Microsoft Slowly Euthanizes Xbox Indie Games

The title may be overly dramatic, but make no mistake, Microsoft is quietly holding a pillow over Xbox Live Indie Games, hoping to smother the service while no one looks.  Window Phone 7 developers, you have reason to be concerned.

A few gaming sites are covering the story, like Kotaku and Wired UK, but so far they are only interested in reporting forum drama as news.  I’m writing this article to lay out the full picture,and raise some awareness of the problem.

When Xbox Live Community Games (later renamed Indie) was announced, Microsoft pushed the message that they were going to “democratize game distribution”.  Those are the words of XNA head Chris Satchell in 2008 at the Game Developers Conference and following Microsoft press releases.  So let’s look at the democracy Microsoft has in 2010 for Indie developers XBLIG:

  • XBLIG can not connect to the Internet
  • XBLIG can not have Achievements, nor use the term
  • XBLIG can not have high score Leaderboards
  • XBLIG can not charge more than $5 for a game
  • XBLIG can not be played offline
  • XBLIG can not be played by a non-Live account
  • XBLIG box art / titles do not show in the friends list when you are playing an XBLIG title
  • XBLIG titles do not show in your game history
  • XBLIG titles are separated in the Marketplace from other games

(A few notes: some developers have implemented a peer to peer based leaderboard system, but these can only update when other players are online and only contain the scores their clients have seen.  Pricing options are $5, $3, and $1 (USD).  A $10 option existed at launched, but was removed and replaced with a $1 option.  For comparison, Microsoft sells virtual Avatar clothing at $1 for a shirt or pair of shoes, and $3 for an outfit).

The Top Lists of Terror

One of the top complaints for years has been the interface in which gamers use to find XBLIG titles.  There is a Top Downloads list, a Top Rated list, a New Releases list, a list of games hand selected by IGN, and a list of games that were selected as finalists in the most recent contest.  Only the of contest finalists worked as intended.

The IGN list is rarely updated, and follows no rhyme or reason to the selections (quality is not a factor).  The Top Downloads list does not factor in purchases, so titles with attention grabbing box art dominate, even when these downloads are deleted and not purchased.  Ratings on Xbox do not require that you play or even download the title and have shown no correlation to actual purchases. 

The New Releases list is a developer’s one shot to “stick” to another list before “falling off the dashboard.”  Developers share sales data and it is quite clear being on a dashboard list is worth 100x any online marketing promotion.  So what could be wrong with such a simple list?  All Microsoft has to do for this list is sort by release date, but this has proven to be quite difficult for the Softies.  With an ever increasing frequency the New Releases list “freezes” and any titles released during a freeze will not be added.  When the freeze is fixed, sometimes a few days, maybe a week or more, all titles are added at once.  Because of the list size limit, some titles will skip the new release list and go straight into the abyss.

Microsoft will not compensate a developer who’s title was lost in a list freeze by placing them back on the list.  Pulling and releasing the title again to get on the list, even in the case of a freeze, is against the terms of service and can result in the developer being banned. 

The Peer Review is a Lie

You may have heard that XBLIG titles go through a peer review process.  This is not the case.  Peer review, as done in the academic community, is a vetting of quality by ones peers.  To quote the University of Texas, “Peer Review is a process that journals use to ensure the articles they publish represent the best scholarship currently available”.  Peer review in XBLIG means running a game though a checklist, looking for crashes and bugs.  If it doesn’t crash, it’s a pass.  There are a few more rules than just crashing, such as allowing any controller to start the game and making sure fonts are legible, but the bulk is just QA.

In theory peer review sounds like a good idea – an open alterative to Apple’s infamously closed review process, while providing some safety compared to Google’s Android process which has let bank spoofing applications into the wild and apps stealing contact and location information to sell to anyone who’s interested.  In practice however, it is an unqualified disaster.

The first problem is the number of titles needing review.  As of this writing there are 70 games awaiting review, and it can easily take a month for a game to pass review.  If a game makes use of any non-English words (it doesn’t have to be translated, just one line of dialog “Hey amigo, let’s get a taco” counts), the game must be flagged by the developer for multiple languages and must have at least two reviews by speakers of that language.  This can hold a title up for months waiting for a qualified developer to submit a review.

The next problem in peer review is basic math.  A developer spends $59.99 a year for a required Xbox Live Gold account, plus an additional $99.00 per year for an App Hub membership, and gives up 32.24% of revenue (Microsoft sell points at $0.0125/point, but pays developers at a rate of $0.0121/point).  In addition to these payments and time spent creating their own game, the developer is expected to spend time playing and reviewing other titles awaiting review.  I know QA is a low paying job, but I think this is the first case where QA pay is negative.  Developers are not forced to review other titles, but if no one does, the entire service shuts down. 

