On his company’s website, Xona Games’ Matthew Doucette pointed out for “reference purposes” that his company’s games – specifically, Decimation X3 and Score Rush – have been once again targeted for systematic ratings fraud on Xbox Live Indie Games.
The primary example used regards the ratings of Score Rush in Japan, which show that between June 5th and June 6th, 18 votes were tabulated for the game, bringing the total to 176, and taking the average score of the game from 4.5 stars to 4.25 stars (out of 5). At that point, the game went from being the 3rd ranked game on XBLIG to #6. By the 19th, the game had 194 votes, had been brought down to an average of 4 votes, and was 31st on the service in terms of average rating. According to Matthew in the MSDN thread, “the math fits that every vote after 158 (after June 6th, 2011 and the end of our #3 spot in Japan) could have been a 1 star vote. It only takes 36 such votes to do this damage. 1 star votes cause incredible damage to top rated lists.” A chart at Xbox Indies also shows a very sharp drop in the ratings for Decimation X3 in the early part of June, over the span of a day or so. As the number one mover of sales on XBLIG is the “Top Rated” category,
When contacted about the issue, Mr. Doucette stated that Microsoft needs to do more than it does to protect companies from this kind of abuse. “There are many ways to fight rating abuse, and Microsoft should implement some profiling analysis system to block profiles only used to bump up specific games. I basically just want Microsoft to implement known solutions to this.” He also stated that other ways to help the system would be to allow games to be rated from the games library, and to ask for votes when closing a game down once the trial period is over. We were also pointed to the major solution Matthew had for XBLIG’s larger issues that he wrote back in November, which called for advanced heuristics for XBLIG’s top released and upcoming games, as well as categories for top developers and games which turn trials into purchased games the most often.
This is not the first time Xona has had a problem with ratings fraud, as a report by GameMarx’s Michael Neel showed.
Microsoft has had a major issue relating to ratings fraud for the large part of 2011. In April, controversy erupted when Crosse Studios requested their fans give College Lacrosse: The Video Game five star ratings. Fans of the game took the next step in giving other top-rated games one star ratings. The issue was brought to Microsoft’s attention by Robert Boyd of Zeboyd Games, and after a spell of time, Microsoft responded by requiring that all people voting for Indie games be Live Gold members.
Xona Games consists of the brother tandem of Matthew and Jason Doucette, and is based in Nova Scotia, Canada. Their latest title was Score Rush, a “bullet hell” shooter. Their current project is another shooter called Duality ZF, which they are making for Xbox Live Arcade and Steam. The Duality ZF engine has won international acclaim.
Analysis: The XBLIG service just cannot catch a break recently, as this piece by Andrew Webster of Ars Technica indicates. In short: it’s a massive risk to release a game on the service and expect it to make money. Even Matt Doucette himself told Gamasutra that they were considering leaving XBLIG because it doesn’t make enough money.
Simply put, this is Microsoft’s fault. They had a few brief chances to show that the Indie games were more than the ghetto of Xbox Live, and they not only failed to do so, they continue to make things worse by not addressing the very legitimate concerns of people like Matt Doucette, Robert Boyd and Luke Schneider (Radiangames) who have, along with Crosse Games and Arkedo Studios, almost singlehandedly kept that service relevant despite the deluge of flash-game quality Japanese crap and “which girl would you date” garbage that only makes download lists out of sheer curiosity’s sake. They still refuse to give the service any kind of attention on the XMB’s front dasher (to get to Indie Games, you basically have to either search for it or know where to look; Microsoft would rather advertise Axe bodyspray than promote their games, apparently), despite the actual, mainstream success of games like Cthulhu Saves The World and the critical acclaim that Sequence is getting1. Instead of focusing on the good indie games, Microsoft talks about how they want to branch Xbox beyond just games, and make it an entertainment brand. In short, the indies are left to their own devices, and this is what happens.
One would think that peer reviewing would solve the problems. When I first heard about it, I figured it was a way for people who make games to police what comes out on the service, to ensure a level of quality. Unfortunately, I realized, after being pointed to the “Evil List“, that it was just Microsoft crowd-sourcing the QA work that they should be doing. Games can only fail peer review for content or technical (read: crashes) reasons; games cannot fail because they suck. What was promoted as a way to ensure quality was just a cost-saving measure. Even the measure that Microsoft promoted to “protect” publishers from voting fraud was just another way to tie a string to the paid Xbox Live Gold service. Microsoft simply does not do anything unless they can tie it to something that makes them money.
I feel for people that have done good work on the service with small staffs because Microsoft just flat out doesn’t care about them. Developers can talk about how to improve the service all day, but even when Microsoft moves, they move at the speed of a glacier. They usually don’t move, especially for indie developers who cannot do anything to them; they’re irrelevant. What’s being recommended for the most part isn’t anything groundbreaking; it’s simply a way to get rid of voting trolls and a way to clean up the indie storefront. An intern could write that script before lunch! What’s most depressing to me, however, is that it’s not much better anywhere else you go. Valve is notorious for being hard to deal with, with the added “bonus” of not giving any kind of feedback to publishers, even for games that are rejected. Sony’s minis service is terrible, and self-published efforts are virtually guaranteed to be pirated at an 80% or more clip. When considering that, XBLIG, despite its massive and crippling shortcomings, is probably the best option for getting a studio some exposure, which might be the saddest commentary of all.
1 – I am working on a full review of Sequence. Preview: it’s good, it’s $3, freaking buy it.