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By: Matthew Doucette
Here is a blast from the past: The push for a better Xbox LIVE Indie Games (XBLIG) platform.
It is amazing how hard indie studios, including ourselves, have pushed for a better XBLIG, one that sadly never came. If Microsoft is pushing for indie games on their new Xbox One console, then I want to play a part.
After digging hard into Microsoft to figure out what their plans are, I bumped into a lot of old friends who were also advocates of XBLIG. I just received an email this morning:
"Sorry that I have sort of fallen out of being such an XBLIG advocate lately, I was getting emotionally invested in it to the point where it was stressing me out a lot to see certain things not go the way I was hoping they would."
It is very sad to see, but I relate to this one hundred percent. It is simply too bad that Microsoft did not have individuals like us on their team, in a position with enough clout or power to make the needed changes to turn XBLIG into from a consumer rejection into one of the greatest things Xbox LIVE has ever offered.
Our Contributions to XBLIG:
In a trip down memory lane, what follow below are the contributions the authors at Xona Games have made on the behalf of a better XBLIG. I would like to emphasize that none of the lessons learned here should be forgotten to avoid history repeating itself. It is all too interesting to note that history already had repeated itself, as the fall of XBLIG parallels the fall of the entire North American video game scene back in the infamous crash of 1983:
"There were several reasons for the [video game] crash [of 1983], but the main cause was supersaturation of the market with hundreds of mostly low-quality games which resulted in the loss of consumer confidence." - North American video game crash of 1983, Wikipedia
And, now, for our contributions:
Our XBLIG Advocacy Articles:
Here is some of our past work, listed out:
The "Indie Games Winter Uprising" was a community effort to combat the loss of consumer confidence in XBLIG, similar to the Xona Proposal but something the developers could implement on their own without Microsoft support. It was supported by Dave Mitchell, the co-founder of the XBLIG initiative, who is also the person our proposal was submitted to.
I never bothered to compose articles about XBLIG's need for achievements, gamerscore, or leaderboards, as it was already known to be a flaw in XBLIG. There was never any need to detail the reasons.
Our XBLIG Proposal:
Better known as the "Xona Proposal", or subtitled, "Changing the Face of XBLIG: Proposed Changes to XBLIG Dashboard". This is the biggest contribution we have made. It recognized the single most damaging flaw of XBLIG, which was the loss of consumer confidence in the platform (similar to the video game crash of 1983 as mentioned before), and addressed it. Had it been enacted, it would have turned the tide with XBLIG and solved not only the most pressing issue, but lots of sub-issues facing XBLIG developers. Please be sure to read the BENEFICIAL SIDE EFFECTS section in the proposal to explore the depth of the turn around, which addressed many edge case issues that were not even recognized as problems that needed solving. It is a beautiful solution.
Our XBLIG Advocacy Microsoft Connect Issues:
Here are our Microsoft Connect (internal bug-tracking system) issues:
Out of the ten issues we submitted, we submitted five of the top ten most-voted Microsoft Connect issues relating to XBLIG and XNA Game Studio, six of the top eleven, and seven of the top fourteen. This shows we addressed the most critical issues according to the XBLIG community.
https://connect.microsoft.com/site226/Feedback (click "Most Voted)
Note that 2 of the top 10 issues submitted by someone else related to achievements/gamerscore and leaderboards, which we also heavily pushed for.
Our XBLIG Advocacy Forum Posts:
I will not detail every forum post we made, but we did advocate changing the name from "Xbox LIVE Community Games" to "Xbox LIVE Indie Games". (PLEASE NOTE: The name change was already underway internally and silently by the XNA team, and our advocacy merely served to indicate they were making a move that was in alignment with the community's wants. Our idea of the name change idea was only at the XNA community level, not at the level internal to Microsoft.)
We rejected all use of "Community Games" as it had a negative connotation. The word "community" draws thoughts upon community work and community services which are often a punishment in our societies. "Indie games" connected more to the gamers who are not interested in understanding the XBLIG community behind the scenes. Not to mention, the games are indie games!
We pushed the idea further in our "Is the "Community Games" name itself poor marketing?" thread.
The irony of our forum efforts is that Microsoft MVPs were rarely open to our ideas. And bare with me as I detail this most damaging flaw of XBLIG that no one was allowed to talk about.
The above thread in question was threatened to be shut down with immediate rejection of the idea as judged to be pointless and impossible:
"[I am] hoping someone from the XNA team will come in here and say "It's not going to change" so [I] can lock this thread and move onto some more constructive." - Microsoft XNA MVP rejecting rename to "Xbox LIVE Indie Games"
It lead to questioning the very purpose of MVPs. They seemed to block every great idea that came along for fear it would lead to arguments on the forums:
What is the role of the moderators and XNA MVPs? I always feel they want to stop conversation and "naysay". Conversation is healthy, as that's where ideas are inspired and shared. It would seem beneficial if the mods and MVPs would raise community concerns, even when there is not a 100% agreement, to the XNA team to see if the concern could potentially improve XNA and XBLIG. This is the community at work, isn't it? Someone mentioned somewhere that the "community" aspect of XBLIG never really happened, but it's happening right here..." - Matthew Doucette, Xona Games (slightly paraphrased)
Eventually an Xbox LIVE Indie Game team member stated they were already in the midst of renaming the system to "Xbox LIVE Indie Games", as we see it today.
