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Interview: Jonathan Blow - Xbox Live Arcade 'A Pain In The Ass' For Indies
Interview: Jonathan Blow - Xbox Live Arcade 'A Pain In The Ass' For Indies Exclusive
August 11, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

Gamasutra speaks to Braid and The Witness dev Jon Blow about digital distribution -- and he has some choice words about Microsoft's service, arguing that competitors like Steam and iOS are simpler for developers to deal with.

As part of the conversation that lead to the extensive interview feature posted earlier this week, indie developer Jonathan Blow (Braid, The Witness) also discussed his feelings about the current digital distribution landscape with Gamasutra.

Blow has estimated the budget of his upcoming game The Witness at $2 million, and he says that -- despite Braid being iconic to the Xbox Live Arcade service -- he doesn't necessarily need Microsoft to make his money back.

"There's no need to" sign a platform-exclusive contract with anyone, he says. "If the goal is to make that $2 million, not only is that kind of a safe target, but because the game's 3D and whatnot, I'm pretty sure we could make that back just off Steam and the iPad safely. Like, it's not even a gamble to say that," he told Gamasutra.

The Witness' platform plans are up in the air. According to official press materials distributed to Gamasutra, they are "To be decided. At launch, at least PC and one console. Others later."

Blow acknowledged that Microsoft is "getting a little softer in their exclusivity," a move we recently saw with Bastion, which is due on PC less than a month after it debuted on XBLA as a Summer of Arcade exclusive.

Exclusivity, then, gives him pause, but that's not the major issue with Microsoft. "I think the thing that they don't understand -- between that and the cert stuff that they do -- they just kind of make themselves a pain in the ass. For a big game, for a triple-A game that costs 60 bucks, and has a giant budget and all these people working on it, the amount extra that that pain in the ass adds is not that much," Blow said.

"But if you make an XBLA game, the amount of bullshit that adds is gigantic. It can take a third to a half of the effort required to build your game, in some cases, and I don't think that they understand that. I don't think that they understand that, at least for that size of game, they're competing very heavily with Steam and iOS for developer mindshare."

Cert -- or certification, in which a developer's game must meet certain technical requirements dictated by Microsoft before it can be released on the platform -- isn't the only problem.

"I can live a comfortable life, and just put my game on Steam without that much of a hassle, or I can have the XBLA business people dick me around and give me asshole contracts that I need to spend three months negotiating back to somewhere reasonable, that they knew," said Blow. "And then have all these arguments with them and go through this horrible cert process. It's like, at some point, the question 'Why should I do that?' arises."

However, Blow admitted, the platform does still have its appeal as a developer. "XBLA does have a big audience, and it's still probably bigger than Steam for certain kinds of games."

Even so, he pointed out, "We just had Terraria on Steam... not to mention Minecraft, which doesn't even need Steam. So even the argument that XBLA is the biggest market is starting to come into question."

He's unsure about Microsoft's potential to change the platform, however. "I don't know how much longer that that can go without something changing. I don't know. Maybe quite a long time, knowing the abilities of these companies," said Blow.

Braid was originally published on Xbox Live Arcade by Microsoft. However, he told Gamasutra that he has not spoken to publishers about The Witness since 2009, and his understanding of the situation may be outdated.

"What that means, to have Microsoft as your publisher, I think, varies a lot from year to year, because they change policies to do whatever they think is best, to steer the service. They have personnel changes and all that. So who knows what's happening?"

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Neil Sorens
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Do execs in every industry vent about their business partners in public like this?

Miguel Castarde
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Is not unusual that someone working in the top of Xbox service donīt know about that kind of problems. In this case, openly talking about the problems brings awareness inside the MS.

Benjamin Quintero
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Neil, we all have bad days and maybe it was his turn. Besides, like he said he hasn't dealt with them since 2009 and that is a long time to let the animosity brew :). He's not exactly the first to be... well let's just say disappointed with Microsoft *cough Meatboy* and won't be the last. When you are as big and corporate as a Microsoft you tend to have a vision that doesn't gel with the smaller more nimble development houses. Minecraft on Xbox was a big surprise for me given the crap Notch has said about consoles and their closed networks.

Cameron Hart
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He has a point though.

Sebastian Cardoso
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What I wouldn't change in the cert process is TCR compliance. As a gamer, I want to make sure the games I buy on XBLA are properly tested, stable, yadda, yadda. Driving a dev nuts with legal paperwork, well that's just quite unfortunate, of course.

