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Microsoft Finally Gives Independents Control Over Release Dates, But for One Game, It's Too Late

Years after launching a platform for independent developers, they can finally control release dates.

Microsoft first launched the service under the moniker of Community Games.

Earlier this week, Microsoft updated its Xbox Live Indie Games program to hand control over the release date to developers. No, that feature did not exist before. And no, Microsoft did not inform independent developers who were creating and publishing games for the platform that it was coming before the announcement.

Such information would have been incredibly useful for 25-year-old Jason Wishnov of Iridium Studios, who just launched Sequence on the notoriously underdeveloped service, launched by Microsoft back in November 2008.

"It's a fantastic feature," said Wisnov to me over email, "though [I'm a] bit bitter about its introduction literally four days [after] my game's release. I had a hell of a time coordinating a traditional marketing blitz when I was literally unable to tell people when my game would be available to the public. Without a focused date, all marketing for my game had to be done after release, as a race against the clock; indie games slowly slip from the new releases list within a week, after which their visibility is fairly wounded."

Sequence, an RPG with rhythm game mechanics rooted in Konami's Dance Dance Revolution, has seen less than a thousand sales since its launch earlier this week, despite great reviews. Wishnov was hoping Sequence would be his ticket out of his day job and into full-time game development, a common sentiment among developers publishing in the independent market. No one who releases on Microsoft's platform expects guarantees on success, but the lack of communication is seen as a big and frustrating issue.

== TEASER ==

Prior to this change, game developers submitted into a peer review system when the game felt done. Fellow developers then download the game, make sure it's up-to-snuff, rate the content inside for age appropriateness, and following a "sufficient" though undisclosed number of sign-offs, the game is live. The developer has no control over this process. Once the game passes, a few hours go by and the game suddenly appears onto the Indie Games channel. If you're not paying attention, you could just miss it.

Wishnov created much of the game on his own, contracting out some pieces, like the soundtrack.

This new change allows developers to halt the process at peer approval. If the developer wants the game to stay in the system for a while, providing time to build up a public relations campaign, it can.

Wishnov spent two-and-a-half years developing Sequence. He missed control over his release date by a few days. Had he been aware of the changes that were coming, he might have held the game back.

"The XBLIG [Xbox Live Indie Games] team isn't exactly great at keeping us informed of pending developments," he added.

He's not alone in that sentiment, either.

Serious Sam: Double D is one of several riffs on the series coming from outside developers.

"It's hilariously disconnected," said designer Nathan Fouts of Mommy's Best Games, best known for Shoot 1UP and the upcoming Serious Sam: Double D. "They have no formal communication with registered developers. At most it's a post on the forums, or a news post on the app hub site. I had no idea the new feature was coming. In the past they say they keep us in the dark so they don't disappoint us. You know what disappoints me more? Getting kept in the dark. C'est la vie!"

Fouts left Insomniac Games to pursue his own games and has been one of the most vocal evangelists--and critics--of Indie Games, praising the opportunities it offers and cursing Microsoft for overlooking it. Fouts has been asking Microsoft to give developers control over the release of their games since Indie Games was called Community Games. Microsoft changed the branding to Indie Games in June 2009.

"If you consider how most games, movies, books, albums will say when the release date is, it allows fans to prepare," added Fouts, whose livelihood is based on selling his wares. "They can juggle what entertainment they'll be purchasing, or just to help them to remember when to look to download things."

There have been bonafide success stories on Indie Games, including James "Dishwasher" Silva of Ska Games, who's sold more than 200,000 copies of the intentionally goofy I Maed a Gam3 W1th Zomb1es. DJArcas, who doesn't disclose his real name, recently broke records with FortressCraft, a controversy-laden riff on Minecraft, selling more than 16,000 copies on its first day of availability.

Until I'd pointed it out, DJArcas wasn't even aware the change had been made.

"Wow, they finally added that?" mused DJArcas, when I brought it up over email. "Amusingly, it doesn't really bother me; it's more indicative of the failure of the system as a whole, the fact that being in the 'new releases' is paramount to sales. It does mean that you can setup your peer review a few weeks ahead of your release date, and have plenty of advertising showing the date of your release."

FortressCraft, while successful, has come under fire for being a bit too like Minecraft.

