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!
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.
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!
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