I’m starting to get a little bit excited about “the new Xbox experience” and in particular (at last!) the live launch of the whole Community Games thing. It’s been a long time coming, and it still remains to be seen what solution XNA 3.0 will have for publishing games on Windows (which, in XNA 2.0, amounts to black magic and a reliance on extreme goodwill from your target audience); but I’m massively in favour of what Microsoft are trying to achieve here, and I still aim to get Pandemonium out there at some point.
There is one major issue that the system has that I really wish MS would do something to address. It’s a bit of a tricky one, to be sure, but the whole idea of making the 360 open to the hobbyist games development community hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park, so I’m sure they could do something if they tried.
The problem that Xbox 360 Community Games has is this: all games provide a free time-limited demo (so far so good) but all games must charge between 200 and 800 Microsoft Points for the full version. That is: you are not able to release your game for free.
Don’t get me wrong – money is a good thing! I don’t think many people will get rich from their Community Games, but there is definitely the potential for those people who put in a lot of effort to make a little bit of cash out of it. It’s actually quite nice to be allowed to charge the same kind of money as a full XBLA game, because some Community Games will be as good as the best XBLA games. (The worst XBLA games, unfortunately, are very poor).
However. I like at my own game: Pandemonium. There is nothing I would like more than to open up development of Pandemonium to other people. A few have even offered to help me out with various things, be it code (which I should be able to manage so long as I keep things simple, but more help would allow it to be a more complex game) or art (at which I am awful, and any help would be gratefully received, were it practical). If I were able to release Pandemonium for free, I would love to make it a team effort.
The problem is this. Pandemonium, when the time comes for it to be released on Xbox 360 Community Games, and like every other Community Game, will cost real money.
So… if I get the help of an artist, and Pandemonium sells a million copies and makes me rich (here’s hoping!), that artist would have every right to say: “hey. I helped you out there! Give me a share of the money.” To the best of my understanding, there is nothing in Xbox 360 Community Games to facilitate that. I could obviously “miss out the middle man” and transfer money into his bank account – but then, how much? The artist in question might say, “there’s two of us, so give me 50%” – but I might be of the opinion that I put in more time and effort and there wouldn’t even be a game without me, so only offer 20%. We would end up in dispute – and again, as far as I can tell Microsoft have washed their hands of the whole problem.
As the team grows larger, the problem grows worse. By the time you’ve got even five people contributing, you’re going to need to start writing legally binding contracts if you think your game will make any significant money. But then – I contract an artist to produce some character models and animations. Unfortunately, the results are awful and they don’t make it into the game. He did the work – he’ll want to get paid! But they didn’t make it into the game, so I’m unlikely to want to pay him.
It would also put obligations on me. The last few weeks, there have been (fun and exciting) things going on in my social life that have meant development on Pandemonium, and updates to this blog, have effectively frozen for a while. This is, after all, just a hobby project. If I’d contracted an artist to produce models, which he’d done – but then my distractions meant Pandemonium was delayed or unfinished, preventing him from getting any income – he might start getting pretty annoyed.
Real games teams have producers and management and business experts to handle all this kind of thing. (You see? I said “producers” without spitting. Aren’t you proud?) Hobbyist developers have nothing, and that’s fine when your games are free. You can make it clear from day one: “you want to contribute? That’s great! But this game is going to be free, so you won’t get any money, and neither will anyone else.” When you have to charge – there isn’t any choice in the matter, every game will be at least 200 Microsoft Points, of which up to 70% goes to the developer – it gets more complicated. Who gets the money? What share of it? What do they have to do to entitle them to that share? What happens if they don’t do it? Who do you complain to if you never get the payment that was agreed upon? How do you know the person making the payments is being honest – in fact, can you be sure you will ever get a payment at all?
In my opinion, if Microsoft are going to mandate that Community Games must be premium, they should also provide some kind of framework for answering these questions, and arbitrating on them. (The MS system need not be compulsory, but without it, where do you start?). I cannot, in all good conscience, accept offers of help on Pandemonium, because I cannot, with any level of honesty, promise to fulfil my side of the bargain (which would be much less of a problem with no money involved). Even if I did, and Pandemonium starting generating income, I would be deeply uncomfortable with attempting to control who gets a share of what – and unwilling to be blamed if someone felt they received an unfair share. I would love to make and distribute Pandemonium on 360 for free, but that’s simply not an option. So, it will remain a one-man effort – with all the implications that has – and that’s a real shame. Xbox 360 Community Games will, I predict, be a massive success; but part of a community involves working together, as well as sharing the fruits of your labour, and there are very real obstacles to that under the current system.
I’d love to be told I’ve overlooked something in the literature, but I fear I haven’t.
“An army cannot be commanded from within. A nation cannot be governed from without.” – Sun Tzu