How To Make A Game continues with an examination of the Xbox Live Indie Games service. Projector Games’ Adam Sawkins, creator of the popular but divisive FortressCraft, and Robert Boyd of Zeboyd Games, the man behind Cthulhu Saves The World and Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3, share their experiences of working on Microsoft’s platform.
The appeal of XBLIG
Adam Sawkins I started making Indie Games about three or more years ago. Back then, Steam, iOS and Xbox Live Indie Games were pretty much your only sensible options. But it’s hard to describe how awesome it is to see your game running on an Xbox – I’ve worked on 65 SKUs in the mainstream game industry, and the magic of seeing a game I’d 100 per cent written running on my Xbox was completely brilliant, and I knew I was hooked.
As so many others have said, indie gaming really isn’t about making money – unless you’re very lucky. It’s about the magic of seeing people playing a game you wrote. It’s sort of like digital art in that sense. The amount of times I’ve been accused of doing this for the money, when really, nothing could be further from the truth… I’ve been writing my own games for 30 or more years. It’s only in the last few that I’ve even had the possibility of more than my close circle of friends seeing them, and I’m very thankful for it.
Robert Boyd The initial appeal in creating for Xbox Live Indie Games was the low barrier to entry. All the tools to make an XBLIG title are free. And to release on [the service] you just need to pay $100 a year to get an official XNA creator’s membership. Whereas releasing on XBLA, PSN, or WiiWare requires an official developer application, which could get rejected if they don’t like what you want to make – and [costs] thousands of dollars. Basically, XBLIG was the first chance for a brand new hobbyist to get their game on a major videogame console so that’s why I went there.
The submission process
AS I think the most unexpected part of the testing process was firstly that all my testers needed to pay $100 a year to get an XNA account in order to test the game. Then people found a way around that, and I ended up with the world’s first pirated, unreleased XBLIG game. I guess that’s actually a good thing, but it didn’t seem like it at the time. I had to start obfuscating my code, in order to stop people lifting it wholesale, as well as ripping out the copy protection which I’d put in there. It’s better to be popular and pirated than completely obscure [but] one of the reasons for choosing XBLIG was the assumption that the piracy rate was virtually zero!
RB When it comes to submissions, there are a lot of edge cases. There’s a list of things that your game will get failed for and some of them seem pretty arbitrary. For example, my first interactive novel got failed because if you had a wired guitar controller plugged in, the game would default to that. [There are] other things devs usually don’t consider that you can get failed for. There’s Safe Area, where nothing gameplay-critical can be near the edges of the screen because some people have TVs with overscan, or Font Size, which has to be big enough that you can read it on smaller TVs. Then there’s MU Pull, where if your game crashes when you pull a Memory Unit from the 360 at the moment a game is being saved, it will be failed. So when it comes to submitting a game for XBLIG, a new developer would do well to look over the ‘Common things games get failed for’ list on the XNA site and make sure their game can pass all of those, no matter how silly the requirement seems.
AS It took me 10 weeks and six days to finish the first release, from writing the first line of code to [the game] being available on the Marketplace. Peer Review on XBLIG really is simple and straightforward – eight people need to play your game, not find any major defects, and pass it. As long as you follow the rules, you shouldn’t have any problems passing it. With a game as big and complicated as FortressCraft, though, we found that testers could do things we never expected people to do, and run the Xbox out of RAM in short order, so we failed Peer Review a couple of times due to that. Compared to getting a game through full TRCs for a triple-A release, though, it’s an absolute walk in the park.
Support from Microsoft
AS Well, I got told off a few times for things that I’d done, and one quite memorable message from an MVP, in answer to an issue I was having, was “maybe your game isn’t suitable for XBLIG.” Other than that, almost nothing. It’s strange, I have account managers and community managers for OnLive and IndieCity yet I’ve sold multiple million dollars’ worth of games for Microsoft, and received absolutely no contact barring a single interview that came across more as a WP7 promo than anything Xbox-centric.
RB Microsoft doesn’t directly support XBLIG developers. Early on, they had a representative who would act as an intermediary but I don’t think they have that now – or if they do, he or she isn’t as visible. Microsoft has made some updates to XNA here and there with new versions, and they occasionally improve the XBLIG system, like increasing the max file size and giving devs greater flexibility over price changes. When I ran the first Indie Game Uprising promotion [in December 2010] some people from Microsoft did help, though – they were able to get the Uprising a dashboard promotion [and] also helped spread the word. But that’s definitely the exception, not the rule. The XNA community, on the other hand, has been a huge help. Whenever I have a coding question, I post there and I usually get someone who knows how to solve it within a few hours. The community has definitely died down, though. Back in 2009 & 2010, it was really active.
