As many people know, any market where people can submit apps will have their fair share of bad apples. This isn't really news to many of us who have smart phones, or peruse the many app and game stores that are available on various systems. Unfortunately, one of these platforms is making itself far more apparent in this regard in such a negative way that it's alienating potential developers and customers. That platform of course, is XBLIG.
While I was at GDC 2012 I spoke to a few indie developers who were considering XBLIG as a release platform and I was actually pretty shocked that they hadn't realized that XBLIG had become a desolate wasteland for potential developers and nothing short of a gargantuan waste of time. As an indie developer, I can't really find many reasons to want to publish to XBLIG and this is because XBLIG suffers from a few major problems.
If you've never browsed through the XBLIG catalog before you should definitely take the time to look. You'll find such quality titles as, "Try not to fart" and, "Who's the daddy?" Nearly all of these games appear to be made in an hour or less by introductory computer science students.
The biggest problem with the XBLIG catelog is that it’s extremely difficult for quality titles to ever see the light of day. Nearly all of the top games on the XBLIG marketplace are Minecraft style voxel games which clearly make half the attempt at even blatantly copying Minecraft. If you don’t believe me meander over to the XBLIG store and check it out.
This is mainly due to the way XBLIG is designed. Once you actually manage to get on XBLIG from the Xbox dashboard you’ll soon realize it’s pretty difficult to find anything past the front page of the store and Microsoft makes no effort to promote or advertise top selling quality games like how Apple does in the featured section of iOS. It simply lists the top selling or downloaded games which can be anything from a game that vibrates your controller (massage games) to game that just contains tons of phone-like applications and 5 minute games.
So what you end up getting is a front page that doesn’t turn over for at least 6 months or more. The games that are highly downloaded snowball into becoming the only thing the front page will ever show. Nothing new or high quality has a chance to ever hit the front page. Don’t believe me? Check back in 6 months and see if all the minecraft clone’s aren’t still the top games.
The developer community is a large problem
First, you have to understand that the XBLIG development community is in its purest form, the primary problem. About a year ago I started to participate in the XNA XBLIG developer community. I had the most romantic idea of what developing games should be in my mind at that time. I believed indies should better the industry and make great games that people both want to buy and enjoy. I mean, we're at the fore front of innovation right? Unfortunately the XBLIG community doesn't subscribe to my idealistic beliefs.
From my experience the general mantra of most developer’s within the XNA community is simply to “release as many games as quickly and efficiently as possible regardless of quality.” This isn’t just some subtle mantra, I’ve heard multiple community members verbally express those ideals.
In fact, here’s a quote from a prominent member of the IRC channel Steger: “Making games to me is like telling as many jokes as possible because while many of them might be bad, one of them might actually be good." It would almost seem as if these people have no regard for their craft or the community and ignore the effect they have on the market.
I would at this point extremely recommend that you stop reading this article and watch Poison Mushroom’s review on Silver Dollar Games, a game studio that’s released over 50 games on XBLIG. From the video alone you can see evidence of the same ideals I described earlier to "just post as many games as possible to XBLIG without any regard for quality".
No official review system (Peer review only!)
Let's talk about the other major problem. Imagine for a moment that you have a community full of developers who's ultimate goal is to constantly produce lackluster products, then combine that with a nearly complete lack of review system in place to filter out bad products. If you're not familiar with how the XBLIG review system works I’ll give you a quick lesson.
Anyone at all that has an apphub membership can submit a game (free to students with dreamspark) and absolutely anyone can approve them. This essentially means that there’s no official team of reviewers to check for issues and quality in games which has led to a myriad of issues such as people not even looking at or testing the games before they review them.
In one situation a developer had posted his game on XBLIG to be reviewed and multiple people approved the game. Only after the game was approved did the developer point out that his game never even ran. He had a crash in his game as soon as the game attempted to run. This was a major point in the history of XBLIG because it all but proved that people rarely even test the games they’re approving.
Probably the worst part about the XBLIG peer review system is that the rules state that you cannot fail a game for quality reasons no matter how bad it is. So no matter how bad the game is as long as it doesn't have any crashes then you are required to give it a passing grade. So even if you wanted to act as the dark knight of XBLIG and start failing games for quality standards you would most likely have your membership revoked.
Sony Playstation Suite taking Microsoft's lunch
I've heard the argument that "Fixing it would cost Microsoft too much" and I think that argument is so weak it can barely stand on it’s own two legs. What those people aren’t considering is that XBLIG could be a potentially fantastic service which generates a lot of revenue if managed properly. As the iOS app store has CLEARLY shown, people are willing to pay a lot of money for products from a healthy market that developers can publish too. It's not just a good idea to fix all of XBLIG's problems, but a smart business decision as well.
Within the last year Sony Online Entertainment had announced to the world that they were developing an XNA competitor that would allow developers to deploy to Vita, Android, the PS3, and the PC called Playstation Suite. This new system uses C# and has an almost exact replica of the XNA API. Sony are going the extra step to build that successful indie market that users want while Microsoft is ignoring it completely. I can’t help but think that Sony is taking Microsoft’s buffet and they just don’t care.
What are some solutions?
Of course this wouldn’t be a useful article if I didn’t propose a few solutions now would it? Fixing and making XBLIG a useful tool for both developers and consumers isn’t going to be an easy thing to do. The obvious first step would be to change the review process so that it’s run by a select group of people who are either approved by the community, or hired by Microsoft. In my opinion Microsoft could still save plenty of money by crowd sourcing respected XNA developers. However, I personally suggest the latter because if Microsoft is serious about fixing XBLIG's problems then they need a proper review team similar to their Windows Phone 7 app review department to run the approval and testing process.
The second thing, would be to adopt higher standards for games. Apple does this wonderfully and even though their process isn’t as transparent as it could be, Microsoft could adopt Apple’s strict approval process but make it far more obvious what the requirements are.
Unfortunately it’s unavoidable but the last requirement would be that you need to remove games that have been approved in the past that no longer meet the quality requirements. Notify all developers and give them 3-4 months to resubmit their app with an update to fix the listed issues before it’s removed. Along with this, you could also start featuring quality apps that rotate out weekly or monthly. Having a fresh list of featured apps is incredibly healthy for the XBLIG market and essential to it’s success if Microsoft is to make it work.