Xbox Dash Update Holds Out Olive Branch to Indies, Twists Knife

New dashboard update! Has the sky fallen on Xbox LIVE Indie Games? Let’s take a look at what changed:

What We Got:

Bing Search

Indie games show up in Bing search results. If someone knows your game, they can find it relatively easily. A big addition that could change the effectiveness of advertising online and word-of-mouth.

Rate from Library

It’s now much easier to rate indie games since you no longer have to go back to the marketplace. I think the percentage of users that rate games will increase, and hopefully the effect of “ratings manipulations” is diminished.

Related Games

Each game now has 3 (expandable to 10) additional related game suggestions. Should help the service as a whole, though you see a lot of the same titles being suggested. Still, this is a really nice addition.

Included in “Picks”

The Games Marketplace now has 3 (expandable to 10) “picks” based on a user’s history. This could help expose more indie titles – the picks seem to include indie titles surprisingly frequently. However, the selections seem pretty bizarre. If the suggestion engine can settle down, this could be a nice win for a small subset of indie developers.

A High Level “Indie Games” Tile

The current “Indie Games” tile is actually in a pretty good place, even if you have to wait for the carousel to rotate (or do it manually with RS). If this was a permanent tile, I’d be happy. As it stands, it feels like it’s only a matter of time before another promo is rotated in.

Included in Quickplay

I think this is new. The Quickplay tile on the main page of the dash (and in the guide popup) now includes indie (and AppHub-deployed) titles. A nice-to-have, but it cannot be seen by anyone but you.

New Releases List Now Has 100 Entries

I suppose this is good. I’m referring to the “Games -> Games Marketplace -> Games -> Indie Games -> New Releases” list here. There’s also “Games -> Games Marketplace -> Games -> Game Type -> Indie Games -> New Releases” that has ALL indie games sorted by release date. Yikes.

 

This is the new indie games section! Well, one of them.

 

What We Didn’t Get:

Cloud Storage

No big surprise here. Would have been nice, but really not necessary. Probably would have made peer review a bigger headache anyway.

Beacons & Activity

Beacons may have helped fledging mulitplayer indie games maintain some sort of community. Activity would have been a nice way to spread the word about popular games in a viral manner. Indie games do not exist as far as these features are concerned.

Included in New Releases, Most Popular, Genre and Title A-Z list with Other Game Content

As before, indie games are not lumped in with “real” games, XBLA, DLC, Games on Demand or Xbox Originals. Not surprising, and I don’t genuinely expect Microsoft to give indie games the same status.

This is the other, permanent indie section. It's just one big list, with four sorting options.

What We Lost:

Ability to Filter by Genre

Genre is simply gone as far as indie games are concerned. There is a Genre list in the Games Marketplace, but it does not include indie titles. The only way to see an indie game’s genre is by looking at the full game description.

Ability to Quickly Sort by Title

If you want to browse indie games, you get one big list of all 2000+ titles. You can sort that list by Release Date, Most Popular, Rating or Title – but that’s it. Want to find Zombie Accountant? Sort by title, scroll through almost 2000 games and presto! No more jumping to a letter.

Visibility

Indie games used to be a category on par with XBLA and Game Demos. Those categories have changed, but indie games didn’t get an equivalent spot on the virtual shelf. No game content has as little visibility as indie games.

If the Carousel Tile Goes Away…

The “top-level” tile in the carousel is probably what people think is THE indie section. To me, that’s the temporary section that will disappear as soon as Microsoft decides to run a different promo in its place. Then what? We have one big, sortable list. And that’s it. No Kotaku’s Favorites, no contest finalists. Why the “Game Type -> Indie Games” tile doesn’t link to the same section as the carousel tile is beyond me.

Update: Apparently the top-level carousel tile is not going anywhere anytime soon. Its existance is a fairly big gesture from the dashboard/marketplace team – thank you to whoever pushed to include it.

My Thoughts:

While I think there are some great wins for indie game discoverability (Bing, related games, picks), the usability of the indie games section has taken a big hit. There’s nothing to browse anymore. There’s no reason to visit. There’s no sense of there even being a place to visit at all, even if you do manage to find it.

