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Q&A interview with XBLIG developer Ian Stocker

Ever since the Xbox LIVE dashboard redesign a couple of months ago, Xbox LIVE Indie Games have been growing in popularity. I recently spoke with Ian Stocker, the founder of indie developer MagicalTimeBean. He told me about the work it takes to create an XBLIG including the certification process, advertising, and sales.

Game cover art for Escape Goat
Art by Bruce Glidewell - http://bruceglidewell.blogspot.com
Screenshot from Escape Goat
MagicalTimeBean

What are some of the biggest challenges an XBLIG developer must overcome?

At this stage, the marketplace has become known for a handful of genres, and if your goal is to make money, you should look at what is currently selling there. Casual, novelty games and Minecraft-likes are the big sellers. If your game concept doesn't fit in with these, definitely make it, but don't expect to make it the foundation of a business, because the revenue won't be there.

Say I want to create an XBLIG. Where exactly do I begin?

You can get Visual Studio Express for free, along with the XNA toolkit, if you have a Windows 7 machine. You'll need to know C#, which despite being easier than C++, is pretty complex, so if you are new to programming you should expect a bit of a learning curve. Fortunately there are starter kits so you can build a working game and start modifying things - I think that's a great way to learn to program. The blank page is scary. You can build your game with Windows as the target, then get a Creator's Club membership for $99, which lets you test it on Xbox and finally submit it when you're done.

A note on developing for Windows first, then porting to Xbox: this is how I made my games, and for the most part it worked great. However there are a few things to keep in mind for Xbox, one of which is the Title Safe area (Google it), the other is the performance differences you might run into. The Xbox isn't going to be as fast as your current PC.

MagicalTimeBean has created three XBLIGs named Escape Goat, Soulcaster, and Soulcaster II. What do the sales look like for each of your titles?

Here are my sales for November:

Escape Goat: 213 trials, 151 purchases (#24 top rated)
Soulcaster II: 154 trials, 79 purchases (#58 top rated)
Soulcaster: 294 trials, 160 purchases (#82 top rated)

All my games are $1 (80 MSP) so after Microsoft's 30% cut, I made $273 last month on XBLIG. That's not too bad, definitely better than my passive PC sales (About $130 for November), but way short of what's needed to cover basic living expenses. I've had the best luck on PC with bundles and sales. Being in Indie Royale, among my three titles, grossed me over $20K this year.

Do you have any plans to make more XBLIGs?

I'm working on some new games right now. My next title will debut on PC, with the possibility of an XBLIG version. The production level will be well above my first three games and it'll have technology the Xbox can't handle, so it's not something I want to sell for $1 (the going rate for XBLIGs). I might make some version of it for XBLIG down the line. I figure I could make a few thousand off an XBLIG version, so I would look at how many weeks it would take me to port it, and whether it would be worth the time.

How long does creating an XBLIG generally take?

Everyone has his own dev process, but I would say XBLIGs take far less time than the average PC indie game. The most famous of those are usually multi-year projects, whereas I think most XBLIGs are done in a matter of a few months. My games were completed in 5, 7, and 10 months (in chronological order).

Explain the XBLIG certification process.

When your game is done, you submit it for "peer review" to the App Hub. Other developers can download and test it, and when enough people give you a "pass" your game gets released. The total number of votes required seems to vary, but I would guess it's around 10 votes. There is a big checklist (called the Evil Checklist) of stuff to test for and the most common failures are probably for crash bugs. You simply cannot have your game crash, ever. It needs to be able to cope with you yanking the memory card during saving, for example. Once it gets approved, it goes on the marketplace on the date you specify and your game shows up in the New Releases list.

So I assume that to vote on another game's certification, you need to have released a game yourself already right? Roughly how many XBLIG developers are there that actively vote?

I don't believe you need to have released a game to participate in the peer review process. I heard that your vote is counted for more if you have some status, which might be determined by having released other games among other factors. I'm not sure how many developers there are these days since it has been a year since I submitted my most recent game, though I got the needed votes in under a week, which I think is average.

Are there sizing restrictions to how big an XBLIG can be?

There used to be a 50MB limit to games under the 240 MSP ($3) price point, but that was bumped up to 150MB some time ago. Games at 240 MSP and up can now be 500MB.

What are some of the avenues that an indie dev such as yourself can use to promote your game?

It's uncommon for indies to use traditional advertising to reach our audience, mainly because of how expensive it is. Community building seems to be the name of the game. Twitter is great, especially if I have something to announce but don't want to make a full blog post about it. Over the last year I've learned a lot about connecting with the media, crafting press releases, that sort of thing.

Does Microsoft help in promotion at all?

We get some dashboard presence on Xbox LIVE, which is not as prominent as XBLA but still valuable. The XBLIG Marketplace isn't too hidden these days (previous dashboard updates weren't so great) and we also have "related games" which is how I think I get most of my passive sales. Outside of Xbox LIVE, you're on your own for marketing. I haven't found a really effective way to drive sales with media attention though. When I get lots of coverage for one of my PC games, sales can spike 500% for the weekend. The bump from media for XBLIG is less noticeable. I think the reason for this is that with PC games, you can click directly to the game itself and grab it, whereas with XBLIG you think, "Hey this game looks great. I'll have to remember to check it out next time I'm on Xbox LIVE."

As a developer, what do you feel Microsoft could do better to help support the success of indie titles?

The simplest thing would be to allow achievements and gamer score in our games. You'll see lots of comments from people who can't imagine playing a game that doesn't offer a way to boost that integer in the database in Redmond. Another would be to offer direct sales without going through the MS Points hurdle. If they were feeling particularly generous they could have sales and featured games the way Steam does, but that would mean a completely new contract. Currently, they're not allowed to curate the games, only the community does.

Where can fans follow your work?

My website is www.magicaltimebean.com or you can follow me on Twitter @MagicalTimeBean.

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