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Next Penny Arcade Game Shrugs, Skips Xbox Live Arcade

Zeboyd Games explains why everyone involved quickly decided to head straight to Indie Games, despite Microsoft's shifting relationship with it.

At least on Xbox 360, Penny Arcade released its first two forays into game development the same way most everyone else does: waiting for a slot to open up on Xbox Live Arcade. The slot system is full of problems, but it seems unlikely that much will change on this console.

Their latest, Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness - Episode 3, is taking a different path, instead publishing on Xbox Live Indie Games. It's one that's been well treaded by the game's developer, Zeboyd Games, the studio also responsible for cult classics like Cthulhu Saves the World and Breath of Death VII.

Will Microsoft actually promote the release of the next Penny Arcade game on the dashboard?

"The thing that really attracted us to it in the first place was that it was pretty much the only [and] first way that a no-name indie developer without a lot of money could release on a home console," said designer Robert Boyd to me last week.

Both Cthulhu Saves the World and Breath of Death VII made their debut on Indie Games, though neither became financial boons for the studio until arriving months later on Steam.

Launching on Xbox Live Arcade to gain a reputation, then showing up a few months later on Steam to reap the financial benefits has become a pretty traditional move for independents.

Zeboyd and Penny Arcade briefly considered releasing Episode 3 through the XBLA system, but that wasn't a very long conversation, especially since the game is coming out on so many other platforms, including PC and iOS.

Part of the reason, explained Boyd, was anticipating that most sales wouldn't come on Xbox 360, anyway.

"Our Steam sales are exponentially greater than our Xbox Live Indies sales," he said.

Episode 3 launched on Steam this week, and comes to Indie Games "later," a delay caused by a last-minute bug.

Indie Games allows Zeboyd and Penny Arcade to sidestep the criticized system, have more options for pricing (it's well known that Microsoft largely determines what games are priced at, not developers and publishers), not be charged thousands for issuing a patch, and have more direct control over the release date--there are no "slots."

Microsoft has shown a hot-and-cold relationship with Indie Games, at times upgrading it with needed new features like increased file sizes and the ability to publish a game when the developer says so, rather than immediately after surviving the service's peer review system. Launching a game at 3:00 a.m isn't a great strategy! Other times, Microsoft's come under fire for burying the service on the dashboard, preventing many from ever discovering it.

"It’s not so much that Microsoft has tried to stomp it out or make it horrible or anything," said Boyd. "I think it’s just a low priority for them, and so you have a few people at Microsoft who are really pushing for getting the platform improved and better visibility."

I've heard similar stories from both sides of the coin. Several developers within the community have had nothing but positive things to say about the Microsoft employees who are assigned to engage with Indie Games, but it's the act of getting changes made, changes that require a thumbs-up from above those people, that causes issues. Microsoft employees I've spoken with expressed frustration with how long it can take to get anything approved.

Like Boyd said, it's just a low priority, and it's unlikely that will change anytime soon.

The latest Penny Arcade game looks so much different because the developer changed. The first two were made by Hothead, who went on to make the DeathSpank games with Ron Gilbert.

Reservations and all, it's hard to imagine Zeboyd being in its current position without Indie Games. When Zeboyd began the approval process to appear on Valve's Steam service, it was able to point towards sales data and reviews that were a direct result of being part of a console ecosystem, which by default raises a game's overall visibility.

"It was great for us, in that it gave us a platform to put our games that had good visibility, compared to staking it on some random website," said Boyd. "And I’m sure that [was] a huge part of the reason why Steam agreed to work with us in the first place."

A key difference between Steam and Indie Games is curation. There are thousands of games available on Steam, but they're present because Valve said it was okay. That's not the case on Indie Games, where anything can be published so long as it's playing within Microsoft's guidelines.

"I think the platform’s really gotten a reputation for being filled with a lot of 'my first programming' projects, which, I mean, are good--everybody has to start somewhere," said Boyd. "But it’s not necessarily good for improving the reputation of the service, and getting people to check into it on a regular basis."

As a result, there just aren't many people making money on the platform. Unless you're, say, a variation on Minecraft like FortressCraft, and you've sold a million copies. Games like FortressCraft are, sadly, an outlier.

