Back in April, as the gaming landscape was preparing for a next-gen level shakeup, I was only thinking about one thing: XBLIG is almost done. I mean, there would be indies on Xbox One of course, but the community that I’ve come to know and love would change. It might be better. It might be worse. But it would certainly not be the same. I’ve thought about how my previous reviews would lose their relevance once those games were no longer available. I’ve thought about the types of games the hundreds of developers I’ve come to know and befriend will create in the future. Change is scary. I’ve spent two years trying to be the best (if not, the loudest) advocate for Xbox Live Indie Games.
Has my blog actually done anything? Maybe, but not as much as I would have liked. Some developers have credited positive reviews from me for causing a brief sales spike, but nothing significant. On the flip side, I’ve had developers of games I absolutely cremated credit me with a bump in demo downloads.
But then I get down to the sad truth of the matter. There are games on my Leaderboard that have sold under 1,000 copies. Hell, there are games on it that have sold under 500 copies. There are games on XBLIG where I am literally the only person that bought it. I’ve played amazing games that sold so poorly that the developers became demoralized and quit. Being Indie Gamer Chick has been the privilege of my life, but sometimes the tales of woe from developers can be downright heartbreaking.
With the sun setting on this generation, I wanted to try to make one last big push for Xbox Live Indie Games. The community has come together in the past and done their best to promote the platform. There has been three promotions called the Indie Games Uprising that tried to showcase the best new XBLIGs. Unfortunately, the quality of those games was a mixed bag of some genuine gems to go with some unpolished, unfinished turds. The last Uprising was particularly devastating. Microsoft didn’t promote it until long after it had already ended, and when they finally did, the main game featured was Sententia. A well-meaning title that was almost universally recognized as being one of the most abysmal games the platform had seen. To have a game of its quality be the focus of an event designed to promote the best of XBLIGs only served to cement the unfair reputation XBLIG has of being nothing but low quality games that aren’t worth the average one dollar price tag.
I believed the reputation myself before I stated my blog. From the time XBLIG launched until the time that I started Indie Gamer Chick, I bought two games for it. Breath of Death VII was the first. I Made a Game with Zombies in It was the second. I enjoyed both, but attempts at finding more titles of their quality didn’t seem worth the effort. Mostly, I found a lot of demos of stuff that felt like they were developed over the course of a week, devoid of passion, and aimed at entertaining nobody. When I finally started my blog, it didn’t take me too long to find out that there are some really good games on the platform. But the sheer number of awful games drowns out the good.
Beyond that, XBLIG also got a reputation of being nothing but clones of popular games, particularly Minecraft. I’ve played the two most famous of those, Castleminer Z and FortressCraft. I didn’t like them, but I wasn’t really interested in Minecraft either. After playing them, I will say that they are quality games, if you’re into that sort of thing. But there are also a lot of similar games on the platform that weren’t as well produced as those two. At the same time, people would say things like “the top two Minecraft clones weren’t as good as Minecraft was.” Well, of course not (though I’ve heard from some Minecraft fans that actually prefer the XBLIG clones). But their popularity was directly tied to the fact that Minecraft wasn’t available on Xbox. Unfortunately, having clones top the sales charts unfairly painted the platform to look like it was only good for clones. Or if not clones, games featuring Avatars. Regardless of the quality of those games (admittedly, most games centered around Avatars are horrid, but not all of them), most regular gamers don’t like Avatars to begin with, and that turned them off the platform. Then you have non-gaming apps such as Rumble Massage, which is actually the #29 best-selling XBLIG of all-time as of this writing. When there are thousands of titles on the platform and an app that turns your controller into a vibrating dildo has sold better than 99.999% of them, people are just not going to associate that platform with quality video games.
