What's Microsoft doing for Indie Games?

indiegamesdash.jpg It's been a year and a quarter since Microsoft first launched their initiative to "democratize gaming", and nine months since they co-opted the "Indie Game" brand for that initiative, and the report card on those efforts is looking a bit bleak. So off the radar are those efforts that it might surprise the majority of Xbox 360 owners that tucked away a few navigational clicks away in their dashboard is a growing library of some 700-odd bedroom-coded creations, more than a few of which are well worth playing. On the surface, the problems with their Indie Gaming efforts aren't at all that different than those we've seen plague every other nominally "open" platforms like the App Store: a deluge of low-quality noise (including, most famously, not one, not two, not three, not four, but no less than five "massage" apps that turn your controller into a low-rent variable-speed vibrator) which instantly drowns out the signal of honest efforts that otherwise might flourish. The symptoms are, of course, sales so low that the platform hasn't proven itself to be viable for any serious full-time indie developer that isn't looking for more than quick bursts of brand building, or hobbyist coders seeking the thrill of seeing something they've made hit the living room. Up to date sales figures are hard to come by other than on case by case blog posts, but a Gamasutra poll six months in showed that 27 games released on the surface had only grossed a collective $69,000 -- ranging from the top earning $5995 to a paltry $84 at the low end.
So what can be done? The main offender is a lack of publicity and marketing, something Microsoft had promised as the service was launching -- that games would receive 'front and center' first party attention for a higher cut of revenue -- a promise that hasn't been made good on since Ska Software dev James Silva shared the 2008 GDC keynote stage as the company first announced its indie intentions (and an onus that's obviously shared with developers themselves, too few of whom unfortunately have mastered the technique). cassiescorner.jpg And Microsoft's partnering with games mega-site IGN to bring some semblance of editorial oversight and attention to the cream of the Indie Games crop has proven less than useful, with no transparency, explicit on-console expounding, or, apparently, logic to their shifting lineup of top picks. You're just as likely to find Dont B Nervous Talking 2 Girls [sic] or Cassie's Corner (above) -- honestly quite discomforting barebones 'games' that traffic more in disaffected adolescent loneliness than they do in interactive entertainment -- in IGN's lineup than you are to find a spotlight on under-sung up-and-coming talent. That's doubly distressing when IGN themselves have declared the service 'a failed venture', though they presumably aren't making plans to pass the torch to highly-motivated/low-trafficked sites like XNAPlay or any other number of dedicated indie-focused outlets (hey Microsoft, call me!). The more harmful, if unintentionally so, problem is one of pricing, with the company only allowing developers to choose one of three pricepoints, first launching at a competitive 200, 400, or 800 Microsoft Point levels (roughly equating to $2.50, $5, or $10) before dropping those points to 80, 240, or 400 (roughly $1, $3, and $5) on their brand-switch from "Community" to "Indie" games. While this might not seem a move out of step with the App Store's race to the bottom economics, because the promise of XNA development (the software kit used to develop Xbox 360 indie efforts) was delivering cross-platform ease between both the console and PC, this has damned XNA developers to choosing those same price-points no matter where they decided to sell: it's hard to convince consumers that a PC version is worth even a dollar more than what they're allowed to ask for the console version. arkedojump.jpg Despite all this, it's not impossible to find indie devs that don't harbor all out pessimism for the platform, and with fair enough reasons: as the aforementioned Ska Software's Silva points out, piracy, payment processing, and hardware support issues are essentially non-existent with the service, and Parisian indie studio Arkedo has gone on record as well with high praise for the ease with which anyone can get their game onto consoles worldwide (no dev kits, no concept or studio approval, no lot checks, community code sharing), though they in the same breath admit that the platform is "at a crossroads." But without intervention on someone's part -- whether Microsoft decides to take some responsibility for sustaining the community by (as Fantastic Contraption creator Colin Northway so aptly put it) "spraying the money hose" on those trying to bring quality work to the service, as Apple (opaquely) does with iTunes-front-page App Store highlights, or an editorial body prominently emerging that's dedicated to raising the bar, the platform will maintain its downward spiral where the top performers are the creepiest (see above!) or most left-field curiosities, the loudest shouters stifling the humble few trying to help establish, maintain, and make viable a platform that could have been a fantastic opportunity to reach an open and enthusiastic mainstream audience. In an attempt to do some candle-lighting rather than simple darkness-cursing, then, here's three of the best recent efforts made, which sit quite comfortably alongside games like Xbox Community Game pioneering shooter Weapon of Choice, Downtown Smash Dodgeball [by the same team behind the NES 8-bit cult classic Dodgeball], and enthusiastic multiplayer effort Hieronymus Bash. Tobe's Vertical Adventure Rayteoactive's debut holds a lot of obvious retro/cute charm, but beneath its cheek-pinchingly adorable exterior is a game that's lifted some of the best ideas from Nintendo's early Game Boy Advance platformer Wario Land 4, where your leisurely stroll to its bottom becomes a desperate race back to the surface. Leave Home Hermit Games' just-released shooter might also be, at a glance, indistinguishable from any number of other geometric/abstract dual-stick shooters that Geometry Wars hath wrought, but its ace up the sleeve is a dynamic system which adapts to your current level of play and keeps each time-limited session consistently surprising, a far cry from the horizontal shooter norm which asks players to adapt to a strict second-by-second bullet dodging choreography. Arkedo Series Best (but not nearly well enough) known for their hyper-stylized DS efforts Nervous Brickdown and the fireworks-flinging-shooter Big Bang Mini, Arkedo have taken a break from the retail racket to drop a steady stream of their retro-future polish on the Indie Games service, starting with 8-bit platformer Jump, tile-pushing puzzler Swap, and, above, their neon-lit LED microgame Pixel, which combines both simple platforming with quick-time maze navigating, all of which have served as the biggest burst of fresh air to hit the service since it first began.


