I'm a professional game developer from Wakefield, England, working as a senior programmer for Rebellion North.
I'm a married father of five and I a also sometimes do Retroburn stuff.
Martin 'Bytrix' Caine
Father. C++ Games Programmer. Cyclist. Guitarist.
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Thursday, October 20th 2011 / XNA

Pre-Release Expectations of Xbox Live Indie Games

In response to: Xbox Live Indie Games: How To Survive.

I was pleased to see an article about Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIG) on gamesindustry.biz this week, but after reading it I think the writer still did not really explain what the article title hinted at. The article in question subtitled 'How To Survive' does not really give much insight into how the platform and the marketplace works for the average developer. It showcases some of the work done by some of the more experienced developers and sweeps away the thousands of failed ventures that have gone before them.

Since early 2009 I have been a massive advocate of XNA as a framework and I still think it is an amazing tool for any hobbyist developer to get into if they want to quickly make good looking games. The fact that Microsoft opened up Xbox Live to Indie Developers was awesome too. The first few games to be released on Xbox Live Community Games (as XBLIG was originally known) sold very well, were massively promoted by Microsoft and led to a flood of developers paying up the $99 membership fee to try their hand at developing a game for the platform.

Unfortunately it only took a month or so for some (actually quite clever) people to realise there was a market for massage apps and very low quality games that likely took no more than a week to create. This hurt the reputation of the channel immediately and hurt the developers that spent their time creating quality games for the service, many of them selling no more than a few hundred copies.

As time has gone on, the platform has grown massively and the quality of the games is steadily increasing. It's still going to take some time to repair the damaged image of the channel but with the help of some higher exposure games the channel is beginning to get some good press again.

The developers featured in the gamesindustry.biz article are clearly making quite a bit of money from their games but I doubt any of them expected the massive success prior to launch. It's important that any developer to set realistic expectations for their games. Every now and then a game will massively storm the scene and make the developer a fortune but they are few and far between. The number of developers that have earned enough money to quit their day jobs from XBLIG sales can probably be counted on one hand. This is no different than the other platforms open to Indie Developers such as the iOS AppStore, the percentage of developers earning decent money from game sales is very low when you consider the huge number of games available.

When looking at market success you have to look at a number of factors, and every developer sees success as meaning something different. If a game takes you two months to make in your spare time and it sells two hundred copies I'd class that as a success. If you were working on it full time for two months and it only sold that many however you'd be disappointed with the return due to the time invested.

I began building a team of illustrators, artists and musicians to work on my games in early 2009 and Retroburn Game Studios was born. We're all working in our spare time on these games and I wear many hats, being the sole developer, project manager, occasional artist, modeller and level designer. I have invested a huge amount of time in developing these games (though I have to say I've had periods of dis-interest) and it's an exciting time getting ready to release some of our hard work.

About a year ago (late 2010) we were seeing many developers becoming unhappy with XBLIG and especially with regards to the number of sales they were getting. It seemed as though Microsoft were abandoning the whole initiative and very little was done to help the developers. It was at this point I began looking into iOS development as a second potential target platform.

Microsoft have since bumped the position of the channel in the Xbox dash which has been a huge help for Indie Developers and sales in general have been increasing due to more people checking out the channel.

Many developers say they are not really financially motivated, but I am! Only in the respect that I want the games to do well, and I want my fellow contributors to do well from the games and pay them back for their hard work over these rather lengthy development cycles. I'm actually giving away most of the profits from any sales I get to the guys that helped me build the games. I'd love to work on higher profile games for some of the leading consoles, for a leading game development company, and my work on these games is my way of showing I have the skills to do that (with the lack of a Degree or 'Industry Experience' to back me up as many prospective employers seem to require).

So now we come to the question, what are my expectations for when I release on XBLIG?

To be honest, I do have high expectations. Those developers who have suffered catastrophic failures may laugh at me but I see so many good games fail on the service and the developers (in general) can only blame themselves.

Before you even start developing a game you need to understand the reasons you are doing it and set your expectations. This includes doing some research into the platform, the competition and most importantly your market. Each of the games I have been working on should fit a gap in the market, or be of higher quality than other offerings that are currently available. I'm developing games for exposure as much as I am for the cash, and I want people to notice my games, so I'm going to market the hell out of them in the few weeks prior to release and make sure as many people as possible know what my game is called, what it looks like, and who developed it.