So that is the handicap that myself, along with dozens of other advocates of XBLIG, have dealt with. I certainly wasn’t the first critic to focus on XBLIG. I’m just the most successful. But that success is only in comparison to other sites with an XBLIG focus. Your average moderately popular indie gaming site does multiples of what I do on my best day. It’s just plain hard to get gamers excited about good titles on Xbox Live Indie Games. It carries too much baggage. It’s also hard to get someone to take another look at something they’ve long since dismissed. That’s just human nature. In the case of XBLIG, most of what was wrong with it before is still problematic today, so anyone glancing would be likely to assume that nothing has changed. And they’re right, because nothing really has changed. That’s because there were very good games on the service all along. You just had to look closely to find them.
I had two ideas for trying to get a new audience exposed to XBLIG before the new consoles launched. The first was to do a bundle of PC ports for XBLIG. The problem with that was the odds on being able to get one off the ground were probably slim. Even good XBLIGs are a tough sell because of the stigma the brand carries. The other option was to do a massive giveaway of the best XBLIGs over the course of a single day. Well, you know how it played out.
Surprise! We Like Your Idea!
I sent an email off to the guys at Indie Royale sheepishly explaining my idea for a bundle centered around Xbox Live Indie Games. I couldn’t pitch them on the merits of sales potential, because there is no denying that the whole idea was a long shot at best. Thus, I did exactly what I advise people not to do when seeking investments from venture capitalists, or crowd funding, or angel investors: I pitched to them from the heart. I explained to them how the XBLIG/XNA community “adopted” me and what they’ve meant to my life. I was frank about why XBLIG’s reputation was fair, but the fogging effect it created caused the majority of gamers to miss out on some of the best indies of this generation. Finally, I basically said that these developers deserve a break, and that exposure on Indie Royale would not just benefit those with games in the bundle, but could open up the doors for greater recognition for the hundreds of talented developers whose games have sat unloved on XBLIG.
Little Racers STREET
Graeme, one of the main guys at Indie Royale, did respond to me. Which is awesome considering that I’m ultimately small potatoes on the indie scene. Not only did he respond, but I had caught his interest. We discussed the types of games I would include, and how we could set this apart from other bundles. Then, things went quiet for a while. So quiet that I was sure I got the blow off. So, I turned my attention to my alternative plan: a huge giveaway of the best PC ports for XBLIG. The idea was, the developers would have their games free for one day only: July 1, for Indie Gamer Chick’s Second Anniversary. After lining up over a dozen top-notch games, many of which I had planned to include in the bundle (plus other games that would be discounted), I thought I had organized a pretty good little event.
Then I heard back from Graeme. The Indie Gamer Chick Bundle was officially on. I just had to round up the games.
I changed my underwear and started contacting developers.
Rounding up Games
Your typical bundle usually has five games. The Indie Gamer Chick Bundle has eight. The reason for that is simple: I wanted gamers to get the best value for their money as possible. Many of these games sell for between $1 to $3 on Xbox Live right now, not to mention that some would have been featured on previous bundles. But most importantly, I wanted people to see that there is a huge variety of very good games on the platform that they had been missing out on.
If I could have, I would have included every single developer who wanted in. But that wasn’t an option. I’ve made tons of friends who develop XBLIGs since starting my site. I wish I could have included those I was closest with. But the concept of the bundle was that it was supposed to represent the tippy-top of XBLIG quality. After coming up with several variations, I ultimately decided to go off my leaderboard and pick the first eight games that were available in sequential order.
For those new to Indie Gamer Chick, the Leaderboard is a concept I adapted from BBC’s automotive show Top Gear. The idea I had was I would rank every game that I enjoyed in the exact order I would prefer to play them. The method is actually very simple. Whenever a new game receives my Seal of Approval, I start at the bottom of my list and ask myself if I would rather play the new game or the old one. If it’s the new one I prefer, I go up to the next game on the list. I do this until I reach an old game that I prefer over the new one. The new game is then placed below that title on the board. It’s been a fun idea that works really well. It’s interactive. My readers get to debate placement. It also gives developers something to aim for. Just having it made the selection process for this bundle pretty easy. Or so I thought.
