Microsoft Slowly Euthanizes Xbox Indie Games

4 Nov

The title may be overly dramatic, but make no mistake, Microsoft is quietly holding a pillow over Xbox Live Indie Games, hoping to smother the service while no one looks.  Window Phone 7 developers, you have reason to be concerned.

A few gaming sites are covering the story, like Kotaku and Wired UK, but so far they are only interested in reporting forum drama as news.  I’m writing this article to lay out the full picture,and raise some awareness of the problem.

When Xbox Live Community Games (later renamed Indie) was announced, Microsoft pushed the message that they were going to “democratize game distribution”.  Those are the words of XNA head Chris Satchell in 2008 at the Game Developers Conference and following Microsoft press releases.  So let’s look at the democracy Microsoft has in 2010 for Indie developers XBLIG:

  • XBLIG can not connect to the Internet
  • XBLIG can not have Achievements, nor use the term
  • XBLIG can not have high score Leaderboards
  • XBLIG can not charge more than $5 for a game
  • XBLIG can not be played offline
  • XBLIG can not be played by a non-Live account
  • XBLIG box art / titles do not show in the friends list when you are playing an XBLIG title
  • XBLIG titles do not show in your game history
  • XBLIG titles are separated in the Marketplace from other games

(A few notes: some developers have implemented a peer to peer based leaderboard system, but these can only update when other players are online and only contain the scores their clients have seen.  Pricing options are $5, $3, and $1 (USD).  A $10 option existed at launched, but was removed and replaced with a $1 option.  For comparison, Microsoft sells virtual Avatar clothing at $1 for a shirt or pair of shoes, and $3 for an outfit).

The Top Lists of Terror

One of the top complaints for years has been the interface in which gamers use to find XBLIG titles.  There is a Top Downloads list, a Top Rated list, a New Releases list, a list of games hand selected by IGN, and a list of games that were selected as finalists in the most recent contest.  Only the of contest finalists worked as intended.

The IGN list is rarely updated, and follows no rhyme or reason to the selections (quality is not a factor).  The Top Downloads list does not factor in purchases, so titles with attention grabbing box art dominate, even when these downloads are deleted and not purchased.  Ratings on Xbox do not require that you play or even download the title and have shown no correlation to actual purchases. 

The New Releases list is a developer’s one shot to “stick” to another list before “falling off the dashboard.”  Developers share sales data and it is quite clear being on a dashboard list is worth 100x any online marketing promotion.  So what could be wrong with such a simple list?  All Microsoft has to do for this list is sort by release date, but this has proven to be quite difficult for the Softies.  With an ever increasing frequency the New Releases list “freezes” and any titles released during a freeze will not be added.  When the freeze is fixed, sometimes a few days, maybe a week or more, all titles are added at once.  Because of the list size limit, some titles will skip the new release list and go straight into the abyss.

Microsoft will not compensate a developer who’s title was lost in a list freeze by placing them back on the list.  Pulling and releasing the title again to get on the list, even in the case of a freeze, is against the terms of service and can result in the developer being banned. 

The Peer Review is a Lie

You may have heard that XBLIG titles go through a peer review process.  This is not the case.  Peer review, as done in the academic community, is a vetting of quality by ones peers.  To quote the University of Texas, “Peer Review is a process that journals use to ensure the articles they publish represent the best scholarship currently available”.  Peer review in XBLIG means running a game though a checklist, looking for crashes and bugs.  If it doesn’t crash, it’s a pass.  There are a few more rules than just crashing, such as allowing any controller to start the game and making sure fonts are legible, but the bulk is just QA.

In theory peer review sounds like a good idea – an open alterative to Apple’s infamously closed review process, while providing some safety compared to Google’s Android process which has let bank spoofing applications into the wild and apps stealing contact and location information to sell to anyone who’s interested.  In practice however, it is an unqualified disaster.

The first problem is the number of titles needing review.  As of this writing there are 70 games awaiting review, and it can easily take a month for a game to pass review.  If a game makes use of any non-English words (it doesn’t have to be translated, just one line of dialog “Hey amigo, let’s get a taco” counts), the game must be flagged by the developer for multiple languages and must have at least two reviews by speakers of that language.  This can hold a title up for months waiting for a qualified developer to submit a review.