Episode 3 may represent the most high-profile release for Indie Games yet. The move should raise some red flags for Microsoft, who ought to wonder why a developer would actively want to go around its premiere service. Microsoft's ahead of the game because it was smart about digital early on, but soon enough, the industry will hit reboot.

Patrick Klepek on Google+
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Posted by patrickklepek

At least on Xbox 360, Penny Arcade released its first two forays into game development the same way most everyone else does: waiting for a slot to open up on Xbox Live Arcade. The slot system is full of problems, but it seems unlikely that much will change on this console.

Their latest, Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness - Episode 3, is taking a different path, instead publishing on Xbox Live Indie Games. It's one that's been well treaded by the game's developer, Zeboyd Games, the studio also responsible for cult classics like Cthulhu Saves the World and Breath of Death VII.

Will Microsoft actually promote the release of the next Penny Arcade game on the dashboard?

"The thing that really attracted us to it in the first place was that it was pretty much the only [and] first way that a no-name indie developer without a lot of money could release on a home console," said designer Robert Boyd to me last week.

Both Cthulhu Saves the World and Breath of Death VII made their debut on Indie Games, though neither became financial boons for the studio until arriving months later on Steam.

Launching on Xbox Live Arcade to gain a reputation, then showing up a few months later on Steam to reap the financial benefits has become a pretty traditional move for independents.

Zeboyd and Penny Arcade briefly considered releasing Episode 3 through the XBLA system, but that wasn't a very long conversation, especially since the game is coming out on so many other platforms, including PC and iOS.

Part of the reason, explained Boyd, was anticipating that most sales wouldn't come on Xbox 360, anyway.

"Our Steam sales are exponentially greater than our Xbox Live Indies sales," he said.

Episode 3 launched on Steam this week, and comes to Indie Games "later," a delay caused by a last-minute bug.

Indie Games allows Zeboyd and Penny Arcade to sidestep the criticized system, have more options for pricing (it's well known that Microsoft largely determines what games are priced at, not developers and publishers), not be charged thousands for issuing a patch, and have more direct control over the release date--there are no "slots."

Microsoft has shown a hot-and-cold relationship with Indie Games, at times upgrading it with needed new features like increased file sizes and the ability to publish a game when the developer says so, rather than immediately after surviving the service's peer review system. Launching a game at 3:00 a.m isn't a great strategy! Other times, Microsoft's come under fire for burying the service on the dashboard, preventing many from ever discovering it.

"It’s not so much that Microsoft has tried to stomp it out or make it horrible or anything," said Boyd. "I think it’s just a low priority for them, and so you have a few people at Microsoft who are really pushing for getting the platform improved and better visibility."

I've heard similar stories from both sides of the coin. Several developers within the community have had nothing but positive things to say about the Microsoft employees who are assigned to engage with Indie Games, but it's the act of getting changes made, changes that require a thumbs-up from above those people, that causes issues. Microsoft employees I've spoken with expressed frustration with how long it can take to get anything approved.

Like Boyd said, it's just a low priority, and it's unlikely that will change anytime soon.

The latest Penny Arcade game looks so much different because the developer changed. The first two were made by Hothead, who went on to make the DeathSpank games with Ron Gilbert.

Reservations and all, it's hard to imagine Zeboyd being in its current position without Indie Games. When Zeboyd began the approval process to appear on Valve's Steam service, it was able to point towards sales data and reviews that were a direct result of being part of a console ecosystem, which by default raises a game's overall visibility.

"It was great for us, in that it gave us a platform to put our games that had good visibility, compared to staking it on some random website," said Boyd. "And I’m sure that [was] a huge part of the reason why Steam agreed to work with us in the first place."

A key difference between Steam and Indie Games is curation. There are thousands of games available on Steam, but they're present because Valve said it was okay. That's not the case on Indie Games, where anything can be published so long as it's playing within Microsoft's guidelines.

"I think the platform’s really gotten a reputation for being filled with a lot of 'my first programming' projects, which, I mean, are good--everybody has to start somewhere," said Boyd. "But it’s not necessarily good for improving the reputation of the service, and getting people to check into it on a regular basis."

