The fall of XBLA and the fall of PC Gaming

I got a really thought provoking email the other day talking about languages people use for their casual home projects, and the whole approach to making smaller games.

It crystallized my thinking about certain aspects of starting your own company to do smaller games and I thought I’d present some of that thinking here, cos I’d love to hear what the great unwashed thinks about it.

So when the Xbox Live was first announced and Geometry Wars burst on the scene, the whole XLA thing was hailed as the new vanguard of bedroom coders – you could bash out an XLA game and be home in time for tea so to speak. Many many veteran developers saw this as a way to do their own thing without having to be on a 200 team of people to make Godfather part 3: Electric Boogaloo – a way to produce smaller games and be masters of their own destiny. Certainly thats the way this developer felt.

The whole crux of the idea revolved around a) the new distribution methodology where you might even have made some $ on the XLA version because the terms were so good and b) the fact that you own your IP and that MS weren’t fussy about if you released a PC/Mac version of the game. Given also that the PC / 360 codebases aren’t that far apart in terms of implementation (a couple more threads on the 360 version and you were pretty much there), it made total sense to do a PC version of your game, make some money there but make the bulk of it on console.

When you factor in the fact that many developers wanted to use the XLA service to gain experience in the console development area and then bootstrap themselves into making larger games, you can see how attractive it is.

Fast forward two years and lets see what the dream is like now.

Well, it’s not as good, that’s for sure. Microsoft has poisoned the well in terms of actually making a buck from XLA – sure, they’ve removed some of the initial “get to market” costs, like Cert and QA (and that was a good sum too – $15k for cert – per submission – and $15k insurance bond for the slot) which is good for the casual developer, but they’ve taken way more than that from the back end, which is not. Even though you still own your own IP (which is also good), the amount of money you can make from XLA has been seriously impaired.

Effectively you cannot make XLA your primary focus for development any more – you can’t make a business around it any more because the risk is now just too great.
So ok then, lets go back to the PC and make that our focus and make an XLA game as a side port idea – since the codebases are so close it makes sense to cover XLA anyway right? Whatever you make from it will be extra $.

However PC gaming right now is so fraught with piracy that you can’t make that a focus either. Games franchises are literally being canceled on the PC because of piracy. If you have a standalone game (ie an application that plays by itself in single player mode – it never needs to connect to anything else), if the game is any fun you will be pirated to death. It’s just that simple. You will loose probably on the order of 50-60% of your sales to people pirating the game. There are way enough clever people to figure out how to do it, and we live in a world where the current generation of teenages feel that stuff should just be for free because they’ve been downloading each others MP3 collections since they could first use a computer.

Without some form of online server authentication or online game play proviso (ie being required to log into a server to play, since the server itself provides the game play – without logging into the server there is nothing in the game executable to actually play the game per se – nothing to hack so to speak) you are just going to be pirated to death.

There are a couple of ways to do this – make it a flash game which requires a browswer and you to log in to play – or make it a client/server game where you host some of the server to play on, ala most MMO’s or some kind of Quake style game.

The trouble with that approach is two fold – one is that you’ve just blown your XLA port, since you can’t be running your own servers for an XLA game, and they aren’t interested in simple flash ports, and secondly you have to host your own bandwidth / servers to actually let anyone play. There’s a whole host of infrastructure that goes behind this approach that is not non trivial.

So what do you do? Well, there is the PSN network which is looking more attractive by the minute to be honest, however I do believe MS will have reservations about you making an XLA game that will also come out on the PSN at the same time, which limits you a bit.

Plus there’s the whole Wood for the Trees thing in terms of understanding that sure, while the PSN network looks nice now, it’s not a long term proposition. Much like the XLA was two years ago, this is a shifting market and one ultimately controlled by the gate keeper, not you. If Sony decide to suddenly halve their royalty streams like Microsoft just did, what does the causal developer do? Where else do they go? Their entire business case rests on the particular situations of today and if they change tomorrow then you are well and truly stuffed.

Besides investing early in the infrastructure that allows them to build casual games that are a pig to pirate, I’m not entirely sure what the answer is. But I’m thinking about it.

What do you think?

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