Editorial by Bobby Blackwolf

Why Is Microsoft Refusing Prepaid Codes To Indie Games?

Why Is Microsoft Refusing Prepaid Codes To Indie Games?

In November of 2008, Microsoft launched the Xbox LIVE Indie Games section of the Marketplace (then called Xbox LIVE Community Games) and touted it as a way for hobbyist video game developers to have their creations visible to the large audience of Xbox 360 owners. Almost four years later, it seems that Microsoft has all but abandoned the platform, leaving what developers are left frustrated and scrambling for solutions. The latest hurdle facing XBLIG developers? The lack of Prepaid Codes, and it hits developers right in the wallet.

Why Are Freebies So Important?


When a game is approved to appear on XBLIG, the developer of the game is allowed 50 "free" copies to give away, according to Aaron Teplitsky of yyrGames, developer of Bungee Ferret Tossing, "This enables us to do things like send a copy to a reviewer, when they offer to review our games, or to run things like contests, or giveaways," Teplitsky explains. While he's gotten offers to run contests and giveaways from other sites, those plans are on hold until he can get these 50 Prepaid Codes he is promised from Microsoft.

The issue is a server error on Microsoft's end. When a developer requests their codes, they just receive an "Error on page" response with no explanation.

Bungee Ferret Tossing
Bungee Ferret Tossing
Teplitsky continues, "I offered to PayPal $1 to a few different reviewers. A couple said to me "I'll just buy it, don't worry about it." Most said "no worries, just give me a code when you have one." I haven't heard anything out of the few that offered to buy it. Basically, I'm stuck in limbo as far as getting Bungee Ferret Tossing reviewed. Other than handing someone a dollar, we really don't have any alternatives."

Teplitsky isn't the only one feeling burned by what's going on. David Johnston of Smudged Cat Games, developer of Gateways! is also considering his XBLIG launch ruined over the lack of Prepaid Codes. "Having spent the best part of 3 years developing the game, constantly testing and refining it I’m pretty angry with the way Microsoft has sabotaged my launch," Johnston explains. "I’m now in a position where there’s a barrier in the way of sites reviewing my game. Many review sites are run by a small number of people in their spare time and while it feels like $3 isn’t much for them to just buy the game and do a review, I appreciate that they would have to do that for a large number of games.

"It’s just a barrier that Microsoft should be sorting out but but just don’t really seem to care," Johnston concludes.

What makes Johnston's case absolutely puzzling is that Gateways! was one of the winners of this year's Dream.Build.Play competition, awarded by Microsoft just earlier this month. The game also released as a part of the popular Indie Games Uprising promotion - it released the day after Prepaid Codes stopped being issued.

What Are They Doing About It?


The developers haven't been sitting idly by, but there's not much they're able to do. There is an email address that they have contacted, but received no reply. The initial request was sent September 12th, with no replies until September 19th. Johnston received the following email response on the 19th, "Weare (sic) looking into your issue/request and will get back toshortly (sic)." Jer Zorb with the Xbox LIVE Indie Games team then posted on the official forums, "Hi guys. I am having the devs look into this. Anyone else having issues please provide your contact info and post in this thread." There has been no official statement or resolution since then.

Meanwhile, all developers can do is keep their contacts informed, and hope that the sites they have promotional deals with are patient. Johnston tells me, "I’ve let websites know about the position of not having the codes so that they’re aware and don’t think I’m just ignoring them. I posted a few things on Twitter keeping people up-to-date. It’s fairly common knowledge now that the system is broken so all the review sites are waiting for it to come back online as well."

Why The Attitude From Microsoft?


