Microsoft may have to overcome this public perception with its next-gen Xbox conference today at 10 a.m. PT. But from an indie developer's standpoint, the issues in publishing with Microsoft are different – or nonexistent.
"Working with Microsoft is great," writes James Silva, one half of Ska Studios and creator of The Dishwasher series of XBLA games. "I have heard a few stories that contradict my experience, and I know quite a few people who are happier on platforms other than XBLA, and that's fine for them. XBLA is a closed, carefully curated platform with its own set of fairly rigid standards and protocols."
Ska Studios works with only Microsoft, publishing The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai after winning the Dream Build Play competition in 2007, and from there developing The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile for XBLA, I MAED A GAM3 W1TH ZOMB1ES 1N IT!!!1 on XBLIG and a version on Windows Phone, and now polishing another XBLA game, Charlie Murder.
Silva makes enough money developing games for Microsoft platforms to support a life of developing games for Microsoft platforms. He says that with Microsoft as a publisher, he retains full creative control, and Microsoft supports him in terms of bug-squashing, meeting goals, play-testing, and even taking him to dinner when he's in town.
"Shortly after The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai launched, I absolutely spent a night at my producer's cabin in Snoqualmie, drinking IPA and playing around with GarageBand," Silva says. "Yes, it was fine, it was fun, and it's unfortunate that 'everything's fine' doesn't really register as newsworthy, because there is currently a 'Microsoft is bad for indies' narrative trending in gaming news."
We recently asked 20 randomly selected indie developers for their thoughts on digital distribution today, and which publisher had the most effective system. Out of those responses, two singled out Microsoft, for better or worse. One of those developers was Silva. The other was Ben Kane, creator of DLC Quest.
"XBLIG is an Incredibly easy and cheap way to get a paid game onto a home console around the world," Kane said. "Despite constant claims to the contrary, it is possible to make a decent income on the service. However, 'service' is used lightly. Policed only by the community and a few die-hard moderators, XBLIG has all but been abandoned by Microsoft. Heaven help you if you have a technical or payment problem."
"XBLIG is an Incredibly easy and cheap way to get a paid game onto a home console around the world."Ben Kane
Kane noted that it seemed XBLIG as a service hadn't been updated in years, and perpetuated the horror story of a solitary employee who monitors and responds to developer inquiries. However, XBLIG is open to anyone with $100, a retail Xbox 360, a PC and a game that passes peer review, he said.
"I do have to give credit to services like XBLIG for being very upfront with the terms of the service," Kane said. "You know what your membership gets you, what the limitations are, how you are paid, and how the service works as a whole. I have heard a lot about Nintendo and Sony being 'indie-friendly' as of late, but that hasn't amounted to anything beyond a 'Get in touch!' tweet or a web form to apply to be a registered developer. That's not friendly to anyone."
Other developers we spoke with noted Microsoft's indie outreach could use improvement: Rami Ismail, creator of Ridiculous Fishing and Super Crate Box with Vlambeer, called out Microsoft for its poor communication.
"To be honest, the only companies we're talking to that we haven't had great experiences with so far have been Microsoft and Amazon," Ismail said. "Microsoft managed to promise a whole lot and never deliver anything, to the point of just not responding to an e-mail conversation they opened."
"Microsoft managed to promise a whole lot and never deliver anything, to the point of just not responding to an e-mail conversation they opened."Rami Ismail
Bill Stiernberg of Zeboyd Games, developer of Cthulhu Saves the World and the recent Penny Arcade Rain-Slick games, said Microsoft was second to Steam by a wide margin, in terms of sales.
"As far as sales and revenue, XBLIG has not done bad, but rather been a reasonable additional sum to go along with the Steam revenue," he said.
That's a shame, because many indie developers said they made more money on consoles – particularly PSN – than on Steam.
"On an average week when no discounts are running, the consoles move more units than Steam on a day-to-day basis," said Retro City Rampage developer Brian Provinciano. "RCR moved more units on Steam, but earned more revenue on PSN because the price points remain higher. Most copies sold on PSN were at full price."
"On an average week when no discounts are running, the consoles move more units than Steam on a day-to-day basis."Brian Provinciano
Silva stood by his perception of Microsoft and the success he'd seen publishing on XBLA, XBLIG and Windows Phone.
"My impression is that Microsoft has higher standards but consistently provides whatever support it takes to reach those standards," Silva said. "I'm a two-time cert survivor with zero experience in the 'real' games industry (have never worked for a game company where offices were involved or, for that matter, any game company other than our own), so something must be working."
Microsoft will reveal its new Xbox during an event today at 10 a.m. PT, and we'll have live coverage. We hope to see its fresh approach to indie development, publishing and support. A lot of indie developers are probably hoping to see that, too.