  1. I tried my hand at a couple of demos, enjoyed them, and even bought one (Avatar Drop). For some reason I believed that I’d be able to play it online with other people from my friends list. Something Microsoft could take into account is introducing a way for indie developers to add multiplayer functions to their games.

    I’m surprised to hear that there are 700 of the games out there. It doesn’t look like it on the dashboard.

    1. I’ve tinkered with the XNA Framework a little, and read quite a bit of documentation. The latest version of the XNA framework does allow xbox “indie games” to have a multiplayer mode. However, the main complaint I’ve seen from developers is, due to low sales, there’s never anyone online to play against.

      Other interesting limitations:

      Xbox Indie games cannot make network connections to anything other than Xbox live. So Indie MMOs are right out, as is anything that would connect to the web, like a browser or a twitter client.

      Additionally, supposedly network traffic is limited to 8Kbit/sec (I assume to guarantee compatibility with 56kbaud modems?)

    2. You have to go to “Browse” and then choose by category, alphabetically, or “All.”

      There are 700 and growing. unfortunately, there are a lot of crap games on Indie Games. I wish the games were actually reviewed and sorted (Microsoft claims there is a review system, but only for those who actually pay the $100/yr to join their “Creators’ Club”).

      I really would like to see independent developers sharing their efforts on Indie Games, but quality control is a real problem. Games like Don’t B Nervous Talking 2 Girls should not be on the top ten list. Ever. Much less for weeks, as this one has been.

    3. The XNA framework actually allows for full multiplayer support over Live. However, this functionality is disabled until the full game is purchased.

      Also, it should be kept in mind that writing networked games is an order of magnitude more difficult than single player. I’ve been working on a few networked XNA games, and the networking API is wrapped up by the gamer profile services, so it’s not just straight socket programming either.

  2. I am utterly surprised and appalled at the bland game covers I’m seeing here. I don’t see anything here that compels me to pick up the game and learn more about it.