The last failure of peer review is handling of subjective rules.  The developers are asked to fail games that infringe upon copyright as well as games that are not proper for the service.  Microsoft has full rights to censor its service, but telling the developers to decide where the line is?   That is just being lazy.  This has resulted in the games failing when someone thought there was a copyright violation but there was express permission (the developer still had to pull the content in question), games with political content failing because someone didn't agree with the view, and in one case the Bible failing for “hate speech”.  Microsoft made an exemption for the Bible, but generally a developer who emails Microsoft asking for ruling on a subjective matter gets the boiler plate reply:

Microsoft is unable to participate in Peer Review, nor can we decide whether your fellow reviewers should think certain in-game content is bad enough to fail your game or not.  We also cannot clearly define what specific content is allowed in a game since each case is different, and it’s up to the reviewers’ judgment.  Your best avenue is to ask one of the moderators or fellow reviewers for their opinions in your game forum.

Okay, one more issue with peer review – there is a long standing bug that if a title reaches the total number of reviews needed to complete the cycle, and the last review is a fail for a bug, it will still be published on the service.  It seems to follow the logic “10 votes required and less than 2 fails” and does not check that the 10th review was actually a fail and the broken title is approved.

Promotions of the Wrong Kind

Microsoft has on rare occasion selected some XBLIG titles to feature in top level dashboard promotions.  These come without notice, even to the developers whose titles are selected, and result in a windfall of sales.  The titles selected however, seem to be the worst examples on the service.  Shovelware titles that make use of Avatars are use to pump up the Avatar Games section, or a screensaver is featured in a Halloween spot.  The result is not just that quality titles are passed over, but that Microsoft is actively encouraging more shovelware!

XNA MVPs

I’m going to make this short, as it isn’t interesting to but a few.  In the XNA forums, the MVPs not Microsoft are expected to do all moderation.   I’m used to MVPs in MSDN forums helping out and generally being pretty cool so it’s shocking to see an active MVP hate in the XNA forums.  I can see why there is the hate – the MVPs must lock all kinds of prohibited, yet common topics such as legal questions.  Asking about the tax forms on the Microsoft web site is a banned topic.  Again, Microsoft has the right to censor, but Microsoft, run your own damn forum and let the MVPs spend time help the community instead of policing it.

Paradise Lost

For a brief moment, during the new Xbox Dashboard beta, it looked as if Microsoft was making improvements.  XBLIG were listed beside Games on Demand, Demos, and Xbox Live Arcade.  The top lists were replaced with genre lists, ending the reign of terror and helping more of the 1400+ (more than 360, on demand, and Arcade titles combined) surface in a manageable UI.  This was just a cruel joke, as the update went live to find XBLIG removed from the “Games” section and listed in “Specialty Shops” next to Avatar clothing and the failed Game Room (where Microsoft tried to sell Atari 2600 titles for pretty close to the same prices as XBLIG).  To add insult to injury, the section art is an image of Avatars, as if to say “make us more Avatar Shovelware!”

The community manager for XBLIG has left and there is no word of a replacement.  High profile developers are already reporting the new dashboard is showing a 50% drop in sales and a 75% drop in downloads.  Microsoft has not made one announcement to the community and instead is working PR to spin coverage:

We wanted to give Xbox Live Indie Games that full marketplace experience and felt this was the best place to do it, alongside other popular channels like the Avatar Marketplace. In fact, since the launch of Avatars, Xbox Live members have made more than 290 million customisations[sic] to their Avatar's clothing, so we expect many people to regularly visit the Specialty Shops section.

It’s worth note gamers do not need to visit the Specialty Shops to purchase Avatar clothing as there are numerous hooks into the new UI to up sell the virtual threads at every turn.  Also worth note is someone looking for Games will have to pass over the “Games & Demos”, “Genres”, and “Titles A-Z” sections to get to Specialty Shops section. 

Why WP7 Developers Should Take Note

The XNA forums are in flames, and the fate of XBLIG is uncertain as the quality developers that held up the service announce they are moving on to other platforms.  Why should WP7 developers care?  Because many XBLIG developers see history repeating itself and are considering other platforms.

