Buried alive: the fate of Xbox Live Indie Games
This feature is also published in issue E237, which is currently on sale, featuring a look at Naughty Dog's latest game, The Last Of Us, tracing what's next for Mojang and much more.
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How did it ever come to this? Successive updates have shunted the Xbox Live Indie Games marketplace to ever-darker corners of the console's dashboard, the content within it remains difficult to browse, its peer-review system has proven wildly unreliable, and there is a very apparent surfeit of extremely lowquality titles. Hiding it away seems like an act born of embarrassment, and one that's not entirely unjustified. Yet when Microsoft opened up its console to indie developers, it could hardly have had better intentions.
"Anybody on Xbox Live can pick your game up," said an effusive Chris Satchell in 2007, as he courted indie interest in Microsoft's development toolkit from his position as XNA Group general manager. "You'll have an audience of six million people that can go and play your game. You don't have to have a publisher, you can now just share with the world."
Satchell called this the "democratisation of distribution". It was part of the drive towards a so-called games 3.0, a future in which users would help "create the initial core service as well as generating content after a product's launch". It was going to represent the YouTube for games.
"I guarantee publishers are going to be looking at these games, looking for new talent, looking for new ideas," Satchell declared, "just like Epic Records trawls MySpace looking for new people." And then: "Consumers-as-creators is a major force in our industry over the next five to ten years."
Microsoft's Chris Satchell, speaking in 2007
Satchell was dead right. Consumers have indeed transformed into creators at an unprecedented rate, manifesting as a massive resurgence of indie game development. What he didn't predict, however, was that Microsoft would then fail to monopolise on the trend he had so presciently identified. While Apple's App Store swells with quality content and developers have found rich seams in browser gaming and digital distribution services on PC, Microsoft's efforts to cultivate a grassroots indie movement for its console have resulted in a marketplace of dwindling appeal to both consumers and creators. Although there's certainly no glut of them, there have been good games on the service, and in its early days it attracted burgeoning development talent, including musician-developer Julian Kantor (Groov), and the attention of more established dev studios such as Arkedo and Halfbrick.
Some of the newcomers transformed into the latter, having cut their teeth on the Indie Games channel, but few of the success stories have seemed keen to hang around, instead being 'promoted' away from the marketplace to XBLA development, or lured to other platforms entirely. Halfbrick is now famous for the likes of Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride, triumphs it did not have while labouring on the Indie Games marketplace. Meanwhile, the one-man dev team behind Radiangames' Inferno, one of the best twinstick shooters in many years, has also sworn off Indie Games for more lucrative options.
For other developers, who rely on the income from their games to make the next rent payment, XBLIG has prematurely ended promising careers. David Johnston, developer of The Adventures Of Shuggy, told us recently that he might be hanging up his hat: "I recently released a new game, Growing Pains, but despite having a four-star rating on the service and getting some good reviews I've only managed to sell around 40 copies. I have another game I've been working on, but I'm honestly wondering if it's going to be worthwhile completing it."