The Cusp: 2011 Indie Summer Uprising Retrospective

The Cusp is a monthly highlighting of three Xbox Live Indie Games that came up just short of the leaderboard here at Indie Gamer Chick.

Way back in August, the 2011 Indie Summer Uprising launched ten games as part of a promotion to bring more attention to Xbox Live Indie Games.  The results were a bit of a mixed bag.  Of the ten games, only one landed a spot on my leaderboard.  That’s at a time when I was still new to the scene and the leaderboard was primed for the taking.  The truth was, I thought some degree of quality control was going to be involved in the selection process.  Instead, games were selected on the basis of variety.  Bad move.  Some of the games were truly horrible, especially the title selected to kick off the event: Raventhorne.  A few others were solid in their concept, but deeply flawed in execution, like T.E.C. 3001 and SpeedRunner HD.

Ultimately, despite receiving attention from lots of mainstream gaming outlets, the promotion was a bit of a bust.  That’s a shame, because I owe the initial growth of my site in part to my participation in the event.  Interviewing developers gave me a crash course on the XBLIG scene.  But once the games started hitting, in the words of Cute Things Dying Violently developer Alex Jordan, I started assassinating them one by one.  It wasn’t for the sake of being spiteful.  I truly felt the quality of the games failed to match the amount of hype the event was given.

Despite that, there were some pretty good games in the mix.  Although only one made the leaderboard, three other games were up for consideration.  This month, the Cusp honors those games.  But first, I’ve got some comments from the two guys who organized the event: Dave Voyles and Kris Steele.

What does Dave Voyles (one of the founders of Armless Octopus) have to say?

The Summer Uprising may not have had the best games ever featured on the marketplace, but it certainly contained a collection of some of the most diverse. We had something for everyone in there, from a hack-and-slash all the way to a train simulator. The brief organization period which drove rushed development schedules didn’t help the cause either, but I’m confident that we put together a solid package. Some of the developers didn’t put their strongest foot forward, but I believe have since released games which trumped their prior attempts.

Chester was my favorite Uprising title.

I really don’t know if there will ever be another uprising again. I know the community is stronger than ever, but it’s difficult to promote games when they continue to be buried among a poorly organized and support marketplace. I’d like to see the ability to sort by genre, in addition to linking a developer’s other titles when you select their newest one in the marketplace before we begin to organize another one.

As a whole, the Summer Uprising games sold a decent number, but nowhere near what I was expecting, in relation to the amount of press coverage we were receiving. I don’t think the $3 price point helped any of the sales out, but all of the Uprising games have dropped to $1 since, and seen increased sales.

The future of XNA is shaky at best, as we have yet to hear word as to how it will be supported in the next generation of consoles, and we know that XNA created applications will not supported in the new Windows 8 app store. Perhaps if we were more informed, or had a means to speak with Microsoft in a more direct manner, either through a controlled forum or community manager, then I believe we could see the XBLIG marketplace receive the attention it deserves.

I’ll illustrate all of this and more next month at GDC, where I’ll be speaking on behalf of everyone involved in the Summer Uprising in a 60 minute speech.

What does Kris Steele (developer of VolChaos) have to say?

I never expected to receive the kind of attention from developers and the media that we did when we set out to create the Summer Uprising. We quickly had 50+ developers wanting to be included in the promotion and got a ton of press coverage even months before any of the games were released. So much went right in terms of getting developers on board and getting the word out to consumers through the press.

Unfortunately all the press coverage didn’t translate well into downloads of the games themselves. Some out there were critical of the selection of games (like Kairi) and blamed that for the poor downloads but I’ve never believed that to be the case. If it were, you would have seen higher downloads (at least for the first couple games released) and low sales conversion rates. Right from the get-go, downloads were not high. And while not everyone liked all the games, they were all of higher quality that the average XBLIG title.

VolChaos wasn’t finished in time for the Uprising, but it was certainly crappy enough to fit right in.  Sorry, Kris, couldn’t resist.

The Microsoft dash promotion was the only aspect of the Summer Uprising that really seemed to drive additional sales but the overall numbers weren’t huge. It was nice to see Microsoft take notice of the Indie Game channel for once. Perhaps too little, too late though.

I certainly learned new things about marketing throughout this process and learned I severally underestimated the time involvement of running a promotion like this. I highly doubt I will be able to devote this kind of time to another promotion nor will I have my own game to include. In terms of Xbox Live Indie Games, it really only reinforced opinions of the service I already had, perhaps the biggest one being that gamers might take interest online but they don’t often make it to the Xbox to try the games themselves. This makes me sad because XBLIG has a lot of quality games but finding the service isn’t always easy and finding the good games within it is even more difficult. I wish this was something I saw improving but XBLIG today is more buried than it was this past summer.

If another Uprising is to ever occur, one or more people need to step up and take charge. It’s easy to talk about ideas that would be cool but there needs to be someone pushing things forward. I worry that developer interest would not be as high as it was last time though. It’s not a big secret the Uprising sales were disappointing and many developers have fled XBLIG for greener pastures. For all the complaints about the quality of the Summer Uprising games, it would be hard to top the recent selection of titles given that so many developers are looking elsewhere now. That’s not a failing of the Uprising itself but rather Microsoft neglecting and burying the XBLIG service to a point where very few serious developers can be financially prosperous.