The current WP7 forums mimic the early days of the Creators Club – so many issues being raised little to no Microsoft response.  Microsoft offers special WP7 APIs to publishers that are not available to regular developers.  The short life span of the Zune HD and App Store (less than 6 months before abandoned) and the WTF-was-that life span of the Kin are very clear reminders Microsoft does not have a successful track record marketing to consumers.

Why I Hope Things Change

Writing games for a console is something I thought I would never do in my lifetime.  XBLIG brought down the barrier to entry so anyone could release a game.  I’m sure this does not sit will with the EA’s and Activision’s of the world who want to keep prices high buy keeping a lock on distribution channels.  I honestly don’t care about the fight-the-man angle, writing a game for a console is just so damn awesome I want to be a part of it.  I have committed a serious amount of time to building newly-launched GameMarx with my friends at FuncWorks to spread the word on the many great games on XBLIG and I’m not ready to give up on that dream just yet.

I hope this is read by more than a few and pressure is brought down on Microsoft to make good on their promise and democratize game distribution.  If you agree, pass this on and lets #SaveXBLIG!


Posted 11-03-2010 11:46 PM by Michael C. Neel
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Comments

Aaron Mell wrote re: Microsoft Slowly Euthanizes Xbox Indie Games
on 11-04-2010 9:08 AM

This is why I will never develop on the XNA platform. This makes the Apple platform for developers look like a great place to develop. They may have a restrictive platform, but at least they don't try to bury your work and make it hard to reach. I am not sure why MS is trying to kill off the indie market either. Maybe they are facing some sort of push back from publishers?

Joachim Schipper wrote re: Microsoft Slowly Euthanizes Xbox Indie Games
on 11-04-2010 11:00 AM

> 32.24% of revenue (Microsoft sell points at $0.0125/point, but pays developers at a rate of $0.0121/point).

That math does not work (MS takes 3.2% of revenue, or your price/point is wrong). Otherwise, thank you for an informative article.

Kevin Gadd wrote re: Microsoft Slowly Euthanizes Xbox Indie Games
on 11-04-2010 11:02 AM

I think the deprecation of XNA 3.1 also deserves mention here. Windows games developed using XNA 4.0 run on far less machines than those developed with 3.1, and they've removed entire features that can make it very difficult to port a game from 3.1 to 4.0. Considering they're setting a 90 day deadline to ship any XNA 3.1 games, they're basically setting a release date for any developer stupid enough to build a large project using XNA.

Michael C. Neel wrote re: Microsoft Slowly Euthanizes Xbox Indie Games
on 11-04-2010 11:31 AM

> That math does not work (MS takes 3.2% of revenue, or your price/point is wrong). Otherwise, thank you for an informative article.

Microsoft first discounts the value of Microsoft Points, then applies it's 30% cut as stated on the website.  I mention it in the article because the App Hub website and FAQ state Microsoft keeps 30%, but doe not mention the Point conversion except in the fine print of the legal terms of service.

richtaur wrote re: Microsoft Slowly Euthanizes Xbox Indie Games
on 11-04-2010 3:18 PM

This is why I will never put all my eggs into a closed platform.

Mick N wrote re: Microsoft Slowly Euthanizes Xbox Indie Games
on 11-05-2010 7:44 AM

Hi Michael,

Interesting article. I'm not in a position to express an opinion on it, because a lot of the content is new to me wrt XBLIG.

On the other hand, the WP7 development platform is not new to me.

I will say I am surprised to read some of this (again, without expressing judgement). Why?..

We've (wp7 developers) had a very positive 8 month experience, as a community, working side by side with the Microsoft platform and support teams on the MSDN Windows Phone 7 forums prior to them being merged with the XNACC into the now AppHub.

I don't intend to diminish your claim, and if you have a genuine grievance to be resolved, I do not stand against it.

With that said, I am curious, reading your post, is where Microsoft has communicated the points you've made here as follows.

- legal questions are prohibited

- questions about tax forms are prohibited

I'm genuinely curious to know. Why?...

I will say these type of questions have been openly (and efficiently) discussed on the MSDN Windows Phone Developer forums (which as mentioned has now closed to be merged with the XNACC into the new AppHub).

You can perhaps see why the experience you've shared comes as a surprise given our (wp7 dev) background.

I'm sure there's some rhyme and reason to all of this somewhere.

Jim Perry wrote re: Microsoft Slowly Euthanizes Xbox Indie Games
on 11-05-2010 10:46 AM

I'll post the same comments as I did on his site:

There's some inaccuracies in your post:

"If it doesn’t crash, it’s a pass."

Untrue. There's no requirement to pass something just because it doesn't crash. Some of us MVPs have tried to get the community to implement a quality standard by just ignoring the "make a quick buck" submissions, but the kickback reviewers outnumber us.

