Over the past couple of days, there have been some… interesting revelations regarding how well XNA Community Games have sold on the Xbox 360. To sum up the GamerBytes article in brief:
Then again, Winston Churchill said that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” XNA is the worst way to get your games on a console, except for trying to get them on the PS3, PSP, Wii, or DS.
Many developers– and gamers– are quick to lay the blame at Microsoft’s feet. Indeed, there are some serious flaws with the Community Games service that need to be addressed. The lack of a “free” price point, the inability for developers to distribute demo copies (something which I erroneously claimed in the demo– I’ll have to distribute some errata on this front), a lack of advertising support, and a lack of feedback for consumers in the form of a ratings system; all of these things are major issues. I’ll get to these in a minute. But to be honest, it’s not all MS’s fault, and developers and gamers know damn well that it’s not.
Let’s start with the obvious problem: Sturgeon’s Law has hit the Community Games arena hard. The vast majority of the titles available on the CG tab are, to be nice about it, utter crap. I can forgive crude art, I can forgive a rehashed concept, I can even forgive some really bad box art. But what I can’t forgive is the idea that you can dump shameless ripoffs and bare-faced cash grabs onto the service, and then whine that they’re not selling well. If you’re going to do a game, do it right. Make it polished, play with a concept, do something to make it interesting and to set it apart! Only two or three Community Games really look interesting to me: Weapon of Choice, Johnny Platform, and Guitarpocalypse look fascinating (and honestly, since MS gave me free points, I have absolutely no excuse for not getting these). The rest are either poorly thought-out knockoffs (countless dual-stick shooters) or novelty gags (the fireplace app).
The next point ties in with a bit of MS’s complicity. Yes, the Community Games tab isn’t exactly placed in a convenient spot in the NXE. Its burial in the Marketplace row makes browsing and impulse buying a very difficult prospect. However, what a lot of people fail to realize is that you don’t have to deal with the NXE’s Marketplace to locate stuff. In fact, I’m doin’ it right now– those three game links lead to the Xbox.com Marketplace site, where anyone can instantly download the games to their own 360s. No burial, no disappearance, no mess– no excuses. MS has bent over backwards to help people find stuff; I honestly can’t imagine going back to the old Marketplace blade. Would I be happier if Microsoft made a bigger deal over Community Games on the Inside Xbox tab? Yes. Would I be thrilled if Major Nelson and e talked about CGs on their podcast? Hell yeah. But part of the responsibility lies on the developer, as well.
Back in February, I wrote about what I expected to get out of the whole experience of making a video game from almost-scratch. In that post, I mentioned that I’m both the developer and publisher. Part and parcel of the responsibilities of a publisher is the distribution and promotion of the game that’s being developed. Of all the people to come out and state this, it took a Sony marketer to point out that a lack of promotion can literally cause indie games to be still-born. I think that I’m making a good effort in terms of how I’m showing off the capabilities of the engine, and my current plan is to continue as I am now. However, the experience of developing the Laura Windows demo made me realize the value of having something I could show off and distribute to people for free. My plan now accounts for a “trial chapter” to be made available for the PC, probably a month or so prior to the release of the 360 version. It’ll be more work, but it will help get the word out.
Before I move on to what else MS should do, I want to address an issue that many gamers claim is a “major” problem with the CG setup: no Achievements and no Gamerscore can be awarded by Community Games. This is a complete and total bullshit excuse. Before the 360, players didn’t have a fictitious number that could be attached to their appellations that measured arbitrarily their progress in a meaningless, non-existent competition. In case you don’t get my drift, Achievements don’t matter. Granted that I’m more likely to play multiplatform games on the 360 than on the PS3 due to Achievements, but also due to other factors like (in my opinion) a stronger online play platform and a better controller (aside from the d-pad). Now, that said, a Community Games developer has an easy way around the whole issue of Achievements: simply implement a parallel system. I don’t know what I’m going to call it, honestly– the words “Accolade” and “Milestone” are close enough– but there’s a plan for a pseudo-Achievement system to be added to Laura. I’ll treat it as if it were a full XBLA title: 12 events worth a total of 200 “points”, making it even more like an old-school adventure game than it already is. If MS adds Achievement support into a future version of the XNA toolkit, then I’ll go from there.
Now, I’m fully aware that this sounds suspiciously like MS is paying me to defend Community Games. They’re not. If anything, it’s more accurate to level the opposite accusation at me: I’m pot-committed to XNA, so I have to justify my choice. I’ll still get offended if you accuse me of that, but it’s at least more reasonable. I have some pretty big beefs with how Community Games have been handled to this point, too.
The first is that there is no user rating system. The potential for abuse is certainly there, and Xbox Live users are not exactly known for being the most forgiving bunch. However, even just a simple “thumbs up/thumbs down” rating would be nice to have, open to people who’ve purchased the game. Then again, it’s probably not something built into Xbox Live’s Marketplace, and again there’s probably a good reason for it. If you put ratings on CGs, you have to give ratings to everybody, including XBLA games and DLC; and when horse armor gets thumbs-downed into the ninth circle of Hell, the (professional) developer will probably think twice about that “exclusive DLC” deal they made.