But while DJArcas might be shrugging his shoulders, Silva expressed frustration over how differently the Indie Games Winter Uprising might have gone last December, intended to be a month-long stream of releases via Indie Games. The promotion, developed separately from Microsoft, was mimicking other promotions of digital games on the service that Microsoft does run, ala Summer of Arcade. Sadly, the Indie Games Winter Uprising rollout was hurt by several issues, including mostly unknowable release dates.

"We basically had this 'the games will most likely come out in winter' approach," said Silva. "If we could get all of the games approved and then publish them on a well-publicized official schedule, it would look tons better."

Alas, it's too late for the Indie Games Winter Uprising.

But Indie Games is not the end for Sequence's Wisnov, as he's preparing to submit to Steam. The experience appears to have left a bitter taste in his mouth, but given the timing, it's hard to blame him.

"Xbox Live Indie Games channel desperately needed this feature," he said, "and Iridium Studios desperately needed it just four days earlier."

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Posted by patrickklepek
Microsoft first launched the service under the moniker of Community Games.

Earlier this week, Microsoft updated its Xbox Live Indie Games program to hand control over the release date to developers. No, that feature did not exist before. And no, Microsoft did not inform independent developers who were creating and publishing games for the platform that it was coming before the announcement.

Such information would have been incredibly useful for 25-year-old Jason Wishnov of Iridium Studios, who just launched Sequence on the notoriously underdeveloped service, launched by Microsoft back in November 2008.

"It's a fantastic feature," said Wisnov to me over email, "though [I'm a] bit bitter about its introduction literally four days [after] my game's release. I had a hell of a time coordinating a traditional marketing blitz when I was literally unable to tell people when my game would be available to the public. Without a focused date, all marketing for my game had to be done after release, as a race against the clock; indie games slowly slip from the new releases list within a week, after which their visibility is fairly wounded."

Sequence, an RPG with rhythm game mechanics rooted in Konami's Dance Dance Revolution, has seen less than a thousand sales since its launch earlier this week, despite great reviews. Wishnov was hoping Sequence would be his ticket out of his day job and into full-time game development, a common sentiment among developers publishing in the independent market. No one who releases on Microsoft's platform expects guarantees on success, but the lack of communication is seen as a big and frustrating issue.

== TEASER ==

Prior to this change, game developers submitted into a peer review system when the game felt done. Fellow developers then download the game, make sure it's up-to-snuff, rate the content inside for age appropriateness, and following a "sufficient" though undisclosed number of sign-offs, the game is live. The developer has no control over this process. Once the game passes, a few hours go by and the game suddenly appears onto the Indie Games channel. If you're not paying attention, you could just miss it.

Wishnov created much of the game on his own, contracting out some pieces, like the soundtrack.

This new change allows developers to halt the process at peer approval. If the developer wants the game to stay in the system for a while, providing time to build up a public relations campaign, it can.

Wishnov spent two-and-a-half years developing Sequence. He missed control over his release date by a few days. Had he been aware of the changes that were coming, he might have held the game back.

"The XBLIG [Xbox Live Indie Games] team isn't exactly great at keeping us informed of pending developments," he added.

He's not alone in that sentiment, either.

Serious Sam: Double D is one of several riffs on the series coming from outside developers.

"It's hilariously disconnected," said designer Nathan Fouts of Mommy's Best Games, best known for Shoot 1UP and the upcoming Serious Sam: Double D. "They have no formal communication with registered developers. At most it's a post on the forums, or a news post on the app hub site. I had no idea the new feature was coming. In the past they say they keep us in the dark so they don't disappoint us. You know what disappoints me more? Getting kept in the dark. C'est la vie!"

Fouts left Insomniac Games to pursue his own games and has been one of the most vocal evangelists--and critics--of Indie Games, praising the opportunities it offers and cursing Microsoft for overlooking it. Fouts has been asking Microsoft to give developers control over the release of their games since Indie Games was called Community Games. Microsoft changed the branding to Indie Games in June 2009.

"If you consider how most games, movies, books, albums will say when the release date is, it allows fans to prepare," added Fouts, whose livelihood is based on selling his wares. "They can juggle what entertainment they'll be purchasing, or just to help them to remember when to look to download things."

