Is XBLA Past Its Prime?

I recently read a Gamasutra article in which XBLA Portfolio Director Chris Charla explains that “With XBLA, we’ve consciously developed a curated portfolio” and that “The net result is that our customers know that every XBLA game is measured to the same bar – that the quality of games that indies like Signal Studios [Toy Soldiers] or Haunted Temple Studios [Skulls of the Shogun] bring us continues to get better and better, so the bar is always getting higher to get on the platform. I think that’s ultimately beneficial to our customers. We want the best, most innovative, coolest games on XBLA.”

I think striving to have the best games is very important for the long term health of a platform.  The data I’ve collected, however, suggests that XBLA’s health is actually flagging. The elements to which Chris attributes XBLA’s ongoing improvement (a curated portfolio and a rising quality bar) are some of the elements that I believe are the biggest obstacles for XBLA’s continued prosperity.

To be clear, I’m not finding fault with Chris. XBLA’s take on content selection has been this way long before Chris joined as Portfolio Manager. I don’t even know if it’s within the Portfolio Manager’s jurisdiction to change how content selection is handled, much less push for the changes that I will discuss later in this article.

I’m not finding fault with anyone else at Microsoft, either. Their content selection approach made a lot of sense when XBLA was launched 7 years ago. In the early days of digital distribution, there wasn’t the abundance of high quality downloadable games that we have now, so weeding out the chaff was critical to creating a positive image for digital distribution in general, and XBLA in particular.

But things have changed quite a bit in the last few years and it might be a good time to reexamine some of the assumptions and reasoning behind how XBLA is managed. Newer, more successful business models have emerged, the number of talented game creators leaving their jobs to do their own thing is on the rise, and both the quality and quantity of games produced by small teams has increased dramatically.

I’m writing this article because I believe XBLA’s popularity among independent developers peaked last year (2010) and Microsoft is not yet aware of this. I’d like to discuss why this is happening, what effect I think it will have, and what changes Microsoft can make in order to ensure that XBLA keeps getting the best possible games. As a developer I’d like to see as many  healthy and prosperous digital distribution channels as possible, and I believe XBLA has not yet come close to fulfilling its potential.

Are Independent Developers Really Moving Away From XBLA?

Yes. In August of 2010, as part of my research for a talk I was preparing, I sent out a kind of “indie census” to about 200 independent developers. One of the questions I asked was which platforms they were developing for at the time (2010), and which platforms they had developed for in the previous two years (2008-2009). For this article, I sent out another survey to the same group, asking again which platforms they are currently (2011) developing for and which platforms they intend to develop for in 2012.  It’s important to note that only about half of the developers I sent the survey to responded, so while the results do have meaning and suggest certain trends, they are not definitive.  I’m open (and wouldn’t be shocked) to seeing data that suggests a different trend.

First, let’s take a look at the number of these developers making games for PS3 vs the 360 over the last few years:

As you can see, in 2008-2009 Microsoft had more developers making games for XBLA than Sony had for PSN. The gap narrowed in 2010, and this year more of these developers are making PSN games than XBLA games. Next year, the number of games this group makes for XBLA will drop again, and PSN’s lead will widen as the number of developers making PSN games rise to double what it was in 2008-2009.

Should Microsoft care about this relatively small group of developers? I think so. It includes the developers of many high profile, critically acclaimed, and commercially successful games.

To better understand what kind of games this group of developers represent, I took the list of XBLA games from Wikipedia and looked up each game’s Metascore. I then split the games into two categories: games made by the group of developers I sent the survey to, and all the rest. Of the 400 or so XBLA games listed on Wikipedia, 33 were made by this group of developers. Here are some interesting facts:

  • Average Metascore for an XBLA game made by this group: 78
  • Average Metascore for all other XBLA games: 66
  • 3 of the top 5 rated XBLA games were made by developers from this group
  • 76% of XBLA games made by these developers scored 75 or higher
  • 31% of all other XBLA games scored 75 or higher

It becomes apparent that this group of developers makes much higher quality games than the average XBLA game, and represents a significant part of XBLA’s star talent. It’s unlikely, therefore, that the decline in the number of XBLA developers among this group is due to Microsoft turning them down because of a rising quality bar. It’s much more likely that they simply choose, for whatever reason, to no longer develop games for XBLA.

You might say that quality is important but bottom line is what really counts. Microsoft, after all, is a public company and has a responsibility to its shareholders to maximize profits. So I reached out to Ryan Langley who periodically compiles sales estimates for XBLA games based on leaderboard data. Ryan was kind enough to share his estimates with me for 2010. It’s okay that they’re just estimates because we are only interested in a relative measure of one group of games against another, we don’t care about absolute numbers. We are comparing how well games made by this group of developers sold relative to how well all the other games sold. With a reasonably sized data set, and assuming the results are dramatic enough, the fact that the estimates are imperfect shouldn’t really matter. Well, the results are pretty dramatic:

  • Average # of copies a game developed by this group sold in 2010: 137,010
  • Average # of copies all other games sold in 2010: 46,281

So on average, a game from these developers sells 3 times the number copies than the average game made by all other developers.

  • Median # of copies a game developed by this group sold in 2010: 63,480
  • Median # of copies all other games sold in 2010: 13,899

The median number of copies sold by a game from these developers is 4.6 times greater than games from other developers.

As a side note, if we calculated the averages and medians based on cumulative sales figures from the games’ launch through the end of 2010 (instead of sales just from 2010) the multiplier for average sales is 2.4 and the multiplier for median sales is 4.2, suggesting that these developers are even more important to XBLA’s bottom line now than they have been in the past.