The second is that review copies are not available. Microsoft has the ability to offer download tokens which instantly download a game; Major Nelson hands out codes like candy on his Twitter account, and the masses are grateful. In fact, he tends to promote games he likes through this method– Peggle and the game-of-the-week get codes handed out with regularity. I can see on one level why MS wouldn’t want to offer this for Community Games; with such limited appeal, developers could easily publish their game and never have anyone pay for it, simply handing the codes out to friends, who comprise the entirety of the potential market for that game. On the other hand, there’s no reason not to make requesting codes cost a trivial amount of money: for example, the developer could pay the asking price of the game to get 5 or 10 codes to hand out, or perhaps requesting a code counts against revenues (ie “you sold fifty copies, but asked for ten codes, so we’ll deduct the one from the other and pay you for forty copies”). If review sites had access to the games without having to lay out the money in advance, then the better games might get a bit more exposure. Heck, I would want some codes just so I could give them to my artist and musician! (Related to this, MS could really do with enabling a “gifting” mechanism similar to Nintendo’s offering on the Wii Shop.)
Next, developers cannot release titles for free. Some games just aren’t worth even the $2.50 minimum asking price. I would love to be able to toss out a few cheapo proof-of-concept titles, or even better release that “trial chapter” of Laura, for free, just to get my name out there. I have a couple of interesting concepts that I’ve been kicking around for a while, along the lines of Nintendo’s bit.generations titles. But I would rather they be on the 360, and I would similarly rather they (and, to be honest, Laura‘s full version) be available for free. I have always maintained that my motivation for the whole XNA development thing has been just for the experience and the exposure. If I make a little bank, then so be it. But it’s becoming clearer now that the experience is about the only thing I’m likely to get out of it; and if that’s the case, then I would much rather just give stuff away than ask people to buy it. Even at $2.50 I don’t think that my proof-of-concept ideas are worth dropping the coin on (I would much rather people pay for the more developed ideas, like, oh, I don’t know…).
I touched on the advertising issue already, but there’s more to it than just showing off the titles on the NXE and dropping some names. While a lot of the burden of the advertising should fall on the developer, Microsoft has given an interesting caveat. According to the XNA forums, by default a developer gets 70% of the purchase price of the game, unless MS decides to “promote” the game. There’s no definition of promotion, and no promises or guarantees of promotion. If MS decides to “promote” the game, they’ll take up to an extra 30% cut, leaving the developer with at minimum 40% of the purchase price of the game. There’s no way to opt-out of the promotion program, but logic would dictate that if you’re putting some effort into the promotion on your end, and you get some attention, MS would be less likely to make the effort. (On the other and more cynical hand, they might take a slightly higher cut, put your game at the front of the CG tab, and say “we’re helping, look!” because it’s more money for them. This has already happened, according to the developers of Weapon of Choice.) Like I said, the money issue isn’t my primary concern as much as the reputation and experience is. Still, MS should be clearer on what the promotion entails, what the impact on revenues are for each level of promotion, and should allow developers to opt-out of certain levels of promotion.
Another interesting thing to note is that as a self-publisher, my promotion options are constrained and limited only by what I can do. I have a flexibility that a major publisher doesn’t have: I can make sweeping changes to the promotion plan, I can send the game back for more coding/tweaking/testing, I can even say “what the heck, it’s free now”… obviously, I want to avoid doing things that will cause the game to be delayed, but the bottom line is, I’m not pot-committed to a release date. My “marketing department” is always in touch with the “development department”, the “optimum outcome”, and “reality”, to split my mind into convenient compartments. Do I think that going it alone is the best approach to game development? Absolutely not! I’m still very limited to what I can and can’t do, just because I’m only one person. If this was a team effort, it would be easier… but it wouldn’t be “my” game. (As an aside, that’s kind of why I’d like to do those one-off experiments for free– to indulge my wildly creative yet completely impractical side without having a career or a current task suffer for it. Since they’re just on me, it’s more experimental, more free-form. I and the players can explore a little bit beyond the traditional genres games tend to fall into.)
Oh, and as for the concept of “recognition”: As I have learned on this here blog, you never know who notices you. I’ve made casual mention of the game to a few people, with the caveat that it’s still far from complete, and and it’s gotten me a bit more attention than I had already anticipated. Even if the only experience I get from the whole process is internalized and just makes me a stronger programmer, it’s worth the effort of doing it. Besides, I’m not the kind of person who craves constant recognition. If I was, I would be promoting my blog or the novel site a lot more than I am. I’m shy. I don’t want to be high-profile. I just want to make a few people smile.
I don’t think that XNA and the Community Games initiative are the disaster that GamerBytes is trying to make it out to be. A lot of gamers are comparing it to the iPhone’s App Store, both favorably (“the iPhone has tons of crap too, user-generated games are just like that”) and unfavorably (“you can make soooo much more money on the iPhone, stop wasting your time on XNA”). Honestly, for me, it’s a wash. XNA offers me more machine power and a stronger experience, while the iPhone would be a larger install base and a greater challenge (seriously, I f#$@ing hate Objective-C). In the end, though, I’m sticking with XNA because I think it’s a bit more flexible than the iPhone. More than that, of all of the divisions of Microsoft, the Xbox team is the most responsive and the one I respect the most. I have a fair bit of confidence that they’ll correct the flaws they can, address the things they can’t fix, and help developers and gamers connect for really fun times on both sides.
Now, granted, I’m mildly irritated that all this news and bashing of XNA is coming to light the week that I’m going to start approaching artists and musicians for their help with an XNA project. Still, I hope that I’ve managed to instill a bit more confidence in the XNA process, and have adequately explained my belief that it’s not really about the end result, so much as the process and the learning done throughout.
Though, Atlus, how about you and me make a deal? You know I’m good with deadlines, and we already have a history… (Just kidding.)