As a result, there just aren't many people making money on the platform. Unless you're, say, a variation on Minecraft like FortressCraft, and you've sold a million copies. Games like FortressCraft are, sadly, an outlier.

Episode 3 may represent the most high-profile release for Indie Games yet. The move should raise some red flags for Microsoft, who ought to wonder why a developer would actively want to go around its premiere service. Microsoft's ahead of the game because it was smart about digital early on, but soon enough, the industry will hit reboot.

Staff
Edited by cabelhigh

Cool! I was wondering about that.

Edited by Morningstar

Playing through the first two now. The quicklook of the third sold me on the series.

Posted by BrianP

I know I'm probably missing something, but why would it matter what time of day you launched a game on a digital service?

Posted by Mikular

God damn it, Deeper Crow is in this game?

Also, fuck yeah to those dudes.

Posted by R3DT1D3

@BrianP: Because it would be instantly buried by other games by the time most of the 360 playing world is awake.

Posted by MEATBALL

The logic behind not going with XBLA was partly because Zeboyd's experiences of sales on Xbox Live INDIES were poor? That seems a tad silly to me, they're two very different services and it's a Penny Arcade game. It's a decision that probably makes sense in spite of that, though thanks to all of the other guff that comes with releasing on XBLA. Still annoyed that Microsoft still don't offer indie games on Xbox Live in my country, so I can't play this game on my preferred platform.

Posted by The_Nubster

@BrianP said:

I know I'm probably missing something, but why would it matter what time of day you launched a game on a digital service?

Other games might get released afterwards, so by noon on that day, you're behind in the queue and less likely to be seen. Maybe.

Posted by admanb

@BrianP said:

I know I'm probably missing something, but why would it matter what time of day you launched a game on a digital service?

Because anyone who browses New Releases will be doing so the next day, by which point anything that released after 3AM will have shoved it back.

Posted by BrianP

@R3DT1D3 said:

@BrianP: Because it would be instantly buried by other games by the time most of the 360 playing world is awake.

Ah true, I guess I figured most xbox indie business is from people looking for specific things, rather than just casual browsing.

Posted by Bourbon_Warrior

Why dont giant bomb make a JRPG with the bomb crew! Would be a great feature.

Posted by megalowho

So much of what gets whispered about XBLA sounds like a nightmare for developers, especially smaller ones. It will be interesting to see what changes with the coming of a new console era, or if the "we hear you" rhetoric is simply that.

Posted by KillerPidgeon

@Bourbon_Warrior: It'd be a good IDEA but I doubt it could come to be a good fruition of labour. Too many fingers and far too many pies.

Posted by nood1eboy

I can't wait for this to launch on XBLIG. I hope a good number of people wait and play it there so Microsoft will take notice.

Posted by brownsfantb

@Morningstar said:

Playing through the first two now. The quicklook of the third sold me on the series.

I'm doing the same thing. Kinda wish I had played these earlier. They're pretty fun.

Posted by theimmortalbum

@brownsfantb said:

@Morningstar said:

Playing through the first two now. The quicklook of the third sold me on the series.

I'm doing the same thing. Kinda wish I had played these earlier. They're pretty fun.

I greatly enjoyed the first two.. first ever XBLA games I got all the achievements for.

I bought the third yesterday from PA, but haven't installed yet. I probably will tonight.

Posted by Nevi

Any news on a PSN release?

Posted by crajon

Very interesting, I always thought they had a good relationship. MS always has a big presence at the Child's Play auction and sponsor PAX.

Posted by Milpool

It would be great if Microsoft cleaned up their Indie service and turned it into something worth looking at on a regular basis.

Edited by CornBREDX

I'm almost done with episode 2. I intend to get episode 3 after.

I know the others are a different developer but I just never got around to playing them and steam put them on sale, so I figured why not. There hasn't been much else worth playing this year for me and I'm pretty done with Diablo 3 for now (having finished it four times now on various characters).

They're actually really good, too. So, ya, there's that. Really excited to get into episode 3. I was pretty sold on the SNES look and the kind of game play this developer used (in previous games and what I've seen of this one). The price point is surprising as well. I'd have bought it at $10 as I hear its like 8 hours or something. If it's really good I might buy extra copies and give them to friends or something.