So these developers not only make much higher quality games, but they also generate a lot more revenue for Microsoft relative to the average XBLA developer.

But departure of star talent is not the only obstacle XBLA is facing right now. This survey data makes it clear that both 360 and PS3 are, at the moment, second tier platforms in terms of popularity among these developers. Windows, Mac, and iOS are getting far more attention, a very positive indicator for their longer term health. The chart below shows what percentage of developers have been making games for each platform over the last few years. It also includes reported plans for 2012:

Why Is This Happening?

I asked these developers to rate the importance of certain factors in choosing which platforms they will develop games for. The most influential factor was ease of working with the platform owner, with 69% of developers rating it Very Important. In 2nd and 3rd place were the platform’s install base (63%) and how well the platform’s controls match the game (58%).

Since ease of working with the platform owner was voted the most important factor in choosing a platform, I sent out a followup survey to ask how easy each platform owner has been to work with. Here are the results:

Almost half of those who worked with Microsoft described the experience as “excruciating”.

Given that ease of working with the platform owner was voted the most important factor in choice of platforms, it becomes perfectly clear why XBLA, despite being a very strong channel with a large audience and huge earning potential, is dropping in popularity among these developers.

What Does This Mean For The Future of XBLA?

At the moment, people are still lining up for XBLA slots. I’ve heard of developers giving publishers 15% of their revenue for the privilege of using their XBLA slots (publishers who make a certain number of 360 retail games per year are allotted a number of XBLA slots to do with as they please). So XBLA is not going to be hurting for content in the immediate future.

But if things keep going the way they are, and XBLA keeps losing talented developers, I believe the diversity of games available on XBLA will diminish, quality will suffer, and revenue numbers will drop as players start to move away from an unremarkable portfolio of games. We will see a lot more “genrefication” and big publisher franchises.

After a few years, XBLA might start to look like Big Fish Games, which is in an advanced state of genrefication. With XBLA, the genres would be different, but the overall effect would be similar.

Once players start to leave in large numbers it will be too late to turn things around. Given that it takes at least a year or two to make an XBLA game, no developer would want to start working on one knowing that XBLA is declining in popularity and could be significantly weaker by the time the game is ready. There’s data suggesting this player migration is already happening, but my gut says this is a local adjustment forced by the arrival of social games, not a trend. I suspect a larger scale migration is still a few years away and that there’s more than enough time for XBLA to change course.

The more open platforms, like Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android, are very attractive to developers. Take iOS, for example. Top hits on XBLA/PSN earn their developers millions of dollars. iOS hits earn tens of millions. When World of Goo was briefly the #1 top grossing iPad app it was earning upwards of $50k a day. Angry Birds HD has been hovering in the top 10 for about a year and a half. But that’s not all, there’s Angry Birds Seasons HD, Angry Birds Rio HD, and all three of these games have non-HD iPhone versions as well. That’s six Angry Bird games in a top ten position. For a long time. Then, there’s the Mighty Eagle you can buy with an in-app purchase. You do the math.

These hits are beyond rare though, and not a good reason to develop games for a platform. For that reason it’s important to ignore the sales numbers of the top games on any channel and instead look at the sales/revenue of top 100, or 200, or even 400, a position that a good game is much more likely to hold than #1 or #5.

A couple of months after the release of World of Goo on the iPad, I wrote an analysis of the game’s iPad launch, and among other things, created a scatter plot of the relationship between rank on the iPad top grossing chart and the amount of money the developer earns in a given day.

As you can see, the top 10 games earn tens of thousands of dollars every day. Better yet, the dropoff from #10 (around $15k a day) to #60 (around $6k a day) is slow and gradual. Recently World of Goo HD’s rank on the iPad’s top grossing chart has been floating between #225 and #250 and it still nets us around $2,000 a day. That’s what a healthy channel looks like. It can support an incredibly large number of developers and games, including some niche / strange / avant garde games like #sworcery, Game Dev Story, Enviro-bear 3000, and Eliss.

That the App Store can sustain such a large and diverse set of developers means there’s something for everyone on iOS and developers feel more comfortable trying to innovate and take risks. This creates a positive feedback cycle, drawing more players, and in turn more developers.

Having unlimited shelf space is, after all, one of the great benefits of digital distribution, and consoles have failed to take full advantage of this.

10 Things Microsoft Can Do To Improve XBLA

It’s extremely difficult to make big changes in large organizations. It takes a strong leader with a lot of organizational clout, and time. That’s probably the biggest obstacle Microsoft would have to face if they’re going to try to make XBLA as popular with developers as Windows and iOS.

For this reason, I’d like to divide these ten suggestions into two categories, a more easily achievable set I believe is required in order for XBLA to survive, and a more challenging set that I believe would make XBLA thrive, by drawing in large number of talented developers, a lot of great games, and new audiences.

To survive:

  1. Create a fair contract that doesn’t require negotiation. Everyone I know who’s been handed Microsoft’s boilerplate distribution contract for XBLA was angered and offended. It’s the most exploitative, one-sided distribution contract I’ve seen. I suspect it’s a holdover from the days where Microsoft only dealt with large publishers/developers and contracts were handled by teams of lawyers on both sides. Lawyers are probably used to conducting this kind of adversarial negotiation that begins with an unreasonably one-sided version. Smaller developers that don’t have a legal department are not used to this sort of thing. We each waste months of our time and Microsoft’s time negotiating the same stuff out of the contract, over, and over again. All that time, and in some cases money, would be much better spent making the game better. Efficiency aside, it’s a terrible way to begin a business relationship.

