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.