Posted by milsorgen

I tend to avoid releases on XBLIG due to the lack of achievements.

Posted by MordeaniisChaos

I think this is ignoring the real issue, acting like XBLIG needs to be improved, when it's Arcade that needs to be more evolved. XBLA is awesome, but it has a lot of issues that came from it's overwhelming popularity. I don't think MS recognized or realized how huge XBLA was going to be for them and as a result they weren't planning for the kind of problems we are seeing now. Leave Indie as a weird quirky place for first timers to post their stuff, and make XBLA more friendly to indie developers and more flexible about releases. I understand the desire to keep a steady supply of games coming out regularly, but at this point that's not an issue they need to worry about, and they don't have to ration out the releases as much as they do. Rather just make it so until the slots are filled devs need to stick to them, but if the slots are all full near their planned release, they have more flexibility. Or encourage the slots to be filled by exclusives instead of multi-platform games that have to deal with mutliple places launching, and the potential clusterfuck of lining things up.

Posted by BeachThunder

It's Cthulhu, not Cthulu; never ever mess up the name of a great old one :o

Posted by agentboolen

Yea Xbox's marketplace does have its problems, one I would really like to see fixed is how every track that Rockband or Guitar Hero bring out gets put on top of the DLC list!! Its annoying because they really do hide good DLC and they always bring more then 1 track out at once. Music games should be put in there own place and hidden away from anyone that doesn't care! Its not like actual work goes into putting a new music track into those games!

Posted by DostoyevskysShamblingCorpse

Patrick's headlines sit around together and roll their eyes at the incompetence of their creator.

Posted by jozzy

The slot system has it's advantages too, also for developers too. Their game doesn't get buried amongst tons of other releases on the platform. Keeps it a little exclusive.

Posted by mrpandaman

@MordeaniisChaos said:

I think this is ignoring the real issue, acting like XBLIG needs to be improved, when it's Arcade that needs to be more evolved. XBLA is awesome, but it has a lot of issues that came from it's overwhelming popularity. I don't think MS recognized or realized how huge XBLA was going to be for them and as a result they weren't planning for the kind of problems we are seeing now. Leave Indie as a weird quirky place for first timers to post their stuff, and make XBLA more friendly to indie developers and more flexible about releases. I understand the desire to keep a steady supply of games coming out regularly, but at this point that's not an issue they need to worry about, and they don't have to ration out the releases as much as they do. Rather just make it so until the slots are filled devs need to stick to them, but if the slots are all full near their planned release, they have more flexibility. Or encourage the slots to be filled by exclusives instead of multi-platform games that have to deal with mutliple places launching, and the potential clusterfuck of lining things up.

Another reason why some indie developers have not opted in to releasing on XBLA is not only the time slot, it's the very rigid TCR which some developers have complained immensely about. They have said some of it makes sense, but some end up taking way too much development time. MS needs to make XBLA a lot more flexible, encouraging indie game development rather stonewalling it. XBLA does not seem to have grown as much as it should have especially when you compare it to PSN which started far behind, but is now almost caught up if not surpassing XBLA.

Posted by Dietomaha

"Episode 3 launched on Steam this week"

...... :D

:(

Posted by GrandHarrier

I tend to avoid releases on XBLIG due to the lack of achievements.

^

Posted by Rxanadu
@Bourbon_Warrior: Would you really want to take away any developers from the website?  Also, even with their new-found backing, I highly doubt CBSi would drop any cash towards either an in-house or third-party developer to create a game based on Giant Bomb, let alone other websites they own, such as Gamespot and Comic Vine.
Posted by Abendlaender

@Dietomaha: @Dietomaha said:

"Episode 3 launched on Steam this week"

...... :D

:(

Took me a minute or so to get it. Fantatsic work, damn you to hell friend, damn you to hell!

Posted by Irvandus

Great article. I'm loving the game and will probably write my first review on it.

Online
Posted by zombiesatemycereal

@milsorgen said:

I tend to avoid releases on XBLIG due to the lack of achievements.