It's these simple processes of research, public relations and marketing that many developers seem to fail on. You can blame the lack of sales on hundreds of things, but ultimately it comes down to finding the right game and marketing it to the right people. This is exactly what FortressCraft did (as mentioned in the gamesindustry.biz article). The developer (controversially) created a game which was very similar to MineCraft (or more-so than any other XBLIG game) but it was advertised for months prior to release and achieved some of the highest sales figures ever seen from the platform, proving that people are willing to spend the points on XBLIG (another thing many developers have claimed as a reason for failure).

There's no excuse for not marketing your game, a few hours spent searching for XBLIG reviews, Xbox Live Indie Games, or xbox+game+reviews will find you hundreds of websites that will write something about your game. You can also go looking for contacts at some of the larger gaming related websites and even print magazines have started warming up to XBLIG and have featured a number of games over the past few years. It is hard work, but after you've spent so long developing your game, you atleast owe it to yourself to make sure people know about it and go trial/buy it!

I have no idea how many sales I will achieve when I release my games, but I do believe they are of high enough quality to get a position in the top downloads, especially within their respective categories. That brings me to another reason many games fail on the platform, quality. I'm not being mean saying this, but many of the games on XBLIG simply aren't very good. The overall quality has definitely increased lately but some developers seem to be putting others to shame and in general the well made, good looking games do go on to get a decent number of sales (in the thousands at least). While some developers may class a release as a personal achievement, if you're not able or willing to put the time into creating a game that can compete in the marketplace then you're not going to make any money from it. This again also comes down to researching the platform and your competition. Many games feel like little more than a concept, with no real form, style or content to them.

We can clearly see this is the case when we see developers posting their conversion rates on the AppHub forums (R.I.P. Creators' Club). They clearly demonstrate that people are willing to download and trial pretty much all the games on the service, but only the better games receive the higher conversions. This is another reason I also think many developers fail to see a return on their games, the trial needs to make the player want to buy the game straight away. They're not going to think 'that was good, I'll buy it next week', they're not going to try the trial again, and if they don't buy it straight away you've likely lost them. If you're getting low conversions you need to improve your trial, as people download trials for games they might buy, not just on a whim. They are ready to pay up for the game if the trial is good.

I started a review site (IndieTrials.com) reviewing the trial experience of XBLIG games specifically to highlight and demonstrate how effective certain trials are and (hopefully) show developers what makes a good trial. Along with the trial experience, good box art (the first thing the player sees), a good game title, and impressive screenshots on the marketplace all help get you more downloads.

Now back to the gamesindustry.biz article, to sum up my personal thoughts on 'How To Succeed' when it comes to releasing a game on XBLIG, here is my personal strategy:

  • Don't quit your day job
    No-one should expect to be paying their mortgage from XBLIG game sales. You should not be needing to rely on revenue from game sales to pay things off, as even mildly successful games on the platform only sell a few thousand copies.

  • Research the market
    Identify the type and style of game you want to make and see if it 'fits' in the market. Look at other popular games (the top downloads and highest rated) and note the aspects of those games you think make them the best on offer).

  • Make your game the best it can be
    Compare your game against the competition and if it's not up to par improve it! You are aiming to take downloads and sales away from these other developers and if your game does not shine you will never take first place. Programmers, unless you are truly artistic, please, please, please get an artist to work on your game, I'm serious!

  • Market your game to the right people
    Prepare a press release, release screenshots, videos, game information and anything you can prior to releasing your game. Get every Xbox related website to post something about you, your game, the development process, anything that gets you some attention. Don't rely on Twitter or Facebook, in general those only work in contacting people who are already know who you are. Develop a website but don't expect to get many (or any) sales from it, use it to build a brand and an image of yourself as a developer and the press will be more likely to contact you with regards to featuring your game.

  • Don't stick to XBLIG
    While this post is specifically about XBLIG, if you spend a lot of time working your game, creating art, levels, models and coding it you should try to re-use some of that and port it to other platforms. You can release for PC and WP7 with relatively simple changes to your code and media, and iOS isn't much more difficult to develop for than XBLIG is.

  • Support your customers
    Fix bugs in your game and add new features over time, it will help you get additional sales in the future and helps build your brand. When it comes to releasing more games in the future, having a group of existing happy customers can make a huge difference.

I sincerely wish every XBLIG developer good luck with their own games, and I will likely be posting further articles about my experience with XBLIG after I get my first few games released!

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Tags:   games   xblig   xbox   xbox live indie games   xna