Friday, January 29, 2010

Microsoft: An Indie Enabler?

While it's tempting to imagine Microsoft as some sort of bad influence on developers with a chronic indie problem, I believe Arkedo founder Camille Guermonprez meant it politely when he called the company an "enabler." He was referring, in an interview, to the Indie Games channel on Xbox Live, the perenially, and perhaps inevitably, confounding channel for XNA releases. Microsoft has had trouble communicating the identity of their Indie Games project since it launched, and its status as the red-headed stepchild of the Xbox Live family hasn't gone unnoticed by the press or potential developers. However, where Indie Games is succeeding, disappointing and changing appear to be part of a larger flux in the Live environment.
Whether or not it is intentional, describing Microsoft as "enablers" of the format's muted success carries with it a backhanded critique of the company's enthusiasm. Certainly, Guermonprez is a dutiful and much welcome contributor in the Indie Games roster, the Arkedo series being some of the best received and executed games available with the service. In fact, Guermonprez applauds the freedom that Microsoft has given XNA developers, and for not wearing "a publisher hat" in regards to game content and description. Concerns have been voiced that Microsoft is too hands off in their approach to the XNA community. Hobbyists and dedicated developers are given equal emphasis, pricing options, and promotion on the Indie Games channel, so it's difficult for users to find the most fully-formed entries. A look at the top grossing Indie Games of 2009 tells the tale. While the number one spot belongs to I MAED A GAM3 WITH Z0MB1ES!!!1 (ironically at that) with $160,000 in sales (!), two separate controller massage "games" made it onto the list, one edging out Who Did I Date Last Night for the number six spot. The system in place seems to benefit smaller development budgets and very simple execution.
Of course, this is not unlike the Apple's App Store, which Guermonprez suggests, may change the way Microsoft approaches Indie Games. The inflexible pricing regiment of the Indie Games channel will hopefully be the first thing to go. Microsoft has repeatedly had to defend the Microsoft Points currency on Xbox Live, and the one, three, and five dollar price points imposed on Indie Games seem to be arbitrary restrictions dictated by the dollars to points conversion rate. More pricing increments may give XNA developers more control over how to project their games to users.
The Indie Games market is still too small to attract many developers. Meanwhile, XBLA is becoming a haven for big projects from relatively big studios. There exists a considerable gap between the awareness of and attention to XBLA and that of Indie Games, despite the latter resembling the early years of the former. Perhaps Microsoft needs to throw its weight behind another The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai phenom in the XNA community. It would be encouraging to see an non-Avatar focused indie game that demonstrates the possibilities of XNA to be promoted on the Xbox welcome tab, next to the McDonald's ad and supplication to tweet from your 360. And while I respect Microsoft's democratic handling of how each indie is displayed on the channel, there must be a decent way to highlight wholehearted efforts by dedicated studios. It's not too late to realize the potential of the format. And how could it hurt to have a legion of budding developers owe you one?