Because useless points matter, not whether a game is fun or not.

Posted by GERALTITUDE

You know I really like the penny-arcade comic strips and PAX is cool but I've never felt compelled to play these games. I think their inside humour can be tiresome unfortunately. I like my content serious with a dash of funny, mostly. Some exceptions (Psychonauts, etc) apply.

Edited by Lugixx

DAMN IT PATRICK, IT'S SPELLED CTHULHU. WHY CAN YOU NEVER GET THE IMPORTANT STUFF RIGHT

On another note: It's nice to see a (moderately) high profile game released on XBLIG, since they're are some truly fantastic games on there. Hopefully this make more people aware of the service, and maybe we will even see some new talent breaking in to the industry because of it.

Yes, I'm way too optimistic. Shut up.

Edited by Peanut

See, this is the thing that still gets to me about the XBLA/XBLIG argument. On one hand, you've got a strict approval process (probably way too strict) and people bitch and moan about how long it takes, but generally you're going to get some pretty quality stuff on XBLA. On the other hand, you've got a pretty open "do whatever" stance over in XBLIG and people bitch and moan because there's so much fucking garbage clogging it up. So, one way or the other "Microsoft is terrible!" is the only thing you ever hear about this shit.

I think people REALLY need to cut them some slack, especially considering what Microsoft probably thought XBLA would be and what it has become, not to mention what it's done for the downloadable game experience over the last several years. If the new Xbox comes out and XBLA (and XBLIG, if it exists) has the same awful issues, then I think everyone is totally entitled to shit on the entire process. I don't know that a service that has encouraged and delivered some of the best games in this generation deserves to be lambasted so consistently.

Edited by Gustav

Great article and some good points in the comments!

As a one time XBLIG developer, I definitely see the potential of a more iOS like marketplace for home consoles, especially given all of the bad things (certification, slots, etc) you hear from the broader indie developer community. I really hope that Microsoft takes note of this somewhat high-profile declaration, I believe it represents the thoughts of the broader developer community.

Imagine if the Xbox 720 had only one (1) store, just like the iOS App Store. It would be really interesting. One could argue that it would eliminate big publisher support for the platform. While this is probably true, big publishers still submit games to the iOS App Store.

As a side note, I really hope Microsoft does not abandon the XNA Framework, it's extremely good.

Edited by TPoppaPuff

@Peanut said:

See, this is the thing that still gets to me about the XBLA/XBLIG argument. On one hand, you've got a strict approval process (probably way too strict) and people bitch and moan about how long it takes, but generally you're going to get some pretty quality stuff on XBLA. On the other hand, you've got a pretty open "do whatever" stance over in XBLIG and people bitch and moan because there's so much fucking garbage clogging it up. So, one way or the other "Microsoft is terrible!" is the only thing you ever hear about this shit.

I think people REALLY need to cut them some slack, especially considering what Microsoft probably thought XBLA would be and what it has become, not to mention what it's done for the downloadable game experience over the last several years. If the new Xbox comes out and XBLA (and XBLIG, if it exists) has the same awful issues, then I think everyone is totally entitled to shit on the entire process. I don't know that continually hating a service that has encouraged and delivered some of the best games in this generation deserves to be lambasted so consistently.

The issues people have with either system have very little if anything to do with the hardware, xbox live on 360 or any other technical limitations. The entire problem devs have with XBLA is purely Microsoft dicking them around. MS approval process has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the game; only with the technical issues and silly guidelines like "must have a start screen" or "player must be this many seconds away from directly playing the game from boot up" (making story driven games close to impossible). And at this point their approval process simply takes too long! It's not a technical issue, it's purely a laziness issue. Their approval teams either are very slow and bad at their job or they are woefully understaffed. Also, they dictate the price, so even though you know your game might sell incredibly well at say $10, they can shoot it up to $15 or $20 and watch your potential sales plummet. Then once approved they have to wait until MS decides when to release the title with no input from the developer, meaning you can have to wait up to around a year before your game gets released. And they also decide what to promote that week, so they might bury your game eight months after it's been finished on what historically has been proven to be the worst week to release a digital title with zero advertising on XBL at double or even quadruple the intended price!

