Guest Lectures: The Value of Artistic Integrity: Has XBLIG Been a Failure? By Michael Hicks

A note from CBR founder and editor in chief, Tristan Rendo:

I originally approached Michael Hicks to be our first guest lecture on CBR as part of an editorial on the future of XBLIG’s.  As a developer I knew he would have a far better view of the service than I ever could, and as one of the youngest and most optimistic developers on the service I knew his view would be particularly interesting.  It didn’t hurt that I had enjoyed his last game (Honor in Vengeance II) when it was featured in an early edition of the XBLIG Spotlight, or that he is one of the key players in trying to make the next XBLIG Uprising a real thing. After his first draft though we quickly realized there was a better article buried within; discussing whether the service had been a success or a failure so far was something a bit more tangible.  As a result I encouraged him to change his direction, and as a result we wound up with the excellent article below. So without further ado, I present our first Guest Lecture;

The Value of Artistic Integrity: Has XBLIG Been a Failure?
by Michael Hicks

As the announcement for the next generation Xbox is soon to be around the corner, some of us have been left wondering about the future of one of the most niche areas of Xbox Live: Xbox Live Indie Games. A number of developers have already closed up shop, claiming that the channel has been a failure, will soon vanish and have decided to move on to “greener pastures” on the PC. Being one of the youngest developers on the channel it could be fair to say I have good amount of innocence left in me, or perhaps I like to be different, but either way I could not disagree more with these views.

I originally got involved with the XBLIG community way back when I was 14 (when I say involved I mean I bugged everyone for programming help). It was 2007, and hopes were high; I remember that everyone had a really positive outlook on what great things the channel could bring, and I feel like a lot of those initial hopes actually happened. It was around this time that the first Dream. Build. Play. winners were announced, and out of this competition dawned the first success story of the XBLIG scene: The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai.

XBLIG’s first real success story turned XBLA hit.

What I find interesting about The Dishwasher is how James, the guy behind the game, had a similar story to the dramatic ones we hear about from the hugely successful indie games such as Super Meat Boy. I talked to James recently after finding out that he was in college while developing Dead Samurai; being a college student myself I was interested in his mindset at the time. James told me that he had given up on indie development, his lifelong dream, after submitting the game to Dream. Build. Play. He had been doing the whole “struggling artist” thing for a while, and had determined that he just wasn’t going to make it financially. A few months later he got the call that he had won Dream. Build. Play.

James had made a number of games before this, none of them bringing in much money, but he kept on going because he had a passion to make games and share them with others. After making around seven games, he finally had found success. James went on to sign an XBLA contract and eventually made a sequel to The Dishwasher that sold around 120,000 copies. He also continued to develop for XBLIG, making games such as I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES, which I was told made him enough money to buy a house.

The first true XBLIG success story; this little game not only bought a house but ushered in an era of zombie games on XBLIG.

Now, why am I telling this story? Looking at the scene today, I feel that things have changed quite a bit. XBLIG has indeed opened up the doors that many of us had hoped it would; quite a few developers have used XBLIG as a starting point for their careers and have been able to move on to other platforms such as XBLA and Steam. What is interesting, though, is that a lot of these developers have only had to make two or three games before having the door opened, and/or making good money on XBLIG in the process. Take a look at Robert from Zeboyd for example: he made two interactive novels on XBLIG that sold around 500 copies each. His third game, Breath of Death VII, sold over 40,000 copies but the fact that this was only his third game is often overlooked. Other developers who used XBLIG as a “jumping pad” include Murudai (Solar 2), Mommy’s Best Games (Weapon of Choice), Swing Swing Submarine (Blocks That Matter), Spyn Doctor (Your Doodles are Bugged!) and Iridium Studios (Sequence), all who were able to use their XBLIG resume to help open the door onto Steam in relatively quick time compared to past indies.

There is a common misconception that independent video game development is a gold mine, and this is a very false statement; every single indie developer that has made millions of dollars have struggled for many years. Edmund McMillen of Team Meat, Notch of Mojang, Phil Fish of Fez, Jon Blow of Braid, and the developers of Limbo all faced financial struggles or made many games before finding success. Yet, on XBLIG we see people who start to make decent money (20 – 40+ grand) on their second or third game and then criticize the market for not bringing them enough money. This all in itself shows what I deem to be the problem with the current XBLIG scene’s mindset: a lot of us have become obsessed with money instead of focusing on our creative visions and how to become better artists. That, to me, is what being independent means: being able to express things to our audience that the mainstream could never even begin to touch. If your number one concern is money, why not get a job at a AAA studio?

Fun indie game or foot in the door to the gaming industry?

I think it’s obvious by their actions that Microsoft never intended XBLIG to be a huge money maker, but more or less, a way for us to get our games to a wider audience and to help start our careers. In this aspect, XBLIG has been a success. I feel that a lot of the current developers don’t have appreciation for the audience it brings us; many have said they are just going to move to PC where things are better. But the truth is, the underground PC scene is much more rough – the markets that have a low level of entry currently have a much smaller user base compared to Xbox Live, meaning that it’s even more work to promote and get people to even look at your game. Sure there are exceptions, but if you are a new developer it’s hard to think of a better place to start than XBLIG.