The next problem in peer review is basic math.  A developer spends $59.99 a year for a required Xbox Live Gold account, plus an additional $99.00 per year for an App Hub membership, and gives up 32.24% of revenue (Microsoft sell points at $0.0125/point, but pays developers at a rate of $0.0121/point).  In addition to these payments and time spent creating their own game, the developer is expected to spend time playing and reviewing other titles awaiting review.  I know QA is a low paying job, but I think this is the first case where QA pay is negative.  Developers are not forced to review other titles, but if no one does, the entire service shuts down. 

The last failure of peer review is handling of subjective rules.  The developers are asked to fail games that infringe upon copyright as well as games that are not proper for the service.  Microsoft has full rights to censor its service, but telling the developers to decide where the line is?   That is just being lazy.  This has resulted in the games failing when someone thought there was a copyright violation but there was express permission (the developer still had to pull the content in question), games with political content failing because someone didn’t agree with the view, and in one case the Bible failing for “hate speech”.  Microsoft made an exemption for the Bible, but generally a developer who emails Microsoft asking for ruling on a subjective matter gets the boiler plate reply:

Microsoft is unable to participate in Peer Review, nor can we decide whether your fellow reviewers should think certain in-game content is bad enough to fail your game or not.  We also cannot clearly define what specific content is allowed in a game since each case is different, and it’s up to the reviewers’ judgment.  Your best avenue is to ask one of the moderators or fellow reviewers for their opinions in your game forum.

Okay, one more issue with peer review – there is a long standing bug that if a title reaches the total number of reviews needed to complete the cycle, and the last review is a fail for a bug, it will still be published on the service.  It seems to follow the logic “10 votes required and less than 2 fails” and does not check that the 10th review was actually a fail and the broken title is approved.

Promotions of the Wrong Kind

Microsoft has on rare occasion selected some XBLIG titles to feature in top level dashboard promotions.  These come without notice, even to the developers whose titles are selected, and result in a windfall of sales.  The titles selected however, seem to be the worst examples on the service.  Shovelware titles that make use of Avatars are use to pump up the Avatar Games section, or a screensaver is featured in a Halloween spot.  The result is not just that quality titles are passed over, but that Microsoft is actively encouraging more shovelware!


I’m going to make this short, as it isn’t interesting to but a few.  In the XNA forums, the MVPs not Microsoft are expected to do all moderation.   I’m used to MVPs in MSDN forums helping out and generally being pretty cool so it’s shocking to see an active MVP hate in the XNA forums.  I can see why there is the hate – the MVPs must lock all kinds of prohibited, yet common topics such as legal questions.  Asking about the tax forms on the Microsoft web site is a banned topic.  Again, Microsoft has the right to censor, but Microsoft, run your own damn forum and let the MVPs spend time help the community instead of policing it.

Paradise Lost

For a brief moment, during the new Xbox Dashboard beta, it looked as if Microsoft was making improvements.  XBLIG were listed beside Games on Demand, Demos, and Xbox Live Arcade.  The top lists were replaced with genre lists, ending the reign of terror and helping more of the 1400+ (more than 360, on demand, and Arcade titles combined) surface in a manageable UI.  This was just a cruel joke, as the update went live to find XBLIG removed from the “Games” section and listed in “Specialty Shops” next to Avatar clothing and the failed Game Room (where Microsoft tried to sell Atari 2600 titles for pretty close to the same prices as XBLIG).  To add insult to injury, the section art is an image of Avatars, as if to say “make us more Avatar Shovelware!”

The community manager for XBLIG has left and there is no word of a replacement.  High profile developers are already reporting the new dashboard is showing a 50% drop in sales and a 75% drop in downloads.  Microsoft has not made one announcement to the community and instead is working PR to spin coverage:

We wanted to give Xbox Live Indie Games that full marketplace experience and felt this was the best place to do it, alongside other popular channels like the Avatar Marketplace. In fact, since the launch of Avatars, Xbox Live members have made more than 290 million customisations[sic] to their Avatar’s clothing, so we expect many people to regularly visit the Specialty Shops section.

It’s worth note gamers do not need to visit the Specialty Shops to purchase Avatar clothing as there are numerous hooks into the new UI to up sell the virtual threads at every turn.  Also worth note is someone looking for Games will have to pass over the “Games & Demos”, “Genres”, and “Titles A-Z” sections to get to Specialty Shops section. 

Why WP7 Developers Should Take Note

The XNA forums are in flames, and the fate of XBLIG is uncertain as the quality developers that held up the service announce they are moving on to other platforms.  Why should WP7 developers care?  Because many XBLIG developers see history repeating itself and are considering other platforms.

