Making an XBLA Game: The Inside Story

Contracts, exclusivity and outsourced Avatar items.

Canadian developer Brian Provinciano spent two months negotiating his contract with Microsoft to get Retro City Rampage on Xbox Live Arcade. It was, to say the least, a tough process - and one that he could have done without. It delayed the creation of the game, but in the end he thought f*** it, and signed on the bottom line.

Retro City Rampage was first announced as a WiiWare game. Then, all of a sudden, it was delayed on Wii and coming to Xbox first. Money hats, the Nintendo faithful claimed.

"I got a lot of flaming and hate and trolling from when I announced it was delayed on the Wii because it's coming to Xbox first," Provinciano tells Eurogamer. "Everyone thinks I got this big, huge chunk of money from Microsoft. I didn't. I'm poor and I've got nothing. They haven't given me anything."

So why go with the big M rather than the big N? Put simply, Provinciano had had enough.

"I had been pitching the game, doing documents, vetting all sorts of review stuff for months and months and months," he recalls. "The contract negotiation alone was two months for Xbox, trying to negotiate the nickel and dime of it. It was a really rough process. I'd say a good 85 per cent of developers you talk to have had unpleasant experiences. It's like, stop nickel and diming us. If you just let us make our awesome game it'll be better and it'll make more money for all of us anyway. That's my opinion.

"It's one thing to go through the difficult process of going through the gate and getting your game approved, but once it's approved it's a really rough process of negotiating and trying to get a fair deal for yourself. That's a tough part everyone has to waste time on. In any case, I was talking to a number of other big publishers as well, and some smaller ones. And I was talking with Sony. But it got to a point where I was so drained.

"It was the most unpleasant experience of this whole project. It's like, years and years and years have gone into this and the worst part of it all was doing the contract. I was so drained with it, and so tired. Every day I wanted to finish the game and get the game out the door, but I had to deal with emails and contract negotiation. After all of that time I was like, okay fine, I'm just going to sign it! I just want to get it over with! And so I did."

Provinciano's contract stipulates that Retro City Rampage must not appear on other platforms for a limited period of time. But some other platforms, which he refuses to divulge, are not covered by the clause. "If I really get screwed on the launch I can put it out on some other platforms immediately, because they aren't covered in the contract," he says with a glint in his eye.

Provinciano's story will be familiar to most who have made or are making games for Microsoft's hugely successful downloadable platform - and even to some who haven't. Take Amanita Design, the Czech Republic maker of enchanting adventure games Samorost, Botanicula and Machinarium, a game due out on PS3 early next year.

"First we wanted to create an Xbox Live version of Machinarium," Amanita boss Jakub Dvorský says. "Microsoft contacted us some time ago. They were interested and very nice. But after about half a year of negotiations, they told us they were not interested anymore because they decided they don't want to support games which are not Microsoft exclusive. We had already released the game for Mac and Linux, so they said they were not interested anymore."

Dvorský's experience is in part the result of a Microsoft policy exposed by Eurogamer earlier this year. In short, Microsoft reserves the right to not publish games on the Xbox Live if they have appeared on other platforms, such as the PlayStation 3 or Steam, first.

There are other rules. To get your game published on Xbox Live, you either need to sign with a third party publisher, such as EA or Sega, or go through Microsoft Studios directly, in which case you are forced to sign an exclusivity deal. "And they don't give you a penny," Provinciano reveals. "It's just an unfortunate thing."

Microsoft has defended its policies, and Sony has attacked them, but the reason for them is clear: Microsoft wishes to maintain quality control over XBLA, preventing it being overrun by below average games, and it wants to make as much of what's on offer exclusive as it can.

On the face of it, this means Xbox 360 gamers will not get to enjoy games that have launched elsewhere, such as Machinarium, but for developers there is an additional frustration.

Machinarium.

"They are changing their internal rules all of the time," Dvorský continues. "They didn't want to publish it [Machinarium] as a first-party publisher. If you want to make an Xbox version, then we would need to approach some third-party publisher, a big one.

"It doesn't make much sense to me. Why would we need a third-party publisher? The game is ready. We do all the PR and marketing. You just need to put it there on the platform. Why would we need an EA for getting us there? It doesn't make any sense.

"So we decided to approach Sony and they agreed they wanted the game, so we started to port it" - an explanation, then, for why PS3 owners will get to enjoy Machinarium, and Xbox 360 owners will not.