There have been bonafide success stories on Indie Games, including James "Dishwasher" Silva of Ska Games, who's sold more than 200,000 copies of the intentionally goofy I Maed a Gam3 W1th Zomb1es. DJArcas, who doesn't disclose his real name, recently broke records with FortressCraft, a controversy-laden riff on Minecraft, selling more than 16,000 copies on its first day of availability.

Until I'd pointed it out, DJArcas wasn't even aware the change had been made.

"Wow, they finally added that?" mused DJArcas, when I brought it up over email. "Amusingly, it doesn't really bother me; it's more indicative of the failure of the system as a whole, the fact that being in the 'new releases' is paramount to sales. It does mean that you can setup your peer review a few weeks ahead of your release date, and have plenty of advertising showing the date of your release."

FortressCraft, while successful, has come under fire for being a bit too like Minecraft.

But while DJArcas might be shrugging his shoulders, Silva expressed frustration over how differently the Indie Games Winter Uprising might have gone last December, intended to be a month-long stream of releases via Indie Games. The promotion, developed separately from Microsoft, was mimicking other promotions of digital games on the service that Microsoft does run, ala Summer of Arcade. Sadly, the Indie Games Winter Uprising rollout was hurt by several issues, including mostly unknowable release dates.

"We basically had this 'the games will most likely come out in winter' approach," said Silva. "If we could get all of the games approved and then publish them on a well-publicized official schedule, it would look tons better."

Alas, it's too late for the Indie Games Winter Uprising.

But Indie Games is not the end for Sequence's Wisnov, as he's preparing to submit to Steam. The experience appears to have left a bitter taste in his mouth, but given the timing, it's hard to blame him.

"Xbox Live Indie Games channel desperately needed this feature," he said, "and Iridium Studios desperately needed it just four days earlier."

Online
Posted by Kyreo

Does that mean that Bastion will decide it's release date?  I hope so.

Posted by Crono11
@Kyreo: Bastion is an Arcade game, not a indie game. So no it wouldn't.
Posted by abdo

Glad to hear they fixed that.

Posted by subrandom

despite some hiccups its good to see microsoft developing this community and addressing issues. It could have easily been another false start product like Game Room and just gone away but thankfully its still evolving. Hopefully in the next few updates we will see smarter sorting of the xbox live marketplace and better surfacing of good titles. It would be nice to get some community teams together to start a iTunes style "game of the week" for the indie channel so devs could get some more support. Since there are a lot of titles out there they could easily draw from whats been up for a while and shine a light on some of the lesser known entries. 

Edited by jozzy
@crono11 said:

" @Kyreo: Bastion is an Arcade game, not a indie game. So no it wouldn't. "

On the other hand, also Arcade games don't get to pick their own release date. They will have to discuss a slot with microsoft. But at least you know beforehand when it's going to be released, which is the big issue on the indy channel (aparently, I think the indy developers are overreacting a bit)
Posted by 234r2we232

I shed a tear for another Indie game I probably wouldn't have played regardless of PR support.

Posted by mracoon

Technically, it sounds like they still can't control the release date but instead start the peer review process early and hope it gets approved for when they want their game to come out. Still not ideal but its better than having no say at all. A better system would be when the peer review process is completed the developer can choose a date when their game gets released and then it goes live at that specified time.

Moderator
Posted by RobertOrri

Achievements would be a cool incentive to attract interest to Indie Games, but I don't see Microsoft ever allowing it.


It's a real pity how badly they treat these indie devs.
Posted by Hamst3r

Finally.

Posted by ajamafalous

I think I'd probably buy Sequence on Steam.

Posted by LordXavierBritish

Fuck, I forgot Sequence was out.


God damn it Xbox Live Indie Games.
Posted by CuoreAzzurro

The biggest problem with this service is the quality (or lack there of) and marketing of games. While it's fairly easy to find out this week's Arcade release, or future releases, it's much more difficult to do the same for the indie games. 


And speaking from my own experience, I haven't found any indie games that really did it for me. Nor do I hear anyone really talking about anything that comes out on the service. I think this is largely due to the fact that Microsoft picks out any project with a real chance at being successful, and migrates it over to the Arcade side of things. So in the end Microsoft neuters any possibility of this program taking off in any meaningful way. 