Gateways!
Gateways!
Teplitsky believes there is a shift in the mindset of Microsoft about where to focus their energy on the indie market. "We can develop and sell for two platforms. One is Xbox 360, via XBLIG; the other is Windows Phone. It appears to us that Microsoft has essentially shifted its focus away from the former over to the latter. For one thing, a few of us e-mailed the Windows Phone team to try to get someone to look at the XBLIG problem. We all received responses within 24 hours. Unfortunately, the responses were "sorry, we can't help you." Further, XNA itself hasn't been updated in about 2 years. On the other hand, it is now possible to use Visual Basic and other languages to develop Windows Phone apps, so it's easy to speculate that the writing is on the wall for XNA, one way or the other."

Johnston echos the sentiment. "It seems like Microsoft’s interest in XBLIG has gradually waned over the duration it’s been active. They don’t even seem to be bothered with the Dream Build Play competition any more. I was in the top 20 of the first competition and I remember there was a lot of buzz about it and loads of people were talking about the games because Microsoft was pushing it a lot. I got one of the top places this year but the event was hardly covered at all. The results just seemed to get announced on the website and that was it."

The Future For XBLIG Developers


Thankfully, Gateways! was not as hard hit as it could have been. Johnston explains, "It’s not been quite so bad for me because I launched on Steam at the same time which has been much smoother (and profitable). I’m not sure I’m going to bother with XBLIG any more because of the lack of support and poor sales that ‘proper’ games seem to get there. I spent a long time developing my game so I launched at 240 points but it seems like everyone looking at XBLIG is just interested in 80 point games which would feel a bit like devaluing my game."

yyrGames, however, is currently dependent on XBLIG, although that could be changing in the future. Teplitsky doesn't regret the experience with XNA, though. He explains, "even though this situation sucks, it also represents an opportunity that I certainly didn't have before I signed up back in 2008. I wanted to deliver quality games for a popular console, and I believe that I've succeeded in that.

"I am indeed going to release for other channels, but not because of the recent support (or lack thereof). It's more because I want to broaden my market, and take advantage of young marketplaces."

My Opinion


In my opinion, this is a ball that is very difficult to drop, and Microsoft is doing their best job of doing just that. They already "outsource" the standards review process to the community, and have automated systems built that handle pushing content to the Marketplace for everyone to see. There's really not that much oversight to be done, but there is still oversight needed - such as when one of those automated systems, like the Prepaid Code generator, fail.

I do understand that with Steam Greenlight and the Ouya coming into the indie games scene, Microsoft may feel that they are cutting their losses by spending less time promoting something they won't be able to compete with in the future. The problem here is that people have spent YEARS on the XNA platform and are still committed to it, even during what Microsoft may consider "End of Life." To treat the people who have NOT abandoned the platform after all of the previous jerking that has occurred, like moving the XBLIG section of the Marketplace to a very hidden spot on the dashboard, the way that they seem to be treating them does not bode well for having the indie community support the next Xbox, or even the next Windows Phone.

While there are many XBLIG titles that aren't worth your time, there are a few gems out there. There's no way to try them all, even though all of the games offer a free demo, and that's why review sites and promotions are essential to the indie game scene on ALL platforms. I'm confident that it would take one of the extremely smart system administrators at Microsoft a very, very short time to figure out what's wrong with the Prepaid Code generator, but that requires someone in management allocating the smart person's time to the problem. If Microsoft really is shifting their focus to the Windows Phone to take on Apple, then I'm not sure when that will take place.

As a programmer myself, I still recommend XNA to learn how to code your own games - it really is one of the easiest stepping stones I've found in terms of understanding the basic concepts of game loops and I/O handling. However, I would recommend AGAINST paying the $100 to develop for the Xbox 360 with the state of XBLIG today. While it sounds great in theory, there seems to be too many headaches behind the scenes, which is really sad. There really was no better feeling than when I pushed my XNA creation to my Xbox 360 for the first time and played it on my couch on my big screen, and it worked exactly the way it did on my PC.

If you want to get into game development, you can still get XNA and develop console games on your PC that use the Xbox 360 controller, and then release them on your own or submit them to Steam Greenlight. With Steam Big Picture Mode now in beta, that's like developing on a console...Right?

