Talking tech since 2003

Most of you probably haven’t heard of it, but there was a huge moment at the last E3, a moment that everyone seems to have forgotten. It could potentially alter the game industry. The problem is, it’s being run by Microsoft. Those of you who payed attention to the last E3 know that I’m talking about Xbox360 Community Games, recently renamed Xbox360 Indie Games. Maybe I’m being a little unfair to Microsoft, but as someone who uses C# and the XNA development library, I have a bit invested in seeing this whole idea of community development get off the ground.

Microsoft has actually done some good things. There was more in the whole project when it was first announced than I would have expected, and that got me really excited – like: users rating and passing games, not some moderator; plenty of free tools; plenty of tutorials and help on the forums; etc. The problem is, beyond that, they haven’t done much. After the initial announcement, publicity for it sort of died down, and Microsoft has done nothing to advertise it. I was surprised that they didn’t have any major announcements regarding Indie Games this E3. Just from a marketing standpoint, I was betting that they would try and save up some big announcement for E3 to give the service a boost, but the best we got was a name change. Not exactly what I had in mind.

Part of the problem is that the service suffers from some of the same problems that the iPhone App store suffers from. Namely, no real way of advertising your programs, and no effective search system. The whole point is for Indie Games to be like the YouTube of game development. The problem is, you can’t be like YouTube if you can’t even meet YouTube’s benchmarks. On YouTube you can comment, leave video responses, search at least somewhat intelligently, and there’s a frame of related videos at all times, not to mention a list of the most currently watched videos. Why the hell hasn’t Microsoft implemented even one of these things? Any of these could be applied to Live Arcade games as well, which I’m sure developers would love.

Even with all of that missing, doesn’t it seem strange that there were more Apps for the iPhone in the first month than there are Indie games even now? It’s because Microsoft is taking it’s classic, sleazy approach to monetizing its service, exploiting its monopoly on the service to charge people way more money than they should. Years ago, people were complaining that it’s exploitative how Microsoft keeps moving things to its Gold membership when Sony offers its whole online service for free. In fact, if they keep it up, in the long term Microsoft are shooting themselves in the foot for a quick buck. They’re doing the same with Indie Games, charging you a membership fee of almost $100 a year for access to special development products and, more importantly, just for the right to have your game appraised for publishing. It may not get approved by the community, hell, it might not even sell, but by God, you’re going to fork up money you probably don’t have! Any upfront cost for a service like Indie Games, especially considering the riskiness of it, is a huge barrier to entry, especially when you consider that the target group of developers would be in high school, and wouldn’t look to kindly on giving up most of their non-existent money.

Think about it: how many of these have you even played? There are some amazingly professional games on the service, some developed by small, professional companies looking to cut out the cost of publishing. Just look at some of these.

It isn’t nothing, that’s for sure, and this is only with the small amount of people publishing. Microsoft doesn’t even allow you to determine your own price. Part of the rational for all of this is that Indie Games would compete with Xbox Live. I don’t see a problem with this. If Indie Games are a better system for publishing, then everyone will use them. It’s only a problem for Microsoft, if Microsoft wants to keep a tight hold on publishing. There is no alternative to the App store for the iPhone, so why not use that model for Xbox Indies?

There’s so much potential here that it amazes me constantly how blind people are to it. If Microsoft fails to capitalize properly on this – and I’d put good money on that – another company, probably Sony, will step in and provide it better. (The only advantage Microsoft has at that point is how much easier the Xbox is to program for than the PlayStation, which is a pretty damn good advantage, I have to admit. Visual C# is very, very good.)

I know it’s a little early for all of this, but the amount of potential in this concept of communizing the game industry, just like YouTube did for video, is just too powerful to let sit around like Microsoft is doing. They need to think more about developing the systems and community, and less about milking the few developers giving them a try. They place annoying barriers by using one product to monetize another, unrelated product – you can’t compile your EXE on your Xbox unless you have a specific program, which only works with Vista; so they’re cutting out most of their potential developers, just to convert a handful of people from XP to Vista, and I’m not one of those people. They do this constantly with Live Gold Membership, shifting things like demos over to Gold for the first week to get people to pay for something that’s free on every other platform.

Come on Microsoft. Do your job.

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