"If your game has come out on another platform before they will never publish it, except if you're dealing with a big publisher," says Phil Fish, creator of upcoming Xbox Live Arcade exclusive Fez. "Big publishers get to bypass these rules and release whatever they want whenever they want, which is kind of bullshit, because, like, why?"

Why indeed. "We're doing it without a publisher," Fish continues. "Meat Boy did it without a publisher. Braid did it without a publisher. It's not an open platform like the App Store, but the fact is, a single developer could make a whole game and put it out there without the need for the middle man, the publisher. It's not like we're printing boxes and shipping them and sending them to stores. You just have to put the game on Microsoft's server. That's it. That's the publishing. It's done. So I don't know why Microsoft has these special rules and privileges for the big publishers."

If convincing Microsoft to publish your game is tough, creating it is even tougher. There are a number of rules and restrictions Xbox Live Arcade games must all adhere to. Achievements are one example. Leaderboards are another. And then there's the odd issue with Avatar items, which are mandatory for Microsoft Studios games.

With these, some developers are charged money by Microsoft so they can pay an outsourcing company to create the assets. If the developer isn't happy with them, then they are done again - for another charge. This cost is taken automatically by Microsoft when the game is eventually released and the money starts rolling in.

"It took over six months of pitching and document writing negotiation and since then it's like months of work to deal with the controller stuff," Provinciano says. "The menus have to have the right items and when they unplug the controller it's gotta do this, and blah blah blah. The leaderboards, the Achievements, the Avatar items were a real pain in the ass.

"They're done by some external company and the external company was not doing a very good job. I wish we could have done it. We tried to and they wouldn't let us, because we're not the "experts". It was just many revisions and time wasted. It's like, hey, that's wrong. You've got to change this and change that. Hey that's wrong again. That's wrong again.

"Everything has taken longer than you would expect. You submit the stuff for localisation and then, it's like, wait a second, this is supposed to be a game of innuendos, and those are really crude blunt translations. Being the one guy, that's why this game has taken so long to finish."

All the concern over Avatar items and other silly necessities pales into comparison with the constant worry that, at any point, Microsoft may simply pull the plug and cancel an in-development game - whether a contract has been signed or not.

"Microsoft constantly changes their portfolio manager," Fish explains. "There's a constant rotation of staff at Microsoft. Sometimes you'll have a new portfolio manager who comes in and he decides, no more racing games. We're done with that. And if they had a racing game in development they would cancel it. They make a random decision like that based on whatever fact.

"I was afraid for years that would happen to us, we would have a new guy come in who would be like, no more pixel art games, no more 2D platformers and we would just get cancelled. That's happened to people I know, that they had a contract with Microsoft, they were greenlit for release, but for whatever reason Microsoft decided they were no longer interested. And they don't even give you a reason at that point. They just say you're no longer coming out on XBLA. That could still happen to us. It's ridiculous."

Provinciano is less worried about Microsoft cancelling his game than he is about it launching at a time that will give Retro City Rampage the best chance of success.

"Microsoft chooses the slots when you get released," he says. "It is a wide window. I could submit it in December and it could be several months after. But it'll probably be released relatively soon after I submit it. Fingers crossed. But it's luck of the draw. It's really tough. There's no guarantee on anything.

"There's no guarantee my game won't be released next to some $3 million, $4 million budget XBLA game. That's really screwed a lot of developers in the past, where they just get released on the wrong week against the wrong game, and get buried in the dashboard. There's a lot we don't have control over."

This, famously, is what happened to Super Meat Boy, the superb hardcore platformer that launched as part of Microsoft's 2010 Fall GameFeast promotion.

Developer Team Meat was vocal in its criticism of Microsoft over the way it was treated. Super Meat Boy was discounted on release (according to one developer we talked to this was because Microsoft prefers high unit sales to revenue because it makes XBLA look better). But, also, the game didn't enjoy dashboard promotion, which had been promised. Microsoft told Team Meat it would be promoted once it achieved a certain number of sales. When it did, the dashboard promotion, again, failed to materialise.

"I'm crossing my fingers they'll do their best to keep me happy," Provinciano says. "I'm sure they don't want another Team Meat situation.

"But what keeps me smiling is just the fact that I'm going to make more money on the other platforms than Xbox combined. So even if I get screwed on the Xbox launch I'll still be okay."

Fish is talking with Microsoft to work out how Fez will be promoted when it goes live next year - though he's being cautious with his hopes. "I have to work on the assumption that they're going to do nothing and I have to do all the promotion myself," he says.

