Interview: XBLA, Steam, etc…

Paul Hyman recently interviewed several folks, including myself, for a Gamasutra article on digital distribution that can be found here. I thought you might be interested in the full transcript of our interview. Here it is:

(1) What are your current thoughts on Xbox Live Arcade and how it has evolved as a platform for developers? What about your thoughts on how it should evolve? Please be very specific.

What’s interesting about Xbox LIVE Arcade is that, other than from a content perspective, it doesn’t seem to have evolved very much over the past several years. What I mean by that is the *games* have changed, but the platform itself has changed very little by comparison.

XBLA started out as a place for “bite-sized” and retro games; the kinds of titles that would typically have a $250k development budget. Today some developers are spending $2m+ on their XBLA games and Microsoft has very clearly sent the signal to the market that it is looking for “bigger, better” titles. So that’s a pretty big shift.

But then you look at the platform and you have to ask, what has Microsoft done to keep pace with and support these bigger, more ambitious titles that it’s been asking developers for? It’s not much easier for a player to *find* XBLA games on the Xbox than it was when the 360 first launched (many would argue that it’s actually harder now.) To my knowledge, the platform still doesn’t support some basic merchandising techniques, like product bundling for example. LIVE Avatars were widely panned by hardcore game developers when they were first announced, but at least they were *something* new that developers could work with; then Microsoft basically forgot about them for a few years. The platform has become progressively more competitive for developers, yet its evolution — especially from a retailing perspective — has essentially been stalled for years. Not a great recipe for success, and one that I know frustrates a lot of very smart and passionate folks who work at Microsoft.

(2) With other platforms such as Steam and iOS having much lower barriers to entry, does Xbox Live Arcade have too high a barrier in an increasingly competitive market for talented indie developers?

XBLA’s 1st party group has had a high barrier to entry for years now. And back when a slot on the platform was considered a “golden ticket”, it didn’t matter. You were practically guaranteed to turn a profit if you released a decent game on the platform. If that was still the case — if the platform were even *remotely* as reliably profitable for developers as it once was — the fact that its 1st party group has a high barrier to entry simply wouldn’t matter. For that matter, if the platform was still reliably converting at least a small number of indies into overnight (and very wealthy) sensations, that might still be enough to inspire developers to hurl themselves at the gates. But the problem today is that we’re not hearing those boom stories anymore. Maybe they’re still happening, and they just aren’t getting talked about. I don’t know. But it’s bad for Microsoft. They need those inspirational stories to be told loudly and told often. Otherwise, there’s just no reason for a developer to put up with the uncertainty and the hassle commonly associated with the platform.

(3) What digital marketplaces are currently the most promising … and the least promising … and why? Please be very specific.

My business partner Danc and I have been saying for years that the most promising digital platform is very simply the open Web. There are hundreds of web-based gaming portals hungry for good content, ranging from relatively small sites to bigger players like Armor Games, Kongregate, Chrome Web Store, etc. That market is in many ways the best of all worlds; fragmented enough to prevent any given player from exerting undue control over developers, and yet unified by common technologies and conventions (i.e. Flash, and soon HTML5) that make it very easy to work across portals. This isn’t a theory: we’ve gotten games like Steambirds, Bunni and Realm of the Mad God in front of huge populations of players while spending zero dollars on any sort of tranditional marketing or advertising.

Unfortunately, some web-based portals (particularly some of the largest ones) seem to be stuck in the stone ages. They haven’t embraced f2p monetization systems yet. They still treat developers like unimportant distributors of disposable content. Those portals will change or die. The market is rapidly passing them by.

I’m also very excited about Steam, not only because its a well-built and well-managed platform, but because Valve has consistently exhibited developer-friendly tendencies. No surprise, given that in many ways Valve is still first and foremost an independent developer themselves! What Valve’s competitors may perceive as a quaint or even foolish respect for indies is in fact one of Valve’s greatest strengths, and one that I hope they maintain for many years to come.