    Because they are indie games – they have absolutely no cred and must therefore use every salesman tactic to show these games are fun, exciting, great to play, and so on…

    People do judge a book (and game, DVD or comic) by its cover.

  3. I know gamers love to hate the Wii, but I just have to say ‘WiiWare.’ They even allow for Flash games, though by ‘Flash’ I think they still mean Flash 8 as that’s what they ship with Opera. :-/

    Awesome to see indie games on any console. :-)

  4. I’m assuming that the plethora of vibrator apps is mostly for the lulz at the idea of someone trying to get off with their XBox controller.

  5. The XBLA Indie marketplace is a wasteland of cheap and derivative games.

    You’ve mentioned a few goodies here but overall…

    Also, while the ‘massage’ genre is obviously under-represented the next bubble will be in ‘calibration’ software; apps that show you how to tune a tv or stereo system using your 360.

    1. Some of the calibration apps are actually worth a buck. They are sure a better value than a $30 DVD that helps me adjust color.

  6. @mistaputz: networked multiplayer IS available to Xbox Indie games, but few of them implement it because it’s a lot of work, and adds a whole lot more complexity to playtesting and peer review.

    @regeya: Unless Nintendo has opened up WiiWare to EVERYONE and I missed the memo, I think you’re confusing Xbox Indie Games with Xbox Live Arcade games, which are more on-par with WiiWare games. Xbox Indie Games can be made by ANYONE with a Windows PC and who’s paid the $100/year “Xbox creators club” membership fee, and the games go straight from the creator’s computer to the Xbox Indie Games service after being quality-tested by other creators club members. Xbox Live Arcade Games and WiiWare games, on the other hand, can only be made by companies who are specifically licensed by Microsoft or Nintendo to make games for their consoles, require special hardware to develop, and have to adhere to strict quality-assurance guidelines set out by Microsoft / Nintendo, and get their final stamp of approval from Microsoft / Nintendo themselves before appearing on the console.

  7. while it’s true that some xbox indie games are lame, most are genuine efforts by the community to make something fun, interesting, and inexpensive. due to the independent creativity of the developers, there are wonderful games available that would NEVER have made it through some big game house, either because they are too simple, or too unusual, or whatever.

    for instance…

    the impossible game:

    miner dig deep:

    I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES!!!1:

    just to name a few.

    games don’t have to be dumb first person shooters or zombie hoards or punching hookers and stealing cars. that part of the game industry is just an extension of the same lame marketing ideas that run hollywood.

    btw, ALOT of the indie games have amazing indie music too.

  8. There are some really good xbla indie games, but it is a sea of crap. The ones you mention are among the best. Also worth your time is the twin stick indie game shooter, Echoes+. It’s initially reminiscent of Bizzare Creation’s Geometry Wars series, but is a modern evolution of asteroids instead of robotron. The game has very nice production values and a quality soundtrack. You are really missing out if you don’t give it a shot.

  9. To paraphrase PA’s Tycho, for me, trying to associate Microsoft with fun is still “like trying to associate Satan with aromatherapy”

    I know they’ve hit big with the Xbox, but I still feel they’re a company whose approach isn’t in the long-term best interests of games as a medium. A company that would prefer to use their bulk to dominate than innovate, likely to give up on new ideas and originality once they have a monopoly (see the history of Internet Explorer and Windows ME for examples)

    I know, I know, I sound like nothing more than a disaffected Apple fanboy who refuses to buy an Xbox… Wait, that’s pretty much what I am. Doesn’t make me wrong though.

  10. “an editorial body prominently emerging that’s dedicated to raising the bar”

    Has anyone come across such a site? The xbox.com site has little details and lacks a voice, the XNA creators club site is aimed at the developers, Google comes up with a few defunct blogs…
    I’ll be happily getting these three cheap titles this weekend. Any more suggestions?

    1. There are a couple of problems with review sites (I run WorthThePoints) — all the major review sites like IGN/Gamespot and FAQ portals have robots that create game pages. Doing a search on any “normal” (i.e. not Weapon of Choice or the other top 10 games or so) can get you a ton of pages claiming to “cover” those games but not offering anything other than the box art and game description.

