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How to stifle Innovation, the Microsoft Way

By on May 21, 2012
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From the TIGA Guide to Self-Publishing:

How to Submit A Game [for XBLA]

  • Once you have fleshed out your game concept, contact the XBLA team via email with a pitch regarding your game and company
  • If the team is interested, they will contact you and ask you to fill out the official Concept Submission Form
  • You will then formally submit your game concept and will asked to include a wide selection of information[which might include]:
    • concept art
    • screen shot mock-ups
    • design documents
    • early builds
  • If it passes this stage, the concept will be reviewed and evaluated.
  • The XBLA team will research your credentials, too
  • If you get the go ahead,you will be given the relevant developer tools and documentation and be allowed tobuy an Xbox development kit
  • At this stage, you develop your game, covering all the costs yourself, working with an Arcade producer that is assigned to you
  • The producer will set targetsand will help with design, Gamerscore and achievements.
  • As you get close to the end of development, the game is tested (at your expense).
  • You must also localise the gameand acquire the relevant ratings.
  • After a period of debugging and verification, the game goes through the Xbox 360 certification process, and when it is digitally signed off, it will appear on the XBLA service.

(The bold emphasis is all mine). Can you imagine a process more designed to prevent innovation? To ensure that every step, there is the opportunity for someone to say “that’s the not the way we do things around here”? To ensure that only the usual suspects make games?

I hear that the sales on the platform have been disappointing (with the notable exception of Minecraft). With rules designed to keep new ideas out, is it any surprise?

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve:
  •  I don’t agree. I would rather go for a large open market, albeit with lots of competition, than a curated, hard-to-enter market with a limited number of consumers and a platform holder who massively limits flexibility (only one business model, updates cost money, producer gets to approve our work).

  • Isn’t the fact they see it as impossible to make money a totally different argument though? That, like Tadhg’s point, is more about improvements that could be made to push potential customers towards the store itself.

    The reason why developing for iOS is so appealing is because the development cost is so much less than developing for consoles. One dev can handle development as opposed to the 3 or even 4 needed for XBLA development.

    Surely it makes more business sense to push a title into a small market so it gains maximum exposure rather than pushing it into a flooded market?

  •  Inundated, no. Know a number of reputable studios who have decided it is impossible to make money on XBLA given the process, yes.

    XBLA is supposed to be a digital platform. That means it *can* be open to experimentation. That’s why I think it is so short-sighted of them to follow this approach. But if Tadhg’s eloquent arguments can’t sway you, I’m not sure that you can be convinced.

    And I am totally aware that MSFT funds studios. Then it is acting as a publisher. I have no issues with this behaviour in a publisher: it’s when it occurs in a platform, especially a digital platform with no marginal cost of distribution, that I think it is crazy.

  • I presume you have been inundated with mail from indie studios who have personally had their pitches turned down then?

    Also, barring API specifics the actual development for an XBLA title is pretty much identical in codebase (c# and c++) to that of developing for Steam, Windows executables etc… so it’s not as though an idea will be rejected and then never see the light of day. If it’s a project that doesn’t require outside funding then it will merely just be slightly altered and shipped to different platforms.

    How does the XBLA store differ from Steam, GoG etc… (not to mention actual retail stores) in the way they decide what is made available for purchase? It is their store and as such they must be careful what they allow so the quality of the market isn’t tainted.

    One final point. I’m guessing you are aware that Microsoft actually fund smaller indie studios to develop titles? So in those cases of course they are going to want to be shown that the idea is marketable and you can deliver the product in question.

  •  Reading your entire thread, it seems to me that you prefer a store where your business – with its relationship with a gatekeeper – can get through while other indies without that relationship can’t.

    I can understand why that works for you from a business point-of-view, but it is a patronage culture, and I fear for the innovation which doesn’t happen as a result.

  • I consider taking an active role in the design and vetting for ‘quality’ to be heavy handed, yes. Just as in any other form of publishing.

    Sometimes that produces good results, mostly it has zero effect on actual quality, and often what it does it smooth out edge case ideas in favour of whomever the platform holder believes is ‘good’. Just like 80s pop music: it all fell into a stereotypical style after a while.

  • Provided they enjoy the limited tastes that that entails.

    Seriously, it’s like you’re making an argument that the Top 50 singles is good enough for people because at least they all have a certain standard of production values. Be happy with your lot wee consumers, for who knows what would happen if ye strayeth beyond your pen.

  • Are they that heavy handed though? The experiences I’ve heard of suggest they just want to ensure the title is of sufficient quality.

    You only need to look at XBLA’s sister the indie arcade to see what happens when you make the publishing process too lenient. The overall quality is appalling on there and because of that the decent titles get ignored.

    I understand the concerns about losing control over a project, but I’d say that Microsoft’s input is totally removed from the heavy handedness you get with client work

  • But it’s far easier for your average person to pick out a decent title from 500 that have been quality controlled than pick one from 100,000 that haven’t.

    I believe as always the truth is somewhere in the middle of both arguments. Being too strict harms the amount of quality titles on the platform but being too lenient allows too much garbage onto it and that risks people labelling all the titles as just that. That in itself harms sales.

