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

An Experiment with XBLIG Playtesting

Just yesterday I posted an early gameplay video for my current project. I’m pretty happy with where the game is at, but I’ll be the first to admit that there is still a very long way to go.

Today, I put the game up for XBLIG playtest.

What gives? There’s clearly not a whole lot of content for people to try out. Numerous key pieces, such as story and progression, are completely absent. However I feel that enough of the core gameplay is present and stable that I can begin getting feedback on it. I’ve often heard of playtesting “early and often”, but that was something I ignored for my previous title, Zombie Accountant. For that, playtest was more of an informal check to see if there were any glaring bugs. It was still worthwhile – someone found a showstopper bug, and I added a much-needed last-second instructional diagram.

But I feel playtesting can be much more useful than that. Hence, I’ve submitted my game as early as I’m comfortable doing. Any sooner and I’d be wasting the time of other community members. The plan is to keep a build in playtest from here until release, meaning I’ll need a new build at least once a week. I think weekly is a good target to incorporate significant improvements with each new build.

Will it pay off? Will I use up the goodwill of other playtesters and have nobody willing to play my game by the time I want to release it? Stay tuned!

Oh, and if you’re an App Hub member, feel free to check it out here, under the laughably temporary name of “Project Splice”.

Zombie Accountant Sales, Thoughts

Zombie Accountant hit the Xbox Live marketplace just over a week ago, so I figured it would be a good time to share my thoughts on the process along with some sales data. I’ll also go over the sales of the WP7 version and what I’m working on next, just to keep things interesting.

Peer Review

Zombie Accountant entered AppHub Peer Review on Thursday, Nov 25th. This is my first game, and while I’ve been answering questions in the forums for a while, I don’t have much reputation. With no past releases, I didn’t garner any attention from other peer reviewers and had to wait until my game floated towards the top of the list (as games are sorted in ascending order by date entered into peer review). This was no real surprise, although it is a bit deflating to see games after yours start to get reviews. However, after 6 days I got my first review. Two days later (which felt like an eternity) and Zombie Accountant had accrued enough passes to be approved for the marketplace. This was excellent for two reasons: first, I had finally released a game for XBLIG! And second, it was going to hit the market late on Friday / early on Saturday, which is a beneficial time to appear on the New Releases list.

Sales on XBLIG

First off, my expectations for Zombie Accountant were not high. I’ve followed the “Share you sales numbers” thread for long enough to know that even great games can be buried before they get a few thousands downloads. For me, ZA was more about testing the process of releasing a game and getting over the mental barrier of never-having-shipped-an-indie-game. Getting trials and feedback was the next most important thing. Sales were just gravy.

Too many words! Let’s look at a pretty chart and some actual numbers:

Date Trials Sales Conv
12/04/2010 4258 189 4.44%
12/05/2010 3520 191 5.43%
12/06/2010 1944 126 6.48%
12/07/2010 1229 87 7.08%
12/08/2010 796 60 7.54%
12/09/2010 606 49 8.09%
12/10/2010 631 40 6.34%
12/11/2010 818 74 9.05%
12/12/2010 746 65 8.71%
12/13/2010 479 41 8.56%
Grand Total 15027 922 6.14%

I was stunned when I saw the download numbers. I never thought I’d reach 15K downloads, let alone within 10 days of release. The sales were a pleasant surprise too, though largely as a corollary to the trial numbers. I figured conversion would lie in the 5-10% range, which appears to be dead on. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not satisfied with that ratio. But it is what I expected.

As a nice consequence of these trial numbers, Zombie Accountant occupied the #1 spot on the Indie Games list at Xbox.com when sorted by “Best selling today”. It was like that in the US, the UK, Canada and even Germany. It was like that for three or four days! I’m pretty proud of that. (And no, it’s not #1 anymore.)

However, it’s obvious that “Best selling today” must refer to download numbers, and not actual sales. This is because another game, Epic Dungeon, sat in the #2 spot during a period where its developer shared downloads and sales stats. The number of downloads was just slightly less than that of Zombie Accountant (giving Epic Dungeon second place) while its sales were roughly 8x that of ZA. I believe the dashboard’s Top Download list’s ordering reflected actual sales, but I didn’t keep as close an eye on that.

The decline in downloads, sales and ratings is not surprising. If anything, I expected the drop-off to be more like 50% a day whereas it seems to be closer to 33%. There was also a nice uptick on its second weekend, reinforcing the notion that weekends do matter when it comes to release timing. Overall, I’m very happy.

Sales on WP7

Last week, Microsoft updated the AppHub with reports for WP7. This kinda makes my post on using analytics to track sales a bit redundant, although I think there is a wealth of data that can be gathered using this approach. For instance, I was taken aback at how few people look at the options, help and credits screens.

Anyway, I already had a good sense of how Zombie Accountant was performing on WP7, so the official reports were not a surprise. There are, however, still disappointing:

This chart shows total downloads. Total sales are 19. The reports are a bit wonky, in that they list “Paid”, “Trial” and “Free” numbers. Does a trial that gets converted to paid count for both? What if you just download the paid version right away? What the hell is free? A re-download? One user license on multiple phones? An update? Who knows.

So 19 sales in month. Pointless really. Unless I make another WP7 game, I won’t be getting a payout.

Where Next

So WP7 results are gloomy. Other developers have had some success though, so I won’t write the platform off. I’m not targetting it at the moment though.

XBLIG is where it’s at! I’d also like to make a foray into PC gaming, through a portal like GamersGate or hosted on my own site. I’m sticking with XNA for now though, so that limits the cross-platform appeal for PC.

I’ve been playing around with few things to prototype my next project. First was to grab Farseer physics and mess around with that. Next was to implement 2D dynamic shadows on the GPU using Catalin Zima’s excellent tutorial. Lastly, I’ve been wading through the Procedural Content Generation wiki. I’ve always wanted to dabble with procedural levels, so I think my next project will involve that. I am undecided on whether procedural generation will end up in the final product or if I will just use it as a starting point to help me make content. Either way, I feel I’ll need the help when it comes to producing content. I’ve just implemented some dungeon generation from a series here by Dirk Kok. I’m happy with the initial results.

Take a look: