The Indie Gamer Chick, whose real name is Cathy but is also sometimes called "Kairi," has become a central figure in the Xbox LIVE Indie Games community as the number one reviewer of the genre. Cathy has reviewed literally hundreds of XBLIGs on her website indiegamerchick.com and is a huge advocate for indie gaming in general. I recently spoke to her about her experience with XBLIGs, how popular indie games are, and whether or not she thinks they get the attention they truly deserve.
So you're known as the Indie Gamer Chick. Why indie games?
When I started Indie Gamer Chick, I was just looking for a hobby, and starting a blog had been suggested to me. It would probably be something to do with games or movies since that's what I'm into. Around the same time, I remembered that Xbox had an indie game channel on the marketplace. This was late June, 2011. There was nothing coming out on the consoles. The typical summer gaming drought. I wanted to know what Xbox LIVE Indie Games were good, but all the sites online gave most games overwhelmingly positive reviews. Even bad ones. I mentioned this to my boyfriend Brian and it was like "bingo!" So I started writing about XBLIGs and I actually enjoyed it.
How many games have you reviewed to date?
My first review went up July 1, 2011. I've written reviews for 302 Xbox LIVE Indie Games since then, plus twenty or so reviews for non-XBLIGs. I try to get a couple reviews up a week. Some days I'm more productive than others.
As someone who has played a ton of XBLIGs, what should a prospective indie game developer do to set their game apart from the crowd in your opinion?
My first advice is always to make the type of game you would want to play. It's important that developers have fun when making their own titles. You can always tell a game that was a dream project of the developer from one they're making because they want to try and be more commercial. After that, I just tell developers to focus on making your game fun. There's no set formula for being fun though, so that advice might not be all that helpful.
You have a pretty venomous review style. Do you ever get hate mail from indie devs?
Sometimes, but it's pretty rare. Most developers are actually very receptive towards my review style. The most common response I get to a negative review is, "I wish some of these things had come up when the game was in testing." While my reviews can be brutal, I hope most developers would say that I'm easy to work with. I answer questions for them, and I make myself available to discuss points in my review. I also give every game I review a second chance, if the developer wants to use it.
Have you ever considered creating an XBLIG of your own?
Oh God, no! The funny thing is, when I started Indie Gamer Chick, there were three other XBLIG review sites. Over the last few months, the guys from those sites have all quit them to start making their own XBLIGs. I'm proud of them all, even if I didn't exactly love their games. The difference between myself and them is they always thought about making games from a young age. I've never wanted to make my own games. I don't think I would have fun making one.
Which title gets your vote for 2012 Indie Game of the Year?
I can only speak for the XBLIG side of things but I have to give it to Gateways by Smudged Cat. It's sort of a 2D version of Portal, only so much more complex. However, the difficulty of the puzzles is so great that it might not be for everyone. For something with more mass-market appeal, I would go with We Are Cubes by 1BK, which is sort of a modern take on an early-80s gallery shooter. It even has vector-style graphics. And while it's not an XBLIG, I have to tip my hat to Journey by thatgamecompany. It was published by Sony, so I don't know if it technically qualifies as an indie game, but if it does, it's simply amazing.
Tell me about the XBLIG community.
The community has been really great to me. I think a lot of them were shell-shocked at first when I came in and was pretty forthright about the lack of quality in some games. Quite frankly, a lot of them thought I was a troll. I owe a big thanks to guys like George Clingerman and Dave Voyles who accepted me right away and sort of rallied support for me in the community. They helped me shake the troll stigma. I figured out early on that the community was close and pretty tight, and I always figured I would kind of linger on the outside of it. Now I'm right in the middle of it, with a lot of really talented people treating me like I'm important. It's humbling. It's an amazing community, and they're welcoming to all newcomers. If you're interested in making games, XBLIG is a great place to start because of how kind and helpful its developers are.
Does Microsoft give enough support to XBLIGs in your opinion?
