The initial results of XNA, the Xbox Live project designed to open up a platform of millions to the industrious creators of content, are in. They are not impressive. Low conversion, poor sales figures, minimal exposure and an overall spreadsheet that seems appropriately dismal in this modern economic environment are the hallmark of a project that seems to have been ambitiously naïve at best.
I suspect, tragically, that the conclusions people will draw on the XNA efforts will be all wrong. I fear that this will be touted as the empirical evidence that indie titles and mainstream audiences shall be forever immiscible. I suggest on the other hand that while the many developers involved in XNA did a lot of very hard work, they didn’t necessarily always do the right kind.
Let’s review. Groov, Johnny Platform, ZP2K9, these are just a few of the marginal success stories of XNA, games that earned a few grand for their respective developers and posted far above average conversion percentages. I have never heard of any of these games until now. In fact, the only game I had heard of from the initial results released was Remote Masseuse, which got some nice visibility around Valentine’s Day for its sensual qualities and purely lascivious nature. It also turns out to be among the best-selling titles.
Question: Why was Remote Masseuse such a hot seller? Was it because of its titillating functionality? Or, was it because the creator of the game released it at the right time (February, 11 – 3 days before Valentine’s Day) and managed to get visibility?
Before we answer that question, let’s look at some further data that has come to light since the initial and incomplete results were revealed. The big success story of XNA seems ultimately to be Word Soup, which has earned more than $30,000 for developer Big Fizz Games since its November 8th release. What’s the difference? The XNA game shares a PC counterpart and has become popular overseas in British pubs. So, the difference then is visibility, mindshare and, in a word, marketing.
The thing that interests me in this whole experiment is the question of how many developers put all their time, resources and effort into building the game, and then abandoned it in a low visibility marketplace with minimal follow up.
Even something as simple as Twitter and other social networking efforts could potentially have had a major impact. In a random sampling, I tried to find some of the listed authors of XNA games through Twitter and some basic searches. For the most part, these names might have otherwise been invisible, and so, too, their games. The only really solid participant I found was the developer of ZP2K9, Jamezila whose Twitter feed was full of valuable self promotion. I suppose it could just be coincidence that ZP2K9 is only slightly more than a month old and already sports one of the highest-listed conversion rates and more than $5,700 in revenue. Jamezila is also part of the team that created The Dishwasher, which has been called up to the big leagues from the XNA farm team and is premiering on Xbox Live Arcade.
It may be spurious to draw a direct line of causality here, but isn’t it at least interesting that the authors who have spent time getting visibility, even if just through Twitter or Facebook or a personal website, have seen far more success?
I realize the knee-jerk reaction from developers and individuals that invested days or months into the XNA project may be to bemoan its lack of exposure, poor conversion rates and disappointing sales. I’m sure I’d be doing the same, but I have to ask, what did these industrious artists do to proactively get visibility for their titles? Game development is a business. The difference between success and failure isn’t always measured by quality or effort. Often it’s measured in mindshare. Who’s cares how handsome you are if you’re invisible?
If I sound critical, I don’t mean to. It is neither easy nor entirely comfortable to take the steps necessary to attain visibility. It requires almost as much work as the artistic effort itself, and you have to be the kind of guy who will interrupt the conversation of strangers to point out how awesome you are. Seeking visibility is self-aggrandizing intrusiveness, socially ambiguous behavior and an unqualified necessity if you want to succeed. There’s a good reason you know about games six months before they are released, and annoying though it may at times be, the strategy is highly effective.
Did any of these industrious developers create a marketing plan in concert with their effort? Did they build a website, sign up for every forum they could get access to, start Facebook pages and Twitter feeds? Did they contact producers of endless podcasts out there to seek promotion? Did they ping every small and mid-range website out there to talk about their work? Did they start blogs? How much more might a person have made in revenue if they had created their own visibility?
As I look through the results of XNA what I take away has nothing to do with Microsoft, the platform or indie gaming. What I see is a social experiment that proves an entirely different rule, that financial and commercial success is not something achieved without salesmanship and making a general nuisance of one’s self.
Sean Sands is a freelance writer as well as the co-founder of Gamerswithjobs.com. Though he talks a big game about marketing, it’s a safe bet that he won’t even remember to link his own article in his woefully ignored Twitter feed.