The end of Xbox Live Indie Games
In 2008, Microsoft established Xbox Live Community Games for Xbox 360, a self-publishing service for game developers, and later rebranded Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIG). In September of this year, Microsoft will shut this service down for good.
Despite the looming closure (first announced in September 2015), developers still released XBLIG games as late as October 2016. Were it not for Batman: The Telltale Series, Solaroids: Prologue, an Indie game, would hold the title of the final Xbox 360 game (barring the future possibility of another FIFA Soccer).
In its later years, Microsoft stopped promoting the service as much. XBLIG became a wild west, home to crude zombie shooters, strange MMOs, Minecraft knock-offs, and lurid anime adventures. This became possible via the peer review process. With both Community Games and XBLIG, eager developers uploaded their games, and waited for other developers to go looking for functionality, glitches, or other problems. Those peers either accepted or denied the entry. All 3,300+ games on the service went through this procedure, both a hobbyist projects and serious attempts at making use of this emergent indie service.
At times, XBLIG became a parody of itself. Mommy’s Best Games created the comical shooter Game Type to satirize the poor placement of indie games on the Xbox 360 dashboard. Some, like Sexy Flight (a Flappy Bird clone with undressed women in the background), were little more than student games uploaded and approved by the peer-reviewed process. From Japan came Chess Magic Power 2016, a side scrolling shoot-em-up with a title that suggests anything but.
Others, like Caroline’s Important Life Diary, conceptualized and designed by a young girl, then ported to XBLIG by her older brother, ended up on the service because the more open approval process allowed these experimental games to prosper. “Xbox Live Indie Games allowed for odd games with only a niche audience to be published on Xbox 360. I don't think as many people would have happened upon a schoolgirl story game on PC,” wrote David, the brother.
“It is an absolutely prime example of a game that absolutely never could have existed on a console in any other way... It is precisely the kind of game you would have expected to come from a single-digit-year-old girl. They go to the mall, they steal things, they ruin the school play. It's kind of funny and ridiculous and hilarious and troubling in others,” said Aaron Teplisky, whose own game, Snake Party, skirted the deadline for release.
When I attempted to reach out to additional developers of late release games, nearly a dozen never responded to interview requests, only a handful were willing to speak by phone (and some backed out), and others were too shy to even use their full name. Those who did speak told me that they desired the unique environment fostered by XBLIG.
If developers aimed for XBLIG, it’s because they knew the service was willing to host a strange, experimental, and eclectic library, even late into its life. “I don't think you're going to see anything like this again,” said Teplisky.
It does present a question: Why release a new game for a system well over a decade old and succeeded by another generation of hardware?
In the case of Forepaw Games, it was sensible to use the service no matter its age. “My most recent game was intended for PCs but was coded in XNA so it was easily ported to the 360,” wrote James of Forepaw. James wished not to use his last name. “Sales these days on the 360 are low but I’d say it was worth the minimal trouble – my games are done mostly in house with low budgets so costs were easily recouped.”
Hobbyist Archor Right merely wanted to book-end his own development. “I was one of the first indies published in 2008 and I wanted to be near the end in 2016.”
For others, their release came after years of work. The cut-off date of September 2016 forced them into action.
“Caroline's Important Life Diary was developed little-by-little over a period of 8 years for PC. It was only after my sister started nearing the finish line that I made the port for Xbox Live Indie Games,” David said over an email exchange. This wasn’t the only late XBLIG release with a long development story.
“It just kind of piled on over the course of years, and I brought [Snake Party] back to conventions year after year,” began Teplitsky. “I had created and released four, five other games in that span... Finally, when they announced XBLIG would be going away, and that September 2016 was the end of submissions, I said okay, I should get on this.”
For Chad Yates, developer of Solaroids, his game neared a decade in the making. “I started this under a different name in 2007. It's just me, and I have a full time job. I was in management at the time, working crazy hours. It was one of those projects I kept tinkering with.”
Chad’s Solaroids: The Epilogue
Yates’ wild story of XBLIG’s finish is worthy of its own article. A software engineer by day, Yates missed the end-of-life announcements, necessitating a back-and-forth saga which landed him the final spot of XBLIG. It took time, phone calls, and reboot of servers just to make it.