Also? No achievements for Indie games. Yeah, appealing. Having achievements won't fix the quality of the games, but it would allow people to draw similarities between the indie games, and their arcade "big brothers". Put a price/achievement point cap on them that would be comparable to that of arcade games. Say 100 points, and $5-$10 maximum price point. Just a thought.
Posted by TheDudeOfGaming

Sucks to be an indie developer i guess, continues to play GTA IV.

Posted by CarpetRemnant

Fascinating article, as usual.

Posted by Pie
@Leakster: Fortresscraft boy
Posted by I_smell

I think I'm gonna sound like a jerk in saying this-- but if you're organising a marketting blitz around your XBLIG game then.... You've made a great deal of poor choices.

Posted by CarpetRemnant
@Pie: What? Fortresscraft is a photocopy of a leaking bag full of shit.
Posted by transience

I just want to say how awesome Shoot 1up is and how people should definitely pay a dollar for it.

Posted by Pie
@Leakster: So's your face
Posted by Lunar_Aura

Why would Microsoft cater to a market that would eat into its own published game sales? 

Dollar app games on phones sell tons and the same kind of bang for buck gaming would cannibalize MS's precious points. They want gamers to purchase overpriced outfits for soulless Avatars, not make indie devs successful.
Microsoft wants to do just enough to say "We support the indie scene" but not too much for said reasons.
Posted by CarpetRemnant
@Pie: Wit.
Posted by Beb
@I_smell said:
" I think I'm gonna sound like a jerk in saying this-- but if you're organising a marketting blitz around your XBLIG game then.... You've made a great deal of poor choices. "
I don't understand this post.

If you make an XBLIG, then obviously you want people to try it out, and buy it. How will they know it even exists if you don't do any marketing?
Posted by slowbird

props for writing this article.  maybe it will bring attention to some of the games that missed out on the chance to do a proper marketing campaign.

Posted by Gaff
@mracoon: Judging by the details in young master Klepek's story, it seems the other way around: indie developers have final say of when their games come out of peer review and onto the market. Theoretically they could sit on a peer reviewed game, fire up their PR cycle and then release it. Of course, I'm going purely on the process as described in the story, since I have no first hand experience with it.

@LunarAura: Well, $1 games keep consumers invested in the platform. For every buck you spend on, say, the Apple App Store or the Android Marketplace, you're less likely to make the jump to another platform. Of course, it all depends on the quality of the bite-sized games, but then again, that's what the peer review is for.
Edited by HatKing

Why am I getting such a negative tone from this article?  Isn't a good thing that they've done this?  I don't get the epidemic of entitlement issues that surrounds the gaming community.  They've created a platform that allows for people with little to no budget make games and publish them on a console.  This is an opportunity that didn't exist three years ago.  Yet, because it wasn't fucking perfect on its first iteration that means Microsoft is trying to steal your money.  I don't get the greed facade that people have created for Microsoft.  Technically speaking, they're probably the least greedy of the big three.  You do realize they were hemorrhaging money for their first generation, right?  

Posted by Xpgamer7

Thanks for the article Patrick.

Posted by vinsanityv22

Xbox Live Indie games is handled about as badly as Nintendo handles wiiware. Tsk, tsk, Microsoft. Oh well - at least you're making baby steps to improving it. Unlike the Big N.

Posted by kalmis
Posted by ptc

There are many true gems on the xbox indie channel.  Microsoft just needs to find out a better way to separate the great ones from the turds (at this point, I'm not sure they actually want to do this).  I've purchased over 40 indie games and there is some fantastically good shit available.  