Olivier Lejade
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@Neil Sorens I would only call it a partnership if you count serfdom as a partnership. Furthermore, I wish more people in more industry refused to put up with the crap platform holders come up with. Unfortunately this is business as usual for them, like Dan Cook eloquently explained here:

So thank you Jon Blow for telling it as it is and more transparency please!

Harry Fields
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The great thing is, if you don't want to hassle with Microsoft and their cert process, as an Indie, no one is putting a gun to your head and making you do it. Put your game out there as you see fit under the terms you see fit. Microsoft has their own marketing agenda. You can't really ask them to offer substantial flexibility to every Indie that comes along It taints "the platform". On a personal note, If not for XBLA, I never would've bothered with Braid.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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This is not as great as it seems (see Olivier's link to Cook's "game of platform power" slides). It is not just Microsoft; all platform holders have a natural abundance of power compared to indie developers. Some don't exercise that power as bad as others, which is why your statement is somewhat true (no one is putting a gun to your head, you have options), but it is still limiting to the artform that any platform holder can, say, make you put achievements in your creation, even if achievements add nothing or take away from the experience. And they can do this simply because they have collected and hoarded player attention, putting us in an economic system that rewards advertising more than creating. And of course, there is little legal recourse to prevent all platform holders from becoming like XBLA or Amazon or worse.

"If not for XBLA, I never would've bothered with Braid."

Interestingly; if not for Braid, I would have never bothered with XBLA. This is the future we need to move to; where the games are put at the front of the value paradigm, not at the back behind platforms.

Jim Perry
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Why is it that why people play in someone else's sandbox they're surprise when they have to play by the rules of that sandbox? It's not like someone is forcing them to play to begin with. I just don't understand the whinyness of people these days. Personally the opportunity to get a game on a major platform is a huge thing, at least for me as an indie. I guess when you get to be a gaming "celebrity" you just expect special treatment like other celebrities. :

Jonathan Blow
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I actually haven't tried to do a deal with any downloadable game platform since Braid. My observations are mostly based on how I have seen other indies being treated (folks who, for the most part, have no track record but are working on good games).

Part of my point is that Steam is a major platform and it is way easier than XBLA or PSN. iOS is a major platform too.

Finally, to this point: "Why is it that why people play in someone else's sandbox they're surprise when they have to play by the rules of that sandbox?"

I am not at all surprised! I was simply explaining to Christian why I might choose not to play in those particular sandboxes.

In addition, I think this kind of information does have positive value for newer indie developers who haven't seen the lay of the land yet...

Jim Perry
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"Part of my point is that Steam is a major platform and it is way easier than XBLA or PSN. iOS is a major platform too."

I guess it depends on what kind of "indie" you're talking about. Joe Indie doing development in his parent's basement isn't going to get on any major platform than the Xbox a majority of the time from what I've seen and the reqs for XBLIG vs. XBLA (which Joe Indie isn't going to get on) are extremely easy if you're a capable dev. XBLIG has its own problem however.

"I was simply explaining to Christian why I might choose not to play in those particular sandboxes."

Maybe I misread the post then - it just came across as very whiny to me.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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I think I can be whinier than Jonathan, and I'm not a celebrity ;)

"Why is it that why people play in someone else's sandbox they're surprise when they have to play by the rules of that sandbox?"

Firstly, don't confuse bewilderment for justifiable contempt.

This is a fundamentally flawed argument from both an ethical and a utilitarian point of view. The current platform model (XBLA, PSN, Wiiware, Steam, app stores, flash portals) is more like a hostage camp than a sandbox. We developers are providing a service to society: entertainment, and in many cases, education and self-expansion. Our fans are providing us with money, which we would gladly turn down if we did not need it to eat, but which we appreciate because it allows us to do what we love and to bring joy to the world. It is a win/win ecosystem.

But then come the middle men: publishers, console manufacturers, and platform holders. There is a certain "need" that they fill (connecting us to players) , sure -- but due to the middle men's natural advantages (as Olivier mentioned,
.html explains it far better than I can here), these entities go beyond fulfilling that need to fulfilling only their own greedy desires. They no longer act as useful connections; they act as self-serving gate keepers. They become purposeless leeches on society, justifying their decisions based on how much money they make for themselves instead of how much they push the artform forward to benefit everyone. Please do read the game of platform power slides and tell me if you still disagree.