None of the things mentioned above have anything to do with the hardware. It is purely an issue with Microsoft's insane practices. And most XBLA games are polished Indie Games titles anyways. Most of them are prettier versions of Indie Games with less bugs but same largely ameteurish gameplay design at triple the cost. Very, very few a year are worthwhile.

Posted by senor_delicious

The release seemed a little funky, now i know why : )

- more quality scoops - !

Posted by Peanut

@TPoppaPuff: I didn't really read your post, because I knew immediately what you'd be trying to say by your first few words. What I'm trying to say is that they've got all this nonsense in place now and changing it this far into the life cycle of the current setup seems pointless. As it has become a very apparent problem in the last few years and one that even Microsoft can't deny, they can go back to the drawing board and sort out these problems, then have a system ready for when the next Xbox hits.

People act like all of these things can just be changed with the flip of a switch and that the systems in place are easily changeable on a whim. Having spent a number of years working WITH a deranged approval system at a rather large Canadian company, I can say that shit is way more complicated than the layman believes.

Or who knows? Maybe Microsoft does just have a huge "Make XBLA/XBLIG awesome for everyone" switch that they refuse to flip on because they're huge fucking dicks.

Posted by tourgen

Pretty cool move, and it makes sense considering the other services they are launching on. Given the choice tho between Xbox and Steam I take Steam every time. I trust that it will be around and usable on hardware longer than xboxlive, and I trust the people behind the service more.

MS could do themselves a favor by maintaining some digital service with the $99 + XNA + minimal cert barrier to entry, but with a little selection for quality on their part. If people knew that xboxlive indie wasn't full of crap they might get more customers.

Posted by vinsanityv22

It's time you Giant Bomb guys checked out a bunch of indie games again, methinks. The indie game Quick Look was hilarious! And that was before much was on the service even worth playing. Now there are probably a bunch of games worth playing, and not just to see how hilariously bad they are.

Although y'know....play the hilariously bad ones too :)

Posted by Ministry4390

@milsorgen said:

I tend to avoid releases on XBLIG due to the lack of achievements.

Yep.

Posted by jasondesante

i dont understand why anyone would even bother with xbox in the first place. I have one and I hate it. I use it a lot and I still passionate dislike using it. My Wii and PS3 are a joy to use on the other hand. Don't necessarily know why.

Posted by TPoppaPuff

@Peanut: The approval process I can understand would take time to change or get everyone's ass in gear, but letting the devs or publisher choose the price point really is that simple. And letting them choose the release window (say a 4-5 week period) really is that simple too.

Edited by Peanut

@TPoppaPuff: Price point I will agree with and release window should definitely be more more flexible, but the lock down on that stuff isn't entirely broken. It certainly helps to keep things orderly and gives games a lot of time to be seen and tried by people before "the next thing" is around. I know I've given numerous games chances simply because they've been one of two or three releases on a given week and if there were 7 or 8 I'd certainly not give them the same benefit.

Either way I see your point and you're not wrong in the least. Like I said, Microsoft has the chance to start fresh on their policies regarding this stuff next-gen and hopefully they're taking this time to sort things out properly. If not, I'm fully willing to shit on them as much as everyone else does regarding this stuff.

Posted by StingX2

Its not surprising this happened but meh XBLA and steam aren't comparable. Steams going to rack in more money of course hell their offering two games with penny arcade 3.

Online
Posted by css_switchfoot

@Patrick Kelepk said:

Episode 3 launched on Steam this week

WHAT?!

Posted by BionicRadd

To anyone who has played all three, do I need to play the first 2 to follow the third. It's coming to android and that's where I intend to buy it, but I don't feel like hunting down the other 2 and playing them first if I dont have to.

Posted by Bourbon_Warrior

@Rxanadu said:

@Bourbon_Warrior: Would you really want to take away any developers from the website? Also, even with their new-found backing, I highly doubt CBSi would drop any cash towards either an in-house or third-party developer to create a game based on Giant Bomb, let alone other websites they own, such as Gamespot and Comic Vine.

Do it inhouse using RPG maker, would make a cool feature.

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