This highlights the very problem of XBLIG, those in control of the community were unwilling -- rather, eager -- to not discuss, not change, and instead focus on keeping the peace and telling developers to review more low quality games to pass onto XBLIG. Which made no difference to stop the platform from continuing to speed into the brick wall so clearly ahead of us. Do what you've done, get what you've got. It is a stark difference from motivated and passionate developers like ourselves.
We were using the system the way it was meant to be used. Hardcore. We recognized glaring issues that those only casually involved were blind to. I define "casually involved" to all who were not making a living off XBLIG, including Microsoft XNA MVPs and forum-goers. Helping out on the forums, releasing XNA tutorials, and shipping simple unsuccessful games, no matter how hard and useful this work might be, does not qualify you to judge what XBLIG needs to accomodate the serious developers.
To those casually involved, the XBLIG system "worked" in the sense you could create a game in XNA and output it for release onto XBLIG. But the system didn't work. It needed change, and Microsoft had put people to work on maintaining the peace rather than revolutionizing the platform. The two methodologies do not mix. Play that process out over four years and you have a failed XBLIG.
Don't repeat this same mistake. The very nature of XBLIG was challenging what had not been done. It needed a continuous flow of that same mentality to see it through to success.
Eventually, Xona Games left the community forums as it was more of a negative influence to us and offered nothing positive. It felt like a dictatorship. All of our constructive criticisms and posts to bounce ideas off other developers were always met with aggressive defense and threats to delete the conversation. Many of our well thought out ideas were deleted on the forums to keep the peace. Death is also peaceful. We were in a time of revolution.
Eventually Xona Games was threatened to be banned from the forums. So we left. It was sad. We were missed and asked to return, but we never involved ourselves in community or XBLIG advocacy again.
Forum moderation is not how you generate creative discussion. Let the coversation flow and take notes. Let the threads go off topic, instead of stifling them with threats the moment the discussion gets interesting. Why be so boring, only to accomplish nothing? Moderation is the enemy of change. Moderators should be neutral on topics, and should listen to ideas, and then pass the ideas of the community, especially those pushing the system hard, directly to the XBLIG team.
Ultimately, someone with a sense of the future, and a drive to invent it into existence, needs to be at the helm to make things happen.
Our XBLIG Respect:
It is worth noting that all the while, we only produced quality XBLIG titles, all three we released placed #1 in Japan in user ratings and the one unreleased placed 5th and 7th in Microsoft's global XBLIG-supporting Dream Build Play competition. We never sold out. Not once did we create a low-quality massage app, zombie game, avatar game, Minecraft clone, holiday game, or any sellout effort that contributed to the continually drain of consumer confidence in XBLIG. This is not to say that all games within those categories were negative. The point is, we never played a part in the downfall of XBLIG by outputting low quality content. (Interestingly enough, low quality content was not XBLIG's downfall, it was the platforms inability to handle low quality content that was to blame.)
We also spent thousands of dollars on XBLIG advertisements through various Duality ZF ads on XNA Roundup (1, 2, 3, 4). This "proper" and respectful effort to succeed on XBLIG is why we understood and could constructively criticize the system so thoroughly. Those few developers who succeeded financially would not be aware of the issues facing other quality developers.
Here are shout outs to other XBLIG advocates, by not means in any order and by no means complete:
The Indie Gamer Chick always had support of XBLIG. Look how sad her recap on XBLIG has been?
"I’ve spent two years trying to be the best (if not, the loudest) advocate for Xbox Live Indie Games. [...] But then I get down to the sad truth of the matter. There are games on my Leaderboard that have sold under 1,000 copies. Hell, there are games on it that have sold under 500 copies. There are games on XBLIG where I am literally the only person that bought it. I’ve played amazing games that sold so poorly that the developers became demoralized and quit. Being Indie Gamer Chick has been the privilege of my life, but sometimes the tales of woe from developers can be downright heartbreaking." - The Perils and Pitfalls of Putting Together a Bundle, Indie Gamer Chick
I have to mention Michael Neel (ViNull) for his help with exposing the XBLIG ratings manipulations, which many forget was challenged by competiting XBLIG developers as to whether or not it was even occuring. ViNull and Indie Gamer Check teamed up for an XBLIG post-mortem in "Tales from the Dev Side: XNA, XBLIG, and Me", also titled, "XNA, XBLIG, and Me (aka The Story of GameMarx)".
So, what's the point of all this?
Know your history. Don't repeat your mistakes. If anyone at Microsoft is reading this, please hire someone passionate and knowledgable and wise to take part in your indie game efforts in the future. Contact me, call me, to discuss the matter. I would love to give you my input based on my experiences. I have lived and died on XBLIG, as well as obtained XBLA experience. If you would like me to play a role in Xbox One's indie games, then please make it so.
More Indie Articles:
About the Author: I am Matthew Doucette of Xona Games, an award-winning indie game studio that I founded with my twin brother. We make intensified arcade-style retro games. Our business, our games, our technology, and we as competitive gamers have won prestigious awards and received worldwide press. Our business has won $180,000 in contests. Our games have ranked from #1 in Canada to #1 in Japan, have become #1 best sellers in multiple countries, have won game contests, and have held 3 of the top 5 rated spots in Japan of all Xbox LIVE indie games. Our game engines have been awarded for technical excellence. And we, the developers, have placed #1 in competitive gaming competitions -- relating to the games we make. Read about our story, our awards, our games, and view our blog.
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