And now, for the games.

Cute Things Dying Violently

Reviewed by the Chick on August 24, 2011

What went right?  Some clever physics-based puzzles were married with over-the-top violence to create the best-selling title of the Uprising.

What went wrong?  I’ve always felt that puzzle games are better suiting for smaller gaming sessions on portable devices.  Extending playing sessions of any puzzle game on a television usually lead to me getting bored quickly.  There were also some issues with aiming that have since been patched up.

What does developer Apathy Works have to say?

If you asked me a year ago, “Will Cute Things Dying Violently become an important touchstone in your life?” I would’ve agreed wholeheartedly. Today, I still agree wholeheartedly. Although CTDV doesn’t mean what I thought it would when I kicked off development back in June 2010, the emerging answer is an order of magnitude more revealing.

Back in 2010, I thought I had XBLIG by the balls. I’d been watching it intently, noting what games succeeded, noting what games failed, and I used that knowledge to formulate a game idea that would be in line with the market’s interests (small, funny, quirky) while also being something that I would enjoy making.On top of that, I had a name in mind that was about as subtle as a frying pan to the face. I thought I was going to kick ass and take names. Realistically: 10,000 copies to be sold, easily. Optimistically: 100,000 copies! Next stop, Newt Gingrich’s moon base!

What happened next is instructive. CTDV took 14 months to develop (10 months longer than I expected), hitched a ride on the Indie Games Summer Uprising, reaped all the good press that the Uprising afforded, and landed with good to great reviews. It sold 10,000 copies in less than a month and hit 21,000 copies sold in less than six. Hell, even Kairi managed to not hate it outright, although that might be because she thought I didn’t have a Fainting Couch nearby and was afraid I’d hurt myself when exposed to her vitriol. (It’s like opening the Ark of the Covenant.)

Soon to be a major motion picture by Pixar.

CTDV wasn’t life-altering moment, of course. It didn’t become the next XBLIG darling… not even close… and I didn’t make enough off of it to quit my day job. Hell, I didn’t even make enough off of it to live in a shack outside of Bumfuckleton, Iowa (founded in 1878). 70 cents per purchase (before taxes) doesn’t get you very far in this world. I never truly thought my moment in the sun would come, but hey, who doesn’t entertain that notion every now and then?

But as I said earlier, the experience was instructive. CTDV was a good game that could’ve been better. It needed and still does need a lot of work, especially its graphics. Sales were great on XBLIG, everything considering, but I can always do better. And that’s why CTDV is so revealing, and why it’s an important touchstone in my life. And, dare I say, a lesson for just about anyone out there: life is a work in progress. You can always do better, there’s always so much more to achieve, and get-rich-quick options are few to nonexistent. Just because you didn’t make your pie-in-the-sky expectations doesn’t mean the journey was wonderful and valuable.

Which it was, of course: the best side effect of developing CTDV was how it brought me closer to so many interesting, talented people. Fellow developers, gaming journalists, ardent fans, supportive friends… for me, creating games would be only a fraction as fun as it is without the pleasure of knowing and interacting with these people.

I’m not done yet, not by a long shot. CTDV is on its way to PC, I’m entertaining the idea of porting it to mobile devices (if only to get everyone to shut up for three seconds), and there will almost definitely be a CTDV2. With some elbow grease and a little bit of luck, I’ll do a bit better next time, and a bit better the time after that. Hey, that’s life, right?

Oh, and buy my game, dammit!

Doom & Destiny

Reviewed by the Chick on August 30, 2011

What went right? Doom & Destiny made good use of its RPG Maker license to create a genuinely funny JRPG experience.

What went wrong?  If you’ve ever played any RPG Maker title, there are no surprises here.  Basic, generic gameplay and a complete lack of plot.

What does developer HeartBit Interactive have to say?

It took more than one year for Doom & Destiny to become what it is now and we are proud of every character, map, dialogue line and misspelling in it. We don’t care if it’s not in the top 10 of XBLIG, that’s the place for mincraft clones with busty zombie in it. We don’t really look down on the Marketplace, but it’s clearly rewarding low-level marketing rather than quality.

But most of all, we are proud of our fans! Their support and enthusiasm keep us releasing updates with new content, bug fixes and hopefully less misspellings.

Our dedication to the game was the main reason why we did not lower the price to 80 MSP. We believe in the quality of our product and we don’t want to undervalue it with the minimal price tag, just to lure some cheap consumer.

We are just two joyfull nerds wanting to make videogames we would like to play.

No compromise!

Well maybe a few… given we are just two guys with limited resources.

We dream of making bigger games, we dream of expanding our team with talented artists and musicians, we dream to become famous, rich and conquer the Ultraworld… No wait, that’s the dream of the villain in Doom & Destiny.

Right now we are still working on another Doom & Destiny update, the third big one in a few months.

