XBLIG Gets Some Upgrades and Beneficial Changes

Last Wednesday, a new entry on the XNA Game Studio Team Blog revealed that Xbox LIVE Indie Games would be receiving upgrades to their maximum submission size. This would allow indie developers to submit games as large as 500 MB, up from the previous 150 MB max. Additionally, they announced that they’ve changed the pricing requirements.

Previously, any games larger than 50 MB had to be priced at either 240 or 400 points ($3 or $5, respectively). The blog revealed that, due to the size upgrade, they decided increasing the limit from 50 MB to 150 MB would be apt. This, in turn, means that games under 150 MB may be priced as low as 80 points ($1).

Finally, in addition to the size and price changes, the number of titles allowed per developer has been once again increased from 10 to 20. For perspective, this number had been increased previously from 8 to 10. This was done to address the needs of developers, but they admitted this particular change would not affect nearly as many.

We contacted a number of indie developers in an effort to gain some perspective on the changes from those it affects. XBLIG has had a number of problems and has been a low-yield solution for many developers. In an Ars Technica article, Robert Boyd of Zeboyd Games said that he believed their games would sell much better on a different platform with more visibility. To test this theory, Zeboyd released Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World on Steam as well. Sure enough, within four months, the bundle of the two games sold 100,000 copies on Steam in comparison to a meager 20,000 copies of Cthulhu Saves the World and 55,000 units of Breath of Death VII on XBLIG, both of which had been on the platform for a minimum of eleven months.

Additionally, there was the issue of ratings fraud that occurred early last year. Robert Boyd took notice of this, investigated, and published his findings on Gamasutra. Other indie developers also did the same. The problem became widespread, and eventually Microsoft responded. However, rather than fix the problem, they simply prevented it from getting worse.

We reached out to Xona Games Co-Founder and Lead Programmer Jason Doucette, who replied by detailing some of the issues they’ve had with the system:

The first issue is the rating fraud that Microsoft has refused to fix. This changed the location of our games from being 3 of the top 5 (and later 6) rated games in Japan, and pushed them into 170th place. As you can see, the original game Decimation X, was as affected, which proves that more legit ratings makes it harder for fraudulent votes to count. But you cannot even rate a game without going back to find it on the Dashboard, even if you’ve already downloaded it or played it. It’s silly. You should be able to rate a game at any time. All ratings mean something, even if based on screenshots alone, and it should be easy for people to rate — just allow the user to do what they want when they are in the position to do so.

This, in addition to visibility problems that were present in the past, are still an issue today with the new dashboard. Some developers feel the new dash is terrible while others do not. Doucette also shared with us his viewpoint on this:

For the visibility of games in the new dashboard, I honestly don’t know how anyone is finding anything. Search and Kinect are fine, but even to find the games you already have downloaded is horrendous on the new dashboard using the controller. It always shows an alphabetical list at first, which is hard to navigate, since you cannot visualize the letters changing as you scroll (it should scroll up/down, like most other lists), meaning you have to pause to see how far you’ve gone. Certain sections like recently played games still don’t show Indie Games, so we’re just not visible at all. The least the dashboard can do is show the gamers the truth — if they played my game last, it should appear in a recently played list! It’s insulting, and annoying to the gamer, otherwise.

Bill Stiernberg of Zeboyd Games also shared a similar viewpoint saying, “I agree with many developers that it seems more buried than before, although probably not as bad as it was when it was tucked away with ‘Specialty Shops’ for that brief period.” However, Stiernberg also noted that the Dashboard changes are still new and provided some ways in which it could be improved:

That said, to be perfectly honest, it’s still a little early to say whether these Dash changes are drastically horrific for everyone or not. If I could change something, though, I’d prefer to prioritize the Gaming tab on the main dash, and raise the 4 categories of games in the marketplace a little higher in priority (Arcade, Games on Demand, XBLIG, etc.), sort of how it was before. At the very least, I don’t think that’s too extreme of a viewpoint, because I understand that the XBLIG service is not a huge priority for Microsoft. I’d still like it to be handled with at least a little care, you know.

In contrast, President Nathan Fouts of Mommy’s Best Games feels that the visibility issues are no longer as much of a problem stating, “based on messages we’ve received, the ability to directly search for games through Bing has already helped some of our fans find our games.”

On a brighter note, across the board, everyone agreed that the new changes will go far in improving XBLIG. Fouts seemed in particular ecstatic over the changes, expressing that he was “definitely happy to see that Microsoft continues to improve and support the XBLIG service.” He noted that the larger file sizes are in keeping with the “independent spirit” by allowing developers to experiment with their game designs on the 360. Stiernberg fully agreed on this point mentioning that, although 2D games were generally easy to fit under the 150 MB cap, high quality soundtracks can easily make this a tough goal to meet. He noted that Cthulhu Saves the World had this issue and barely made it under that cap.

The most important thing, however, ties back into what Fouts said about experimenting with game design. Stiernberg raised the point that 3D games require much more space than 2D games, and that “given the additional size, developers should be able to do more with their games in terms of content, or quality, or diversity of game assets.” This indubitably points to increased ability to provide exceptional quality indie games via XBLIG, something that wasn’t quite possible before the change. Many indie games available for the PC are simply too large to port to XBLIG. For instance, Super Meat Boy is about 170 MB, The Binding of Isaac clocks in at 256 MB, and Shank is an absurd 1.7 GB. Indie games are slowly becoming larger, and also better, than before.