The current WP7 forums mimic the early days of the Creators Club – so many issues being raised little to no Microsoft response.  Microsoft offers special WP7 APIs to publishers that are not available to regular developers.  The short life span of the Zune HD and App Store (less than 6 months before abandoned) and the WTF-was-that life span of the Kin are very clear reminders Microsoft does not have a successful track record marketing to consumers.

Why I Hope Things Change

Writing games for a console is something I thought I would never do in my lifetime.  XBLIG brought down the barrier to entry so anyone could release a game.  I’m sure this does not sit will with the EA’s and Activision’s of the world who want to keep prices high buy keeping a lock on distribution channels.  I honestly don’t care about the fight-the-man angle, writing a game for a console is just so damn awesome I want to be a part of it.  I have committed a serious amount of time to building newly-launched GameMarx with my friends at FuncWorks to spread the word on the many great games on XBLIG and I’m not ready to give up on that dream just yet.

I hope this is read by more than a few and pressure is brought down on Microsoft to make good on their promise and democratize game distribution.  If you agree, pass this on and lets #SaveXBLIG!

  • The Top Downloads list being frozen/broken is also a major (and more frequent issue) than the New Releases listing breaking. New Releases gives you only temporary exposure but Top Downloads is your chance to stick for the long haul. Many, many games have lost that opportunity.

  • Every time I read a developer account that details the struggle that is getting a game published and noticed on XBLIG, it makes me cringe. In theory, the idea was wonderfully thought out and could have been the perfect way for wonderful games to be discovered.

    In practice, as a consumer, it feels a lot like digging through a pile of shit to find the ring your dog swallowed. It’s eternally saddening that Microsoft does not seem to acknowledge that the current limitations of the peer review process are the reason the service is in such shambles and instead of trying to fix those problems, they sweep the service under the rug and hope everyone else forgets about it, too.

  • There’s some inaccuracies in your post:

    "If it doesn’t crash, it’s a pass."

    Untrue. There’s no requirement to pass something just because it doesn’t crash. Some of us MVPs have tried to get the community to implement a quality standard by just ignoring the "make a quick buck" submissions, but the kickback reviewers outnumber us.

    " If a game makes use of any non-English words (it doesn’t have to be translated, just one line of dialog “Hey amigo, let’s get a taco” counts), the game must be flagged by the developer for multiple languages and must have at least two reviews by speakers of that language."

    Not quite true. Foreign words that have become common in the English language do not need to be flagged.

    "The first problem is the number of titles needing review. As of this writing there are 70 games awaiting review, and it can easily take a month for a game to pass review."

    That can actually be a good thing. I haven’t checked lately but if the majority of the games in the pipeline are "quick buck" submissions leaving them there to be automatically failed after a month is a good thing. If most reviewers are like me, they sift through the submissions to find the quality games instead of wasting time on junk. Again, there are some reviewers that will pass anything that doesn’t crash.

    "This has resulted in the games failing when someone thought there was a copyright violation but there was express permission (the developer still had to pull the content in question)"

    It’s the responsibility of the developer to make know the permission to use IP when submitting and a game is not supposed to be failed if this is done. Reviewers that do so can be banned temporarily or permanently.

    Yes, there’s a lot of problems with the service, but I’m still holding out hope that MS will fix things and improve the quality of the service.

  • A couple of minor mistakes I noticed:

    1 – You don’t need an XBox Gold membership as a developer unless you’re making games that have online functionality.

    2 – That amigo/taco sentence mentioned would not require a foreign language check, because those are all commonly used loan words in English – even though they originated in Spanish, you could find them in some English dictionaries these day. However it is true that just a little bit of truly foreign language could require you to get passed in that lanuage – I remember a fighting game that had a Japanese character or two in the background needed to get a Japanese pass despite that being the only Japanese in the game.

  • I believe we have suffered for one fundamental reason more than any other. Our pains have come about because XBLIG has been negative to everyone involved (Microsoft, gamers, developers, and gamer reviewers), and it could have been fixed, and still can be, almost immediately.

    I address it here:

    Why We Should Encourage "Crap" XBLIG Games

    Read before you judge. It’s a paradigm shift.