Right off the bat, the #3 game on my site, We Are Cubes, was eliminated. It has no PC port, and there wasn’t enough time to get one up and running. The #2 ranked game, Gateways, was not available because the developer already had plans to be in an upcoming bundle. #9, Bleed, was only recently listed on Steam and the timing wasn’t right, but I have no doubt they’ll be in a future bundle. Games like Miner Dig Deep (#11) and Star Ninja (#13) also have no PC ports, while Cthulhu Saves the World (#12) has been in more bundles than I can count. That was cool, because everything in my Top-25 I would proudly stand by as the cream of the XBLIG crop.
But this was a bundle that was about the XBLIGs. So I considered putting some games that were well received by everyone but me in the bundle, with Apple Jack being the game that I felt would probably be the most well received. The problem there was Apple Jack isn’t out on PC yet. It will be soon, and for fans of punishers, you’ll probably like it a hell of a lot more than I did. I thought about including the most popular game on XBLIG that I’m incapable of playing due to my epilepsy: Score Rush by Xona Games. That wasn’t an option because they already had a bundle planned out. Finally, I almost went completely nepotism corrupt and including Aeternum by Brooks Bishop, who is one of my better friends I’ve made through Indie Gamer Chick, not to mention the man who designed my mascot. But that just plain wouldn’t have been right. His game was well received by fans of Bullet Hells, but I absolutely hated it. I get along with bullet hells about as well as I imagine Michael Vick will get along with Cerberus.
So my lineup was set. And then I lost Escape Goat. Unfortunately, the timing was wrong. He wanted in, but he had already committed to other bundles and deals and had to pull out. This was pretty devastating, because Escape Goat is the #1 ranked game on the Leaderboard. I consider it to be the best Xbox Live Indie Game ever made, and I’ve reviewed nearly 400 of them. I also lost Chompy Chomp Chomp, the #5 game on my board, which I consider to be the best party game of this entire gaming generation, indie or otherwise. I was counting on its inclusion because pure party games are quite rare in these kind of bundles, and I wanted it to set this bundle apart from the rest. The developers at Utopian World of Sandwiches were besides themselves when they had to drop out. They wanted in, but a miscommunication forced them out. That sucks. I still get a knot in my stomach thinking about it. Chompy Chomp Chomp is a game that didn’t sell extremely well on XBLIG, but it’s worth your time. Gather up your friends, because you’ll never have a better party for $1, I promise you.
So I went back to the list. Again, many games were just not options based on being too recently featured in other bundles. Penny Arcade Part 3 was out. DLC Quest was out. A couple of my favorite puzzlers, Pixel Blocked! and Aesop’s Garden had no PC ports. Thankfully, the vastly overlooked SpyLeaks was available. Finally, I went to Orbitron, one of my personal favorite games on XBLIG that, I admit, got a mixed-reception elsewhere. Though to be frank, I’m disappointed that ArcadeCraft, which was created by Orbitron developers Firebase Industries, had no PC port. This is thanks to its use of avatars as characters. Yea, ArcadeCraft ranks two spots below Orbitron on the Leaderboard, but there’s no questioning that is has a larger appeal. Seriously guys, get cracking on that PC port. No XBLIG screams “this would be a PC megahit” quite like ArcadeCraft does. (Note: according to the guys at Firebase, it likely will never come to PC. I need to go have myself a cry now)
The eight games confirmed for real, I had one last thing to do. I really did want to include as many developers as I could, but the problem was, the more games, the smaller the piece of the pie each would get. Indie Royale had never had a bundle with eight separate developers. The Indie Gamer Chick Bundle isn’t the largest in terms of total games, but it is the largest in terms of total developers. It also complicates things more from legal and logistical points of view. But I really wanted everyone who had earned my Seal of Approval and genuinely wanted in to have a shot at being in. The only way to do that was to ask if they wanted to simply donate their games to the bundle. A shit deal for them perhaps, but it was all I could do.
Guess what? As always, the XBLIG community stepped up, and I had volunteers. That mystery game? I’m not even sure what it is, but it will come from one of those games, and it will be a game off my Leaderboard. Incredible. Those who did step up are artists. They also have future projects that are coming very soon to both XBLIG and to PC, and they wanted to show that they’re here, they have talent, and you can trust that they can make good games.
