Microsoft Is Killing the Indie Store that Was Too Weird for Xbox
But Xbox Live Indie Games' legacy lives on.
A screen from Who’s Gonna Get The Girl. Image: Xbox
The news that Microsoft plans to shut down Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIG), Xbox 360's online store where anyone could upload and sell pretty much any game, didn't make waves, and that's probably how Microsoft wanted it.
XBLIG's idealistic notion of giving the smallest developers in the world access to Xbox 360's giant audience quickly turned into an embarrassment, with a flood of crappy experiments, many of which copied more popular games, and even more that were sexually explicit. But while the worst of XBLIG usually took the limelight, the platform still had a lot to offer. It just wasn't easy to find.
Some could see XBLIG's closing as something of a mercy killing. Introduced in 2008, the XBLIG marketplace offered users with XNA, a freeware game making tool discontinued in 2013, to build and sell their games on Xbox 360. According to a Microsoft blog post, XBLIG is no longer taking new subscriptions for developers, will stop accepting new games in Sept. 2016, and will stop selling games altogether in Sept. 2017.
When XBLIG closes its doors, it'll take with it an extensive catalogue of games that reflect a key transition period: when weird homegrown indies and stuffy gaming corporations finally met, but before the two changed each other to meet somewhere in the productive middle.
It was the first platform of its type, beating Steam Greenlight (where users can vote games into the Steam store) by nearly five years, and has given the universe some incredibly nice games. Escape Goat, a kooky puzzle platformer; Mount Your Friends, a competitive crotch-waggling party game; and Tempura of the Dead, where a samurai and an Obama lookalike fight the undead, were some of my favorites.
"I love what people can make when they don't have to make decisions based on anything other than their imagination," Kathleen Sanders, ex-community manager for XBLIG, told Motherboard over email. "I was excited about the fact that we really had no idea what people were going to make. As it turned out they were going to make many, many vibrator games at first. Many of them. It was a real thing. After that came the farting games."
The "vibrator games" Sanders speaks of was a phenomenon early in XBLIG's history. Programmers provided the tools for players to discover, let's just say, alternative uses for their controller's "rumble" feature.
In other places, you got Incident of Dreamy Vale Church, where you play as Anna and Laura, British police officers dressed in vintage chequered uniforms and knee high socks who respond to reports of bowler cap-wearing skeletons rising from the crypt. (This, I assume, is the "Incident.") Maybe it's the CGI reminiscent of bygone porno banner ads or the comic panel story scenes that give teasing angles of the heroes' miniskirts, but Dreamy Vale Church just seemed too weird and haphazard for a mainstream, living room console. And yet, there it was, along with many other oddities you couldn't get on other platforms.
A version of Five Nights at Freddy's where you track an evil, chesty, provocative nurse? That's not on Steam. Sexy anime Minecraft? Haven't come across that on PlayStation. A pillow fight version of Super Smash Bros.? XBLIG does what Nintendon't. Want to watch a princess verbally humiliate a frog? Can't say there's an app for that. There's one game that's just called Massive Cleavage vs Zombies, which might be the most cumulative concept for a video game of all time.
"I mean, the market sort of dictated the weird trends you'd see in the games," Sanders explained. "I am sad that there won't be a place for those truly surreal, totally wacky games anymore. It wasn't just the wacky ones we're losing, though. It was the ones that no one knew they wanted until it popped out of someone's head, or the ones that no one would greenlight or back on Kickstarter."
Each new Xbox update seemed to drive the XBLIG section deeper into the Xbox 360 menu, making it harder for players to find. With the section essentially unadvertised, making money was difficult for anything that wasn't a Minecraft knockoff, such as Total Miner, CastleMiner Z, and FortressCraft.
Sanders told me the XBLIG team was discouraged from promoting any game over another so it wouldn't set a bad tone. The result was that diamonds in the rough stayed there, buried between bad games about extreme birthing and bad games that essentially made fun of you for buying bad XBLIG games. It was so tough to get a good game noticed that a fan-run campaign, Summer Uprising, hoped to do what Microsoft seemingly wouldn't.
XBLIG was a hidden kingdom, and being out of sight meant submissions, only having to meet technical peer reviews and guidelines, could get away with a lot of weird stuff. Similarly to how I lamented the Ouya for its goofy egalitarianism, I think it's important to recognize what unique element any platform has to offer.
"Even the blatant rip-offs or cash grabs, many times someone really put their heart into it," Sanders said. "So many of the games on XBLIG are so personal and real. If you spend any time in many of those games you don't just play the game, I felt like a lot of the time I was getting to know the people that made them, too."
Many of the best XBLIG games found homes in other places. A lot of XBLIG games simply relocated to Steam. A spiritual sequel project for the Xbox One, ID@Xbox, is more tightly curated and closely resembles the indie game sections of Microsoft competitors. Microsoft has mentioned there will be conservation efforts for some XBLIG games, but I have some doubt Massive Cleavage vs Zombies will make that cut.
The notion that games people made at home might appear on their favorite console, even if they are amongst CG zombie erotica and farts, emerged from XBLIG, and in Sept. 2017, this hedonistic buffet of games will be smote from the Earth like Sodom and Gomorrah before it.