In the meantime, if someone builds a sandbox in my driveway and tells me I can either pay them taxes to drive through it or stop complaining and use my bike, you're damn right I'm going to be pissed and unimpressed with their falsely claimed entitlements.

Joseph Cook
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What? Are you actually suggesting that "Joe Indie" can actually get on the Xbox?

Maybe the Indie Games channel, but there is no way in hell that "Joe Indie" will get on XBLA without signing over practically everything to Microsoft, and being forced to negotiate contracts in the exact way Jonathan was explaining.

On the other hand, "Joe Indie" happens to get on Steam all the time, and be somewhat-to-remarkably successful too.

Gerald Belman
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It's funny how some people perceive any kind of criticism as being "whining" or "elitism". (conservative republicans are a great example of this in the U.S.)

I'm willing to bet that Jim Perry has voted Libertarian/Republican in the past. Probably McCain or Ron Paul or some other douche-sandwich like that.

The creativety people have in trying to invalidate useful discussion is really quite amazing sometimes.

Noel Llopis
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@Jim, that has nothing to do with being a "celebrity" or wanting special treatment. He's calling it as he sees it, and explains how the process is broken. Coming out publicly like this, can only benefit all developers in the end if Microsoft changes some of their procedures.

I wish more people in the industry were free to speak up their mind like this. I bet there would be a lot less bullying and bullshit going around.

Jim Perry
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"Coming out publicly like this, can only benefit all developers in the end if Microsoft changes some of their procedures."

I just don't see it happening though. MS isn't going to risk the platform by lessening the reqs, at least for XBLA. If Joe Indie wants to get on the Xbox, that's what XBLIG is for and it's a lot easier with regard to game reqs.

Maybe part of it is Jonathan isn't in the typical Indie demographic, at least IMO. :)

Alexander Bruce
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@Jim That's the point though. Jonathan isn't talking about Joe Indie. He's talking about real developers with real games that could do quite well, being hindered by unnecessary inefficiency and bullshit.

Jonathan Gilmore
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Frankly I don't see how this helps. Jonathan did pretty much the same thing when he went on the GiantBombcast and came across as the least reasonable person in the room. He hasn't interacted with the people at XBLA since 2009? Obviously there are issues with XBLA, in particular that it is such a small part of such an enormous behemoth (MS), but obviously there are a lot of smart people over there that want great games to be available to XBLA users. And some of the best games in the past 5 years have debuted on XBLA (Braid, Shadow Complex, Limbo, Bastion, et cetera).

I know I may be sounding like a fanboy here but my issue is that I wish his criticsims were more constructive. I too would love for more imaginative and creative games to come out. I'm not sure I want to play a game that is essentially a title screen though. To just talk about "the bullshit" without pointing to what exactly was the problem, and not just a fight over money, makes him sound a little petulant and less like a person that actually wants to improve things. Anyway, he is a talented guy and I hope he continues to put out great games, and that they are widely available.

Jonathan Blow
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There are multiple suggestions for improvements implicit in the criticisms. For example: write reasonable contracts that respect developers, rather than writing unreasonable ones (which no competent developer would sign, but then you force them to go through a months-long negotiation process in the hopes of getting some fraction of that). As a member of Indie Fund I have seen that happen time and time again. It is not cool.

Jonathan Gilmore
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I'm referring again to the Giant Bombcast when you were talking with "Steptoe" and "E" and to me, it seemed like they wanted you to give them something that they could take back to MS and say: "See, we should change this" and I don't think that happened during the discussion. I also wanted that to happen as a user of XBLA. I think that visionary developers like yourself, Eric Chai, Jenova Chen and the like should have a lot of freedom when it comes to game design, but I also understood Steptoe and Es position, that what they sell on XBLA at least has to be recognizable as a "game.".

I understand that MS is probably not the most developer-friendly partner to negotiate with, but to me that is a different, albeit no less imprtant issue. Hopefully, over time, as digital distribution gets more and more important to the industry the transaction costs will go down significantly so that more and more can come out on all platforms, including XBLA.

In the end, I'm not saying that you are wrong. Maybe over at MS and XBLA they are a bunch of **** heads and things will only get worse, but clearly some good games are getting on the platform so it seems like its an issue where the situtation can get better and better, and you seem to be in a great position to help that happen. Obviously your time is better spent designing than negotiating with suits, so I understand there is frustration involved but it seems like there is always going to be this conflict between moneymen and creatives, and that again you are in a great position relative to a lot of others.

