The lights are on
Microsoft has a mixed track record with indie games on its XBLA platform. As indie developers flock to other platforms, can Microsoft reinvigorate Xbox Live Arcade?
Note: This article originally appeared in Game Informer issue 242.
Brian Provinciano knew
he did not want to release his game, Retro City Rampage (above), 24 hours after New
Year's Day. When doing his homework almost two years ago at PAX, the independent
developer asked everyone he could about the Xbox Live Arcade marketplace, and
he didn't hear good things about the release window near the celebratory date.
developer doesn't know why it is a bad date (though one can speculate that it
has to do with the influx of new retail games out for the holiday season, or
people more concerned with going out to celebrate than buying a new
downloadable game). Unfortunately for Provinciano, his game came out on January
2, and he didn't have a choice in the matter. Microsoft gets to choose when a
game releases on XBLA, not the developer. Some games end up releasing during
busy holiday seasons, or so suddenly that developers don't have time to put
together their own marketing initiative.
eventually made Retro City Rampage, his love letter to Grand Theft Auto and the
Nintendo Entertainment System, available for the widest possible market. This
meant jumping through all the necessary hoops to port the game to WiiWare, Xbox
Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, PC, and the Vita. After selling 100,000 units
and taking some time to reflect on the process, Provinciano says he won't spend
the time and energy needed to put another game on a Microsoft platform.
just so needlessly difficult to get your game out on XBLA, and at the end of
the day your game is feature identical on all of the platforms," Provinciano
says. "The XBLA one was over a year total of work, and I don't know how many
man-months of work, but it was a lot of time and money. The Xbox sales really
got hurt by Microsoft's policies, which were trying to benefit [Microsoft]."
Provinciano isn't the only
developer to feel this way, and it's causing Microsoft – once a mecca for indie
developers – to lose games to other platforms such as Steam, the PlayStation
Network, and iOS.
THE REBIRTH OF INDIE
Downloadable games didn't hit their stride on consoles
until the 2005 version of Xbox Live Arcade on Xbox 360. For the first time,
there was a way for independent developers to widely distribute a video game
for a console.
Though a few titles like Geometry Wars found
success early on, the moment Xbox Live Arcade found wider acceptance can be
traced back to the Summer of Arcade promotion in 2008. Jonathan Blow's Braid
and The Behemoth's Castle Crashers released during this promotion – two of the
most successful indie games of all time, both critically and commercially. Braid turned Jonathan Blow into an overnight millionaire, and more than 2.6 million people have
purchased Castle Crashers to date.
Games like these paved
the way for more indie success stories such as PlayDead's Limbo and Team Meat's
Super Meat Boy.
"Back then, Xbox was
the only console you could make money off of realistically," says Team Meat's
Edmund McMillen. "It was the only console platform."
PlayStation Network, Steam, and WiiWare were
ramping up at the same time, and though World of Goo did well on the Nintendo
platform, the service never found the widespread success XBLA enjoyed.
"The games that did well on the Wii sucked
sales-wise compared to stuff on Xbox Live because this was back when Steam was
just still building steam," McMillen says.