Unfortunately, I do not have a clear answer on the future of XBLIG on the next generation Xbox. My personal opinion is that it will exist in some form or another as I feel that the platform was a success in a lot of different areas. It wasn’t quite the quick cash grab that a lot of people wanted, but I feel that was never the intention. If XBLIG does cease to exist, I suspect that many will continue to pin the failure on Microsoft for a number of reasons. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot that I think Microsoft could do to better the platform, but compared to what indies had prior to 2007 the difference is day and night. It’s for these reasons that I am thankful for what Microsoft has given us, and if it wasn’t for XBLIG I would have never believed I could be an indie developer. Over 10,000 people played my games in 2011, and even though I haven’t had financial success yet, I wake up happy everyday to think about that many people playing something that I have put my heart and soul into.

Michael himself was able to have his game on an Xbox 360 while still in school.

Perhaps the key to the future of XBLIG lies with the developers and their own ideals and goals. If you’re trying to approach independent video game development with a primary focus on money, I feel you won’t be developing indie games for very long because you will be genuinely disappointed. It’s very discouraging to see that a number of indies have started to adapt this “mainstream mindset”, and I see it not only from XBLIG developers, but from indie developers in general. Maybe if we start developing games from our hearts instead of our wallets we will start to see XBLIG as a great place to prove ourselves and then pursue even greater personal projects. Microsoft doesn’t want to see XBLIG fail, they have constantly  voiced support for the XBLIG Uprisings and even recently made a few changes to the service for us; but will they continue to support a platform of developers that continually criticizes them and rarely voices any type of support? Only time will tell.

Check out the trailer for Michael Hicks’ newest game below!
httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EiOteqkzdxE

8 comments

  • Good points. The point about money is particularly crucial, I think. Edmund McMillen has said quite frankly that if you’re thinking about money when making an indie game, you’re fundamentally missing the point, and I agree with him. Of course earning money from your games is good, but it shouldn’t be the central aim.

  • Couldn’t agree more.
    I released my first xblig game last week.
    So far I’ve had 50 sales at 80 points each, not great. But it’s amazing to think 50 people thought my game was good enough to buy.
    Also it’s received good ratings and great online reviews so it’s nice to know that I don’t suck.
    I think XBLIG is an amazing system with and even more amazing community.
    I think it’s biggest problem was that it was ahead of it’s time. It’s basically an earlier version of the Apple Marketplace where anything goes and creativity can blossom.
    Our games called Super Killer Hornet if anyone cares :o)

    Admin Edit: Read our review of Super Killer Hornet HERE

  • Full of unsupported claims and wishful thinking.

    There are independent developers doing well that didn’t struggle for decades; they boostrapped their way up one game at a time instead of hoping for a hit. Rich Vogel (who runs Spiderweb Software) is a good example – sure, his early games weren’t enormous hits, but he carefully and intelligently built up a fanbase and improved his games one step at a time. Struggle and suffering are not an integral or required part of the development process (though you could argue that they help).

    To claim that 20-40k is ‘decent money’ is ignoring the fact that turning a profit on a game depends on how long you spent building it. It is reasonable to criticize a market if the cost of entry is higher than the returns you get for entering it, in particular if the market offers you no options to leverage your effort.

    Getting a game up and running on XBLIG is non-trivial, passing peer review is non-trivial, and you’ve got to pay $100 just to get in the door. You could say these are ‘small costs’, but small costs matter if your returns are small. If you’re going to criticize developers for being greedy or obsessed with money, you should step back and do an actual evaluation of what it costs to develop a game first. Given that I’ve done it a few times, I’m willing to tell you the answer is more than you think.

    Once you’ve got a game out on XBLIG, there are few options for actually leveraging it – you can’t do any dashboard or search advertisements to drive players directly to the game’s trial, you can’t do interesting upsell techniques beyond the built in 8 minute trial, you can’t sell downloadable content or expansions for a game that turns out to do well. All you can do is drop a game on the overburdened XBLIG storefront for a buck or two and hope it sells, and run some Google ads that send people to XBox.com and hope they’re patient enough to click through a bunch of confusing screens and buy your game. If you want to be a successful developer – even a mildly succesful one – in the competitive games market, you need to have more tools at your disposal than XBLIG gives you.

    If Microsoft didn’t intend for XBLIG to be a money maker, what do you believe it was for? The initial big push (with the investment of multiple man years worth of time into XNA and related development tools) has been replaced by near-complete abandonment of the platform. There are basically two sound explanations for this: Either 1) XBLIG was a charity/experiment to see if any indies out there had what it took to build a good XBox 360 game when not given any of the tools necessary to do it, or 2) XBLIG was intended as a secondary marketplace that would work alongside XBLA (with slots, publishers, high prices and high budgets) to allow Microsoft to sell more games.