  2. Solve the content discovery problem. This issue has three components. First, is bringing as many 360s online as possible. Microsoft is already doing a good job here. Last I heard the 360 has the highest online connectivity rate among consoles. Second, making it obvious to players that they can buy and download games. Too many people still don’t know what XBLA is, or that you can download games directly onto your 360. The dashboard should be designed in a way that makes it obvious that this is a possibility, and make it super easy to get into. Third, It’s important to put the best content in front of the player so that they have a positive experience purchasing games and would want to do it again. There are many approaches to this: Steam’s discounted promotions, the App Store’s Featured section, Kongregate’s top rated games list (top rated new games, all time top rated games, etc). The platform owner needs to make it SUPER easy for their users to buy software. This is how Apple, intentionally or not, solved the so called “piracy issue” (don’t get me started on how wrongheaded it is to think of those that download a game for free as “pirates”). The purchase process is so simple, smooth and painless that it’s easier to pay for an app than to “pirate” it.

  3. Stop requiring independent developers to publish through MGS. All you’re doing is adding overhead to the process by assigning a producer to the game and making developers unhappy by giving them a lower rev share (to cover MGS’ added overhead costs). For the most part, everyone I know who has worked with Microsoft said it was not only unhelpful to have a producer, it actually became yet another thing that needed to be managed and took focus away from developing the game. I’d like to note that Kevin Hathaway seems to be an exception. I keep hearing developers say positive things about him. Every other distribution channel allows independent developers to self publish, without a producer, and I see no evidence that having a producer on a game makes it better.

  4. Drop the TCRs, make updating easy. TCRs add months to a game’s development time that could be better used polishing the game. Many of these requirements hardly ever come up or could be dealt with behind the scenes by Microsoft instead of requiring every developer to write their own solution. I don’t see any evidence that enforcing these TCRs results in better games. PC games are of comparable quality despite the much wider range of hardware they run on and there’s no TCR list. Instead of enforcing time consuming and expensive compliance testing, Microsoft could make it trivial for developers to release updates so that whatever issues come up after launch can be easily and quickly addressed by the developer. This model is working wonderfully on both Steam and the App Store.

  5. Get rid of the exclusivity requirement for independent developers. This is really an aspect of creating a fair contract, but it’s important enough that I thought it should be mentioned separately. XBLA is no longer the king it used to be. Microsoft is no longer in a position to demand exclusivity now that PSN has more developers and is growing, while XBLA is losing developers. Exclusivity was very popular among casual game portals in the mid 2000’s. If you put your game on Yahoo Games, Big Fish Games wouldn’t touch you. For whatever reason, this practice has since disappeared in the casual space. Those who believe requiring exclusivity is a good business strategy might want to ask the casual portals why they no longer do it. I’m sure there’s a good reason, and I’m sure it’s somehow connected to the fact that exclusivity requirements are not good for developers or players.
To thrive:
  1. Drop the greenlight process and open up development to everyone. Is the quality of the average game on XBLA higher than the average game on the App Store? Probably. There’s a ton of crap on the App Store, but the App Store has hundreds of thousands of games, compared to mere hundreds on XBLA. There are many, many more great games on the App Store than there are on XBLA. If done right, the curated approach may result in higher average quality, but it definitely results in fewer good games because of the overhead involved with bringing in each game. Players judge the quality of a platform by the quality and quantity of the BEST games available on it, not by the AVERAGE quality of all games.Even if you disagree with this assertion, Microsoft’s current approach to a curated portfolio is broken in two ways: First, it’s very difficult to know which games will be good based on what the people at Microsoft see when they greenlight the game. Second, 360 retail publishers are allowed to put whatever games they want on XBLA. That’s how you end up with XBLA games like Yaris, NBA Unrivaled, Crazy Mouse, and Beat’n Groovy, which have Metacritic scores of 17, 25, 28, and 29 respectively.You might ask, then, why Steam has done so well despite its curated portfolio? Other than being the easiest distribution channel to work with (see above), Steam is just one distribution channel on an open platform (Windows / Mac). Developers can make PC games without permission from Valve, they can distribute them directly to an audience they build up or via other distribution channels. World of Goo generated as much revenue via direct sales as it did via Steam. Minecraft generated pretty much all its revenue via direct sales. Open platforms also create room for innovative distribution models like the Humble Bundle.

  2. Make every console a dev kit. Windows and Mac, by their nature, have always been that way. Apple and Google have done a good job of it with iPhone and Android. It may require a lot of work, but there is nothing stopping Microsoft from doing this as well. This is actually one of the reasons Microsoft is the console maker best-poised to undergo this transformation. XNA Creators Club already allows people to make games and run them on their 360 at home. There are a few things that need to change though. First, signing up for the Creators Club has an awful user experience. It took me a while to figure out where to sign up and how. Second, the followup identity verification process was so complex and invasive that I actually couldn’t bring myself to get all the way through it. Third, developers are restricted to using XNA for developing 360 games as part of the Creators Club. With iOS, Objective C presents a similar obstacle, but it’s easy to compile C++ code along with some minimal Objective C to create iOS apps. This makes porting games to iOS a lot easier. Rewriting a game in a different language is a much more daunting task.