Naming Your Bundle of Joy
When I started Indie Gamer Chick, it was totally on a whim. My boyfriend (along with my parents, coworkers, and the ghost of Jacob Marley) all said I needed a hobby. We were going through my Xbox hard drive and stumbled upon Breath of Death VII and I Made a Game With Zombies, the two XBLIGs I owned before starting my blog. Brian, like many gamers, had honestly never heard of XBLIGs. I had previously considered doing a movie related blog, but Brian suggested that I should do XBLIG reviews instead, since gaming was basically all I did with my free time. The name came about after just a couple of minutes of brain storming. I’m a fan of online movie reviews from sources like Red Letter Media and That Guy with the Glasses. TGWTG included the Nostalgia Chick, whose reviews I had come to enjoy quite a bit. So I thought, hey, Indie Gamer Chick. Done and done.
The name is good and catchy, but I didn’t stop to think about the negative aspects of it. Namely, the whole GURL GAMER thing. Besides the very rare joke, I’ve never played up the girl card here. It takes about five minutes worth of reading my blog to see that I’m not playing the “I’m quirky because I’m a girl and I play games” tit-shaking stereotype. So while the name might land curiosity seekers, I would hope my writing and coverage of games that don’t typically get a lot of attention would be the draw of my site. And for the most part, it is. In two years, the amount of times someone ripped me for having “Chick” in my site’s name was minimum. It was a non-factor, and I’m proud of that.
And then I attached a teaser to the bundle at the end of my review for Penny Arcade 4, and the response was overwhelmingly negative, but in silly ways. Maybe a bit mean-spirited, but mostly the jokes you would expect. Menstruation jokes. Boob jokes. Jokes about casual games that girls play, or games starring girls. That didn’t bother me so much. I mean, if I can’t take that shit (and obviously some people can’t, hence some recent controversies) I should crawl under my bed and never come out because that’s just how people talk. It’s dumb. It’s juvenile. But I’m a critic who liberally uses dick and fart jokes, so I can’t say anything against low brow humor.
The problem is, for the name of a gaming blog, Indie Gamer Chick is perfect. For the name of a bundle? I’ll admit, it’s not so perfect. First off, people unfamiliar with my site (which includes the whole world, give or take a couple thousand people) have no point of reference to why the bundle was called that. None of the games feature girls as the protagonist. Thus, the bundle might seem like Indie Royale was marketing directly to girls in a way that could be considered sexist. This at a time when gender-related tensions in gaming are at an all time high. Granted, their site and their press release make it clear who Indie Gamer Chick is (raises hand) and that I hand-selected the games. Which is fine, if everyone reads it. They didn’t. The name “Indie Gamer Chick Bundle” appeared on Twitter and across message boards and people lost their shit over it. For most of those people, their anger/outrage was defused when they found out the context of the name. Others moved on to being pissed that my blog had the name “Chick” in it. The rule I guess being that girls that play games are not allowed to say they are girls. I’m not sure if the rule applies to other forms of entertainment. I’ll ask Lady Gaga is she gets shit for her stage name.
The second part is the whole girl gamer thing carries with it the jokes that are such layups that even Kwame Brown couldn’t blow it. “It’s Indie Gamer Chick so of course Bleed will be in the bundle.” Not only does that not bother me, but I laughed. I mean, they’re easy jokes for a reason. Because more than one person thinks of it. Not clever, but hey, funny. And there was no actual malice behind them. Yea, there were a few douchey comments, but the internet has a few douchey people. You know what? The internet is not made up mostly of assholes and misogynists. I know this because I spent two years working with the XBLIG community, which is made up almost entirely of men and they treated me amazing. By the way: making a random girl gamer joke doesn’t make a guy a misogynist or an asshole. Not every joke has malice behind it.