    Out of those two choices, which seems the most rational for a billion-dollar company that’s busy using XBox Live to make money? Here’s a hint: It’s not the one that’s a charity.

    When you talk about examples like Zeboyd you’re completely factoring out the quality of the first few games (or worse, implying that they were all terrible and shouldn’t have sold). If you look at the history of PC games, you can see plenty of counter-examples. The shareware game community was chock full of relatively good first titles that – while not best sellers – were enough to sell some copies and fund future development of better copies – Rich Vogel, who I mentioned above, is hardly the only success story there; big devs like Epic and Id grew out of that same ecosystem.

    Shareware games thrived without Microsoft or anyone else blessing developers with a fenced-in sandbox like XBLIG to develop in: They took control of their own destinies, built games, and then went out and found customers to sell them to, by doing things that you can still do to this day: Releasing demos, advertising, offering bundles and discounts, and developing a community. You could argue that most Shareware developers weren’t successes, or that they had to suffer – the former is certainly true – but the point is that there’s nothing about XBLIG in this regard that is unique.

    At the end of the day, here’s the reality: Shipping a game for XBLIG costs you time and money. The value of shipping a game on XBLIG historically does not outweigh the cost of shipping it unless you get lucky. The odds of getting lucky decrease over time as XNA/XBLIG continue to be left to rot with insufficient promotional/technology support, a poor dashboard, and various constraints on game quality and scope that also rule out alternative business model. You can view XBLIG as a ‘foot in the door’ or ‘free grassroots advertising’, but the reality is that you might be able to get way more advertising by actually spending that time and money elsewhere, and you might be able to get that foot in the door by releasing your game on PC/Mac/Linux.

    The key to the future of XBLIG lies with Microsoft, and they’ve demonstrated that they’re not going to do anything to improve on it anytime soon – probably ever, given the fact that developers have moved off the project internally. If you’ve got projects in development for XBLIG, sure, why not keep supporting it – you’ve already invested the time and energy. If you believe you have a community of fans – even a small one – on the XBox who will buy your games, you should continue to support those fans (though supporting them might mean releasing for their PCs or Macs instead). If you believe that having your games running on an XBox 360 is important and will gain you desperately needed cred or a ‘foot in the door’ to use for negotiation, then decide whether that is worth the cost. If you’re building a new game? XBLIG is probably not a good choice for you, so you should be critical.

    • Got Jeff Vogel’s first name wrong. Mea culpa.

    • Hi Kevin! I personally think people who want to talk about the “costs” of making/shipping a game are kind of missing the point. That is the talk of someone running a business or something you would hear from a AAA studio. If you want to make independent games I believe you need to love doing it, because the large majority of the time if you’re expecting profits/a ton of money etc. you’re going to be disappointed.

      I believe I explained very clearly what I think XBLIG was meant to be in the article. If you don’t agree with me that’s totally fine as we all have different opinions.

      I don’t know anything about Rich Vogel, but from the sounds of it he also had to work to find success, I’m not getting the vibe he was just handed money either. I could be wrong on that though!

      I’m not sure what is unsupported since this is an opinion article, but if you would like me to address something in particular feel free to tweet me at @michaelartsxm

      Thanks for reading!

      • So, let me get this straight. You think game development – or independent game development specifically – has to be a work of charity? Or that people who don’t want to go broke building games don’t love it?

        Since when are we talking about having money handed to you? You seem to be of the opinion that people have to suffer and be poor to build independent games.

        • I think Michael’s point is more towards the idea that if you are getting into indie development for financial reasons you are doing it for the wrong reason and will almost certainly be discouraged when you don’t make money overnight and walk away (and that you would be better suited finding a job with a AAA developer where you will have less control but a comfortable paycheck). The opportunity to succeed is there, but as Kari Vice (Indie Gamer Chick) commented when the kickstarter craze began (to paraphrase); you shouldn’t be quitting your day job to develop your first indie game. That’s because, regardless of the platform, you’ll likely fail to make money on your first attempt.

          I use to make music a long time ago and saw first hand a lot of very talented individuals “never make it.” The ones who were making music to make a buck quickly fell off (including some really talented ones) or gave up on the creating music part and just started trying to make a buck off of other people’s music. Those who were doing it because they enjoyed it stayed around much longer and some of them are in fact now making a few bucks from their efforts (they aren’t paying all the bills mind you, but they are now getting paid to do something they love in their free time).

          Really the disagreement here is the metrics in which one is using to define success. You are viewing more immediate monetary success as the most important metric, Michael is viewing experience, opportunity and the simple number of people playing his games as more important (and neither of you are wrong for measuring it that way). At this point in Michael’s career, having had 10,000 people play his games last year is success. For you Kevin, the dollar amount is a bit more important (as happens with age). As I said on twitter, I welcome you the opportunity to write your own opinion piece for publication on the site on whether or not XBLIG has been a failure.

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