  3. Automate everything. Automation has to be utilized in order to handle the high volume of games being added to an open distribution channel. With the App Store, everything is automated and a developer can release a game without ever talking to a human. The registration process, distribution agreement, game submission, financial reporting, releasing updates, setting prices (as well as temporary promotional prices), and setting release dates and regional availability are all done via a simple web interface.

  4. Drop the ESRB in favor of a self administered rating system. This is another advantage the App Store has over consoles. It takes weeks, and thousands of dollars, to get a game rated by all the domestic and international ratings agencies needed to launch a game globally. The ESRB in particular is a nightmare to deal with (If you Google around, it’s easy to find people speaking out about the ESRB behaving like a bully — and I’ve had personal experience with that). If consoles switch to a self administered rating system similar to Apple’s system it will save developers a significant amount of time and money.

  5. Make avatar related requirements optional. I don’t know a single developer who wants to make toys for avatars. It’s not fun and it inflates the game’s budget. If Microsoft wants to keep adding new toys to avatars, they might want to hire people to do it in-house, or offer incentives for developers to do it. Kongregate, for example, gives developers a larger share of ad revenue if they integrate with their APIs. They’d have a lot fewer games if they required developers to do this instead of providing incentives for them to do so.

A Final Thought…

XBLA played a pivotal role in the popularization of independent games. Most of the early indie hits were XBLA games, starting with N+, then Castle Crashers and Braid, and continuing with Limbo, Super Meat Boy and others.

Microsoft proved that indie games can be million sellers on consoles, and then sat on its laurels for half a decade as more nimble and innovative companies like Valve and Apple took the lead.

I would love to see Microsoft rise to the challenge of adapting to new digital distribution landscapes. More healthy platforms means more interesting, creative games that push the limits of our medium.

For players and developers this is an end in itself. For the industry as whole, it means growth through the discovery of new audiences.

Many thanks to Nathan Vella, Matthew Wegner, Kellee Santiago, Kyle Gabler, Andy Schatz, and Ryan Langley for their feedback and assistance with this article.

If you believe I’ve made any errors in the collection of data or its interpretation, I would love to hear about it, send me an email, my address is ron at 2dboy.

69 Responses to “Is XBLA Past Its Prime?”

  1. Lapbunny Says:

    I’m curious if a larger sample size of successful devs and what they’re doing could be taken to confirm this; it’s sort of strange looking at percentages when there’s about 30 people being polled. But then again, it’s a small community as is.

    Great read, in any case.

  2. Rob Says:

    Very, very well said. I hope this message finds its way to Microsoft.

  3. Ron Carmel Says:

    you’re right, lapbunny, that it’s a small community, but the survey was sent out to about 200 developers, and about half of them responded.

  4. brian Says:

    i’ve used XNA a little, and as much as I like it, i’ve not managed to do anything serious with it. If I had XBLA or something like it, I would hope that I could use an established tool like Unity or Unreal to make a game that’d be more worthy of publication. I’m also in that group that doesn’t want to deal with legal, not to mention the cost barriers to signing up with XBLA. I think there will be a lot more quality independent content if they listen to you.

  5. Joel M. Says:

    bang on … the same goes for the windows phone marketplace. the official “Xbox Live” titles there creates a digital ghetto for all the other indie titles to live in. Even to the point where otherwise great games get lower reviews because they “don’t have achievements”, as if it’s up to the developers to add those or not.

  6. The Ludologist » A criticism of Xbox Live Arcade Says:

    […] Boy Ron Carmel has posted a lengthy analysis of why he thinks XBLA is past its prime. Much of it comes down to the issue of control: the platform policies are built on centralized […]

  7. Nels Anderson Says:

    Wow … just wow. Thanks Ron, this is fantastic. I really, really hope it doesn’t fall on deaf ears.

  8. M3rror Says:

    This article shouldn’t just be directed at XBLA (which I believe is doomed already) but to all console manufacturers. Sony’s PSN is leaning towards that way now for indie game developers by giving out FREE PlayStation Vita dev kits! If Nintendo would just completely go open and give out their development software instead having to spend 100’s of dollars it could work out a lot better as well. If this keeps up, Sony may just get the lead IF these dev kits are not limited and developing for them can be done by almost anyone with game development skills. I don’t think none of them, however, will be able to compete with Computers, iOS, or Android as they have no limitations on what can and can’t be released. The article did miss one point out and that’s developing for iOS is “easy” to a degree, BUT one factor missed is that Apple takes weeks to months just to release the app. I haven’t started on development for Android yet, but from what I hear they’re are not so stingy on app releases. Apple will still approve your app most of the time, but the process is ridiculous and they tend to focus more on big apps than the little guys. Other than that, great article! Nice little read and I completely agree

  9. Tronster Says:

    Great article; thank you for spending time to request and pull the data together in an easily digestible form.

    On survive point #4: “Drop the TCRs, make updating easy”; I agree easy and (if necessary) frequent updates should be allowed to occur. But do you feel all TCRs need to be removed or should the set just be simplified? e.g., What would be the impact if developers start drawing key game elements outside of the safearea and players with not-so-great TVs never see those elements? Or what if players were unable to bring up the Xbox dashboard while playing an XBLA game?

    Shouldn’t new devs have these TCRs in place to steer them towards creating a product that inter-opts properly with the platform?

  10. Joel N Says:

    Fantastic read, except for a couple of the points on what MS ought to do.

    I don’t really think they should open the floodgates like that – I don’t see much sense in just copying another platform’s success-factors. XBLA needs to stay XBLA (higher content value, fewer games).

    What they do need to do is to become “Very easy: 50%” to retain their talent pool. That’s all.