Should the bundle have been called something else? Maybe. My friend Matt played the devil’s advocate role as we tossed around the merits and detriments of having the bundle carry my name. He floated the idea that calling it the Indie Gamer Chick Bundle would take the attention away from the XBLIG concept. He wasn’t totally wrong about that. Of course, there was no name available that could hammer home that this was an XBLIG themed bundle. Legally, we couldn’t even call it the Xbox Live Indie Game Bundle. The alternative name considered was the XNA Showcase Bundle. XNA is the free gaming development tool set provided by Microsoft upon which all XBLIGs (and some spectacular Xbox Live Arcade games such as Bastion) were built with. XNA was recently discontinued by Microsoft, so having that name for the bundle as a final tribute made sense. Better sense than my friend George Clingerman, who got XNA tattooed on his arm. Though I believe he was merely pining to be Peter Moore’s heir at Microsoft when he did that. Probably while drunk.
Of course, XNA doesn’t mean a whole lot to people outside the development community. And, unlike indies, which will have some future on Xbox as a platform, XNA is done. People will still continue to use it to create PC games, and tools such as MonoGame could potentially lead to some games for next-gen platforms being started on XNA. But it won’t ever again be a major factor in indie development.
The Indie Gamer Chick Bundle was the name to go with. I know it works at catching attention. If I had to go back to July of 2011, the day I started the site, would I have called it something else? Perhaps CathyPlaysIndies.com or something like that? Again, maybe. If I had known I would eventually end up doing one of these bundles, I probably would have come up with something less controversial. I mean, who knew? I figured nobody would read me. But, I’m not ashamed of the name. I’m proud that Indie Gamer Chick has caught on. I’m proud that I am Indie Gamer Chick. I never thought I would catch on enough to be the recipient of backlash.
And it’s not just me, but the guys at Indie Royale who are getting it. Again, they’ve done everything they could to make it clear that the bundle was handpicked by me, but the name is all most people see, and they find the name sexist. I’m getting a small minority of gamers upset by being yet another female gamer who has to call attention to her gender. That was never my intention. I just thought the name sounded cool. It had a ring to it. Now the name is getting me labeled as an anti-feminist. It’s true that I don’t give a flying fuck about feminism. It’s 2013, and despite the best efforts of some politicians, I don’t feel like a second class citizen, nor have I ever. And yet, based purely on gender, I’m supposed to automatically side with people like Anita Sarkeesian. Isn’t the whole idea that I must give a shit about it because I’m a girl in and of itself sexist? So yea, I do regret that the name in the sense that it brings the gender debate (and all accompanying jokes) onto the table. It’s totally fair, because it’s the name I chose.
I’ve always thought what most set me apart from other bloggers and critics was my age and inexperience. I was about two weeks away from turning 22 when I started Indie Gamer Chick. I didn’t grow up with an Atari 2600 or an NES or even the 16-bit platforms. My first console was the original PlayStation. My average reader tends to be about ten years older than me. It’s having that totally different perspective that sets me apart. This is the first time I’ve really talked about the gender issue, but I sort of have to. Would I have gotten it regardless if I had named my blog Random Game Crap, which was seriously what I almost called it? Probably a little, but not as much. Thankfully, some of the people who were like “what the fuck is an Indie Gamer Chick” took the time to read my blog and realize that I’m not a stereotype.
And, of course, my review style sets me apart. I’m certainly not the only critic who is known for being harsh. It’s just that indies are typically spared from scorn. I admit. I knew almost nothing about the indie scene before starting Indie Gamer Chick. I had played indie games, mostly through promotions like Xbox’s Summer of Arcade, or various random PSN releases. But, when I went to check on reviews for Xbox Live Indie Games, there were slim pickings. And what little reviews I could find seemed like they were written by cheerleaders. Absolutely nothing negative discussed about the game. Just praise and positivity, as if the developer were a delicate flower who would wilt and die if anything resembling constructive feedback was spoken. Yea, fuck that. If I was going to do this thing, I would just say exactly what I thought. And that’s what I did.
