A Cautionary Tale

If you are developing an original IP for XBLA or PSN, or hope to develop one someday, this post is for you.

Given the sales estimates being reported by Gamasutra (see these helpful examples), given what I’ve heard from individual developers as of late, and given the relative strength of established IP on the platform to date, I estimate that in general, no more than nine truly original IP-based games will succeed in any given year on XBLA. This is obviously a rough guesstimate at best; there is certainly the possibility that you will see more (or less) hit original-IP based titles in any given year. But even if I’m off by a few, you’ll see shortly that it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this post.

Now assume that approximately four (or more) of those original IPs will be successful partially because they are high quality, but partially because they are king-made by Microsoft. They might be included in the annual Summer of Arcade promotion. They might support a new 360/LIVE platform feature and be showered with tremendous dashboard and press exposure. They might be internally developed by Microsoft Game Studios. And the list goes on… (I would have included winning the Dream Build Play competition, but it seems like Microsoft is now keeping the winners in the Indie Games Channel.)

Now assume your original IP is not king-made. Darn!

You’ve got approximately five chances left to turn a serious profit on your XBLA game. You’ve worked endless hours and paid yourself peanuts, all in the name of making a great game. You’ve taken the time to create a decent demo experience. Still, it feels like you’re forgetting something… but what could it be? Frustrated, you decide to take a night off and have some fun at PAX. But when you walk through the main entrance, it hits you:

Twisted Pixel, showing off The Maw, Splosion Man, and their upcoming title, Comic Jumper Slick Entertainment, showing off upcoming title, Scrap Metal
Ankama Games, giving private demos of upcoming title, Islands of Wakfu Klei, showing off the upcoming title, Shank

You spent so much time developing your baby that you forgot to get out there and talk about it… but the competition didn’t! There were at least six different XBLA development shops parked right by the main entrance! Handing out toys. Showcasing their games. Kissing hands and shaking babies. (Or is it the reverse? You’re so distraught that you can’t remember!) And for many, this isn’t their first conference. The Behemoth… what conference do they not go to? And Twisted Pixel… those wacky guys never cease to charm the public with their adorable Maw plushies.

You play a few demos and grudgingly admit that these guys are making pretty decent games, too. A pit forms in your stomach as you realize that you might be screwed. But hey, that won’t happen. Marketing is bullshit, right? Quality always wins, Right?

Right.

2 Responses to A Cautionary Tale

  1. An additional note for those of you who might be fixated on my “9 original hit limit” estimate.

    There isn’t really a magic number, in XBLA or any other ecosystem. Technically, if every developer and publisher decided to focus entirely on original IP, and if many of them did a good job of developing and marketing the aforementioned original IP, you would most likely see much more than 9 hits. But, as 3rd party publishers continue to take XBLA more seriously, odds are that they’ll put more and more effort into established properties like Battlefield and Street Fighter — not original IP. Development and marketing budgets will continue to rise. This will increase the already significant pressure on indies to find ways of standing out. Consequently, I would argue that 9 is, in fact, a rather *optimistic* number.

  2. I’m still amazed at the number of indie developers who think the Long Tail effect is good news for them. I think they confuse it with 2 other distinct effects: niche marketing and the continued growth of the Internet/digital distribution channels. Many people ignore the hard work of finding a niche and just hope that the Long Tail will save them.

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