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  12. kmeisthax Says:

    Microsoft technically did drop ESRB; on the XBLIG stuff. And then they completely refuse to advertise or promote XBLIG at all… probably because of ESRB rules.

    Also, Windows 8 is changing the “openness” of the platform; apps that use WinRT/Metro have to be signed and approved by Microsoft.

  13. Ian Says:

    We XBLIG developers have a similar list of recommendations to MS, and if our combined suggestions were followed, XBLIG and XBLA would be merged into an unstoppable juggernaut of downloadable console games. There really shouldn’t be two marketplaces.

    Like you said, Microsoft still has time left to turn this around, and I hope they do. It would be a shame to have it slip away.

  14. Matt Mechtley Says:

    It’s also worth noting explicitly that in Figure 2, the number of developers developing for each platform has increased for almost every platform. Presuming that the sample didn’t include people who only started doing development within this time period, this means that developers are now deploying to more platforms. This also supports dropping exclusivity, Avatar, etc. requirements. If they preclude releasing on other platforms, or significantly increase the effort to release on XBLA, why bother with XBLA if you only expect it to be ~10% of your total sales across all platforms?

  15. Pavke Says:

    Amazing read Ron, just amazing, as always

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  17. Steve Says:

    So what you’re saying is that XBLA should be like XBLIG? Pretty much everything in the ‘to thrive’ section is what XBLIG is, aside from the avatar issue, and no developer is required to do avatar content. It’s completely optional.

  18. newt Says:

    Awesome article – heartily agree. I hope your 10 things list is widely circulated through Microsoft and posted on the walls where it counts. So frustrating that the PLA (publisher license agreement) bar is so impossible for any Indie to ever get and the mainstream publishers have asked for 30% for a ‘slot’. Something reasonable like “If your studio has produced a Metacritic 80+ game (or a top 20 iOS game) in the past 3 years, you do not need a greenlight process, MS producer, or have to go through MATS”. I think you could apply that rule across the board.
    Hear hear on boilerplate contracts that don’t automatically give away ridiculous amounts of copies, cede complete contrrol of release and pricing, etc.

    Steam’s ability to let me set pricing, go on sale, and be part of bundle promotions (or even competing distribution platforms) has made an amazing amount of money that we are prevented from on the XBLA platform.

  19. Carl Petrillo Says:

    Question for you, what % of the developers you outline in the opening of the article (the ones that you polled) had games published by Microsoft? I think Chris Charla is talking about the Microsoft published portfolio, and not the all-up XBLA library. XBLA games coming from 3rd party don’t have to be “approved” and so therefore have a lower quality and don’t sell as well as those “curated” titles hand-picked by Microsoft Studios. I don’t think you make that distinction very well in this article.

  20. Miss Chief Says:

    I’ve bought precisely zero content from XBLA although I have bought around 3,000 MS points, mainly for my kids or for Forza stuff. Why? Well nothing in XBLA appealed to me. I was a huge fan of Street Fighter 2 on my SNES, but playing the demo on my 360 pad was a rubbish experience. I don’t buy that many games on my 360 at all, although the next few months are going to be hard. Rage, BF3, Trackmania 2, Batman AC , not enough hours in the day!

    There’s also the feeling that you’re paying twice. Once for XBL access then again for the games. Why is this a problem? Well, PSn is free, so perhaps people are more liekly to pay for stuff knowing they haven’t paid already for the privelege of playing against their friends?

  21. Ron Carmel Says:

    @M3rror: i agree, i think all three console makers should take this to heart, but i believe microsoft is the one that is most likely to act on this, so that’s where i chose to focus my attention.

    @Tronster: i think having that TCR list is great, but it should be minimized, and not enforced. there’s too much overhead in enforcing it.

    @Matt Mechtley: great observations, i hadn’t noticed that.

    @Steve: not at all! yes, i’m saying that i believe XBLA would do better if it were open like XBLIG, but the implementation of XBLIG is terrible, and that’s evident by how poorly XBLIG games are selling. MS would need to make a much better version of XBLIG.

    @Carl Petrillo: i don’t have an exact number for the number of RESPONDENTS that have published an XBLA game, but i estimate it’s between 25 and 30.

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  23. Pete Muller Says:

    Great article, Ron. As a fan of a lot of XBLA content, it’s certainly food for thought.

    However, as other have pointed out, XBLIG already removes the requirement for ESRB ratings. And that has the unexpected side-effect of making that content unavailable in some territories (like Australia, for example, where the Office of Film and Literature Classification must rate content available for sale). Sad, but true.

    So the adoption of your ninth suggestion would essentially spell the end of XBLA for people like me – people who actually *do* buy XBLA content.

  24. Epic Torgo Says:

    I have a PS3, 360, Wii, and a PC rig. I almost will always purchase downloadable games for PC first, then PS3. And the reason is simple:

    Both the PC and PS3 make it simple to upgrade my hard drive. I can put practically any size that I need for a nominal cost.

    Because the 360 requires an overpriced proprietary HD — I tend to not want to put anything on it. HD Space is a pricey premium for the 360 — so it’s not worth it especially when there are alternative platform choices.

  25. Nick Marroni Says:

    Heartily agreeing with Ian, open and merge XBLA with XBLIG, managing all the content via a gamer-curation model as proposed by Xona Games:

  26. Diego Santos Leão Says:

    Great suggestions! …Unfortunately, if Microsoft can’t get even XBLIG right, it is very unlikely it is prepared to change the way you say. If I’m not mistaken, XBLIG first screen still shows the “newest additions” – mostly cr*p, as you may imagine. Why don’t they just sort the games like Apple do, so that users would find what they want – good games – more consistently?

