Has XBLA peaked? A response to Ron Carmel of 2D Boy

I like 2D Boy, I like World of Goo and I like the fact that 2D Boy has managed to beat the odds and become successful.

However, having read Ron Carmel’s most recent piece on the 2D Boy site I have to say that, bar a few points that I agreed with, much of his argument seems to miss the mark in terms of well-researched dissemination.

A Statistical House on Sand

The first half of his article is dedicated to statistics. If you take these at face value they seem to support an interesting argument. Ron Carmel’s assertion that there is a shift towards development on the PSN might be true and the move towards using Steam and iOS feels about right, with big names like Chair (under Epic Games’ wing) choosing to make a sequel to Infinity Blade (iOS) rather than Shadow Complex (XBLA).

However, his sources are a little tenuous not to mention extremely awkwardly worded. For example:

” I sent out a kind of “indie census” to about 200 independent developers. “

Is followed a few lines further down by:

“It’s important to note that only about half of the developers I sent the survey to responded, so while the results do have meaning and suggest certain trends, they are not definitive.  I’m open (and wouldn’t be shocked) to seeing data that suggests a different trend.”

If only “about half” answered, then why not just phrase the original sentence as “I sent out a kind of “indie census” and received answers from [%number of devs that responded] developers”?

This initial obfuscation weakens statistics presented later, such as the following:

“To better understand what kind of games this group of developers represent, I took the list of XBLA games from Wikipedia and looked up each game’s Metascore. I then split the games into two categories: games made by the group of developers I sent the survey to, and all the rest. Of the 400 or so XBLA games listed on Wikipedia, 33 were made by this group of developers. Here are some interesting facts:”

Carmel writes that he has split the group of XBLA games between those that he sent the survey to and all the rest. He doesn’t clarify whether the former subset of developers are those that answered him or those to whom the survey was sent; bear in mind that “about half” replied, so who and what these developers really represent and the “interesting facts” then presented come in to question again. This may have been deliberate–to protect the identity of those that responded–but regardless this vagary makes it difficult to accept his statements without further clarification.

Later he talks about the massive success of Angry Birds as well as his own game on iOS. He also concedes that “these hits are beyond rare […] and not a good reason to develop games for a platform.”

I don’t have a friend who compiles data based on leaderboard postings but I do have the internet and a quick google brought up some interesting results.

The information shown here is that iOS, the shining example of how to do it right (although don’t hold Ron Carmel to that as he admits the successes are rare), sees a large percentage of developers make very little, less per company than for one game on XBLA (although please note that the earnings are collated across a developer’s collection of apps rather than for individual titles).

I didn’t want to spend this much time on debunking these fuzzy statistics and subsequent house-on-sand arguments, but the more I read Carmel’s piece the harder it became to ignore the gaping holes in his piece. I will say that this could simply be the fault of poor editing or a quickly-written blog post, but to allow so many instances of miswording comes off as deliberately inflammatory. This is unfortunate as I do agree with one of his main arguments: that submission to XBLA can be a nightmare in contrast with some other manufacturers (although I did find it shocking that many actually found WiiWare easier to deal with).

Improving XBLA: Some Harsh Realities

What I took most umbrage with was Ron Carmel’s list of ’10 Things Microsoft Can Do To Improve XBLA’.

Create a fair contract that doesn’t require negotiation.

It starts off well; his first point is in many ways incontestable. Microsoft are not courting the indie developer the way they should be. If accounts of the stress they placed upon Team Meat (makers of the fabulous Super Meat Boy) and Introversion (go buy Darwinia+ right now if you own an X360) are representative, then their attitude is not conducive to fostering fresh talent.

However there was a post made on 2D Boy some months previously (incidentally this was not some awesome investigative journalism on my part; the link was actually in Ron Carmel’s own article, supporting a different part of his argument) which begins with:

“We attempted, and failed, to bring World of Goo to iPhone in the summer of 2009. “

In an aggressive environment like the console marketplace this attitude would be unacceptable. Microsoft are trying to secure content, making sure that there are new choices to download week in, week out. They aren’t interested in signing people who can’t produce results. As unfair and unfamiliar as this might be to the indie developer, and as arseholey as it might be on the manufacturer’s part, if you are running a business as big as Xbox LIVE you cannot afford to have a developer drop out–no matter how good their reasons might seem.

Solve the content discovery problem.

I am not really sure how it could be made any easier. Content is constantly being pushed by Microsoft.

All of Carmel’s specific complaints seem to have already been addressed. Content discovery might have been a common complaint a few years ago but now? Sure, it is by no means perfect, what with the console pushing stuff that a lot of people aren’t really interested in, and often the main page can be clogged up with items that are not gaming-related, but you are never more than a couple of button presses away from game content, be it games or DLC.

Stop requiring independent developers to publish through MGS

His third point is a little more complicated and ties into his first. This is corporate Microsoft clashing with independent development. In an ideal world developers shouldn’t need a producer. The intrusion can be distracting and counter-productive.