" If a game makes use of any non-English words (it doesn’t have to be translated, just one line of dialog “Hey amigo, let’s get a taco” counts), the game must be flagged by the developer for multiple languages and must have at least two reviews by speakers of that language."

Not quite true. Foreign words that have become common in the English language do not need to be flagged.

"The first problem is the number of titles needing review. As of this writing there are 70 games awaiting review, and it can easily take a month for a game to pass review."

That can actually be a good thing. I haven't checked lately but if the majority of the games in the pipeline are "quick buck" submissions leaving them there to be automatically failed after a month is a good thing. If most reviewers are like me, they sift through the submissions to find the quality games instead of wasting time on junk. Again, there are some reviewers that will pass anything that doesn't crash.

"This has resulted in the games failing when someone thought there was a copyright violation but there was express permission (the developer still had to pull the content in question)"

It's the responsibility of the developer to make know the permission to use IP when submitting and a game is not supposed to be failed if this is done. Reviewers that do so can be banned temporarily or permanently.

Yes, there's a lot of problems with the service, but I'm still holding out hope that MS will fix things and improve the quality of the service.

FEarn wrote re: Microsoft Slowly Euthanizes Xbox Indie Games
on 11-05-2010 11:03 AM

I am going to take a wild stab at this.

Giving legal and tax advise requires a professional who has specialized knowledge ie a lawyer or accountant. If microsoft endorsed form members were to answer questions it would expose them to the risk of legal action being taken against them.

It is the same as building a building... If the guy you ask to do the math to see if it stands is not and engineer and it falls down... you sue him.

Steve wrote re: Microsoft Slowly Euthanizes Xbox Indie Games
on 11-05-2010 1:06 PM

I recognize Jim as one of the very helpful people that was answering a lot of questions when I first started looking into XNA development, so the community itself was top notch.  

The reason I chose to not even finish my first game was due to Microsoft's complete disregard for the platform, and this was before they decided to shove the games into a dark corner.  They wouldn't even tell people how many units they sold, it was a complete joke.   I'd have to go dig up my previous posts on the subject (assuming they're still on the XNA forums), but the story at the time was that it was "too hard" to get the data.

The entire peer review process was also broken, and overall, the whole thing was just messed up from the start.  Microsoft really missed an opportunity to do something really good here, but instead it went all pear-shaped almost from the get-go.

Darren wrote re: Microsoft Slowly Euthanizes Xbox Indie Games
on 11-05-2010 2:08 PM

I have no problem with having objective rules for passing a game. If the game is no fun, let it fail in the marketplace. If you don't like the style of game, don't review it.  Given the backlog and the "free work" kind of situation, I don't want to find ten reviewers who think my game is *fun* to pass it. I want to sell it and see if customers like it. If you don't think it's sufficiently fun, that isn't a reason to fail the game, methinks.

Darthy wrote re: Microsoft Slowly Euthanizes Xbox Indie Games
on 11-05-2010 2:10 PM

So many problems with the XBLIG. The community manager left too? There's still hope though. Maybe a format and reinstall is required?

Mateusz Kierepka (ex XNA MVP) wrote re: Microsoft Slowly Euthanizes Xbox Indie Games
on 11-05-2010 3:10 PM

I totally agree with this article. Beautifully described what I said when I was MVP XNA (hence my nick name "Mateusz trouble maker")

Jamie wrote re: Microsoft Slowly Euthanizes Xbox Indie Games
on 11-05-2010 5:03 PM

Coming from a developer who has published with the service I enjoyed the process and and found that for the POINT of the service it was almost on the right track. It is not perfect but what is?

You will not make million dollars in most cases you will not even break even with development costs. But as an indie developer most of games on other sites have done a lot worst.

That being said some of my preferred Xbox games where made by the indie developers. It may be hard to find games but after a year of actively using the service I can tell which games are good and which ones are bad before I download them.

On top of all that there is nothing like sitting down with your family and playing a game on Xbox you built. Go try it! And tell me it doesn’t bring a smile to your face.

After 4 years I would hope that some things are different then they are but I don’t Microsoft is going to Euthanizes this product anytime soon!

In fact with the addition of windows phone and rumors of Kinect support in the future I hope this service continues for another 4 years.

Jason Doucette wrote re: Microsoft Slowly Euthanizes Xbox Indie Games
on 11-06-2010 6:33 AM

SAME POST AS IN ORIGINAL ARTICLE:

This article is not a good idea, because it's feels like a conspiracy theory of Microsoft trying to kill Indie Games. If they wanted it dead, it'd be gone. This article lists numerous issues with Indie Games, but a lot are perfectly legitimate, and do not spell conspiracy. Indie Games is still alive. Hammering Microsoft for doing things they have not done is not going to help them hear us to solve the REAL problems...

We need to stop complaining that there are crap games; there will always be. We need to stop complaining that developers are selling out; they are just following the lead of what's promoted and making money. The platform's lead is wrong, and can be changed. Instead of accusing Microsoft of malice, let's educate each other and them how it can be fixed...

There is no conspiracy. If Microsoft wanted to kill Indie Games, it wouldn't use a pillow, it'd use a gun. So let's be reasonable and find a solution. I believe we have one:

xona.com/.../01.html

I thought I should say that I've read the purposes of your article on App Hub ( forums.create.msdn.com/.../398689.aspx ) and I understand why you wrote it. I believe we are mostly on the same page. However, I am very concerned with the negative impact of proposing something similar to a conspiracy theory. I believe Microsoft wants Indie Games to work, and have placed it where they think it will work best. What they don't realize is that their 2-year mistake (the Indie Games' front page and top-rated/download lists) have lead developers to produce bad/one-off applications, instead of high quality games. Had they fixed this (which they still can), their analysis would have differed, and they'd see that Indie Games can happily live in the Games & Demos section, where it belongs.

So we need: #1. the dashboard lists to be fixed to promote the better games (developers will follow suit and make what's promoted), and #2. move it back to Games & Demos without that avatar-filled image as its presentation, to get gamer traffic to us.

Michael C. Neel wrote re: Microsoft Slowly Euthanizes Xbox Indie Games
on 11-06-2010 12:31 PM

Some quick responses to comments -

"language issue" - the example may or may not pass, it's another subjective area. What a persons from South Texas finds "common" will differed from South Jersey. The Language feature should be used to indicate the game is translated to those language, not has a word or two from them.

IP/Copyright - the game in my example is the GameLoft title. They claimed Microsoft gave them permission for the Indie Logo Kit, yet were still given a fail for using the kit against the public terms of service list. In that case, GameLoft claimed the right to use it and shouldn't have been a fail reason. To be fair, there was a large section of the community out to fail/ignore GameLoft because they didn't play test and peer review other titles.

Gold - technically you might not need a Live Gold account, but reality is you need one. Not only to develop features on your own title, but to be able to test them in peer review of other titles.

"If it doesn’t crash, it’s a pass." - while some try to just ignore shovel ware titles in review, time has shown there are enough willing to review them. In fact, clearing them out helps your rep score and if you have a title in review, helps move you to the front of the line quicker. These titles also take less time to review than a full game as well.

"Top Lists Freeze" - yes, should have made more of the fact all lists will freeze at the same time. I feel the new releases is the most damning since its cause some titles to never be on the list.

"Conspiracy Theory" - I think that implies I've claimed all the issues were intentionally done to kill the service. I'm not saying that. I'm saying, whether through intention or neglect, Microsoft is killing XBLIG.

"Legal Questions" - you can find numerous locked threads in the Xbox forums locked for being a legal question, and many on filling out tax forms.

"WP7" - I didn't have such a great time getting info on WP7 and turned down an offer to do another ebook because I couldn't get straight answers.  No answers on development devices, and sometimes info was completely wrong such as saying Xbox and WP7 would be separate accounts and sites.  The WP7 stats being delayed until late January 2011 is also another repeat of the Xbox XNA launch.  Will independent WP7 developers be treated better post-launch than XBLIG developers?  I have no idea, but I don't have a good feeling they will.  YMMV

I was kinda hoping to put a "Microsoft has announced xxx" here, but so far they have been silent...

Mick N wrote re: Microsoft Slowly Euthanizes Xbox Indie Games
on 11-07-2010 6:16 PM

Hi Michael,

Thanks again for your comments.

I am aware of threads that get locked, but with respect, that wasn't my question.

What I'm interested to see is where has Microsoft communicated that  legal/tax topics are banned on the forums?

I'm refering to your suggestion that Microsoft requires these topics to be "banned".

In my experience so far in the Windows Phone 7 forum Microsoft has had no issue with these topics taking place.

Dave - Armless Octopus wrote re: Microsoft Slowly Euthanizes Xbox Indie Games
on 11-12-2010 2:20 PM

Outstanding read. Very informative, as were the comments afterward.

Do you know if MS has any plans to implement a new XBIG community leader?

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