Discoverability and marketing
RB The thing about marketing that most people don’t realise is that making a game is marketing. The best marketing you can do is to make an interesting game – not even a good game, an interesting one. One that people want to talk about. Like with Breath Of Death VII, we had an unusual premise – ‘comedy RPG where everyone’s undead’. That stands out in a field of Lord of the Rings and Final Fantasy knockoffs. So the best marketing advice I can give is to make sure that your game does something different. Also, it isn’t a one-time thing. You need to be marketing your game before release, at release, and after release.
AS [The discoverability issue] is a common criticism levelled at XBLIG, but it’s quite unfounded, really. There’s no service that offers a wide variety, a large customer base and good discoverability. IndieCity is hoping to overcome this with an advanced recommendation engine, but XBLIG, iOS, PSN… they’re all absolutely awful for simply sitting there and browsing to find games you’ll like but haven’t heard of. FortressCraft was one of the first games to leverage a web-presence into XBLIG territory. We were on news sites, all over YouTube, forums and Twitter. You simply can’t expect to put your game on any digital download service and just expect people to find it. You need to stand on the rooftops and shout from the top of your lungs, telling people that it’s the most awesome thing ever, and they need to try it and tell all their friends. And even that doesn’t work sometimes. EA ‘s been doing this longer than anyone, [but] still has the occasional flop.
RB One thing I learned with Cthulhu Saves The World was that it’s not enough to just add a cool feature to your engine. It’s just as important to make sure that the cool feature is easy to use. Like with Cthulhu, we have some maps that have bridges – you can walk under the bridge and also walk over it. And that seemingly small addition drastically complicated our map-making system, making new maps take a lot longer than they did before. In Rain-Slick 3, we adjusted how the engine handles foreground and background elements, so we can make maps much faster than we did before. The end result looks about the same, but the change makes us much more efficient, which when your development team consists of two guys is pretty important. So as far as tech goes, that would be my big piece of advice – when you add new features, make sure to do so in a way that minimizes the amount of work you’ll have to do to utilise those features.
AS Most of the common fails in Peer Review are related to the handling of multiple or unexpected users signed in, or Memory Unit handling. That was a problem I’d encountered and solved in several previous games, so I had a complete, reusable system ready for that. The Avatar and networking code was all reused from a previous game, too. Once you’ve got your first game onto the service, your next one should be ever so smooth, assuming you wrote code in a nice reusable way. As a side note, if you want to write good games, get a testing team. I have around 30 people who help me test my games, and there is absolutely no way at all that I could have written a game to the quality of FortressCraft without the help of my testers.
Advice to newcomers
AS Don’t bite off more than you can chew. But most importantly, don’t give up. Stick at it, finish your game, release it. There’s an entire Internet of help out there. If you’re hoping to make money, then focus much less on an artsy game, and ensure you write a game that people want to play. There have been an awful lot of games out there that have received a great deal of press attention, but weren’t commercial successes. Simply being the darling of the indie press isn’t necessarily the best way to pay your rent.
RB Don’t try to make the Best Game Ever as your first game. View XBLIG as a learning experience and a path to bigger and better things, rather than a goal in and of itself. And try to make something fun and unusual. The big advantage of being indie is that you can make whatever you want, so do something different.
How XBLIG should change
RB I’d like to see it kind of merge into XBLA. Keep Indie Games free to everyone but if you have a really good game, you could submit it to Microsoft for it to be upgraded to an XBLA title. Right now, becoming an XBLA developer is fairly difficult for a small team, so reducing the barrier of entry to XBLA could only help Microsoft, I think. Even Dream Build Play isn’t the sure route to XBLA that it once was. Early on, several winners and nominees got on, but after Dust won, I can’t think of anything else. Most of the winners ended up just being released on XBLIG. Far more indie games are released on Steam than XBLA and yet Steam is tremendously successful. I think opening up XBLA a bit – but not completely – would only help.
AS I’d like to see Microsoft get a community manager back in, to assure us that it’s not been forgotten about, and that we’ll be around for the Xbox 720. It’s getting to the point now where if you’re writing a game that’s going to take you a year, it’ll hit just as the Xbox 360 is dead forever, and that’s likely to put many people off. I think XBLIG is an amazing idea, and I truly hope it doesn’t disappear.