Indie Games' Forgotten Step-child

Over the past few years the rise of games released by independent developers has been clear to see on the PC and mobile platforms, thanks to the likes of Steam and the iOS platform. However, in the background, there is the forgotten step-child of indie games; welcome to XBox Live Indie Games, coming to a 360 near you now! Unless you live in Ireland. Or Australia. Or most of the world, pretty much.

When the platform was released to the public in November 2008 under the title of ‘community games’, everyone had such high hopes for this platform where every Tom, Dick and Harry could, in theory, release a game of their own for people to play. Then they found out that the lowest price point was 200MSP ($2.50/£1.67), that the game’s trials only lasted 4 minutes and, most importantly, that the games didn’t have achievements, annoying achievement junkies worldwide. Nowadays of course you can get them for the low, low point of 80 virtual spacebucks ($1/£0.66) while trials now last 8 minutes (a luxury I tell you!). As for achievements, well... Let me put it this way, those junkies are still annoyed.

Over the years, Microsoft hasn’t exactly helped bring attention to the indie games. When the new dashboard was released in 2010, indie games were moved to the “Specialty Shops”, along with the amazing success that was Game Room (1000 retro games in 3 years? Yeah, right...), developers rightfully complained and Microsoft eventually put it back with the other games. However, only a year later indie games were again moved, this time behind multiple menus and a vague tile called ‘Game Type’. This time, indie games weren’t the only victim, with XBLA and Games of Demand also moved there. Great job all-round there, Microsoft.

It can hardly be said that some of the service’s content promotes it in an amazing light, though. I mean, if I asked you what came to mind when I mentioned XBox Indie Games, I bet there were 5 things; zombies, twin-stick shooters, avatars, massages and Minecraft clones. Hell, if someone releases a twin-stick shooter where you kill zombies in a Minecraft world while playing as your avatar, the whole time the game giving you an amazing back massage, it would most likely make the gaming industry implode from the shock. So, developers, please don’t.

That’s not to say that the service doesn’t have some amazing games hidden within. Off the top of my head I can name ‘Cthulhu Saves The World’ and ‘Breath of Death VII’ by Zeboyd Games, ‘Wizorb’ by Tribute Games, ‘Dead Pixels’ by CSR Studios, ‘Volchaos’ by Fun Infused Games, ‘Growing Pains’ by Smudged Cat Games and pretty much anything anything by Radian Games. Some other developers even started on the service, such as Halfbrick Studios, the Australian developer of ‘Fruit Ninja’ and ‘Jetpack Joyride’, who actually released their first game, ‘Echoes’, as a XBox Indie game as well as a PSP Mini.

However, most developers who hit it vaguely big as a XBox indie soon find that they can hit it even bigger on the PC and iOS platforms. Zeboyd Games released their two games on Steam and beat their XBox revenue within the first week and are now making the long-awaited 3rd part of the Penny Arcade series; Fun Infused Games top-selling game is actually an iOS port of another of their games, ‘Hypership Out Of Control’; Radian Games’ ported their most popular game, Crossfire, onto iOS and, more recently, PC and had bundled it exclusively bundled in the Indie Royale New Year Bundle, which sold over 30,000 copies.

It’s easy to see why these games sold so much better on other platforms. On the PC, Steam tends to promote any and every game upon release, be them huge like Skyrim or little indies like the Zeboyd games, giving them a whole new host of eyes to peek upon their games. Even the Radian game ‘Super Crossfire’, which currently isn’t even on Steam had the support of the Indie Royale bundles to promote it. As for the mobile platforms, iOS also does a great job in promoting great indie games, separating the wheat from the chaff, an issue XBox indies have yet to get around. Even if games aren’t heavily promoted by Apple, the availability of the App Store worldwide is sure to lead to some kind of increased sales, such was the case for Fun Infused.

This isn’t to say that all indie games on the XBox sell badly. ‘Fortresscraft: Chapter 1’, a Minecraft clone, became the first game on the service to gross over a million dollars, even after removing the 30% cut for Microsoft, for its developer last year. Digital DNA Studios also recently grossed over a million dollars thanks to their Minecraft-inspired creations, ‘Castleminer’ and ‘Castleminer Z’.

In the end, it’s safe to say that I haven’t really shown XBox indie games in the brightest of lights here, instead showering praise on the other superior services available. However, I’m not saying that XBox indies should go away, and, if anything, I’m trying to say the exact opposite. It is one of the easiest ways to develop and self-publish a game on the Internet, with possibly the most exposure of any service of that kind. Also, without XBox indies, would any of the developers I’ve mentioned above who have since moved on to greener pastures be well enough known to be allowed on a more elite service like Steam? Most likely not.

What I’m trying to say is this: Yes, the indie game service found on the XBox isn’t exactly the best you’ll find out there, and Microsoft should really do more to promote it. And yes, developers who publish their games on there shouldn’t be expecting to be the rare case that makes tons of money, but should rather be doing it as a stepping stone to one of the bigger, better services out there. Gamers shouldn’t look down on the service either, just because it doesn’t have achievements. Rather, they should be checking out the service every so often, and giving a couple of games at least a demo while taking a massive detour from the massage games and other such shovelware. I mean, if you don’t like it, you may have just wasted 8 minutes. However, if you do like it, it’s only some virtual spacebucks to keep playing, right?