    We develop for both platforms over here and our experience is that getting a hit on the iOS app store is incredibly difficult due to the sheer number of titles available. 

  • I’m not going to deny that it’s a bit all over the place. The key difference though is that the iOS store IS the iPhone. Without those apps the phone is null and void, so of course Apple are going to push everyone towards it. 

  • Yes, Facebook as it stands today has issues. It has proved to be a very game-able market for those with the resources to advertise, and that in turn has led to a clone culture. My personal hope is that the App Centre redresses it to some extent.

    However let’s get some perspective here: No other platform in history has managed to assemble as many players in such short times, nor lead to may successfully built game companies who sold or profited to inhuman levels. And while the initial games were quite simple, there was nothing like what most of them did for some time. That’s what happens when there are no constraints.

    Frankly it’s both amazing and somewhat galling to me that you’d prefer to work in a market where you’re relying on some other company to pat you on the head like teacher’s pet and fix your game to their liking. I’ve done that job (on a smaller scale at Sky) and with the best will in the world it only ever produces a very particular (and often politicised) strain of games from regular providers. I’m convinced that it’s the main way to eventually guarantee your platform’s obsolescence.

    Like I say, the console that gets this right is the one that looks at what Facebook and Apple did and emulates that well, in terms of availability, ease of publishing and even business model. That console will be the one that gets all the cool games next. I quite fancy WiiU for it, but who knows.

  • Actually a chief complaint from all the xbox indie devs I know (and why they mostly dev for iOS these days) is just how hidden the games catalog has become. The Xbox is a woefully confused mess of a device UI-wise these days. Is it for movies? music? TV? A bit of everything with no sense of direction.

  • Facebook is not full of innovation though. It is full of copy cat ‘Ville’ clones, dumbed down rpgs and other generic cheap rip offs. There are no doubt great games on the platform but good luck finding them when they are drowning in a sea of dross.

    I will admit that perhaps Microsoft is a little strict on it’s publishing process but I think their model is far closer to the right one than Apple’s or Facebook’s

  • Ross, you know as well as I do that 99% of everything is garbage. Most of the games on XBL are not actually that good, there are maybe 10 that are. The other 490? Thoroughly meh.

  • I would agree that Sony do a bad job. Microsoft though does heavily advertise the store on the Xbox Live profile

  • I really don’t agree that the iOS app store is an example of the process done right. It’s 99% garbage apps. Apps that do well on the store tend to either be ones that Apple have selected to be advertised, have been advertised elsewhere or are from studios that have had a big hit already

  • The happy medium is the editorialised-but-open store, by which I mean the iOS App Store. Broad guidelines on what’s permitted, a quick turnaround time and no producer handholding/game design refereeing. 

    The result: endless innovation and real choice. Sure the Microsoft method works, but only if you only want the customers you already know you have to buy games you already know they’ll like. So you get maybe 10% of the business that you could have had.

    Xbox Live is a pure ‘short head’ business, and run to all intents and purposes like a record label. Except you the artist pay all the costs. 

  • In addition, both Microsoft and Sony are doing a bad job of pointing users at their online stores.

  • Some of those games have reported disappointing sales though. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet for example. And 500 games is a pretty small number.

    In the end of the day I think this sort of magazine-led approach will change for consoles though. Everyone working behind those walls has seen what free or mildly curated (Facebook and iOS respectively) markets does for a platform and they are taking note. 

    The next gen console that gets this right will be the one to watch.

  • If you have an open marketplace you end up with the Android app store. Would having 500 quality games swamped by 10,000 fart and make me ugly apps help people find the titles that deserve attention? 

    Right now I can easily find a game worth paying for on the arcade, whereas I have to rely on reviews to point me in the direction of something worthwhile on the Apple app store and that actually has some kind of quality control.

    Pretty much everyone I know that has an Xbox has bought at least one title from the arcade. Also, why are you using supposed poor sales as an indicator of the problems of the publishing process? Are sales through the roof on PSN? Or is it just that in this current economic climate people haven’t got much spare cash floating around for ‘extra’ titles on top of the big releases they bought their consoles to play? Also, there’s this little thing called Steam (GoG etc…) that has more deals than DFS and I think that might just have more to do with poor sales on the arcade than a reasonable publishing process

  • Will Robinson

    A large 

  • In the end, I prefer an open marketplace to a curated one. One where the innovative doesn’t have to persuade the gatekeeper.

    There are clearly some success stories. But the noises that I’m hearing are that sales on the platform are very disappointing. Can’t find anyone to go on the record though.

    But for the record, I’m known as Nicholas.

  • Limbo, Castle Crashers, Trials, Bastion, Fez, Braid, Alien Hominid, I Am Alive, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, Super Meat Boy, Geometry Wars, Trials Evolution, N+, Plants vs Zombies, Shank, Shank 2, The Dishwasher Series, The Walking Dead, ‘Splosion Man etc…
    There’s only 500 games on there.

    So yeh you’re right, Nic. There’s no creativity on there at all and sales of games like Super Meat Boy, Trials, Limbo, Braid and Fez were abysmal.

    As usual you make a great point.