Fans want a ship, a zeppelin and a new continent to explore and we are gonna give them just that!

The WP7 and PC versions are coming soon and we hope to join all the other indie games on Steam and various indie bundles (and make more Golds).

We are also helping a duo of friends into creating a spy themed inspired puzzle game for XBLIG, WP7 and PC.

Last but not least, we are, drum roll, working on a Doom & Destiny sequel!

We just need a 60 hours day long to accomplish all our goals and we are done!

Take Arms

Reviewed by the Chick on September 5, 2011

What went right?  An awesome 2D online shooter that features a variety of maps, character types, and objectives.  Take Arms came the closest of any game in the Uprising to making my leaderboard.  Well, besides Chester, which did make it on.

What went wrong?  The game’s fun is so tied to online play that it makes it a risky investment.

What does developer Discord Games have to say?

Creating our debut title Take Arms was a true labor of love. It was a culmination of almost 5 years of partnership between Tim Dodd and I. We went through failure after failure, with some projects never even getting off the ground. Our ideas were just simply way beyond our reach. We would get a few months into a project, and either reach a challenge we couldn’t achieve technically, or crush ourselves under the weight of a flawed design we just kept throwing more at to make it fun. Our dream games turned out to be just that: dreams. As time wore on, we knew that something had to give. Either we were going to throw in the towel, or figure out some way to actually get a game made.

 

As a last-ditch effort, we decided to make the “simplest” game we possibly could that still caught our interest and did something different. We started with just the idea of a 2D version of Battlefield for XBLIG, and the design quickly evolved from there. We finally started to learn from our failures, and focused on getting the core gameplay working quickly to make sure it was fun. Simultaneously, we worked on the design and were consistently cutting fluff and keeping it as lean as possible. After getting a playable prototype and finalizing the design document, we spent the next 18 months working tirelessly on just that. We very rarely strayed from the document and only added details, not features. It’s awesome when people take notice of small things such as the camera zooming out when you crouch for increased visibility. If you can nail good core gameplay, everything else is just in the details.

As we wrote in the post-mortem and other places, doing a multiplayer based game for Xbox was very difficult due to a variety of factors. That combined with the incredibly flawed launch, the over-inflated expectations of sales and market size, and the total lack of traction pretty much just devastated us both. Tim decided to call it quits to focus on other stuff and I started looking into mobile development to keep the studio alive. I don’t think either of us found what we were looking for, and after the New Year we slowly began talks of a new game. It started as an idea I had for a mobile game, but it continued to evolve as we threw ideas back and forth. After we were comfortable with the concept, we approached Take Arms artist Jianran Pan and got him back on board. We’ve settled on PC as our primary platform this time, with our eyes dead set on Steam. Hopefully we can take the skills we’ve learned over the past 5 years, and finally go full-time doing what we love. Look for an official announcement of our next game in the coming weeks!

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6 Responses to The Cusp: 2011 Indie Summer Uprising Retrospective

  1. Starglider says:

    The best hope for another uprising at the moment seems to be the IndieGold proposal for providing some sort of achievements for XBLIGs. While to some extent it’s just a cute niche idea at least it’s a theme to rally around and one that provides media with plenty of talking points (‘why are achievements a big deal’, ‘should XBLIGs have them’, ‘how to prevent rampant pay-for-points’ etc). Alas it still seems almost impossible with so much developer apathy for the platform now.

  2. Hear the gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair from my corner. I like Doom and Destiny, but “we don’t want to undervalue it with the minimal price tag”? Who do you think you are? Activision?

    To paraphrase the famed Edmund McMillen, if you care about making money off a little indie game, then your priorities are all wrong. You should be most interested in getting as many people as possible to play it. Over-pricing the game is just needlessly cutting off a load of buyers. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

  3. plezfiction says:

    “I wish this was something I saw improving but XBLIG today is more buried than it was this past summer.”

    Today today, or like a week ago today? As of now, at least for those of us in the US, I don’t see how they could make the Indie Games section any easier to find without having us all ship our machines back to Microsoft so a dedicated XBLIG button could be added to the front of it right above the power button.

    • Dave Voyles says:

      We wrote all of our articles last week, and they were published yesterday, so it doesn’t reflect the recent dash update, which came shortly after we wrote our pieces.

  4. plezfiction says:

    I figured that must have been the case — thanks for the clarification.

  5. Tristan says:

    I find it sad to see how jaded Kris has become, Fun Infused doesn’t always make great games, but they do seem to be consistently above average.

    Personally, I feel like the XBLIG Marketplace is in a weird, middle-age sort of phase. While on one hand, some of the developers (both old and new) are starting to really make some fantastic, well refined games that are looking more and more like XBLA games. On the other hand, more and more developers are throwing up their arms, calling it a lost cause and moving on (with a real danger of tipping the balance of game quality even more in the bad direction). I fear XBLIG’s are becoming what the Milwaukee Brewers were for about 15 years, an advanced training camp. Soon as anyone got any good and could make more money they were out of there. Be a shame if the same thing happened to XBLIG’s.

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