Tales from the Dev Side: XNA, XBLIG, and Me by Michael Neel

XNA, XBLIG, and Me (aka The Story of GameMarx)

by Michael C. Neel of GameMarx.com

Tales from the Dev SideIn November 2008, the same month Xbox Live Community Games launched, I organized a geek dinner.  I wanted to make sure there was some real geekery involved, so two days before the dinner I downloaded Microsoft’s XNA Game Studio.  Until that weekend I had never developed a game.

This is not to say I never thought about it.  I have been reading about game development since the early 90’s.  My favorite topic is implementation of artificial intelligence.  By 2008 I had read at least 10 books on game programming and installed the DirectX SDK on three separate occasions.  Generally the process was install DirectX, follow some basic tutorials, see the effort required to make an actual game, loose interest.

XNA was different.  In two days I went from knowing nothing to having a fully working Atari 2600 Combat clone.  I went to the geek dinner with more than just some example code, I had a working game.  I never got to share much code though.  Some people brought kids and the kids wanted to play the game non-stop.  They fully enjoyed this crude little game and got too loud shouting exclamations of fun for the other patrons.  A game that I made!  Granted I stole 100% of the gameplay but seeing the kids faces I was  hooked.  This is the drug that makes indie game developers, aka people willing to starve making something that will make them no money.

Around this time I remember looking at the games in Xbox Live Community Games (now Xbox Live Indie Games).  There was some weird junk like In The Pit (a game with no graphics) and sin(Surfing) (more tech demo than game).  There was also fun games like Weapon of Choice (Contra inspired shooter) and Blow (artistic physics puzzle game by yes, that David Flook).  It was a bizarre freak show of gaming that welcomed everyone to join it.  That has always been best thing about XBLIG, anyone can share their game.  To paraphrase the mis-attributed Voltaire quote, “I think your game is shit, but I’ll defend to the death your right to publish it.”

It would be a year before I could focus on game development again.  I had just launched CodeStock, and had CodeStock 2009 to plan.  I wasn’t completely passive however, in the between time I talked Dylan Wolf into forming FuncWorks with me.  Dylan is by far one of the best programmers I’ve known (also, not found of me linking that post).  We work well together, never clashing on egos.  Probably because he accommodates my ego and I don’t notice.  Shorty there after, acknowledging we need a graphic artist, we add my then girlfriend now wife Cicelie.

As CodeStock 2009 wrapped, we focused on game development (after a brief attempt at a t-shirt site for Cicelie).  With the experience of hosting the Chainsaw Buffett podcast I launched the Feel the Func podcast.  This turned out to be the smartest thing I did, though it was just a side project at the time.  I also did a really dumb thing, common among new game developers.  I made a teaser video for a game that four years later still is nowhere near done.

It doesn’t look like much, but as a developer I had created a model, animated that model (which is why the walk cycle sucks), rendered it in game, moved it with a controller, and blended the animation with user input (turning the torso).  I wish I had a video of Cicelie’s model moving (the mech screenshot at the end) because she did a much better job than I.

In the next few months we began to realize the size of scope required for ROCS.  My oldest daughter wanted a game she had been playing at school for her birthday called Rumis.  I suggested we pause on ROCS and create a game based on Rumis called IncaBlocks.  I also decided I was not under enough stress and signed a publishing contract for my first (and only) eBook the XNA 3D Primer.  Both were completed in the next three months.

I learned a lot in those three months.  First, I have no desire to be an author even though I enjoy writing.  Second, I suck at game design.

IncaBlocks flopped, and flopped hard.  Not even a dead cat bounce.  The best thing I can say about IncaBlocks is it wasn’t ROCS.  If I had taken my dream game and killed it with the mistakes I made on IncaBlocks I don’t think I could have recovered.  I had little emotional investment in IncaBlocks and it was easy to do a cold, clinical autopsy.  Final verdict?  The game is not fun and there is no awareness of XBLIG even within the Xbox community.

I wasn’t sure what to do about the first problem, but I had an idea on the second and GameMarx was born.  The idea was to create an XBLIG review site that treated indies as AAA games were treated.  This mean not just reviews and news, but also podcasts and videos plus a database of games.  Websites and podcasts I knew, but I had a lot to learn about video production.  One of these days I’ll dig out the very first episode of “The Show” that was scrapped and reshot, but man is it rough.