Retro City Rampage, also featuring XBLA star 'Splosion Man.

"With certain publishers, I know some friends that have these clauses in their contract that says, you're not allowed to do any of your PR and marketing. We're the publisher. We're going to do it. And then they do a terrible job or they do nothing at all, and your hands were tied the whole time.

"Lucky for us that wasn't the case in our contract. We enter the game in every festival and every contest systematically. I do a lot of interviews. We do a lot of private demos we send to people. I have to do everything myself. I assume they're not going to do anything. If they do give us a good dashboard placement and do a whole load of promotion, amazing. That's really going to help. But I have to do as much as I can on my own."

When a game finally launches on XBLA the money starts rolling in. How much the developer gets depends on the contract it negotiated with Microsoft or its publisher. While developers and Microsoft refuse to divulge the terms of their contracts, we understand Microsoft, PSN and Steam offer developers a decent chunk of that 1200 or 800 MS Point cost.

The amount of money a developer gets can also be tied to the number of units their game shifts. The more units you sell, the higher the percentage of the sale you get - but there is a cap, an industry-wide standard across Steam, PSN and XBLA. "If I was a recording artist I would make a cent out of every album," Fish says. "We're going to make a bunch of dollars of off every unit sold. It's good."

It's a good thing, too, because game developers who sign with Microsoft do not get cash advances. Xbox 360 developer kits, which are valued at $10,000, and testing and translation costs are all provided up front, but recouped automatically when the game goes on sale.

Microsoft usually decides how much an XBLA game costs, as Fish knows well. "I thought for a while Fez was going to be 1200 points because that was becoming the standard," he says. "But they're trying to bring back the average to 800, because they believe it's the sweet spot and we're going to sell so many more units that way. I'm not convinced. If it was up to me I would charge 1200 points. I just spent five years working on this. I'm not going to give it away for free."

It's important to point out that for every Team Meat situation, for every Jonathan Blow nightmare, game developers have positive experiences with Microsoft. For all the trials and tribulations both Provinciano and Fish have endured making their game to the XBLA standard, they insist Microsoft has treated them well.

"We always get asked how has it been working with Microsoft, and they've been great with us," Fish insists. "Every time I say that people assume I'm being sarcastic. No, they've been great. Every other story I've heard from my friends and colleagues are horror stories. They've made a lot of weird decisions. I don't know if it's just because they really like Fez, but they've been great with us. They've let us make our game however we want it. They've never tried to interfere or change the game. They've been supportive. We've had to delay the game so many times and every time they were cool with it."

"The thing with Microsoft is it's tons of different departments and not necessarily a lot of communication," Provinciano says. "A lot of people don't have control. I look forward to being in a position after this game is sold to have made enough money that I don't have to worry so much about all these things I don't have control over."

But what of the future? Earlier this month Joe Danger: Special Edition was announced for XBLA. This came as a surprise for a number of reasons, but chief among them was that it seemed to contradict Microsoft's own exclusive policy.

According to developer Hello Games this was a one-off, an exception to the rule. But does it suggest Microsoft is willing to follow PSN's lead and relax its rules?

"It makes sense for Microsoft to take one of the more successful PSN games across if they're up for it," one game developer, who wished to remain anonymous, tells Eurogamer. "When there's a title that's done really well on PSN and the developer owns its own IP, then why not? Why not take it? It doesn't make sense for them to take, say, Critter Crunch. There's only a few other titles that would be released that would be independent studios that own their own IP. But say if Sony didn't own Fat Princess or something like that, it makes sense to make an exception for that.

"But it's an exception that hopefully changes their rules. They might think, well okay, this has worked quite well. Maybe we'll take a few others. That's good news for developers because right now if they don't go on XBLA first time then they can never go on XBLA, and that's really horrible. Right now if you release on Steam first, it's really difficult to get onto XBLA. That's quite crappy."

Why Microsoft may be willing to change its approach remains a mystery, but Eurogamer has heard from a number of sources that XBLA game sales have stalled since 2010's hugely successful Summer of Arcade promotion, which saw the likes of Limbo sell hundreds of thousands of copies. 2011 releases From Dust and Bastion enjoyed some success, but XBLA, overall, has hit something of a plateau.

This, combined with the incredible success that is Steam, the more open platform that is PlayStation Network, as well as the wild frontier that is the App Store, means that XBLA in 2012 and beyond could well be a very different place than it was only last year.

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