Yes and no, leaning towards no. On one side of things, I think some members of the XBLIG community expect too much promotional help from Microsoft. They think they should be promoted on a level that isn't rational or logical from Microsoft's point of view. Because they have to maintain business relations with major publishers, Microsoft can't promote XBLIGs on the type of level some developers expect.
Having said all that, the amount of technical support Microsoft offers developers is completely unacceptable. It's not that Microsoft ignores developers, but the amount of time it takes to get help for situations that require immediate action is asinine. A couple months ago, developers banded together to have a promotional event for XBLIG called the Indie Games Uprising III. The lead-up to the promotion got attention from major gaming sites like Kotaku, IGN, and the official Xbox Magazine. And then, when the promotion started, some glitch prevented developers from getting review codes to send out to critics. The problem didn't get fixed until long after the promotion was over. It was reprehensible on Microsoft's part.
Microsoft also hold out payments to developers for what I believe to be an excessive amount of time. Given the way they've structured payment schedules, it could hypothetically stretch as long as over 150 days before a developer gets money that is due to them. Developers are also restricted from being competitive by not being allowed to develop for Kinect, or by not allowing developers to include achievements in their games. Hell, a game can be banned from XBLIG just for using the word "achievement." There's also restrictions to how games can implement online play, or even online leaderboards (indie dev James Petruzzi explains more about online restrictions here).
From a business perspective, I understand some of these restrictions, but others simply baffle me. Developers only get 50 review codes, and Microsoft isn't even willing to sell more. There's also limitations to pricing. For example, games can only cost $1, $3, or $5, and any game that weighs in at more than 150MB must be priced at least $3, or 240 Microsoft Points.
I do believe Microsoft is taking steps towards bettering the situation for XBLIG developers. XBLIG had previously been buried on the dashboard, almost impossible to find unless you were actively looking for it. The current dashboard has XBLIGs in a very visible position. Since the new dashboard came out, sales for many games are up, and traffic to Indie Gamer Chick has doubled. Consumers are interested. I wish Microsoft was more interested.
Speaking of sales, typically how many copies does an average XBLIG sell?
I don't have exact figures, but XBLIGs in general do not have stellar sales. Even really good ones are lucky if they sell 10,000 units. There are games on my Leaderboard that have sold only 100 copies. There are games that I am literally the only person who has bought them. Since the new dashboard came out, sales have picked up a little, but the platform is still largely unknown to many Xbox 360 owners.
One of the Castle Crashers developers, John Baez, recently said that the indie console community would not exist if not for Microsoft. Do you agree?
I think that's a bit hyperbolic but yeah, Microsoft did help legitimize it. On the other hand, if they hadn't done it, Sony probably would have. Sony just opened up its PlayStation Mobile platform that is getting pretty decent support from independent developers, and their Pub Funding program produced some very good games. The industry as a whole is embracing the smaller studios who can produce modest hits at a fraction of the cost of big studio titles. Even Nintendo is trying to lure in indies to develop for Wii U. It has nothing to do with artistic merits or helping the little guy out, it just makes sense from a business perspective. Microsoft grasped this first, so I guess they get the credit.
How does XBLIG stack up against other indie platforms such as PC or mobile?
I don't really play a lot of PC or mobile games, but being on console gives XBLIGs an advantage. Many gamers dreamed of making games for consoles as a kid and the barrier of entry for XBLIG is relatively low. You can go from having no experience to having a game in a commercial marketplace, on a major gaming platform in a fairly short amount of time.
Is the future of indie gaming bright?
The genie is out of the bottle and it ain't going back in. In the old days, independent game developers still had to find distribution for their games, secure publishers, etc. Now that digital distribution exists, many of the roadblocks that indie studios had are gone forever. It doesn't mean the large publishers are going to go away, like some indie success stories are predicting, but there will be more and more smaller studios putting out amazing games. The future is very bright indeed.
Check out the Indie Gamer Chick's reviews on http://indiegamerchick.com.