Reviews were serious business at GameMarx.  We create a set of standards and guidelines and followed it religiously.  The biggest rules we didn’t write down: the price of a game is never a factor, avoid the “angry reviewer” style, and a review is the personal view of the author, nothing more.  These rules required a lot of time and effort from a reviewer, but we still ended up writing a combined 99 reviews in the year we spent on written reviews.

There were only a handful of video reviews done.  I wish we had done more of these, but they took a lot of time to edit (I still need to finish editing Dylan’s video review of Aesop’s Garden).  Instead we created a segment on The Show to talk about new releases and recent reviews while playing the games.  This concept lead to GameMarx Trials where we played a game’s trial mode site unseen.  Far from a review (each episode starts off with “this is not a review” title card) these were much easier to produce quickly and get out while the games were still on the new release list.

As GameMarx grew it became clear that XBLIG websites had the same problem as the games – no awareness.  We were far from the only site covering XBLIG, and I decided to build a website of websites that would link us all together (webrings for those old like me).  I contacted all the sites I knew of, got permission, and also contacted Nick Gravelyn and Andy Dunn (aka the ZMan) about taking over the domain XboxIndies.  The site keeps a database of XBLIG, sales and chart performance, and also aggregates news and reviews from the participating sites.  We even made a small API for mobile app developers (check out XBLIG Companion).

In the news category we pretty much had our hands full covering Microsoft’s neglect of the service.  In 2010 Indie Games were moved into specialty shops behind avatar clothing.  I wrote numerous articles about the limitations of XBLIG imposed by Microsoft on pricing and features.  Frozen sales dataGame rating manipulationsDashboard freezes.

None of these articles got much mainstream attention.  So in 2011 when the XBLIG section was again buried, I took my growing video editing skills and created a video using Major Nelson’s own words against him.  This is GameMarx most popular non-boob video to date:

Didn’t make the cut, but there was a bit for the video where I tried to voice search for “Cthulhu Saves the World” and “Zeboyd Games” with no success.  (If you want to know the most viewed video including boobs you’ll have to find it yourself.)

At the end of 2011 we decided to step away from covering the games.  The site was growing, but it was clear to us the effort required was going to mean that’s all we did.  In 2011 we played every game released on XBLIG so before hanging it up we did the GameMarx 2011 XBLIG Game Awards.

What made it easy to leave was XboxIndies had a steady flow of content from other sites, and Indie Gamer Chick was here to stay.  While Cathy has a different style, and is dead wrong about review scores (no I’m not), she is getting attention for XBLIG developers and games.  I’m also 37 and she’s still in high school I think with the I-don’t-have-three-daughters kind of free time I don’t.  This means not only can she review many more games, but also has time to put together a project like the Indie Royale Indie Gamer Chick Bundle.

Leaving the review world meant we had a bunch of game codes we no longer had a right to use.  So we created the GameMarx Indie Mega-Pack Giveaway to unload the extra codes (with permission of course).  Several XBLIG developers contributed more codes and we ended up over 50 games to giveaway.  Voice actress Rina-chan lent her talents to the promo video.  We also ran a survey of the entries and collected some data on what gamers think about XBLIGs.

Getting back to development was a wonderful feeling.  I took an idea I had for a game called Captain Dubstep and made a goal of submitting it to Dream Build Play 2012.  At this point most of us XNA developers admitted XNA was dead from Microsoft’s point of view, so I created a site called “XNA’s Last Dance” and extended an invite to XNA developers to add their blogs and commit to entering what was the last Dream Build Play competition for XNA.  This site wasn’t a success in terms of traffic, but it had a since of community behind it and I’ll probably bring over the idea of the site into GameMarx later this year.

What happened to Captain Dubstep?  Well, the game wasn’t fun but we did manage to make the deadline.  We did a whole postmortem at GMX 2012 if you care about the gritty details, but let’s just say we had no scope defined so it was a train wreck of direction changes.