    It would require a profound change in the company to do that: new teams, a lot of hirings, and so on – a total restructure of XBLA business and service. It would be a major, “E3-announcement worthy”, cultural change in the company. Maybe this is something to be expected of “Xbox 720” (which hopefully will be just a hardware iteration, like iDevices).

    As an Indie developer, I find this blog post invaluable. Thank you so much to have disclosed and organized these numbers and facts! I hope I’m very wrong about MS!

  27. Haxim Says:

    Just curious if you think if the recent program by Sony to invest $20 million into developing PSN exclusives has any bearing on these stats or survey responses at all.

    Thanks for the interesting read!

  28. Trolling, Limited ridotte, DLC in preordine, Indie che scappano ed altro ancora nella mattinata di oggi - Beavers Says:

    […] degli sviluppatori Indie da XBLA? Secondo 2D boy il servizio microsoft non è agevole per gli sviluppatori […]

  29. 2D Boy on Xbox Live Arcade : Curiouser & Curiouser Says:

    […] 2D Boy’s Ron Carmel thinks that XBLA needs to change direction: The elements to which [XBLA's Portfolio Director] attributes XBLA’s ongoing improvement (a curated portfolio and a rising quality bar) are some of the elements that I believe are the biggest obstacles for XBLA’s continued prosperity. […]

  30. Lucas Says:

    A very interesting read, thank you. I find myself doubting some of the advisory logic, given that it comes heavily from the developer experience and clearly not the customer experience. I’ll touch on a couple…

    My understanding of TCRs is that they are designed to ensure consistency for the end-user experience. I don’t imagine developers commonly deal with the litany of inane complaints to the same degree that publishers and platform holders do. If a child discovers porn hidden by a disgruntled programmer in a Nintendo release, who’s going to be receiving the most angry phone calls from parents and congressmen? Ubisoft Montreal? Jaleco? Hothead? Or Nintendo? Platform holders are ultimately responsible for what they approve for release, and you’re suggesting those standards are too strict and redundant. I’m not saying they’re all practical, but do you believe chainsaws and coffee cups had warnings BEFORE somebody got sued? These kinds of policies are reactionary. They’re butt-covering. People complain, they return consoles because they think games are broken, they hate that a game only gives them 970 achievement points, or can’t be completed past 98.2%. And the phone number they have in front of them is Microsoft or Sony, and perhaps your publisher, because those companies can afford to staff people on the end of a customer care line.

    Telling Microsoft to ditch TSRs is fine for you and your crunch schedule, but unless you are willing to put your own customer support phone number to deal with how your bold new arthouse ideas confuse the hell out of people… maybe it’s best that someone is running interference to provide some checks and balances. No one developer should have the responsibility of covering every legal base all by their lonesome. Of course you’re resentful when mom says to eat your vegetables, but it probably improves the game experience for the customer more than it hurts.

    I’m reminded of how most any PC hardware driver or multimedia software released during the Windows 1.0 to 98 era had its own in-house design team; where 90% of user interfaces were likely to be skinned, beveled, asymmetric, icon-laden fever dreams. As a user, this is why I tended to prefer Macs. Consistency has value in usability.

    It’s all very well and good to wish for “savvy” customers and let the Steam forums churn away as people hash out their own tech support because the developers don’t speak English, but I assume as a business you want people’s money no matter how clueless they are. In which case you are choosing to make certain concessions in order to put your product in front of more wallets. So which do you want more? I’m a customer of yours, and I’d like to know.

    Regarding dropping the ESRB, how can you in any right mind say that Apple’s fickle, closed, and totalitarian authority is an improvement over what is already a self-enforced system? At best you’d be replacing one system with another, and at worst you’d be fracturing platforms and regions into something that the current systems were created to overcome. It hasn’t been that long since Hot Coffee. That taught the industry and the public (including politicians) that developers make mistakes, and then try to deny it was their fault. Of course it’s expensive to review and certify, but again, what is the cost to the industry of having another scandal? Of having government enforced regulation? We just won that battle, and you’re saying it’s too inconvenient to sustain an independent ratings board?

  31. PSN Is Beating Xbox Live In The Indie Game Stakes | PLAY Magazine Says:

    […] we’re cool like that. GA_googleFillSlot("PLAY_MidPage_MPU1"); The article in question (clicky here) is weighted towards discussion of Xbox Live Arcade – but don’t let that put you off. It’s […]

  32. Almog Says:

    Amazing post, really enjoyed reading it :)

  33. JvL Says:

    In regard to thrive suggestion 3, recently atleast there was a very clear reason not to allow do this:

    If anything Apple’s selection process could use a set of human eyes.

    Ofcourse if a developer/publisher/platform doesn’t care about misleading consumers that’s their choice.

  34. Ron Carmel: “XBLA sta perdendo i suoi talenti” – Indie Vault Says:

    […] […]

  35. Report: Indie Devs Abandoning Xbox Live | Video Game Deals & UK News | Says:

    […] to research undertaken by 2DBoy's Ron Carmel, 48% of polled indie developers have slammed Microsoft's working arrangements as "excrutiating," […]

  36. Harold Says:

    “Most of the early indie hits were XBLA games, starting with N+, then Castle Crashers and Braid, and continuing with Limbo, Super Meat Boy and others.”