Posted by Gerhabio
@kalmis
Lack of Epic Dungeon on this thread makes me sad
Anything with an "epic" in its name should make you sad.
Posted by patrickklepek
@HatKing said:
" Why am I getting such a negative tone from this article?  Isn't a good thing that they've done this?  I don't get the epidemic of entitlement issues that surrounds the gaming community.  They've created a platform that allows for people with little to no budget make games and publish them on a console.  This is an opportunity that didn't exist three years ago.  Yet, because it wasn't fucking perfect on its first iteration that means Microsoft is trying to steal your money.  I don't get the greed facade that people have created for Microsoft.  Technically speaking, they're probably the least greedy of the big three.  You do realize they were hemorrhaging money for their first generation, right?   "
Of course, it's a good thing. The article points that out, while simultaneously making the case that Microsoft could have avoided frustration from developers by simply communicating more.
Online
Edited by I_smell
@Beb said:

" @I_smell said:

" I think I'm gonna sound like a jerk in saying this-- but if you're organising a marketting blitz around your XBLIG game then.... You've made a great deal of poor choices. "
I don't understand this post.If you make an XBLIG, then obviously you want people to try it out, and buy it. How will they know it even exists if you don't do any marketing? "
Oh you should get people to play it. Just don't risk any real money on an XBLIG project.
The Xbox Indie Games are effort-wise between a web game and an XBLA game, and you'd have a WAY BETTER TIME if you went up or down a peg.

As a project just for the sake of makin a game though, hey, go for it.
Posted by Xsheps

Where can I find a good list of the best indie games on the 360?

Posted by patrickklepek
@xsheps said:
" Where can I find a good list of the best indie games on the 360? "
That's a good question. I'll work on one.
Online
Posted by HatKing
@patrickklepek said:
" @HatKing said:
" Why am I getting such a negative tone from this article?  Isn't a good thing that they've done this?  I don't get the epidemic of entitlement issues that surrounds the gaming community.  They've created a platform that allows for people with little to no budget make games and publish them on a console.  This is an opportunity that didn't exist three years ago.  Yet, because it wasn't fucking perfect on its first iteration that means Microsoft is trying to steal your money.  I don't get the greed facade that people have created for Microsoft.  Technically speaking, they're probably the least greedy of the big three.  You do realize they were hemorrhaging money for their first generation, right?   "
Of course, it's a good thing. The article points that out, while simultaneously making the case that Microsoft could have avoided frustration from developers by simply communicating more. "
You're right, I suppose I was focusing on some of the comments the indie developers made (as well as the user comments to the article).  It does seem odd that they wouldn't have made it clear this was going to happen this week, though--and maybe I'm playing devil's advocate here--I find it hard to believe they had no good reason for keeping the community in the dark.  
Posted by ptc
@patrickklepek said:
" @xsheps said:
" Where can I find a good list of the best indie games on the 360? "
That's a good question. I'll work on one. "
Let me know if you need help.  I'd love to see some GB coverage of XBLIG gems (there is only one quick look I know of, and they pretty much slammed every game they looked at).
Posted by phish09

Wow.  Way to focus on all the negatives of this service.  I think selling almost a thousand copies of a game in under a week is a pretty huge feat for an independent developer. 

In general this Indie Game service deserves more praise, or at least attention, from the gaming press.  You say that that this Sequence game was getting favorable reviews, but where?  I never read anything about it on any gaming site I frequent, and I can't really find anything to read about these games, period, outside of a few smaller dedicated blogs.

The one developer kind of rips on Microsoft for not promoting this service more,  but if I click on Game Marketplace on my dashboard, Indie Games are given just as much screen space as Arcade Games, 'Games on Demand' or Demos. 

I don't think the onus of marketing these games should be placed soley on Microsoft.  They are generally doing these indie developers a pretty great service by allowing them to release these games on this system, with a built in userbase, that they wouldn't otherwise have outside the PC marketplace.  I don't generally hear about any games because of Microsoft or Nintendo or Sony, but because I read about them on sites like GB or Kotaku or IGN or whatever.

I'm just saying I think the gaming press should talk about the games available thorugh this service more and give us some information on them so maybe the good games will end up being the popular games.  And games like Sequence might have a chance to sell more than 1000 copies (if it's any good that is). 

Posted by Gumby
@G3RHRT said:
" @kalmis
Lack of Epic Dungeon on this thread makes me sad
Anything with an "epic" in its name should make you sad. "
Does that also go for Epic Games?
Posted by Norusdog

I can understand this dudes beef with this announcement right after his games launch.  But honestly....get a grip on reality.  Their policy changed.  It doesn't magically make it so.  Again I get this guys frustration but his complaining about it being revealed not long after his game is like someone bitching at Giant because the beef they bought the week before was full price and they're having a sale now for half.

stfu man.  get over it.  World doesn't revolve around you and your game.