I looked at the screenshots and was like "What is he talking about? It doesn't look bad at all!" Then I watched the trailer, and was like "um, this looks like the worst thing ever created by man."

I looked at the screenshots and was like “What is he talking about? It doesn’t look bad at all!” Then I watched the trailer, and was like “um, this looks like the worst thing ever created by man.  Way worse than Ouya.”

I wish I could say the rest of 2012 was as productive.  We did launch a few open source XNA based projects including XTiled and XSpriter.  Most of the time though we spent in limbo, not sure of where to go after XNA.  We changed the podcast to “mike only” and tried our hands at Let’s Play videos.  I thought exploiting my daughters by making them play NES games on camera would be internet gold, but creating a viral video is harder than it looks.  It also has become clear that making Let’s Play videos takes more time than anything else we’ve done, and would kill any time for game dev.

In May of 2013 I participated in the Ludum Dare, and in a weekend created the game Quest.  For the first time I used Unity and I loved it (after a brief period of projecting my old XNA girlfriend on it).  Unity is not like XNA in that you will do more scripting than programming, but once you get the hang of the IDE you can be much faster.  The asset store is also a huge plus for a Unity developer – tons of art is a few bucks away.

Ludum Dare has a since of community I haven’t felt since the “good ol’e days” of XNA.  If you’re a game developer, go now and mark your calendar for the next completion date.  There are three full competitions a year and mini-LD competitions just about every month.  I cannot recommend this more.

So what’s next for GameMarx and the FuncWorks crew?  I’ve had plenty of time to think on this while recovering from having all teeth extracted due to extended radiotherapy I received ten years ago (fun FuncWorks fact: both Dylan and I are cancer survivors).  The podcast will return shortly and will stay developer focused (probably with more Unity talk).  If the content is useful to other developers I cannot say but hosting it has forced me to study deeper into game design that I would have on my own.

I want to continue Let’s Plays, but with a focus on Indies.  The indier the better.  I’d like to get to a point where I can regularly cover indies in GreenLight or Kickstater.  Yes, that means betas and prototypes.  I have no interest in the review side of things, I’ll leave that to Cathy and her growing staff (besides, she isn’t a fan of Kickstarter so I won’t have to worry about her page views crushing mine).  This doesn’t mean I will play anything, I’m only going to play a game if I find it interesting at some level.  And this doesn’t mean only positive comments – sending me your baby’s prototype means I can comment on how ugly it is even if it’s really smart.  Also it has been eating paint chips so you might wanna check on that.

I’m still kicking around game ideas for FuncWorks.  I want to get out another game or two in Unity before attempting anything like ROCS.

What about Microsoft?  Well Unity means I won’t be making any XBLIGs for the Xbox360.  The Xbox One?  Who knows, even Microsoft can’t figure out what the Xbox One will be for Indies and with no plans for Indies at launch I see no reason to make any plans myself.  If they get their act together and create a viable program I’ll look into it.  Keep in mind while they announced/reversed their self publishing stance this week the XBLIG dashboard was frozen.  Microsoft has yet to put indies on an equal playing field with publisher backed games in any of their stores.  Call me jaded, but I just spent the last five years waiting for them to deliver on the promise of “democratize game distribution” and will need to see proof before believing this time is real.

Last, a big thank you to the fans and community who have shared in our journey.  I’m still surprised and smile every time someone sends us an email!

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About Indie Gamer Chick
The most read Xbox Live Indie Game critic in the world.

7 Responses to Tales from the Dev Side: XNA, XBLIG, and Me by Michael Neel

  1. Man, I think I teared up reading this. Like for reals. I’m still in that state of limbo. I can’t seem to pull myself out of it. Someday I’ll figure out what’s next. Thanks for sharing your story Michael!

  2. Andy says:

    “Making a viral video is hard”….. “I just had all my teeth pulled out”…

    Thanks for the stories… I hope we are not all writing our Microsoft post mortems…

    • Mike says:

      Are you implying I should have made a video of my teeth getting pulled? Because the thought did cross my mind. In the end though I just had all of my teeth put into a bag that I used to creep out my two older daughters. Someday in therapy they will have to relive daddy asking “want to see my teeth?”

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