XBLIG: Knocking on death’s door?
I’m changing the line-up a little & going to be talking about another subject that’s dear to my heart: Xbox Live Indie Games or XBLIG for short. I’ve been a Xbox gamer since 2002 when I bought my first original Xbox. I’ve since moved on to the Xbox 360 in 2006. I was stoked when Microsoft showed off the first 7 XNA trial games at GDC 2008 that would foreshadow the Xbox Live Community Games service in November 2008.
The service has changed a little over the years: changing the price structure, adding support for avatars, party chat & video playback and a name change to Xbox Live Indies Games. Unfortunately it hasn’t fixed it’s biggest problem: lack of achievements, gamerscore & leaderboards. These features are probably why the service hasn’t been taken seriously & has lead to poor sales & public image. However, the cheap novelty & me-too games like massagers take a major toll too.
The service has been plagued with it’s biggest problems over the past year. It hasn’t really gathered enough marketing attention from Microsoft or community support for the developers & has had all kind of problems with it’s position in the storefront and freezes to the Top Downloads & New Arrivals lists. Those latter problems have been going on for 2 years & Microsoft has yet to fix the problems completely which has lead to low morale in the developer community because it directly affects sales. The problems wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that Microsoft lost it’s Community Manager last September when Kathleen Sanders moved on inside the company. Microsoft has yet to fill her spot & the developer community support has waned as Microsoft has gone mum when issues with the dashboard arose.
One would have thought that with the recent XNA MVP Summit & Game Developer Conference that new & exciting details for the service would have been announced, but both events have come & gone with no new information. Recently Gamasutra had a round-robin interview with a number of high-profile XBLIG developers on what their plans are going forward & what they think the service needs to stay alive. Interesting is that most seemed to have made the decision to leave for better platforms. Platforms that have a bigger audience & the potential for more sales. But they did pretty much all agree that the platform really needs achievements & leaderboards and something needs to be done with the marketing and the storefront.
Achievements, I believe, are the single biggest roadblock keeping Xbox gamers from buying & playing XBLIG. One would think that’s a sad thing to say, but Xbox gamers have been conditioned over the past 5 years to buy & play games for achievements & gamerscore. XBLIG just happen to be the only games on the platform that don’t support them. If Microsoft doesn’t think they’re worthy of that honor, why should Xbox gamers feel any different? Microsoft are treating XBLIG & their developers like lepers, one would think they want it to die.
But even with that dire prognosis, XBLIG can still be saved. If Microsoft is going to be able to compete better with other game platforms out in the coming years they’re going to need to have a better game App Store than Apple & Android. They need to embrace their uniqueness: achievements & leaderboards. There’s not much to say about leaderboards, but there is quite a bit about achievements.
There have been all kind of achievement suggestions out there. Some range from custom Gamerscore just for XBLIG to 0 point Gamerscore to Gamerscore based on price. All of which I think go against MS’s design philosophy of the platform determining number of achievements & Gamerscore. For instance XBLA can give 12 achievements & 200 gamerscore. Disc titles give 50 achievements & 1000 gamerscore. The whole XBLIG service should be treated as one platform & thus have one set of achievements & Gamerscore just like the other services.
If you were to technically look at XBLIG, it’s actually one title(the XNA game launcher) with an infinite possible number of add-on levels(called games). There’s one other title that mimics this: Game Room. It gives 1000 gamerscore across 56 achievements. It was designed that way since they originally planned on over 1000 Game Room titles. I don’t think they achieved that many, but there are currently over 1700 XBLIG titles & it doesn’t look like it’s stopping.
I’ve suggested in the past on the XNA forums that Microsoft should treat XBLIG achievements the same way as Game Room. You could give the XNA Game Launcher itself 1000 gamerscore spread across 50 generic achievements that Microsoft themselves determine. The actual games would only contribute to a medal/leveling up system. Each XBLIG would be allowed to give only Gold, Silver or Bronze awards for 3 different categories(Point Buster, Survivalist & Time Spender), not actual achievements. You could even call the awards Indie Creds. Gain so many Indie Creds & you get an achievement. This way Microsoft or Peer Reviewers wouldn’t need to police the devs achievement titles or achievement icons for explicit content since they won’t be allowed to create their own. This also gets around the problem where individual games can’t get give away free achievements. It works the exact same way on Game Room. If you don’t play games you won’t be able to get enough medals/Creds to raise your level & thus get achievements.
A lot of people & probably devs will probably say that you’re not giving out real achievements & you would be right. But with the current Peer Review system I don’t think there’s any way around it. If you were to allow real achievements, then Peer Reviewers would need to police them & not just for inappropriate content, but games trying to give away free achievements/gamerscore. That’s a lot of extra work that Peer Reviewers are not getting paid for & puts an undue burden on the already over-crowded Peer Review system. Now if Microsoft decided to do the reviewing themselves, then sure let the devs do their own achievements. However, I don’t see Microsoft abandoning Peer Review anytime soon. Hopefully Microsoft wakes up & tries to salvage what’s left of XBLIG before all the quality devs jump ship. The system needs not only major changes, but it also needs major community support for its developers. If they don’t try to heal those wounds, they might as well put XBLIG out of its misery.