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MS marketing for XBLC games "woeful"

Clover/Tank Strike devs scream change.

Clover creator Daniel Jones and Tank Strike maker Daniel Steger reckon Microsoft has not done enough to nourish independent talent on the Xbox Live Community Games channel, and call promotion of the platform "woeful".

Speaking exclusively to Eurogamer, the pair say Microsoft's indie resurrection dream cowers next to the iPhone App Store, and is undesirable and unprofitable in its current state.

"Microsoft has gone quiet on the service, with nary an official public mention in recent months. Compared to the marketing Apple have invested in for the iPhone as a games platform, it's pretty woeful," Daniel Jones, boss of Clover developer Binary Tweed, told us.

"Even popular services like iPhone have a lot of people making games that just don't make money. Their service just suffers from different problems of games being lost in the crowd, rather than not having a crowd," Daniel Steger explains.

"There's an argument that maybe the games just aren't good enough," adds Jones, "and whilst there's some truth in that, the fact is we have 20 million Xbox Live users, of whom 4 million regularly purchase content. That the top-selling XBLCG titles only sell around 10,000 units shows there's something quite seriously wrong with the service's marketing - namely a lack thereof."

Clover and Tank Strike are among the better examples of games on XBLCG, as our May roundup points out. But Jones openly admits that Clover lost money, and the same under-exposure forced Steger to pander to an audience he literally cannot afford to miss. The outlook isn't rosy.

"Those that stay and download are often those who already have intent to purchase. This results in a high conversion rate but a less-than-stellar download rate. I have to hit a certain standard based on their past experiences with this genre before they will even look at the game, and at my foolishly low 200 [Microsoft] Point price I don't make enough per sale for it to be financially viable if I don't get a large group looking," says Steger.

"Clover cost around GBP 13,000 to make," Jones reveals, openly admitting the project lost money, "and that was almost entirely on living costs - central London isn't cheap! I know some developers who have sunk USD 30,000 into their XBLCG projects, and were still worryingly optimistic about making that back," Jones reveals. "I feel very sorry for them, but I hope that they can prove me wrong."

The winners of the Xbox Live Community Games channel are applications. RC-AirSim, a radio-controlled model aeroplane simulator, is the hottest title now and has been for some time.

Steger says this is because he and fellow indie game-makers have to compete with both retail games and Xbox Live Arcade titles. For every Clover there is a Sam & Max; for every Tank Strike there is a Worms or Death Tank. He cannot compete as things stand.

"I think that XBLCG can be a viable platform, but it's more about knowing what market you are trying to enter. Games like Clover and my own game Tank Strike didn't receive as many sales as we would need to be financially viable for the long-term, but what about the applications that do hold on to their positions in the top 10? I've seen myfishtank and RC-AirSim at the top for quite a while, and they have probably gotten a decent return on their investments," Steger explains.

"Applications are also easier to satiate their audiences with because there are no points of comparison. The top isn't filled with apps because the marketplace is filled with apps. The top is filled with apps because they offer something that Xbox Live users can't get anywhere else."

But change is on the way, as Microsoft plans to change the channel name to Xbox Live Indie Games and add reviews to sort through the bulk. It's a start, but Jones and Steger believe more needs to be done before XBLCG becomes a breeding ground for indie talent.

"For XBLCG to expand, quite a few things will need to happen," outlines Clover's Daniel Jones. "Research we've done has shown that there's a great deal of ignorance and confusion regarding the service, with some Live users thinking they need to subscribe to the [XNA] Creator's Club to play the games, and others just having no idea what XBLCG is.

"There's even been instances of developers recommending games to their friends who can't find them on the service. If people who know about the service, know about a game, and have already decided to purchase can't find the damned thing, then it's no wonder that sales are relatively low."

Steger agrees: "With that in mind I really wish that Microsoft would set up a better system for hot-linking to our own games marketplace, so that we could minimize the steps players have to go through to queue a game for download from their PCs."

"It's hard for games to stay at the top of the sales charts on XBLCG, and Microsoft's future changes for adding reviews and changing the name to Xbox Live Indie Games may pull in more people looking for 'games'," Steger adds, "but I wouldn't bank everything on that prospect, and no matter what, there's always going to be those who won't be able to make the service financially viable."

Xbox Live Community Games was introduced as part of the New Xbox Experience last year. Along with the XNA Creators Club Online, which offers Xbox 360 development tools and advice - albeit for a small price - Microsoft hoped to spark a fire of indie innovation.

It's a lonely crusade that Microsoft has admirably persisted with. And Jones and Steger, despite their frustration, acknowledge and praise the Xbox-maker for it.

"The XNA framework has done a fantastic job of lowering the technical learning curve of developing console games, and XBLCG as a service has really enabled a much more accessible route to getting a game to market," says Jones. "It's a much better deal for aspiring developers than the traditional pitching-to-publishers model, and from what I've heard a much better platform than WiiWare. Has anyone except Frontier made money on that yet?

"People have asked, 'Is XBLCG a success?' To answer that, you've got to wonder what its goal was. To drive uptake of XNA? Yep, it's done that nicely. Make lots of money for developers and Microsoft? Absolutely not. Create a new route into the industry? Given the opportunities that have presented themselves to Binary Tweed since Clover's release, I'd say it's achieved this one quite nicely," he concludes.