Sunday, September 20, 2009

How to botch a great idea: Xbox Live's Indy/Community Games

It should not be a surprise that I like indie games based on my involvement in the Flash gaming community. As much as I enjoy a high-end, big budget game (review on Arkham Asylum to follow when I finish it, if not earlier), I often feel that the business side of things prevents big developers from taking risks (hence Devil May Cry 4, Tekken 6, Final Fantasy XII, and Dynasty Warriors Who-The-Hell-Is-Still-Counting). Indie developers can often develop games on much lower budgets (i.e. little to no money), much quicker, and with less pressure to make money. That's not to say that they don't want or deserve money for their talents, but there's certainly less pressure when there aren't millions of dollars on the line. The result is that you see most of the innovation, creativity, and originality coming out of the indie scene.

Valve's Steam service launched an indie channel, and to the best of my knowledge has had fairly decent success with it. Microsoft saw an opportunity to pimp its XNA platform and opened up its own indie gaming marketplace (previously called Community Games, now Indie Games) to allow small developers to release games on one of the biggest gaming platforms available - the Xbox 360. Seemed like a dream opportunity for developers and a great revenue stream for Microsoft.

Where did they go wrong? How could they possibly mess that up? Turns out it can be done in more ways than one.

First off, until just last month, there was no concept of rating games in that channel, and there's still no way to write a review of it. Yes, every game has a demo you can download, but with only a few screenshots and no descriptions from anyone besides the developer, it can be hard to decide if it's even worth the time to try to download and play the game.

With a 1-5 star rating system we can get a little more information at a glance, though the sorting methods are laughable at best. At the same time, there have been numerous games released for the platform, meaning that unless you keep up with releases on nearly a daily basis, you'll have a very hard time finding the unique gems in the mound of indie games (most of which are admittedly pretty crappy).

Things get even worse when you get into the interface that lets you load up and play the games. With their "Arcade" games, which is basically the professional channel compared to the indie channel, each game is a self-working download. Once it's on your Xbox you can play it anywhere, any time. Not so for the Indie games. If you don't have a valid internet connection you can't load them up. Even better, when you purchase a game, there is no indication in your game library that the game is a full game. For your Arcade games and DVD games they show up in the Full Games section, but Indie games just get ignored, forcing you to search through your collection of Indie game demos to try to remember which ones you've purchased.

Add to that no support for high scores with friends (come on, Flash game portals easily do this on free sites, how can Microsoft not offer support on their for-pay service?) and no achievements (sure, I can see why they'd cap it to maybe 50 gamer points so as not to get abused, but if someone wants to spend some money to get some easy gamer points why the hell not?) and you start to wonder why Microsoft even bothered. It's a great idea, and a great market, but if you're only going to do a half-assed job with it then you end up shooting yourself in the foot while simultaneously hurting all of the game developers who are trying to use your service. Don't get me wrong - it's close. With some good tweaks and a little more official support it could be a great market, but right now it feels rushed and unfinished.

Speaking of which, has anyone downloaded the Darkest of Days demo? How on earth did that get past the Microsoft quality requirements? The game is embarrassing on so many levels. It looks like a PS2 game (and not even a good one) loaded with pop-in, laughable animation, ridiculous "AI", and the most amateur "Settings" screen I've ever seen in a professional game. I can't imagine a single person purchasing that game after playing the demo.

Update (2009-10-11): I'm not sure when it changed, but I just checked today and my purchased Indie game now shows in the Full Games menu, which is much appreciated. I'd still like to be able to play without being connected, but at least this makes it easier to find games I've purchased. So, nice step forward, but still quite a few more to do.

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