Although the release of Minecraft technically has little to do with Microsoft’s often maligned attempt to show independent developers some love, it could spell the end of days for the already much criticized Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIG) channel.
A little background for those who have never heard of the channel (and trust me you wouldn’t be in a minority): Launched in 2008, the then named Community Games channel was a place where any fledgling game development company could sell its game, potentially reaching an audience as large as the Xbox 360 faithful in the process. It sounded like a great idea, but because the channel was buried deep within the dashboard, and was infiltrated by games ranging from mediocre to abhorrent, it met with little success. Granted, beyond a community driven peer review system there was little in the way of quality control, so the flood of crapware was to be expected.
Then a game with zombies in it came out, quite literally. James Silva’s 13:37 opus I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1 was an homage to all things guerrilla gaming. Featuring a terrific soundtrack that worked in perfect tandem with the game’s progression, Zombies revitalized the channel, and while the myriad of abysmal massage apps and Pong clones still dominated the market, there was hope.
Traffic to the channel still wasn’t very good, that is until early last year. With the release of FortressCraft by ProjectorGames, XBLIG hits soared through the roof. FortressCraft almost immediately dethroned Zombies as the top-selling game on the channel, as well as the top-grossing. But how does a no-name game developer suddenly garner so much attention? By releasing an egregious clone to the most popular indie game ever released on the PC, otherwise known as Minecraft. In the months that followed, other game developers sensed that they could also cash in on the cloning madness and subsequently released titles such as Total Miner and CastleMiner - no points for creativity. Up until this very day, four out of the top five Top Downloads are shameless Minecraft knockoffs.
From a marketing standpoint it makes perfect sense – if Notch wouldn’t give console aficionados what they wanted, someone else would. Integrity aside, these teams saw an opportunity and took it. And although FortressCraft developer Adam Sawkins has essentially become Public Enemy #1 of the independent gaming world since, most of the other clones have flown under the radar, their developers reputations relatively unscathed.
Although relinquishing the top spot from the Minecraft rip-offs would prove impossible, other indie teams, some of which actually made credible products, were suddenly receiving increased exposure. These teams were willing to dismiss the clones atrocities to gaming-kind – if you’re an indie, any exposure is good exposure, regardless of how it comes to pass. But now things may begin to swing back in the other direction. Minecraft has been released on XBLA.
Despite indirect predictions from Sawkins that Minecraft would not succeed on XBLA with so many other cheaper alternatives available, Minecraft (as any sane person expected) went on to become a rousing hit. So much so, that it is feared that traffic to the XBLIG will halt to a near standstill.
I’m personally not bothered at all that the clones won’t receive nearly as many sales from here on out – they have more than enough dirty money already. It’s the little guys that I fear for. Quirky, stylish titles like Dead Pixels and fun romps like Cthulhu Saves the World are going to suffer the most. Here are games made without pretense by ambitious developers who care more about the integrity of their respective products than making a quick buck. At least Cthulhu Saves the World made it over to Steam and developer Zeboyd Games looks to be making the next Penny Arcade Adventures game – and why? Because they garnered the respect of their peers and more importantly the gaming community.
So is the XBLIG channel really going to die? It will likely sputter along for a while longer, most likely to be thrown to the side with the release of the next Xbox. Many will tout it as a failed experiment, but for some, it will be a reminder of what could have been. But in no way is Minecraft or Notch to blame.