besides myself there are a lot of developers that have made a significant amount of money on the system. It is obvious to me that these developers “get it” and know what works on XBLIG and have chosen to be financially successful there. This is one of the common pitfalls that I see with developers on the system. When I talk to developers on the system that complain about sales, I usually ask “What made you think that title would be successful, i.e. was there a similar title that did well”?
When we pick titles, we do it based on careful market analysis. I often make this joke that I became Indie so that I could make the games I wanted, now I am just forced to make the games customers want. There is this romantic idea that you are going to make this game that you always wanted to, and people are going to love it. I love that idea myself, but ultimately you need to be realistic about market viability. There are a ton of titles I would LOVE to make, but I know that it will never happen, because I know they wouldn’t be successful, so in general I try to find a compromise between the two. All the successful developers on XBLIG have done this.
Myth #2 XBLIG gets no exposure on the Xbox dashboard.
It seems like every time that Microsoft does a dashboard update, they bury XBLIG then there is a big uproar and they move it. For the most part XBLIG has gotten the same exposure of XBLA. Being on the dashboard at all is a privilege. You are exposed to 10's of millions of users with money in hand, just a click away from your game. This dwarfs any sort of exposure that you can get from critics, reviews, media outlets etc… Which brings me to the next Myth.
Myth #3 You need to do external marketing well to have a successful XBLIG.
Quite the contrary. I observed this very early on that it made sense based purely on numbers. The exposure you get via the Xbox Dash dwarfs any sort of media coverage you could possibly get. The has been prior examples of games getting national TV coverage and not selling many more games.
I made a conscious decision to devote zero efforts to marketing outside of the Xbox Dash (probably the reason most people have not heard of me). This is actually one of the great things about XBLIG. I can’t think of any other platform where this is true. As a result you can concentrate on making your game, versus writing press releases.
Myth #4 All you need to do to be successful on XBLIG is make a crappy fart app, avatar game or a Minecraft clone.
When I hear developers say this, my response is, “Then why aren’t you making that?”. There seems to be this pattern of dismissing almost anything that does well on XBLIG. It is definitely true that there are trends on XBLIG, and the developers that can pick up on these trends are the ones that make all the money. But if all it took to be sucessful was to make a crappy application, then why are any developers complaining about poor sales? They should know EXACTALLY what to make. Unfortunately there are a lot of examples of these games that don’t work. The reality is that the games on the top are not just games that followed trends, but they are also really great games. They have to be both to succeed.
The truth is, some of these quirky “experiences” on XBLIG did well because they were unique and original ideas that hadn’t been done before on a console. When people tried to copy them they didn’t do as well. For example my app “Voice Changer 360” topped charts in early 2011, and it grossed well over $100,000. However it not only was the first XBLIG to make use of the microphone, but it was a very good execution of a voice changer. It was real time, it used a vocoder (which is a very advanced type of audio effect which makes you sound like a transformer), and had an interesting real-time 3D visualization. Other “voice changer” apps came out after that and didn’t do as well. This trend has been true for the first drum machine, Avatar Game, Voxel Game. Etc… It seems like every time something unique comes out on XBLIG that breaks previous preconceptions, it just gets tacked on to the list of games to get discounted as “That game was just success because of … X”
I am going to spend a little time breaking this down because this seems to have become a talking point based on the success of particular games.
To date I only know of one "Fart App" that did really well, Silver Dollar’s “Try Not to Fart”. Which if you haven’t played it, it’s far more than just a fart app, it was a good game. There have been a lot that have failed for example;“Avatar Fart”.
Avatars and farting?! It should have been a blockbuster hit!
There have been so many of these that haven’t worked I can’t even begin to enumerate. The problem here is that there is no denying that xbox users love Avatars. Microsoft sells “gear” for avatars for more than the price of most Indie Games… and people buy it. When avatars were exposed to XNA developers, there was an intense hunger from the users for experiences that did something real with these. At the time, Microsoft had done virtually nothing with them. I first observed this while playing 1 vs. 100, it was the reason that I decided to make Avatar Paintball (the most successful “Avatar” title of all time), and get into XBLIG. The second most successful title was “Avatar Drop” which was not only the first Avatar game to hit the Xbox, but utilized some advanced physics simulations that most games did not have at the time.