    IMHO, that’s where too many game developers thought XBLA was awesome, when it actually wasn’t. Early indie hits started where you can be free, PC and browser first: Aquaria was on PC, N started and had a huge following way before N+, Braid wasn’t platform specific, World of Goo neither, Limbo and Super Meat Boy could have and did really good on “PC” and “Windows”. Castle Crashers is the only console exclusive and I’m sure it would skyrocket on Steam with online multiplayer (please, guys?).

    I’m totally with m3rror on this one. XBLA, PSN, WiiWare, iOS, it doesn’t matter. They all are going to look like Big Fish. Malls are malls. People go on the PS3 because terms are better (Sony does everything they can to get back to #1), but it’s the same problem.

    So nothing will really change. Problems you list are inherent to closed platforms and I think it’s too late. Developers shouldn’t have jumped and be ready to do anything for a slot on XBLA/XBLIG. Sorry.

    Developers don’t develop for 360 anymore fine, they move on iOS and now we know that the top 1% earns about 36% of all revenue and top 20%, 97%! Sorry but where the hell is that better? Like you said with the launch of World of Goo HD on iPad, it’s a huge thing to be featured and well, a majority don’t get that. Numbers are bigger than on the 360 because everybody buys a smartphone, not everybody buys a noisy console. So saying that’s it’s better there is a fallacy. It’s not good. It’s just that if you’re in the top, you get more cash. The illusion is better, bigger.

    To conclude for indie game developers: do your game on PC. Make your prototype without all the BS you will get on closed, locked in platforms. Make this game good with any tool you want (while trying to be cross-platform as much as you can, of course). That’s the hardest part and where you should focus. ThatGameCompany started on PC. Mark Healey and Rag Doll Kung Fu, anyone?

    Then get some noise, following and then hopefully because users want it so bad on their favorite device, discuss ports or get funding or whatever.

    You will be in a much better situation to negociate (see Minecraft or ID back in the days). Maybe some people will handle the port for you. Then you can ship your game to the new malls that are app stores. But starting there is a bad idea, Microsoft or not.

  37. Peter van der Watt Says:

    Thanks for the great article Ron!

    I was wondering if MS had contacted you with a response?

  38. Colm Says:

    Excellent stuff! I think it’s too late for XBLA to turn the ship around, but hopefully others take notice

  39. Matthew Doucette Says:

    Thank you for this. I am going to share this with all my indie dev friends. P.S. We are in the motions of taking our next game to XBLA… or maybe PSN and Steam too.

  40. Indie games are fleeing XBLA | GameDrillz Says:

    […] a post on the developer’s blog, 2DBoy’s Ron Carmel said that Xbox Live Arcade “played a pivotal role in the popularization of […]

  41. 2D Boy Developer: How to Fix Xbox Live Arcade | Try Indie: Reviews, News and Deals for Indie Games Says:

    […] informal “indie census” conducted Ron Carmel of 2D Boy (World of Goo) reveals what many people already suspected: the best developers are releasing games elsewhere and […]

  42. Toni Savolainen Says:

    Nice article. XBLIG is a possibility, but it isn’t available everywhere. My PC gaming has increased dramatically after humblebundling so, there still might be some hope. =)

  43. 2D Boy addresses XBLA concerns in an adult manner Says:

    […] has seen success on WiiWare and iOS platforms. It’s a studio comprised of former-EA staffers. The analysis they posted is lengthy, in-depth and thought provoking, and we really hope it makes its way up the Microsoft […]

  44. Mig Says:

    Not trying to be a troll here, but have you ever published any game on XBLA ?
    And – talking only as the reason games are made here, an *avid* consumer – some stuff your list lists is incorrect, many games aren’t exclusive (most of them actually), and vitually 100% them don’t have Avatar items, can’t realy commnet on other stuff as it seems to consern only (very small) devs. And, as a consumer, I would hate not to have a place where I can get something a bit more polished than XBLIG; AppStore; etc.., not that I don’t like, but I like to have the option to pay a bit more but know that a game had to have some work and QA.
    Is that, you talk like if you opened the floodgates like you want only your wonderfull game and your friends who make *wonderfull; bugfree* games would publish in this *opened* XBLA, sorry to say, it’d be full of crap like XBLIG. And why don’t you like XBLIG ? What’s the problem ? Why do you want to XBLA to change and not XBLIG ? I’m a bit confused here, is this pro-small time devs, but t doesn’t seem to lecture on what’s best form the gaming community. I speak for myself, I like to have my bite-size gaming, but I want my fancy XBLA games as well. Upgrade your game, or go XBLIG, no ?

  45. 2D Boy asks: Is XBLA Past Its Prime? | GAMING TREND Says:

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  46. The Games Spot - Dev: XBLA no longer king as developers abandon platform Says:

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  47. Xbox Live Has Already Peaked, Says World of Goo Developer | Piki Geek Says:

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  48. @DaveVoyles Says:

    RE: ESRB process

    There is actually an automated ESRB process now, due to the large number of small titles, particularly in the iOS store. It allows you to submit your game by filling out a series of questions. At the end of the questions, your title is assigned a value.

    If you’re caught lying, your ability to submit titles to the ESRB is now revoked.

    I’m looking for the article I read about this some time ago, and if I do find it again I’ll post it here.

    Very nice, and well written article, but as some of the commenters stated above, it sounds as though you want XBLA to turn into XBLIG.

  49. Ron Carmel Says:

    @DaveVoyles (and everyone else who thinks i’m saying XBLA should become XBLIG): you could not have misunderstood me more. XBLIG is a terrible implementation of a great idea, and i absolutely do NOT want XBLA to become like XBLIG. i want it to become like the App Store. XBLIG is a failure. the App Store is the greatest success in digital distribution to date.