However, there are problems with Carmel’s reasoning, and it shows a lack of understanding of what a producer’s role is. A producer is often there to make sure that the game ships by meeting milestones. When they are internal they certainly care about the quality of the product, but any producer will tell you that things always get to a point where a game simply has to be shipped. It is unfortunate when it happens but there are always deadlines to meet, QA teams to shout at and manufacturers to negotiate with. A good producer will be taking all of these things into account and the pressure they apply to developers is part of that.

This leads me to Ron’s next point:

Drop the TCRs, make updating easy.

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the TCRs are about, and is exactly why you need a good producer. Not every TCR is a condition for resubmission (essentially, an issue that will cause your game to not be released). All TCRs are there to create a uniform experience for the end user. Some of them are ridiculous. Microsoft knows this and these requirements can be subverted with the right negotiations and the right producer (remember that the producer and Microsoft want to see that game released as much as the developer). Some are there very much to ensure that the game is polished, and that this does give the the game the edge it needs to succeed.

Similarly, Ron Carmel’s line

“Many of these requirements hardly ever come up or could be dealt with behind the scenes by Microsoft instead of requiring every developer to write their own solution.”

seems contradictory to his first statement. He wants artistic freedom, but at the same time he wants Microsoft to deal with everything through their own internal APIs. Okay, which is it?

I do agree that patches should only have minimal submission testing,  but only because patches are released after the expensive and time-consuming compliance rounds only to continue to have game-debilitating bugs that can take the developer even longer to fix.

That Carmel cites the wonderful model of Steam and Apple’s App Store is kind of a joke in this context. You only have to look at the recent release of Dead Island on Steam to see why submission testing exists. [Ed: it’s worth noting that Apple do have an extensive set of published App Store submission guidelines and regularly will reject apps that fail to meet one or more conditions. However, much of this process is automated – it has to be considering the economics of their business model. That said I do have strong opinions that the posited future of iOS as a premier gaming marketplace will be conditional upon an improvement of this process. Sorry for the long interjection!]

Microsoft has to protect its own IP, the console. If someone downloaded a game riddled with debug code then not only could this leave their console open to hacking by the experienced and unscrupulous, it would also cause them to question the stability of the platform in general (something that Microsoft really doesn’t need after the RROD problems with their hardware).

As it currently stands this demand strikes me as incredibly short-sighted and unrealistic.

Get rid of the exclusivity requirement for independent developers.

I am not even going to touch this one with a barge pole; exclusivity only benefits one side, the manufacturers. This is a war that no one wins for as long as it is perpetuated. I completely agree with Ron Carmel on this point. What I do know is that as long as the console wars continue this will not go away.

[AJ: This article is now way too long so I will address the last two points that I feel really need to be countered. If anyone is interested in opening up debate on Ron’s remaining points then please say so in the comments section.]

“Drop the greenlight process and open up development to everyone.

This is ridiculous and completely misunderstands the culture on the console and what drives them. For starters, this was already attempted with the creation of XBLIG which has largely been criticised for the low quality of products on that service. Developers have demanded better support from Microsoft, but that only undermines what XBLIG was supposed to be about. If Microsoft were to step in then XBLIG would only become like XBLA, at which point things come with a price.

Carmel mentions four utterly terrible XBLA games (a list I dispute as Crazy Mouse is actually pretty sweet). Four games is nothing in contrast to the high level of dross available on one of the services he champions – iOS.

Another statement (his emphasis not mine)

“Players judge the quality of a platform by the quality and quantity of the BEST games available on it, not by the AVERAGE quality of all games”

is nonsense; one look at XBLIG, WiiWare, DsiWare and even iOS completely debunks that assertion. All of those platforms have some fantastic games, but apart from iOS (with Apple heavily supporting select quality titles) the venues are regarded with scorn.

Drop the ESRB in favor of a self administered rating system

For all that I have written above this is possibly the worst statement of the bunch. It almost seems as if Ron Carmel isn’t interested in the industry in which he works. When there isn’t a politician claiming that video games are corrupting our youth, someone is trying to enforce even stricter ratings on video games and fortunately being debunked.

The ESRB is there to protect us from idiot politicians trying to stop us from being sensible adults who can, based on the information provided to us, make our own choices on what is or isn’t good for us. Would he prefer it if the entire gaming world were like Australia (no Mature rating), Germany (I can’t even list the number of restrictions the USK enforce) or Japan (no blood, heavy censorship on everything)?

The ESRB is a necessary evil; it shows the world that the games industry is willing to police itself and that we are adults.  Apple’s platforms currently get away without a rating due to it being a digital download service only as well as the already stringent requirements that Apple exerts on content.

In Conclusion

I am sad that the completely valid points Ron Carmel has to make have been pushed to the sidelines. The factual side of his argument needs clarification and proper references and better statistic collation or else it is just smoke and mirrors.

Further, the meat of the author’s grievances have little support, and show a lack of balanced argument for the processes he seeks to criticise.

To top it all off, I don’t think that Ron Carmel even addressed his headline-grabbing title properly. Is XBLA past its prime? It is hard to tell. Personally I feel like it is, but I have nothing to back that feeling up and I am not sure that Carmel does either.