New Xbox Dashboard Marginalising Indie Games?

The update to the Microsoft Xbox dashboard over the last week has caused concern in indie gaming circles.  Many developers worried that moving the Indie Games from the Games Store section to the new ‘Specialty Shops’ – which also includes features such as avatar customisation – is marginalising the emerging indie games market and making it harder for potential new players to find games.

The indie games channel has attracted criticism in the past for the poor quality (or bizarre nature) of some of the titles, lack of clarity and inability for the better games to attract new players and generate sales.

Indie games marketplace was isolated from the ‘real’ games on offer through Xbox Live Arcade.  Achievements, leaderboards and integration with the Gamer Card are not available to Indie games, though multiplayer support, invitations and avatars could be used.

The new Xbox dashbroad, designed to integrate the new Kinect hardware into the overall Xbox experience, moves the Indie Games market from its previous location and outside the new ‘Games & Demos’ section into the rather more obscurely titled ‘Speciality Shops’.

Response from the indie development community has not been favourable.  To the extent that Microsoft issued a statement (to Eurogamer) saying:

“The intent of the Specialty Shops section was to provide access to marketplaces that focus on a specific type of content, with unique ways of sorting through that content. We wanted to give Xbox Live Indie Games that full marketplace experience and felt this was the best place to do it, alongside other popular channels like the Avatar Marketplace.

“In fact, since the launch of Avatars, Xbox Live members have made more than 290 million customizations to their Avatar’s clothing, so we expect many people to regularly visit the Specialty Shops section.”

Again, the indie community has not reacted well to this, with many commenters claiming the explanation simply doesn’t wash.  “Users looking for a shirt for their avatar as not the same as users looking for a game.  We’d like to be considered games, thank you very much. This explanation is a joke.”

We asked several of the Scottish independent developers for their views on the update.

Dave Thomson, founder of Ludometrics, told us: “I think the Indie Games channel was always an experiment from Microsoft’s point of view: if we open up (in relative terms) the platform, can we find games to “graduate” to the main XBLA channel?  I
haven’t seen anything graduate to XBLA, and I don’t think the overall experience has been what they desired.  The quality bar’s simply not been high enough to attract real usage, so they want to put that space to better use.

What’s more interesting is what other ‘Specialty Shops’ are they thinking about? Will we see an EA/THQ/Activision Specialty Shop?  Will there be a ‘Digital Publisher’ specialty shop that has a higher barrier to entry than XBLIG?  If designed right, the latter could be teh awesomez.”

While Brian Hackett, founder of Claymore Games, says “Being a mobile-focused developer, my only experience with Xbox Live Indie gaming has been as a player.  Until a few months ago, I didn’t even realise there was a separate section for Indie games – I had thought that all the decent ones just got added in to the XBLA section. It was only when someone told me about their Indie game that I even realised there was a separate menu for them. Even then I found it very hard to find anything in it.”

Sean Taylor from Denki however, offered a more detailed opinion, based on his experiences with Xbox Live Arcade – and indie games, over the past few years: “Don’t really see what the fuss is about, to be honest, the Indie Marketplace was hardly in a prominent position before so I don’t think dropping a level down is going to have too great an impact.

Nothing has really changed as far as I can see. Xbox Indie Games is still a fantastic place for a hobbyist/indie/aspiring developer to showcase their talent, passion and/or idea in a popular commercial space but remains an almost impossible space in which to operate a sustainable studio.

I’m more concerned about the direction XBLA seems to be heading, I’m not sure what it’s supposed offer or represent anymore.”

While the debate carries on, it’s worth noting that other marketplaces, which offer a similar low/no barrier approach to developers have managed to succeed admirably, most notably Apple’s App Store, where all apps are treated alike.

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