Frankly, I’m surprised and impressed at what we got. I think that what we lost is overwhelming though.

Update: To clarify, I think older titles in the catalog will suffer since there’s no real way to browse them effectively. Then again, the marketplace was never really strong in that regard. Support could be better (it can always be better), but if the carousel tile sticks around as indicated, things might not be so bad for new and top performing titles. The lack of Genre filtering stings, but is frankly the one I feel has the best chance of getting resolved.

As always though, time (and data) will tell. But hey, at least it’s not in the Speciality Shop.

What’s Next:

Make a post in this thread in the official feedback forums. Even if it’s just to say that, yes, you do care about indie games: http://forums.xbox.com/xbox_forums/general_discussion/f/2386/t/155168.aspx

Pick Your XBLIG Release Date Thoughts

What It Is

XBLIG developers can now opt to hold off on publishing a game once it has passed peer review. This gives them the ability to publish at a time of their choosing, within 24 hours.

Why It Helps

I see two big upsides to this change for developers. The first is that press coverage, reviews and general hype can now be coordinated with much greater certainty. On a small scale, this means that you can inform your audience about a title’s release date in advance without having to worry about a failed or delayed peer review. On a larger scale, it will now be much easier to coordinate events like the Indie Winter Uprising, which ended up spanning a month instead of a week.

The second major upside is that developers can now pick the day of the week to launch their game. It’s been shown that the New Releases list is of great importance to an XBLIG’s success, but staying on there is often a roll of the dice. In the past, you could attempt to time your release by submitting to peer review roughly 48 hours before your desired launch time, if you had a big enough following to review your game more or less immediately. It was an inexact science at best, but Luke Schneider of Radian Games managed to time some of his releases. It was never really an option for the rest of us though. If you missed your desired launch time, you could end up missing the weekend altogether and releasing your game on a Monday to a small audience.

Why It’s a Big Deal

Microsoft has taken (and ignored) a lot of flak regarding its support for the indie service. The fact that any change has been made is a reassuring gesture, but there’s more to it than that.

This change is to benefit developers trying to run a business with Xbox Live Indie Games.

The XBLIG market has not been terribly friendly to developers trying to make their living selling their games. Instead, it has often been touted as a hobbyist’s playground – somewhere where you can release your games to the world and maybe make a few bucks for the experience. This change is not for the benefit of the developer who wants to show off his game to his friends. It’s a step in the right direction for Microsoft to start treating XBLIG as more of a marketplace with real income potential. And that’s encouraging.

What’s Next

It will be interesting to see how developers handle the new power. I’m curious to see how a definite release date will affect the press coverage for indie games, if at all. After all, it will still be just as hard to send review copies to the people who need them: you have to create a PC build, or else send the .ccgame file outside of the XBLIG service. Will indies bother? Will I bother?

Release day timing will be interesting to watch too. Will everybody flood the New Release list on Friday morning in the hopes of getting a prime spot during the coveted Friday-evening-through-Sunday timeslot? How long do you play chicken before you publish your game in an attempt not to get bumped down immediately? What about trying to buck the trend and publishing on the historically undesirable Monday timeslot? Would you get more time during the week on the list? Is it enough to make it worth it?

Lastly, it will be very telling to see how Microsoft follows this up. This is a feature that has been requested for a long time now; many would say it’s overdue. Hopefully this is not just a token gesture to make up for the ratings fiasco of previous weeks. However, the Top Downloads calculation was also changed recently so it seems someone at Microsoft is looking out for the XBLIG market. With E3 just around the corner, I’ve got my fingers crossed…

Lair of the Evildoer in playtest

Quick update to say that Lair of the Evildoer is in playtest over at the AppHub. You need to be a premium member to view the thread or download the game.

I found the previous playtests (under the name “Project Splice”) to be very successful both in terms of feedback and motivation. I feel like I’m on the home stretch for the game now, so hopefully these “beta”-esque playtests will be equally useful.