Thanks for your reply and it sounds like your are trying to leverage your position in the business to help other smaller developers.

Jim Perry
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"unnecessary inefficiency and bullshit"

What exactly?

David Paris
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@Jim: Why are you distressed that he openly criticizes Microsoft policies? At the end of the day, he's saying that the hassle he has to deal with in order to make use of them is significant, and that they should consider streamlining that process for smaller developers.

I view it as a warning for other people considering what platforms they wish to release on. He's absolutely not the first developer to say that for the amount of time & nuisance required to be released on XBLA their payouts are unimpressive. I forget which guy was just interviewed who mentioned that his year and a half on XBLA profits were bypassed by his Steam release in like 2 weeks. Since a platform is absolutely worthless without software to provide value, Microsoft should be thinking long and hard about these messages.

Jim Perry
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"Why are you distressed that he openly criticizes Microsoft policies?"

It's not so much the criticism, it's the attitude that I read. I criticize MS dozens of times a day and have expressed my frustration and dissatisfaction with many things directly to the various teams.

"I forget which guy was just interviewed who mentioned that his year and a half on XBLA profits were bypassed by his Steam release in like 2 weeks."

Are you referring to this -

Part of that is the audience. RPGs aren't big on Xbox compared to PC so it's no surprise that Steam sales quickly overtook Xbox sales.

Shay Pierce
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The Super Meat Boy guys have also said that they've had a much better experience (and, I believe, made much more money) on Steam than they did on XBLA. I don't think you can explain that one away based on genre, since you have to go buy a gamepad to play SMB effectively on Steam.

Matt Gilgenbach
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The problem is not the audience. The problem is that XBIG addresses an EXTREMELY small market. XBLIG sales are extremely poor. I don't think anyone has really made cost of living back from XBLIG except maybe with FortressCraft, but they are riding on the success of Minecraft.

If an indie developer wants to continue developing games as a career, XBLIG is not an option, which is why the greatly simplified requirements of XBLIG doesn't address the points that Jonathan is making.

Although XBLIG is fun for hobbyists, Microsoft doesn't seem interested in trying to improve it to help create a better environment for indies trying to make their livelihood with it.

matthew diprinzio
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So basically you are upset over your impulsive emotions rather than his valid criticisms?

David Paris
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Yeah, that's the article I was thinking of, though it doesn't appear to be in a vacuum judging by some of the other commentary.

I would be surprised if the Steam demographic was different from the XBLA demographic by that order of magnitude. Steam probably runs a bit older (and thus slightly more RPG friendly), but I doubt that's the core issue.

Ryan Miller
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Taken with a grain of salt I don't think it's too hard to understand what Jonathan's saying here, nor to believe there could be room for improvement, and regardless of whether such statements can be a true proponent for change or not (I think so), I say the more people willing to start an open dialogue, the better (and that goes for both sides).

Mike Smith
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Working with MS on Xbox Live Arcade games is tough. Thanks for being brave enough to voice some of our feelings Mr. Blow!

Robert Boyd
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I think the core issue here isn't that XBLA is a bad platform for indie developers, but rather that there are probably better alternatives. If XBLA was the biggest platform out there, then it would make sense to do whatever it takes to get on there, but by all indications, the PC (particularly Steam), smartphone, and social game markets are even bigger than XBLA and involve less hassle.

When we released Cthulhu Saves the World + Breath of Death VII on Steam, we got a good amount of marketing support from Steam including a front page ad for the games that lasted about a week. I doubt Steam's level of support was any less than the kind of support we would have gotten had we gotten an official release on XBLA or PSN.

With that said, there are reasons that would justify a console release for an indie developer such as:

1 - You're making a game that uses a specific piece of hardware or accessory that's associated with a console like Kinect or the Wii remote.

2 - You're planning on releasing the game on as many platforms as possible.

3 - Your game is in a genre that generally sells much better on a console than otherwise. Not sure how many genres are like this these days - I would have thought console-style RPG and platformers would do better on consoles, but our RPGs and Team Meat's Super Meat Boy seem to say otherwise.

4 - You get a favorable deal with a console owner to release your game on their system.

On the plus side, it looks like Microsoft is becoming more friendly to indie game development. Some of the Summer of XBLA games like From Dust & Bastion are being released on PC soon after their XBLA release which in the past would have been unheard of so it looks like Microsoft is easing up on their exclusivity requirements. And on the XBLIG front, they did a dashboard ad for various XBLIG titles last week and just a few minutes ago, Major Nelson posted a message on Twitter talking about the Indie Games Summer Uprising.