Posted by ch13696

Well, just goes to show that you should have published on Steam.

Posted by selbie

I don't understand why MS didn't do this from the very beginning. If indie devs can garner more customer numbers for their games through marketing, then isn't it a win-win for both parties?

Posted by NorthSarge
@ptc said:
" @patrickklepek said:
" @xsheps said:
" Where can I find a good list of the best indie games on the 360? "
That's a good question. I'll work on one. "
Let me know if you need help.  I'd love to see some GB coverage of XBLIG gems (there is only one quick look I know of, and they pretty much slammed every game they looked at). "
I agree. a friend of mine is making/made an XLIG that is coming out soonish i think. but when i found out that it was indie i immediately thought it was going to be terrible... because thats all i heard about the indie games other than i made a game with zombies in it. 

but after posting on the forums about the subject a couple people had some pretty good knowledge on what was good and bad about the service. i think that it would be fun to hear about the gb crews thoughts on some of these games, especially the ones that are relatively well known, like miner dig deep. or even some of the crazy retarded ones... do some grab bag stuff, as if game room was still kickin'. could be fun! plus jeff is saving way too much money now that they aren't releasing any more game room stuff.... 
Posted by CrescentFresh
@Norusdog: I agree completely. The title of this article should have ended at the first comma.
Edited by Brackynews
@patrickklepek said:

" @xsheps said:

" Where can I find a good list of the best indie games on the 360? "

That's a good question. I'll work on one. "
Go for it Patrick. Also I check StarFoxA's blog any time I want a second opinion on what's in the indie section.
P.S. Great article! Exactly the kind of real talk I hope to read on GB news.
Posted by tourgen
@transience said:
" I just want to say how awesome Shoot 1up is and how people should definitely pay a dollar for it. "
seconded.

also there are some other pretty cool indie games out there if you feel like looking around.  much better than some XBLA games even.  crazy I know, but true.
Posted by Fobwashed

I'm currently workin on an indie game, and I'm pretty worried about the scene. I have a full time day job, and I'm doing it partly for fun and partly to make money. . . but as I read more and more on the XNA forums, it seems like it'll end up not being for much money at all. Then again, since I started, I've been trying out a ton of Indie titles, and in most cases, the quality isn't there to warrant large sales figures but still. . . it's disparaging.


Maybe once I make a few titles, I can just use them as a portfolio of sorts to see if I can get work elsewhere in the gaming industry. . . though, I've got a ton of ideas for games I wanna make and I doubt they'd ever be made unless I did em myself. Meh.

Steve
Posted by Fobwashed
@LunarAura:  Microsoft gets a considerable cut of any sales from the indie games section. They don't really have to do anything aside from run a forum and a system for indie developers to keep each other in check and they get free funds. It's a hot deal for them.

Steve
Posted by IridiumStudios

Let me be clear: I did not seek out press coverage for this, nor am I complaining about the feature's introduction. Giant Bomb asked for my comment and I gave it. While I expressed a slight regret that Microsoft doesn't keep an open channel of communication with developers, so that I might have prepared for and utilized this excellent feature, I am in no way angry or unappreciative of the opportunities afforded to me by the XBLIG channel...even if sales aren't exactly stellar.

So don't freak out, folks.

Posted by barkertron
@I_smell said:
Oh you should get people to play it. Just don't risk any real money on an XBLIG project.The Xbox Indie Games are effort-wise between a web game and an XBLA game, and you'd have a WAY BETTER TIME if you went up or down a peg.As a project just for the sake of makin a game though, hey, go for it. "
Going up a peg to a full XBLA game just isn't feasible for most indie developers - the licence fees and hoops that you have to jump through are prohibitive. You're basically talking 5 figure sums just to have a chance of getting in. On the other hand, marketing a game effectively can be done very cheaply if you know what you're doing, so doesn't present a huge amount of risk or expenditure.

In the vast majority of cases, web games won't make anyone any money (and won't be playable on a console either), so the indie games channel makes perfect sense for a lot of people in the same way that iOS/Android development does - it's a low-cost way to get a game onto a popular platform and possibly make a decent amount of cash at the same time (or at least have a better chance of a foothold into something bigger).
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