  50. Tim Keenan Says:

    Great article Ron, thanks!

    I believe in all of the points you made about making life easier on the developer (contract negotiations, dev kits, updates, etc.). After all if you’ve decided through your editorial process that a title is good, why not make it easier to get it to market? I suppose the answer there is because it’s not that easy and you don’t have to, but eventually that could bite MS, especially with all this competition from new platforms. Also, with so many new markets developing around updated content, not making that easier, and therefore more prevalent, could hamper the XBLA version of titles.

    However, like several of the other commenters here, I don’t believe that opening the flood gates is necessarily a good solution. I do enjoy the fact that on consoles & Steam that someone has bothered to ensure certain standards, and it seems like the average console gamer would agree. Now sure, ideally with an active community and a great rating system that editorial process could be more organic, and therefore less overhead for MS (and less biased for gamers), but it seems like XBLIG is that experiment. If by throwing love into that process sales start to increase on XBLIG, then you start talking about including XBLA with that. Personally, while I appreciate what it does for indies, I’m not a big fan of the App Store.

  51. damnittom Says:

    “Almost half of those who worked with Microsoft described the experience as “excruciating”.”

    IMO, I believe everyone who has done XBLA knows that MS has incredible developer support. Working on the Xbox is the closest to working on the PC than any other platform – and their support group is top-notch in the industry IMO. So the difficulty in working with the platform owner is primarily business related.

  52. Nintendo não é prioridade para os estúdios independentes - Blog WiiClube Says:

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  53. Guillaume Says:

    “There are many, many more great games on the App Store than there are on XBLA.”

    You did a good job backing up most of your claims but this one, which I’ll chalk up to opinion, and one I highly disagree with. I have a lot of trouble finding games on the iPhone that are more than time-wasters and distractions than actual games.

    I also found I can’t trust critics, as most of them couldn’t even tell me that something like Tiny Tower has no actual gameplay to it. Just mind-numbing tasks.

  54. Agent Tom Says:

    Wow look at the jump in Flash numbers… that looks like a several hundred percent rise which seems unlikely to me.

    To be honest it makes it a bit hard to trust the stats. Is this due to some kind of sample bias? i.e. is the community a console / ios focused set?

  55. 2D Boy: Oι indie developers εγκαταλείπουν το XBLA | Game 2.0 Says:

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  56. World of Goo Dev Believes XBLA is 'Past Its Prime' - Feed The Gamer Says:

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  57. World of Goo Dev Believes XBLA is ‘Past Its Prime’ | Gaming News & Montages Says:

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  58. Marc Says:

    Very well said. I recently asked if my word game (the #1 most downloaded word game for WP7) could be included in XBLA. I even showed a 70% conversion ratio of trial to paid when it was a paid game (now its free). I showed download numbers, gameplay data etc etc. Their response was “our puzzle slots are full right now, we need rpg, 3d fps, 3rd person shooters and sports”….thats WP7 needs for XBLA. This was about 1 month ago.

    A real shame too, many have asked for the paid version to not have the ads, and want achievements etc. People dont buy games on WP7 unless they are XBL enabled, free is the only way to make money there. But all your points on XBL are valid and its a dead system IMHO, theres more GameCenter accounts than their are XBLive accounts. I so cannot wait for OpenFeint rest API to come out of beta, lol, the day will come when players playing XBL enabled games will be saying “plz OpenFeint enable, then It will get 5 stars”….dont get me started on OpenFeint….they are the facebook of mobile games.

  59. Reagan Morris Says:

    I put together a small article that kinda flows on from your second point.
    Great article though Ron :D

  60. Daniel Says:

    Very good points and I agree that I think Microsoft need to open up XBLA to as many people and offer the same marketplace as they do on Windows Phone 7. Hopefully if Games for Windows Phone 7 does well for Microsoft they will take a more proactive approach. Indie developers need more options and less barriers to entry because they can like yourselves have done, create some fantastic games.

  61. The Sunday Papers | Rock, Paper, Shotgun Says:

    […] Boy’s Ron Carmel asks “Is XBLA past its prime?” His detailed reasons for asking that question make for interesting reading, and, although a […]

  62. Jeff Says:

    Microsoft is used to having control of everything they do. That’s what it’s all about. The quality argument is dumb because Apple’s distribution policy yielded quality good enough for Steve Jobs and he wouldn’t have signed off on a single microsoft product. Microsoft wants control. The world wants Angry Birds. Would that indie hit make it through their bs?

  63. PostModGuru Says:

    How many “star” developers scalped by Sony are working on new titles vs. revamping old? Just wondering…

  64. The fall of Xbox Live? | Gadget and Gaming News Says:

    […] recent prescription for success that’s been getting some buzz of late comes from Ron Carmel, writer for the 2D Boy blog and […]

  65. Thomas Henry Ward Says:

    Well you’ve certainly written quite a lot out.

    Question is though, how will you get Microsoft to look at it?

    I mean, you can’t have just written all that out for nothing.

  66. Has XBLA peaked? A response to Ron Carmel of 2D Boy (Ready for editing) Says:

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  67. In-Depth: PlayStation Network Analysis, September 2011 | Says:

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  68. In-Depth: PlayStation Network Examination, September 2011 | Average Joe Gamers Says:

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  69. In-Depth: PlayStation Network Analysis, September 2011 | GamingFeeder Says:

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