No video this week, purely because they take a lot of time to produce and that time is currently going towards development. It’s been a while since my last video though, and thus there’s nothing really representative of the current state of the game that I can show anybody. I hope to change that next week with a trailer and an official announcement. Maybe.

Why aren’t you following me on Twitter? That hurts.

Here’s a screenshot for being so well-behaved:

Do Indies Crunch?

I happen to have a convenient two week block of spare time and a game that needs finishing. I plan on crunching.

But wait you say! Crunching is bad! Yes, I’ve heard that too – here’s a good article detailing why. I’ve also experienced the fun that crunching for a big publisher isn’t.  And yet, free of the shackles, I’ve got my Red Bull on my desk ready to go.

As an independent developer, you basically get to control your own destiny. You pick what game you make, the genre, the platform, the price point and even the release date. You don’t have a publisher breathing down your neck threatening to take away funding. On the other hand, you don’t have that funding to begin with. And you need to eat, so shipping isn’t really an optional part of the job. Crunching to get there is up to you.

My reason for crunching is obviously to accomplish more in a shorter period of time. But I also know that I can afford to take it relatively easy after this stretch. I figure that if I’m following agile methodology and sprinting all the time, shouldn’t I jog at some point? Maybe the interval training analogy is flimsier than I thought.

So indie developers, do you crunch? Why?

So, this #ims211 thing

It all started so innocently when Sean C. Duncan (@scd) tweeted:

Hey, if you work in games, can you tweet hi to my class (#ims211)? I wanna make a point about Twitter and the game dev world.”

Game developers around the world responded in droves. From indies to AAA, programmers to artists to musicians, the hashtag was flooded with tweets from around the world. It seems like every group has been represented, with incredible speed and friendliness. It’s become a gathering point for people in the industry in just over 24 hours.

  • Twitter is a good way to reach other developers? Check.
  • The game dev world is made up of more than just coders and artists? Check.
  • The game dev community is alive, vibrant, and, above all, friendly? Check.

Whatever @scd was hoping to prove, I think it’s safe to say the game dev world came through.

Point proven, where does #ims211 go from here? It’s taken on a life of its own now, with people using it as a way to connect to other developers, query a wide group of industry folk, recruit for jobs and more.

In the end, @scd sums it up best:

If #ims211 hasn’t proven that *all* game students need to get on Twitter, I really dunno what else will.”

Oh and since you’re here, why not follow me @benkane? </shameless plug>

Friday Update

It’s Friday! Update time!

After a brief vacation, work has resumed on the action RPG twin-stick shooter game known only as Project Splice. No alpha playtest or video this week because most of the work has been largely cosmetic. Animations, actual art, particles, oh my!

Cosmetic? That sounds like polishing!

Sort of. I’ve set a target roughly corresponding to one more month of development (give or take several months). The laundry list of remaining work is pretty daunting, but it does appear to be complete and thankfully finite. There will be more playtesting and more balance work in the near future.

Stay tuned next week* for the dramatic reveal of Project Splice’s final title!

I’ve heard that if you tell people to follow you on Twitter, they are more likely to do it. Follow me on Twitter @benkane!

To whet your appetite, here’s a picture of your nemesis:

Follow @benkane you fools!

* – give or take several months

Project Splice Weekly Alpha 4

Another week, another alpha build plus video!

Feedback in the forum has slowed down a bit, but it hasn’t completely stopped so I’m still pleased. I’ll continue to do weekly builds, both to keep it available for people to try as well as keeping me somewhat accountable for making progress.

This coming week will hopefully be focused on art and balancing. The game still can’t realistically be played all the way though. Now that the majority of the planned enemy types are in, I can flesh out the distributions, levels and start tuning difficulty. I also need to drop the Project Splice moniker pretty soon. Exciting!

Here’s this week’s video:

As usual, if you’re an AppHub member and you want to try out the latest build or check out the forum thread, you can find it here.

Did you follow me on Twitter? It’s @benkane . You should do that right now.

I’ll wait.