Breaking news: making money on XBLIG continues to be hard
Posted by Alex Jordan on
Bitmob has a really interesting article up describing the trials and tribulations of four "successful" Xbox Live Indie Games developers. The article is horrifying - and "successful" is in scare quotes - because even though these guys and gals have professional game development on their resumes and have created some of the best XBLIG offerings out there, their sales are still relatively meager compared with the rest of the industry.
Honestly, the evidence is starting to pile up that XBLIG is the graveyard of game development aspirations. Great for hobbyists, lousy for just about anyone trying to make a living. And even the cream of the crop of XBLIG developers are barely scraping by. Game design is fun, but let's try not to forget about feeding and sheltering yourself and your family.
I'm starting to think that XBLIG has three major things going against it:
Lack of respect: Historically, it seems that potential buyers have regarded the XBLIG section of Xbox Live as a dumping ground of crappy first-time attempts, avatar games, zombie clones, and massage apps. Even though there are many, many diamonds in the rough on XBLIG, the overall low opinion of peers' offerings seems to disincline people to take the platform seriously.
Even very low pricing can't erode the disdain. XBLIG developers typically price games between $1 and $3, which is at least $2 to $4 lower than even the cheapest titles on Xbox Live Arcade. Obviously, everyone hopes that the cheaper prices can further entice purchases from people who are on the fence. Yet, the conversion rate of XBLIG purchases (a rough estimate of trials downloaded to actual purchases) usually hovers around 5%, whereas, according to Gamasutra, the conversion rate of Microsoft's higher-regarded Xbox Live Arcade titles ranges from 4% to 51%, averaging out at 18%. That's almost more than 4 times greater than XBLIG's conversion rate, even though both markets represent the "small-sized digital download" genre.
In short, large numbers of trials for XBLIG offerings result in even less sales yields than their XBLA counterparts, despite the significantly cheaper pricing. People don't mind trying out the games... they just don't respect the platform enough to commit and actually buy them.
Lack of advertising: Microsoft hardly ever advertises XBLIG offerings, since (I imagine) they don't want them to compete with XBLA games in sales, considering that Microsoft takes a higher cut of each XBLA game sold. That lack of visible, blatant Dashboard or website advertising limits active interest in XBLIG as a platform to only those who are already predisposed to navigate through the Dashboard's menus and go seek the games out. And as I've already pointed out, that still doesn't automatically mean it'll result in sales.
Furthermore, major gaming websites are often loathe to advertise XBLIG offerings. There are practically zero websites that specialize in reviewing XBLIG titles, so that means the next most likely sources of publicity - general gaming e-zines and blogs - are liable to cover everything in the market, not just XBLIG. That means publicity for XBLIG titles is ranked next to those for major studio releases, higher-profile indie games on other platforms, console titles, and XBLA or Playstation Network titles. When thrown into that mix, you're fortunate if you get a blog post or two on your XBLIG offering. Accordingly bigger gaming websites are accordingly more swamped with work and requests from outside parties, so the competition only gets tougher and tougher. And XBLIGs have a history of losing. Unless...
You need to be the very best: It isn't enough that Radiangames is the king of glossy twin-stick shooters on XBLIG. Or that Mommy's Best Games is the patron saint of great platformers with edgy graphics. Or that Zeboyd is crown prince of excellent retro RPGs. In the grand scheme of things, each one of these talented development studios has chosen a niche platform to release their games.
Not everyone automatically loves twin-stick shooters, or 2D platformers, or RPGs. Even though these are popular genres, having an entrant in a popular genre doesn't automatically make your game beloved, even if it hits all the right notes. Indeed, your game can be graphically advanced, fun to play, well-written, intuitive, and have a great soundtrack... high scores on all technical and aesthetic ratings... and still not have the It Factor. Being very good or even great doesn't automatically make people care.
Take MadWorld on the Wii, for example. According to Wikipedia, MadWorld sold a measly 66,000 copies during its first month available, a grim sum for a good, attention-getting game backed by a solid publisher. Apparently, it wasn't enough that Platinum Games and Sega set out to develop a hyper-violent, hilarious beat-em-up for the Wii. Despite having a Metacritic rating of 81/100, being a well-executed (pun intended), hyper-violent offering on the Wii didn't have the It Factor to make people buy it, even though the Wii is lacking in mature titles in this style.
Meanwhile, the runaway success of A Gam3 W1th Zomb1es is readily apparent and well-documented. That's because it's got It Factor, largely thanks to its randomness, its theme song, and (in an exception to what I discussed above) its $1 price.
And that's why being indie is so hard (especially on XBLIG), and why having a publisher is so important. That's because lots of people make good or even great games. Some of them even make excellent games. But due to the fickle nature of the market, that's often not enough to part people from their money if they're not inclined to do so, which the addictive It Factor is so adept at taking care of.
Publishers know this full well, which is why they keep a ton of development houses under their umbrella. They do this for the same reason that Luke Schneider of Radiangames has six games on XBLIG concurrently: because spreading the field allows your most successful games to provide revenue (and financial security!) at times when your other, less successful games aren't bringing in enough money. It's robbing Peter to pay Paul, except they're both the same institution. In fact, it's exactly this reason why we're so fond of investing in Mutual Funds as opposed to individual stocks: a diversified basket is safer and more likely to lead to financial security.
Conclusion: I find that I often fill my plate with observations and leave no room for advice after the main course. Here's where I try to rectify that a tad. And, yes, I've only developed one friggin' XBLIG thus far that sold pretty damn poorly, so feel free to take my advice with a grain of salt.
For one thing, indie developers and XBLIG developers in particular should behave like Luke Schneider/Radiangames and get as many offerings out there as possible. That means staking out a genre or game type and making it your own, allowing you to reuse code as often as possible to speed up development times. That might mean getting your hands on an engine license, too, to do a lot of the heavy lifting.
Another thing we in the XBLIG community should do is, seriously, focus on PC too! Why more of us haven't done this astonishes me, especially considering the XNA framework runs natively on both the Xbox 360 and PC, not to mention Windows Phone 7 and (cough) the Zune. Furthermore, thanks to Silversprite, 2D (but not 3D) XBLIG offerings can be easily embedded in webpages, expanding our potential market to everyone with an internet connection. Harnessing the potential of that market will, obviously, require some form of monetization and reimbursement, but it's not like that's a novel concept for internet entrepreneurs.
Also, you should advertise rigorously before release, preferably for 2 or 3 months. It might seem (and feel) like a lost cause, but you need to keep it up. Someone will listen.
Finally, as I said, it isn't enough to make a good or even great game. Leverage your talents and some quirky or inspired ideas and make a memorable game, and hopefully watch it take off.
Got it, team? Excellent! Now let's go out there and try not to suck!