I can see how this looks “Cheesy” to people that are outside of the Xbox ecosystem; however, the idea of gearing up in your storm trooper suit to go play Avatar Laser Wars is a unique and compelling experience, one of which I have never seen on another platform before.
It is going to be really hard for me to make an argument here that seems objective having the most popular one of these on the Xbox. The Voxel games on the Xbox are quickly dismissed as riding on the coattails of Minecraft. But there is a lot of them now, many not very successful. The ones on the top believe it or not, are very unique experiences, none of them are feature per feature “clones” of minecraft. People claimed that the release of Minecraft on the 360 would destroy these games as the sales were just a result of people looking for a Minecraft replacement and it proved not to be true at all (sales of CastleMiner Z have actually increased steadily in the past months). These games have innovated on this genre by either pushing the limits of game play, visuals or both.
Minecraft itself was based on another game (Infiniminer). It is disappointing to me that some people will not accept these games as a new genre, and just enjoy them. It seems to just “hurt” some people to see them do well. If we stopped making First Person Shooters after Wolfenstien we wouldn’t have many of the excellent games we have today.
As far as needing to be in one of these catagories to be successful. If you take a look at the all time top 100 titles on the system you will find plenty of counter examples. But yes, if you deliberately stay away from the things that people have demonstrated demand for on the marketplace, you will probably have a harder time selling games.
Myth #5 XBLIG is dying.
Not having Microsoft’s data, it is impossible for me to make an overall statement like that. However I have a unique perspective on this, because I have consistently had games in the top 5 best selling slots for years. I can tell you that the overall estimate of sales we have seen has been increasing. DigitalDNA Games revenue from XBLIG has doubled consistently quarter over quarter since it was founded. There was a time when people thought the idea of an XBLIG grossing over $1M was ridiculous. Now there are multiple titles that have grossed over $2M. By all my accounts the user base for XBLIG is growing not shrinking. XBLIG’s future is really in Microsoft’s hands at this point and if they have plans to do away with XBLIG it won’t be because of a dwindling user base.
Myth #6 High quality titles don’t get the exposure they deserve on XBLIG.
This statement seems very odd to me because "quality" is a very subjective term. I wouldn’t personally put myself in a position to judge the “quality” of a game; and I am surprised that critics or the media would, especially when the opinion is contrary to general public. Since the end goal of any marketplace is to effectively deliver the products people want to those products, it is hard to ignore sales as a metric (I would argue it is the only metric that makes sense). Ultimately, with the exclusion of special dashboard promotions, games get an equal chance on XBLIG.
The media seems to fall in love with particular titles despite how the customer has received them. The interesting thing to me is that there have been many instances where these “quality” titles have gotten special Xbox dashboard promotions, and they still have not had run-away sales (In fact I cannot think of an example of this happening at all). This would sort of suggest that the customer really knows what they want, and it isn’t a matter of disproportional exposure, hence the marketplace is operating very efficiently. Even force-feeding cutomers titles they have proven uninterested in doesn't seem to work.
I find it sort of humorous when critics and reviewers put down the best selling games on the system and champion ones that haven’t worked. To me the value of a reviewer would be based on how perceptive or in tune with the marketplace they are, i.e. I could show them a title before release and they could tell me how successful it would be. A lot of time these lopsided reviews just seem like an attempt to change people’s existing opinions. Now you can make the argument that the customers are wrong in their choices, however that seems like a fairly arrogant position to take. Having the customer sales drive exposure is possibly the most democratic way to reward exposure. Who would be better suited to make a judgment on quality besides the customer, a critic or reviewer? What is the point in taking publishing decisions away from publishers if you are just going to give it to someone else-such as a critic or reviewer. The fact that customers get to make the final decision on quality is a good thing.