On the subject of the price changes, Doucette felt this was a good thing, remarking that “$3 games don’t sell well, and now that most of these games can now be $1, it should be nice to increase their sales.” He also mentioned that the change allows developers to avoid having to minimize code or reduce the quality of artwork when attempting to make a $1 game. Stiernberg had quite a bit to say on this subject, underlining both the pros and cons of the change:

There’s been some discussion about this change. On the one hand, giving developers the choice to price their games at 80, 240, or 400 MSP for games as large as 150MB gives the developer more control over their product and pricing strategies. You might target a game for the 80 MSP price point, but simply didn’t have enough space (50MB) before this change. Alternatively, you might provide a large game and then eventually drop the price or conduct a sale; for example, we decided to drop the price of Cthulhu Saves the World upon its 1-year anniversary, and we could only do so thanks to this change. Conversely, some developers are looking at this new limit as pushing the “race to the bottom” even further — now developers that make really high quality, expansive games will feel “forced” to price at 80 MSP, eventually driving out the market for 240 MSP and 400 MSP games altogether. It’s a continuation of the discussion about the viability of >80 MSP games that has been going on for ages, and even more so brought to attention with Ian Stocker’s decisions to go 80 MSP before the change. All I can say is, ultimately, the 80 MSP change, if nothing else, provides developers with more options that they didn’t have before. I fully expect that 240 MSP-priced games to become even fewer and further between though. As such, it’s going to become even more important for developers to research the potential market for their games on the service and what they can do given this situation.

Stiernberg also felt there were no real disadvantages to the increase in the number of titles an indie developer can publish. He did note, however, that previously it was possible to continue releasing games past the 10-game limit by signing up and paying fees for a second account. Now this is no longer a problem, but he also thinks that it will give peace of mind to developers that don’t release a large number of titles. The reasoning behind this is that it allows for more experimentation in games released without having to worry that you’re approaching the limit on game releases. Over all, he felt that it was an “excellent upgrade” and none of the other developers said anything to disagree.

Generally, all three seemed pleased with the upgrades, indicating that Microsoft may finally be on the right track with the service. The XNA Game Studio Team promised to keep adjusting the service as needed and invited developers to share their thoughts and concerns in a statement at the bottom of the blog entry:

We’re continuing to watch our developer base and adapt the system to the needs of our creators. We hope you’re all as excited as we are to kick off 2012 with these great updates to the App Hub to enable our developers to make even better content for Xbox LIVE Indie Games. If you have any questions or want to discuss these changes, feel free to post in our forum thread.

Analysis: I recently purchased an Xbox 360, and the first thing I did was checkout the XBLA and look to find the Indie Games section. I’ll be perfectly honest: I had a hard time finding the Indie section. I went to the games menu on the dash and then the marketplace subsection. From there, I had a hell of a time actually navigating the dash. I expected there to be some indie games listed in “New Releases” and “Titles A to Z,” or at least for there be an “Indie” section in “Genres.” In fact, indie games do not show up in any of these sections, and the only way to find them is by either doing a Bing search for a title you already know about by pressing the Y button or selecting “Game Type,” which has a subcategory of “Indie Games.” Unfortunately, these are not sortable by genre, which I feel makes it rather difficult to find what you want. Additionally, the fact that Indie Games do not appear in any of the lists outside of this section is a huge blow to visibility, especially when compared to Steam which lists Indie and AAA titles side-by-side. The average gamer, unaware of indie games, will never find and purchase them. That is a sad truth.

Thankfully, I feel the recent exposure indie games have enjoyed in mainstream gaming media has helped a lot. I purchase a lot of games, but I’ve found my indie to AAA title purchases in the past year to be about 1:1. This knowledge has impressed me, and I think that others are realizing this fact, too. With that, indie games will start making huge leaps and bounds in quality. That’s not to say current indie games are lacking in quality; many are, but many others are genuinely fantastic gems.

That said, it has been clear for a while that XBLIG is lacking and needs to be improved. I think these upgrades are the first step in that process. However, Bill Stiernberg presents a legitimate dilemma with the pricing change: How low should a good indie game be priced for? Personally, I’m okay with $3 for an indie game if it’s a game of great quality and/or length. I do, however, love games priced at $1. I spend less time deliberating whether or not it’s a worthwhile purchase mainly because I spend more money on a Soda than I would that game. However, “the race to the bottom” could become a problem for developers that spend more time and resources on their game, only to have it fail at a justifiable $3 or $5 price point. That said, only time will tell if that argument is truly justified.

Finally, I find it really terrible that Microsoft never fixed the ratings fraud issues. That really should have been properly addressed as it’s had a clear impact on developers. Giving the developers more control over their designs is always a good thing, but it doesn’t help if their visibility has already been highly reduced by a problem that was never truly fixed.

Joshua Moore

About Joshua Moore

Joshua has been a gamer for a long time, starting back with the NES as a child. Since then his interests branched from game systems to general electronics; an avid fan of technology and computers, Joshua graduated with honors from the University of South Florida and now holds a degree in Electrical Engineering. His favorite games include Valkyrie Profile, BlazBlue, Left 4 Dead 2, and Ocarina of Time. Additionally, he attends various BlazBlue tournaments and tries to pick up other anime or air-dasher fighters whenever possible.