  • Thinking on this more…

    Most of these complaints are just side effects of poor performance, and I almost wish your article wasn’t as popular as it is becoming because it is shining light on secondary issues. They are issues we should deal with, but after the core issue, which is performance and public perception of XBLIG. We should be concentrating on how to fix XBLIG at is core. Most of what has happened is a result of everyone (Microsoft, gamers, game reviewers, and developers) dealing with XBLIG as it is, instead of dealing with XBLIg as it could be. Again, I point the attention to my thoughts in the article I posted above. The platform iteslf needs to change, and the fix is an easy reality to come by.

  • Excellent write up overall.

    This is a painful week – watching our sales/downloads drop, having another "legit" project in the works that is essentially doomed (from a sales persepctive) now – definitely makes me consider conforming to Avatar BS or trying my hand at another platform. It’s hard not to feel abandoned.

  • Nice Article! I agree with everything you’ve said.
    I have two games on the service..Acid Rain and Acid Rain Heroes.

    I’m now moving on to other platforms.

    Thanks for the education Microsoft.

  • This article is not a good idea, because it’s feels like a conspiracy theory of Microsoft trying to kill Indie Games. If they wanted it dead, it’d be gone. This article lists numerous issues with Indie Games, but a lot are perfectly legitimate, and do not spell conspiracy. Indie Games is still alive. Hammering Microsoft for doing things they have not done is not going to help them hear us to solve the REAL problems…

    We need to stop complaining that there are crap games; there will always be. We need to stop complaining that developers are selling out; they are just following the lead of what’s promoted and making money. The platform’s lead is wrong, and can be changed. Instead of accusing Microsoft of malice, let’s educate each other and them how it can be fixed…

    There is no conspiracy. If Microsoft wanted to kill Indie Games, it wouldn’t use a pillow, it’d use a gun. So let’s be reasonable and find a solution. I believe we have one:

  • I thought I should say that I’ve read the purposes of your article on App Hub ( ) and I understand why you wrote it. I believe we are mostly on the same page. However, I am very concerned with the negative impact of proposing something similar to a conspiracy theory. I believe Microsoft wants Indie Games to work, and have placed it where they think it will work best. What they don’t realize is that their 2-year mistake (the Indie Games’ front page and top-rated/download lists) have lead developers to produce bad/one-off applications, instead of high quality games. Had they fixed this (which they still can), their analysis would have differed, and they’d see that Indie Games can happily live in the Games & Demos section, where it belongs.

    So we need: #1. the dashboard lists to be fixed to promote the better games (developers will follow suit and make what’s promoted), and #2. move it back to Games & Demos without that avatar-filled image as its presentation, to get gamer traffic to us.

  • Some quick responses to comments –

    "language issue" – the example may or may not pass, it’s another subjective area. What a persons from South Texas finds "common" will differed from South Jersey. The Language feature should be used to indicate the game is translated to those language, not has a word or two from them.

    IP/Copyright – the game in my example is the GameLoft title. They claimed Microsoft gave them permission for the Indie Logo Kit, yet were still given a fail for using the kit against the public terms of service list. In that case, GameLoft claimed the right to use it and shouldn’t have been a fail reason. To be fair, there was a large section of the community out to fail/ignore GameLoft because they didn’t play test and peer review other titles.

    Gold – technically you might not need a Live Gold account, but reality is you need one. Not only to develop features on your own title, but to be able to test them in peer review of other titles.

    "If it doesn’t crash, it’s a pass." – while some try to just ignore shovel ware titles in review, time has shown there are enough willing to review them. In fact, clearing them out helps your rep score and if you have a title in review, helps move you to the front of the line quicker. These titles also take less time to review than a full game as well.

    "Top Lists Freeze" – yes, should have made more of the fact all lists will freeze at the same time. I feel the new releases is the most damning since its cause some titles to never be on the list.

    "Conspiracy Theory" – I think that implies I’ve claimed all the issues were intentionally done to kill the service. I’m not saying that. I’m saying, whether through intention or neglect, Microsoft is killing XBLIG.

    I was kinda hoping to put a "Microsoft has announced xxx" here, but so far they have been silent…

  • jalf

    @Mike: regarding the "conspiracy theory, you did start your post with "Microsoft is quietly holding a pillow over Xbox Live Indie Games, hoping to smother the service while no one looks". Which sounds like things are being "intentionally done to kill the service". 😉

    But yeah, never attribute to malice what can be better explained by incompetence. 🙂

  • @jalf – true =p But if I titled it "XBLIG moved under Specialty Shops, developers upset" no one would have read/linked to it.

    Sadly, this appeared on Hacker News: – if true, there is more malice than incompetence :/

  • That was good post Xbox indie games. I like that post. I found it really well.