Is XNA good for Indie Games?

This morning I read a blog post from an Indie game developer on The Perils of XNA and the Death of an Indie.  The full post is worth reading, but I will sum up a few points here.  It’s valuable to know that this indie developer is a veteran of the commercial games industry and is not working on his first game.

XNA and C# as a development platform, is really good:

The sheer difference in development time between C++ and C# was such that, even weighing in all C#/XNA’s shortfalls, it still seemed like too much of an advantage to pass up. And with new versions coming out boasting more powerful features, what could go wrong?

You cannot divorce XNA the development platform from XNA the ecosystem.  There are currently only two channels to sell an XNA game with Microsoft.  One is the neglected Xbox Live Indie Games Channel and the other is the infant Windows Phone 7 Marketplace.  In both cases, Microsoft favors publishers over developers in terms of features and marketing.

I’ve talked about this in the past, when the Xbox UI redesign buried the Indie Game channel.  Publishers are allowed to use Achievements and shared Leaderboards, while Indie Games cannot even connect to the internet to provide these features on their own.  Indie Games cannot use subscription based models, or sell addition game content which has proven to be highly successful on mobile platforms.  Microsoft won’t let Xbox Indie developers use Kinect even while making a free Windows SDK!

These problems extend to Windows Phone 7 as well.  Achievements and Leaderboards are still reserved for publishers only, but the bigger insult is Microsoft will not feature an Indie game in the Marketplace:

“Krashlander sales have been OK relative to other non-Xbox Live games, but the way things currently work if your game is not an Xbox Live game, it does not get featured in the marketplace,” Weber said. “My game has been one of the top downloaded paid (non-Xbox Live) games since launch, it is currently the 10th highest rated app/game in the marketplace overall, but it has never once been featured.”

I guess on WP7, Microsoft would have never featured Angry Birds.  Something to think about…

Later in the first article, the developer talks about going the third route of XNA, releasing yourself on the PC (Microsoft does have a PC gaming store like steam, but doesn’t allow indie titles):

The choice of XNA really irked people. Others simply couldn’t get it to run on their PCs. The fact that XNA/C# was a non-open standard and not (at the time) cross platform was also something that kept popping up. We scoffed and thought ‘bloody linux users. get yourself a PC and stop complaining, please!’

The post goes on to talk about Minecraft and other Indie games working (well) on a donation / alpha-ware model.  This approach is very appealing for an Indie title because you get some money coming in to complete the game, but also get to know your players really well and that helps make a better game.  If you’ve been looking for the example of Agile as a business model, this is it.  This isn’t going to work with XNA however.  Microsoft doesn’t allow this model in any of their sales channels and only supporting Windows PCs is too narrow.  The post puts a good cap on XNA:

If I’d heeded the words of people such as Terry Cavanagh on TIGSource, maybe our secret game would be out already? Perhaps enjoying the sales that Minecraft does? Most probably not, but at least we’d have had a shot, and we’d have gotten somewhere. Instead all my efforts went into XNA development, an evolutionary dead-end for all intents and purposes. Even though XNA is pretty damn sexy, she’s someone else’s girl, and all you can really do is hire her out by the hour and hope for the best you don’t get screwed down the line.

(apologies for the sexism there, you can think of XNA as a male gigolo as an alterative).

So where does this leave us?  Running sites like GameMarx and now XboxIndies I can tell you it doesn’t give me warm fuzzies.  The problems isn’t that there are issues; there will always be issues.  The problem is Microsoft is doing nothing to work on these issues.  There isn’t even a community manager in charge of Xbox Live Indie Games, no voice inside the company speaking of behalf of the Indie Game Developers.

XNA suffers too much from the strategy tax mentioned by Joel Spolsky:

But synergy, there are also negative synergies. In the case of Microsoft they call it “strategy tax”. Where like, the Internet Explorer team is not allowed to fix the DHTML editor, because it might compete with Word. So they’re forced to make that continue to be bad.

If these guys can fit XNA on a phone, it can be a browser plugin and run on OSX and Linux.  Microsoft’s protection of the publisher model is akin to newspapers attacking Google.  It’s time to change, or risk being replaced.  Imagine if Apple shipped an Apple TV with a game controller and connection to the AppStore.  The speed of the exodus from Xbox Indie Games would cause a space-time rift to rival the Large Hadron Collider!

Hopefully, things will change before this happens.  A good start would be hiring a community manager.


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