It’s exactly what developers want. I mean, they want to get positive reviews, but they want to earn them. They’re meaningless if they’re handed out like candy to trick-or-treaters. Indie developers desire to improve, and the only way they can do that is through honest feedback. And honest feedback is something they couldn’t count on from friends or family or fellow developers. They should have been able to count on it from critics, but the critics failed to actually criticize anything. When the XBLIG community finally discovered my blog, they were briefly mortified by my review style. But community leaders embraced me and my style. Now, developers use my reviews to help them improve. They aspire to be better. To be what they use as a guidepost for improvement is pretty much the greatest thing I’ve ever accomplished. It’s especially touching because they’re the ones with the real talent. I’m just someone who plays games. But they treat me special, and that feels amazing.
Let’s Do Launch
The Indie Gamer Chick Bundle launched yesterday. The response across message boards was generally negative, I admit. But, aside from a handful of people who just plain loath the idea of my name, most of the feedback is centered around game selection. It’s not that the games are bad. The consensus seems to be that these are good games. It’s that there’s too many repeats from previous bundles, or that only one of the games (Dead Pixels) has Steam keys as an option. These criticisms are absolutely fair and anyone who says otherwise is just plain wrong.
Centering a bundle around XBLIGs doesn’t exactly give one the widest range of game selection. There are a lot of solid titles, but stuff I felt worked as a proper showcase for the platform that was available and not completely over-bundled limited my choices. Do I regret not getting Escape Goat? Sure. Am I ashamed that my bundle instead has SpyLeaks? Absolutely not. It’s a wonderful game. I wouldn’t have settled for a selection that wasn’t representative of the best of what XBLIG has to offer. I’m proud that I got to present these eight games to a community that might have overlooked them.
I do admit, not having Steam be an option for seven out of the eight games does suck. Not having Mac as an option for any of the games sucks too. Part of that is that games developed on XNA are tougher to transition to Mac, not to mention costly. You have to remember, with the exception of Dead Pixels (which would qualify as a modest hit), none of these titles were best sellers, and getting the games on Mac could very well have been cost prohibitive. As far as Steam, it again comes down to these games not having the biggest following, and the Greenlight process being slow. Four of the games are going through Greenlight now, and if you enjoyed playing them, give them your vote please. They’ve earned it.
So who was this bundle aimed at? I really wanted this to reach gamers who ignored XBLIG, or long since dismissed it. I wanted to show that this is what XBLIG was capable of. One gentlemen offered the following feedback: “I haven’t heard of any of these games.” He meant that as a negative. I was thinking “wait, if you’ve never heard of them, isn’t this exactly the kind of bundle you should be looking at Indie Royale for?” Most XBLIGs have no name recognition. That doesn’t mean they have no value to you as a gamer. If ever there was a platform that should have thrived on sleeper hits, it would be Xbox Live Indie Games.
I think the bundle is probably being better received in terms of sales than people expected from an XBLIG-themed bundle selected by a nobody critic. Is it going to break sales records? Probably not. But is it succeeding at exposing a new group of gamers to XBLIG? Thankfully, the answer to that is yes. People are using my Leaderboard to discover some great games that flew under the radar. That a wonderful market full of hidden gems was right there on their Xbox all along. Even if it only creates a handful of new XBLIG fans, it’s still totally worth it.
It’s ironic that Microsoft announced their plans for self-publishing on Xbox One the same day that my bundle launched. The same bundle I wanted to use to create new fans for my beloved XBLIG. The term “better late than never” comes to mind. That applies to new customers for XBLIG as well. And even for those who think the Indie Gamer Chick Bundle stinks, I hope you will at least tip your hat to this development community, because they will factor into your future in gaming. With their amount of talent, crossing paths with them will be unavoidable. If you have an Xbox and you haven’t checked out the indie channel in quite some time, if not ever, I truly hope you fire it up. You have no idea what you’ve been missing. It’s not perfect, and many of its games downright suck. But the good stuff? The really good stuff? It’s there, and when you find it, it will make your day.