I don’t know which platform I’d call the “least promising.” But for whatever its worth, Spry Fox has seven games currently in development; five are web-based f2p games, and two are mobile f2p games. No console games, and no games of any kind that require an up-front payment. That tells you what we think is worth focusing on.

(4) Since the question we want our story to answer for our developer audience is “what platform should you go to and what should you be aware of,” please tell me what developers should be looking for in a platform … and which platforms have those elements. What are your recommendations?

Whenever someone asks me a question like this, I tend to react very cautiously. The problem is that the game platform landscape tends to evolve radically over short periods of time. What you should be “looking for” today is not necessarily what you should be “looking for” tomorrow. The best advice I can give a developer is not “focus on the platform doing X, Y or Z” but instead “don’t become wedded to any single platform!” The former can get you in trouble.

That said, there are a small number of things worth keeping in mind about platforms. It’s always worth understanding their lifecycle patterns (for the sake of brevity, I’ll simply reference my old Gamasutra article on the subject.) And its obviously better to be focused on a developer-friendly platform. The challenge there is that platforms can (and often do) quickly evolve from developer-friendly to unfriendly the moment they achieve any sort of superior position in the market. Companies with a developer-friendly culture are less likely to cross over to the dark side, but it still happens.

Additionally (and obviously, given my previous statements) I’m personally focusing on platforms that have embraced f2p games or are on the verge of doing so. F2P is poised to become the dominant business model in our industry and I have little interest in mucking about with platforms that aren’t prepared to support that. Learning how to make good F2P games is hard, and I’d rather not waste time putting effort into old business models that are rapidly decreasing in relevance.

(5) In your opinion, to be successful, should developers be creating the kind of games they want to create … or develop to suit the marketplace they’re targeting?

There is no correct answer to that question. Different developers have different goals. Someone who is primarily interested in games for their artistic and expressive qualities may have little interest in profiting from their work, and that’s wonderful. The world needs artists who are willing to make profit a secondary (or non-existent) motive for themselves. That said, if you’re not independently wealthy, not supported by grants or academic institutions, and depend on your games for your livelihood, then yes, its probably a good idea to pay attention to the demands of the marketplace that you are targeting. To be clear, that doesn’t mean “copy whatever seems to be working.” That simply puts you in the same boat as thousands of other developers and increases the likelihood that your games will go unnoticed, unless they happen to have a massive marketing budget behind them…

(6) Has Steam become the platform of choice for developers? What sort of lifespan is it going through? And could it soon become too choked to compete?

Steam is an increasingly popular platform, especially for indies who want to make polished hardcore games but who are frustrated with the constraints and hassles associated with consoles. It has many great things going for it. But as long as Steam is a platform that serves millions (or even tens of millions) of people, it is likely to be very hit-driven. You rarely tend to see a huge number of niche successes outside of super-massive open platforms like the Web. This isn’t a knock against Steam or Valve by any means: I suspect they’ll manage their continuing growth better than many other companies have. And hopefully they will continue to invest significant effort into promoting niche content and building platform tools that help players find that content as easily as possible (something the console manufacturers have utterly failed to do, by the way.) If so, there’s a good chance they will remain a favorite of independent developers for a long time to come!

(7) Anything else you’d like to add (especially in the way of advice for developers trying to decide which platform to target)?

I really want to emphasize this one more time: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. There is no holy grail of platforms. No perfect portal that will meet all your needs for years to come. Life just isn’t that easy.

2 Responses to Interview: XBLA, Steam, etc…

  1. Thanks, I enjoyed that.

    Everything I look at suggests that distribution on the open web is the most profitable option for indies. It also gives the studio more control over their destiny — they don’t depend on one or a few powerful companies for all their distribution.

    Why are so many devs still devoted to writing games for tightly controlled app stores? It doesn’t seem to make much business sense, for most of them.

  2. Thank you, David. It’s too bad we missed you at this year’s GDC. Best of luck with Spry Fox.

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