The first hurdle? His expired subscription to XNA Creators Club, necessary to submit XBLIG games. The impending shutdown meant he couldn’t renew, and needed to contact support for a free subscription. He didn’t receive a response to his inquiry for a month.
“The day of the [XNA] deadline, September 9th, the project manager, he contacted me out of the blue and said, ‘Oh, I'm sorry for not getting you your code. If you've got your game ready to go, you can submit it and I'll hold the gates open for another week so you can get in.’”
But Yates’ game wasn’t entirely ready. Working through the nights, Yates finally thought he had everything ironed out. The game ran at 60fps and supported a multitude of languages – the latter an inadvertent mistake. “I was supporting seven languages in my game… Apparently when you have multiple languages, you need an additional two peer reviewers for that particular language, in addition to your regular ones… It was almost impossible to get this through with the languages. There's just not anybody around to do it.”
Given the timeline, Yates had two choices: Risk leaving the game up hoping someone jumped in for an approval. Or, he could take it down, remove the languages, and hope the servers were still up when he resubmitted; he did, and they weren’t.
“It was about ready to die there, but I wrote an email to a lady in support. It's the end-ish of September I think. She said they hadn't torn the hardware down. She got [the servers] turned back on for three days, and my game was ready to go.”
Chad thought he had found success— but not yet. As with all XBLIG submissions, the peer review process was essential. By late September/early October 2016, few people remained. Even fewer were still registered with the required XNA Creators Club subscription.
“I started digging through forums trying to find anybody who would still have a subscription to be able to actually test this game... I went digging... using Twitter and Facebook or whatever, web searches... I was able to reach out to several of these former community members and ask them if they were able to look at my game. Some of them didn't respond, but enough did that I was able to get through.”
Solaroids: Prologue released on October 25, 2016, over a month past the final XBLIG cut-off. “It was quite an adventure,” Yates said.
Yates’ story carries a positive outcome to a service which, as most of the developers I spoke to felt, was ignored by Microsoft in its final years. With limited staff on board (the XBLIG staff spread into other projects), things began to fall apart on the back-end.
“In December 2015, Microsoft began selling thin air,” began James of Forepaw in an email exchange. “When an XBLIG game passed peer review and was released by the developer it entered into an automated system that, among other things, propagated the game files to Microsoft’s servers... This part of the system broke. When a customer went to purchase a new game on the store, the transaction would go through, the customer’s account would be charged, but the game could not be downloaded… This was a PR nightmare for developers as customers assumed the product itself was defective.”
“It did seem like things would break,” Yates said. “Even when mine got through peer review, there was like a known problem where it would get stuck. [Customers] would see it, but if they tried to download, it would fail. I hear that happened to everybody for the whole last year. For a chunk of time, it seemed like everything had to be hand-patched by an engineer of some kind.”
“It was a business decision. It was the sort of thing, if you were running a business, maybe you would have made the same decision. It was a pain in the ass for us, but granted, there weren't nearly as many of us left as there were in the heyday of XBLIG. In [Microsoft’s] minds, they probably didn't really need that kind of staff to maintain the service,” said Teplisky.
In their statement regarding the XBLIG shutdown, Microsoft promised they would be, “working with game conservationists and creators to preserve the legacy of XBLIG content.”
A year and a half after that announcement, no plans were made public. One of the key figures in XBLIG (from coding the earliest XNA demos to developing games himself at ZBuffer), Andy Dunn (who goes by his screenname The ZMan), declined to comment as he still works for Microsoft.
While there’s still time, Teplisky recommends taking a gander at what’s out there. “I would encourage anyone who still has an Xbox 360 hooked up to get on there and look at some of the over 3900 games that are on the service… I know it's known as, ‘Oh, look at all of this garbage,’ but there's a lot of really good stuff on there.”
And not only good, but strange, weird, bizarre, experimental, and in many cases with XBLIG, unlike anything else you’ll find on a console - unless the newly announced Xbox Live Creators Program allows a port of Chess Magic Power 2016.