For those that are currently attempting to promote their XBLIG titles, or are in the process of completing their XBLIG title, I hope that Microsoft solves the issue of the Prepaid Codes not being generated sooner rather than later. I would love nothing more than to update the end of this article with a note that the issue has been fixed and review codes are being sent out to the sites that have been promised them. I am sad that it might take the publication of this article to get that done - that's not how it's supposed to work.

I'd like to thank Aaron Teplitsky and David Johnston for talking to me on extremely short notice about this. They have both created great games which you should definitely check out - even if I believe that there is a reference to me being a bad news organization in Bungee Ferret Tossing.

(Microsoft quietly fixed the issue on October 23rd - six weeks after it was initially reported.)

Bobby Blackwolf is the host of The Bobby Blackwolf Show on the VOG Network, lead developer of the website, and lead GM for VOG: The Game. Follow him on Twitter at @BobbyBlackwolf

Editorial by - 9/26/2012 3:16 PM2283 views

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Comments

ShadowNextGen
ShadowNextGen
9/26/2012 3:41 PM

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Great article Blackwolf. It really is mind boggling how Microsoft could have let this happen. I wonder what this means for the indie scene on Durango. Will it simply be nonexistent?
Flaco_Jones
Flaco_Jones
9/26/2012 10:47 PM

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I thought the same thing when I read the article. It doesn't sound like Indie games like these are going to have a home on the next generation Xbox. It will be interesting when they announce the new console if that's something they would mention right away or only when someone asks.
Burr
Burr
9/26/2012 3:41 PM

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It's kind of out of character for Microsoft to do this. Normally they are very mindful of developers and their needs and keep platforms alive as long as they'll go, but between this and the abrupt changes in API for Windows 8 they're really starting to burn some bridges. I'm not sure that's a good shift in direction for Microsoft to start chipping away at one of their biggest strengths.
UplionSkyfishGames
UplionSkyfishGames
10/5/2012 6:42 PM

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From my offical forum response:

I am horribly disheartened by what has happened to my fellow developers. While I may be a small fish, I was under the alias Uplion and developed the Skyfish series (four titles), which has gathered a good penny for Microsoft. I was planning better quality titles and I even have a new account but look what we have here. A major part of the indie games service is completely broken, and these LOYAL developers are suffering. Right when they just wanted to do one final indie game uprising, this happens.

I may not have the same quality bar, but I respect the Indie Uprising, and what they've put up with in regards to not only being indie developers in a small market, but giving Microsoft the proper support. This is inexcusable, especially after three weeks. I'm beginning to suspect they just want us to fall away so they can scrap the service. Why should I or any developer put up with completely broken portions of the service, with no updates, and a ruined promotion exclusively for your platform. If I was in IT support/back end, and I let this happen for three weeks, I would be immediately fired.

I will be suspending all game development for any Microsoft platform, and I would ask others to do the same. We need to send a message that if you're going to let a service fall apart, then we don't need you either. I am incredibly furious at Microsoft right now. People only want to develop games for you, so you can make good money as well. It's a good trade. I pay my dues and under duress I develop my games for your Xbox platform exclusively. Don't be afraid to voice your disapproval.

This has gone far enough.

Skyfish creator out.
TigerClaw
TigerClaw
9/26/2012 3:31 PM

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This is a good article and I think everyone should read it. This is a real concern for all Indie Developers that rely on XNA and XBLIG
act_deft
act_deft
9/26/2012 8:58 PM

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It really does suck that Microsoft is pretty much neglecting XBLIG, since there are some really great gems like Blackwolf said.

Lots of good intentions in XBLIG but it doesn't work when the devs don't get the support they should =/

Not to mention that XBLIG isn't available worldwide...
Bobby Blackwolf
Bobby Blackwolf
9/26/2012 9:41 PM

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Just edited the article to clarify that this is a server issue on Microsoft's end. It's not, as far as I know, a change in policy.
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