Guest Lectures: The Value of Artistic Integrity: Has XBLIG Been a Failure? By Michael Hicks

A note from CBR founder and editor in chief, Tristan Rendo:

I originally approached Michael Hicks to be our first guest lecture on CBR as part of an editorial on the future of XBLIG’s.  As a developer I knew he would have a far better view of the service than I ever could, and as one of the youngest and most optimistic developers on the service I knew his view would be particularly interesting.  It didn’t hurt that I had enjoyed his last game (Honor in Vengeance II) when it was featured in an early edition of the XBLIG Spotlight, or that he is one of the key players in trying to make the next XBLIG Uprising a real thing. After his first draft though we quickly realized there was a better article buried within; discussing whether the service had been a success or a failure so far was something a bit more tangible.  As a result I encouraged him to change his direction, and as a result we wound up with the excellent article below. So without further ado, I present our first Guest Lecture;

The Value of Artistic Integrity: Has XBLIG Been a Failure?
by Michael Hicks

As the announcement for the next generation Xbox is soon to be around the corner, some of us have been left wondering about the future of one of the most niche areas of Xbox Live: Xbox Live Indie Games. A number of developers have already closed up shop, claiming that the channel has been a failure, will soon vanish and have decided to move on to “greener pastures” on the PC. Being one of the youngest developers on the channel it could be fair to say I have good amount of innocence left in me, or perhaps I like to be different, but either way I could not disagree more with these views.

I originally got involved with the XBLIG community way back when I was 14 (when I say involved I mean I bugged everyone for programming help). It was 2007, and hopes were high; I remember that everyone had a really positive outlook on what great things the channel could bring, and I feel like a lot of those initial hopes actually happened. It was around this time that the first Dream. Build. Play. winners were announced, and out of this competition dawned the first success story of the XBLIG scene: The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai.

XBLIG’s first real success story turned XBLA hit.

What I find interesting about The Dishwasher is how James, the guy behind the game, had a similar story to the dramatic ones we hear about from the hugely successful indie games such as Super Meat Boy. I talked to James recently after finding out that he was in college while developing Dead Samurai; being a college student myself I was interested in his mindset at the time. James told me that he had given up on indie development, his lifelong dream, after submitting the game to Dream. Build. Play. He had been doing the whole “struggling artist” thing for a while, and had determined that he just wasn’t going to make it financially. A few months later he got the call that he had won Dream. Build. Play.

James had made a number of games before this, none of them bringing in much money, but he kept on going because he had a passion to make games and share them with others. After making around seven games, he finally had found success. James went on to sign an XBLA contract and eventually made a sequel to The Dishwasher that sold around 120,000 copies. He also continued to develop for XBLIG, making games such as I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES, which I was told made him enough money to buy a house.

The first true XBLIG success story; this little game not only bought a house but ushered in an era of zombie games on XBLIG.

Now, why am I telling this story? Looking at the scene today, I feel that things have changed quite a bit. XBLIG has indeed opened up the doors that many of us had hoped it would; quite a few developers have used XBLIG as a starting point for their careers and have been able to move on to other platforms such as XBLA and Steam. What is interesting, though, is that a lot of these developers have only had to make two or three games before having the door opened, and/or making good money on XBLIG in the process. Take a look at Robert from Zeboyd for example: he made two interactive novels on XBLIG that sold around 500 copies each. His third game, Breath of Death VII, sold over 40,000 copies but the fact that this was only his third game is often overlooked. Other developers who used XBLIG as a “jumping pad” include Murudai (Solar 2), Mommy’s Best Games (Weapon of Choice), Swing Swing Submarine (Blocks That Matter), Spyn Doctor (Your Doodles are Bugged!) and Iridium Studios (Sequence), all who were able to use their XBLIG resume to help open the door onto Steam in relatively quick time compared to past indies.

There is a common misconception that independent video game development is a gold mine, and this is a very false statement; every single indie developer that has made millions of dollars have struggled for many years. Edmund McMillen of Team Meat, Notch of Mojang, Phil Fish of Fez, Jon Blow of Braid, and the developers of Limbo all faced financial struggles or made many games before finding success. Yet, on XBLIG we see people who start to make decent money (20 – 40+ grand) on their second or third game and then criticize the market for not bringing them enough money. This all in itself shows what I deem to be the problem with the current XBLIG scene’s mindset: a lot of us have become obsessed with money instead of focusing on our creative visions and how to become better artists. That, to me, is what being independent means: being able to express things to our audience that the mainstream could never even begin to touch. If your number one concern is money, why not get a job at a AAA studio?

Fun indie game or foot in the door to the gaming industry?

I think it’s obvious by their actions that Microsoft never intended XBLIG to be a huge money maker, but more or less, a way for us to get our games to a wider audience and to help start our careers. In this aspect, XBLIG has been a success. I feel that a lot of the current developers don’t have appreciation for the audience it brings us; many have said they are just going to move to PC where things are better. But the truth is, the underground PC scene is much more rough – the markets that have a low level of entry currently have a much smaller user base compared to Xbox Live, meaning that it’s even more work to promote and get people to even look at your game. Sure there are exceptions, but if you are a new developer it’s hard to think of a better place to start than XBLIG.

Unfortunately, I do not have a clear answer on the future of XBLIG on the next generation Xbox. My personal opinion is that it will exist in some form or another as I feel that the platform was a success in a lot of different areas. It wasn’t quite the quick cash grab that a lot of people wanted, but I feel that was never the intention. If XBLIG does cease to exist, I suspect that many will continue to pin the failure on Microsoft for a number of reasons. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot that I think Microsoft could do to better the platform, but compared to what indies had prior to 2007 the difference is day and night. It’s for these reasons that I am thankful for what Microsoft has given us, and if it wasn’t for XBLIG I would have never believed I could be an indie developer. Over 10,000 people played my games in 2011, and even though I haven’t had financial success yet, I wake up happy everyday to think about that many people playing something that I have put my heart and soul into.

Michael himself was able to have his game on an Xbox 360 while still in school.

Perhaps the key to the future of XBLIG lies with the developers and their own ideals and goals. If you’re trying to approach independent video game development with a primary focus on money, I feel you won’t be developing indie games for very long because you will be genuinely disappointed. It’s very discouraging to see that a number of indies have started to adapt this “mainstream mindset”, and I see it not only from XBLIG developers, but from indie developers in general. Maybe if we start developing games from our hearts instead of our wallets we will start to see XBLIG as a great place to prove ourselves and then pursue even greater personal projects. Microsoft doesn’t want to see XBLIG fail, they have constantly  voiced support for the XBLIG Uprisings and even recently made a few changes to the service for us; but will they continue to support a platform of developers that continually criticizes them and rarely voices any type of support? Only time will tell.

Check out the trailer for Michael Hicks’ newest game below!


About CBR Guest Lectures

CBR Guest Lectures are special articles written by game developers, filmmakers or anyone with a unique or first-hand experience in the various fields that CBR covers.