      The vast majority of our (anemic) traffic comes from the XNA forums–devs wanting to read up on their own games. I just don’t think there’s a lot of consumer interest in these games (MSFT is gearing them as impulse buys)–if they really want to accelerate sales they should build in some sort of viral component so that good games can easily be recommended to friends.

  11. Here, here! I am constantly scouring the Indie games looking for the jewels there, but I can’t help but feel there would be many more quality titles were the whole thing better supported or promoted.

  12. Finland also gets a grand total of zero indie games for the 360. Why are these services region-locked, anyway? It’s not as if the indie developers have any regional licensing contracts that they have to honor..

  13. Best Indie Games:

    – Miner: Dig Deep
    – Tobe’s Vertical Adventure
    – Wool
    – Leave Home
    – I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES!!!1
    – Pixel Whirled
    – pretty much anything in the Arkedo series, but particularly Jump!

    Trust me, I have probably dropped a bill on the indie games at this point. Tons of crap to shovel through, but some really decent titles that deserve to be promoted to XBLA.


  14. This thread is a great resource and I’ll definitely be trying some of the recommendations out. I’ve picked up a couple of titles when I’ve seen a lot of buzz about them – Miner Dig Deep, for example – but 95% of my interaction with the Indie Games screen is gawking at the covers.

    It’s to Microsoft’s credit that every game has to have a demo mode – the lack of demos was a nuisance and a barrier when I had a PS3 – but the sheer volume of releases means I just don’t bother most of the time. It’s a different kind of barrier, and it’s a shame as I’m sure there are some great ideas and games in there.

    I’m guessing there’s probably a decent blog on the cream of the crop somewhere, I should have a look around.

    1. Well…

      While I freely admit it’s a bit of self-advertising, I’ve set up a website full of Xbig Indie Game reviews…


      698 reviews and a search engine that lets you filter by pretty much everything from cost to developer!

      The site itself is somewhat in beta, so comments and suggestions would be welcomed :)

  15. Messier Deep Sky is an awesome indie game that is slowly teaching me to find the Messier objects. I’m trying to learn one a week, but I’m not actually managing that well.

    But i can certainly find more than ever before.

    This game would never have made it to my xbox without the indie games, and i’m very glad it did.

  16. Hi, here is a thread on XNA.com telling us how much a number of indie games cleard in 2009.


    Zombi3 Shooter is of course the top money maker, with over 160,000 sales. Not too bad for what according to the creator Mr. Silva only took him two weeks to create. Of course he did spend a few years learning how to code.

    Oh and here’s my website where I write about Xbox Indie Games ;)



    His success has caused many to dream and develop hoping to earn, Many have had their dreams destroyed by the whims of the Xbox Live Userbase.

    The developers of Dual Zone, released about a month ago to the Xbox indie channel, were hoping to sell around 10,000 copies in order to break even, they sold 21 copies their first month! But I liked their game and hope they continue to develop.

    Here is a forum where developers can submit their games and have people test them and give feedback, we are trying to create a gamer centric community, rather than the developer centric community found on xna.com,


    You have to be a member of the forum to see the game submission section, but we are trying to make it publicly viewable.

  17. XNPlay (www.xnplay.co.uk) is a good review site. It’s run by one of the guys behind Retro Remakes, too…

  18. Great read, thanks for the level-headed analysis. I spend much time surfing XBLIG and the good stuff is there, and for cheap. Yes there is a good deal of noise too, like most platforms – and sometimes it pisses me off, yes. There are people devoting time to finding the gems – some are posting here already. I am as well – you can click my username for more reviews and articles.

  19. Worth also mentioning Gerbil Physics, a pleasant physics-based puzzler that came out in December, it is the kind of well-polished 1 dollar games we should see more of:

  20. I think there are a lot of good games out on the service already.

    so some of the box art is crap, It does not mean the game is. although it can be hard to get past that i agree.

    I am a creator (so far 3games) on Xblig, and that means that i am also a Peer reviewer (the way the games get some testing before release). I have to say that i am presented every day with games in the Review list, and I do not want to test so many of them. When i do lok at them and do not want to pass them i don’t. But i also know if there is nothing technically wrong, someone soon will pass them.

    so there is no control over what goes live. So many of these games are half done, which is a pity, as a lot of the mediocre games have so much promise.

    Dang, i wish i could remember the point of writing this.. BAH!

  21. I saw this coming when they first announced their plans to open up the XNA platform. Microsoft crafted the worst scenario possible. I was VERY interested when Peter Moore gave a talk (which I tried to get a video, audio recording, or even transcript of but the place that sponsored it claimed it was “copyrighted” to Moore and refused to forward my request to him) where he spoke about creating the “YouTube of Gaming”. Microsoft made it clear immediately that they would do no such thing, however.

    The primary problem is not marketing. The primary problem is that they did not create an open platform, they did not create the “YouTube of Gaming.” If they wanted a thriving platform (which is a very debatable point, it would generate a LOT of threat to the companies that paid tens of thousands for XBLA dev kits and got their foot in the door), the way to do it is obvious.

    First and foremost, above absolutely everything else, the main aim has to be that as person who creates a great game needs to be made independently wealthy by it. A much better revenue split with developers would fuel far greater participation and, most importantly, it would free up the good developers to be able to do what they love – make great games. Microsoft would, of course, make more money for every point they shaved off of their cut by encouraging the market. If they were really gutsy and really wanted this to be the YouTube of Gaming, they would go by the centuries old tried-and-true revenue split, a 10% finders fee. That’s what you get for hooking up a buyer and a seller, and it’s a fair amount for someone who brought buyers through their service of aggregation. The service of distribution is worthless now, so they should expect nothing for it.

    Secondly, they absolutely needed to concentrate on the user experience, and the ability for games to be rated by users for quality, and pushing the most popular stuff to the front line.

    Third, and just as important as the other two, they desperately need to ditch ANYONE who wants to stand in the way and say “this idea isn’t right for the platform” or “this idea is too derivative of the product Giant Corp A churned out”, etc. Microsoft has a committee, I forget the exact name, something like the Portfolio Management Committee. They sit around and they judge whether an entry is suitable for release or not. They are the censors. Do you think any committee in the world would greenlight the stupid videos that rank #1 on YouTube? Of course not. And they would never have the foresight to recognize successful games either. Like all entertainment media, it is impossible to predict success and you only hurt yourself by trying. Mixed in with this, they also should have abandoned any sort of “age prohibition” system. Instead of requiring an ESRB rating (which typically runs $30,000 or more) they allow the “community” to rate whether a game is “too violent” or whatever they imagine is so dangerous about some games. This significantly limits the range of games that are possible, or that would even be attempted. Give the game authors the ability to put games in a category, and that should be it. At the book store, you don’t need ratings to know you send the kids to the children’s section, and they don’t have to assign ratings or ban kids from buying Naked Lunch of Tropic of Cancer. There is no such thing as danger from playing a game, and game makers have to start standing up for this. Censorship is always bad, it always hurts, and it gains absolutely nothing.

    These are the most critically important factors, not marketing. The tighter Microsoft clenches their fist, the faster the sand will run through it.

  22. Regarding indie games on xbli, the game Partyboat is a real hoot and shows how much fun and game play can be packed into the platform.

    This review in The Star says the kids who created it are nautical miles beyond the usual service. http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/games/article/761400–partyboat-makers-plotting-a-course-for-success.

    The two developers tell their story (going back to high school) here, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gy9la46H8pc&NR=1

    And a clip of the actual game is here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvUvJrJ7dWs

    It all looks like a lot of work, but a lot of fun. So let’s hope the service catches on if developers and gamers are going to find each other.

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