Steven Ulakovich
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Blow got into it with a member of Microsoft's Xbox Love team during Giant Bomb's first E3 2011 live Bombcast. He has always had these feeling towards Microsoft's policies.

Jane Castle
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What happens if The Witness is not accepted into Steam? Will he then go off to XBox Live?

Jonathan Blow
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Maybe, if they want the game! I don't know!

My point isn't that it is an evil service that should be shunned, or anything like that. My point is that being on XBLA is actually a huge pain, and there are other options that are preferable. If those other preferable options were to go away, then yeah, I would probably slide toward the previously-less-preferable ones.

Jane Castle
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Perhaps in that case offer downloads from your witness website. Maybe that is the answer if that were to happen. Or even better yet offer downloads from your website even if Steam approves your game (I doubt they allow this however).

Gerald Belman
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Well my understanding (and I think this is implicit from the article) is that he is currently putting up with this and The Witness will make its way on XBLIG somehow. He is just giving some useful anectdotes about how much it sucks.

Daniel Boy
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Steam is approving games that are sold in other places. Take Winter Voices (by Beyondthepillars) for example: this does include the developers homepage.

But to be honest: I bought the first episode of Winter Voices from their hp to support them directly, but their payment and content delivery system felt like a very broken process. Steam helps the developer to make more competent impression.

Lennard Feddersen
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I'd like to say thanks to Jonathon. It is helpful to the entire dev. community to know before getting involved with a platform what the gotcha's are going to be.

Justin Kwok
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As someone who's gone through TCRs, TRCs and Lotcheck multiple times, I can definitely say that Microsoft TCRs are the strictest. The first couple of times I went through them it was a pain in the a$$. However, I came out of those experiences designing certain aspects of the game with passing the requirements in mind.

Now I actually find that it's a nice foundation for some aspects of the game (say, front ends) and can add an element of polish to it as well.

I totally understand where Jonathan is coming from though. However, I think that beginning with knowing that you'll have to pass platform requirements is a lot easier than making your game and then trying to adjust everything afterward to accommodate them. I've gone through that process and have known a number of others who have. There seems to some resistance as well to listen to people who have gone through that and try to warn others not to make the same mistake. I don't know why, but people tend to develop the game and assume that TCRs will just handle themselves. And then they're surprised that it's such a huge pain.

Brent Krische
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Your last paragraph pretty much sums up my frustration with compliance testing.

Thank you for being proactive and trying to get others to do the same! :)

Matt Ponton
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Jake Birkett
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Even though Jon says his most recent publisher experience was in 2009 I know for sure that many devs are still finding it tough to work with Microsoft (and I'm sure that Jon knows even more). Jon just happens to have spoken openly about it, and that can only be a good thing in my opinion because a) it acts as a warning to others who may want to consider their options more carefully, and b) it's possible that Microsoft might take some notice and alter their policies a bit. In fact I heard reports from a friend recently that things are improving after he and some other indies made complaints and suggestions.

The great thing about being indie is you don't have to give a f*ck and pussyfoot around issues that you would have to if you worked in a corporation or if you depended on some publisher. Openly sharing information is one of the best things about being indie in my opinion - the blunter the better. We all support each other, and it's awesome. (Sorry if that sounds a bit "indies rulez" or something, but I feel strongly about it, and it's true!)

*MANY* publishers and distributors have crappy contracts, deals and requirements, and they hold devs over a barrel. For example, in the casual download industry, the BEST royalty rate you can get is 40%, most only give you 25%-35%. The Popcap CEO just called them out on this at the recent Casual Connect conference. If the casual download portals paid devs 70% like Apple or Steam then my family of four (+cat) would have a very different lifestyle to now because I'd have made DOUBLE my income!

Jonathan Gilmore
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Well, we have seen MS react to complaints from the indie community, in particular I remember they made changes to where indie games could be found in the marketplace based on the reaction from the community.

Bram Stolk
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Jonathan, thanks for sharing your views.

To the commenters who disapprove of outspoken critique: maybe suffering from Stockholm syndrome, and you are afraid of what MS will do to *you*?

Indies need other indies to take a stand every now and then.

As long as there are mine crafts and braids, devs will hold some power not yet usurped by publishers.

Bob Johnson
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Seems well articulated to me. Very reasonable complaints.