Is XBLA on the way out?

I read an interesting blog post from Ron Carmel of World of Goo developer 2Boy, arguing that we are either in the midst of or due to see a decline in the standards of Indie games being developed for the Xbox Live Arcade platform.

Carmel bases his arguments on a mixture of intuition, personal experience and data gleaned from an informal survey of around 100 top developers. He reckons that the popularity of XBLA peaked in 2010, and that since then the service has been losing out to more nimble competitors like Steam, iOS and PSN. The key element of his argument for me is expressed in the following quote:

“I asked these developers to rate the importance of certain factors in choosing which platforms they will develop games for. The most influential factor was ease of working with the platform owner, with 69% of developers rating it Very Important… Given that ease of working with the platform owner was voted the most important factor in choice of platforms, it becomes perfectly clear why XBLA, despite being a very strong channel with a large audience and huge earning potential, is dropping in popularity among these developers.”

It’s clear that Microsoft’s heavy-handed approach to Indie developers, handing out terrible contracts, demanding exclusivity and having exhaustively long lists of technical requirements has won them no friends among the minnows of the industry.

However, Carmel then goes on to extol the virtues of another platform that he sees as exemplifying the values that Microsoft does not:

“The more open platforms, like Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android, are very attractive to developers. Take iOS, for example. Top hits on XBLA/PSN earn their developers millions of dollars. iOS hits earn tens of millions. When World of Goo was briefly the #1 top grossing iPad app it was earning upwards of $50k a day. Angry Birds HD has been hovering in the top 10 for about a year and a half. But that’s not all, there’s Angry Birds Seasons HD, Angry Birds Rio HD, and all three of these games have non-HD iPhone versions as well. That’s six Angry Bird games in a top ten position. For a long time. Then, there’s the Mighty Eagle you can buy with an in-app purchase. You do the math.

As you can see, the top 10 games earn tens of thousands of dollars every day. Better yet, the dropoff from #10 (around $15k a day) to #60 (around $6k a day) is slow and gradual. Recently World of Goo HD’s rank on the iPad’s top grossing chart has been floating between #225 and #250 and it still nets us around $2,000 a day. That’s what a healthy channel looks like. It can support an incredibly large number of developers and games, including some niche / strange / avant garde games like #sworcery, Game Dev Story, Enviro-bear 3000, and Eliss.”

The problem for me comes when Carmel chooses to point to the App Store model as somehow better for developers than the XBLA model. To me, that’s akin to saying fresh roadkill probably tastes better than a month-old rotted badger carcass — it’s true, but so far away from the point as to be a useless pleasantry.

The fact remains that the majority of the the tens of thousands of iOS developers will never make back their investment in terms of time and effort ploughed into making games for a market that is horrendously oversaturated, and ruled by a capricious overlord that makes demands of devs that easily equal Microsoft’s in their capriciousness. Worse, Apple is not a games company, and they’ve followed the example of many non-games companies in trying to keep forms of adult expression out of their pretty little walled garden.

Consider the banning of Molleindustria’s Phone Story, a work critical of the horrific exploitation and social damage that results from the way in which we organise production of electronic goods. Now, one might not be surprised to hear Apple are shutting down dissent on their platform, but it’s the form of their rejection that should worry us. Apple claimed that Molleindustria broke their guidelines on grounds of displaying “violence or abuse of children” and “excessively objectionable or crude content”.

When a multi-billion dollar company with tendrils into most areas of cultural life starts making decisions for us about what we should see or play that rings alarm bells for me. Because, despite what you might believe about Steve Jobs’ cuddly visage, or Apple’s history of “caring about the consumer”, those things are a figment of your imagination. The company is a meta-device composed of the individual efforts of thousands of peons, operated with the sole purpose of extracting value from the customer and transferring it to the shareholder.

Still, it’s a pretty scary market out there for indie devs. Entering the protection confines of a curated garden of nicely lined up little apps may be a tremendously appealing prospect. However, giving over a cut to the man on the door and agreeing to every letter of the terms and conditions still doesn’t guarantee you a positive outcome.

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