October 18, 2008

There’s No “I” In “Team”

Filed under: Games Development,Personal — bittermanandy @ 12:57 am

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



  1. I just wanted to respond to your first question “what solution XNA 3.0 will have for publishing games on Windows”.
    They said that we will have working ClickOnce publishing, which automatically includes the required dependencies in the install package.

    As for the rest of your post, while your points are all valid, Microsoft will most likely not interfere with how you pay your minions/collaborators, because it would probably mean more legal work for them.

    As for the free option, they previously said that they understand that people want to put their games for free, but this will not happen at launch. But they are looking into it.

    While at first I was a little surprised to see that there was no “free” option, I believe that because creators are required to set a price, they will put more effort into polishing and finishing their games, instead of filling the service with half-finished games.

    Comment by Catalin Zima — October 18, 2008 @ 8:57 am | Reply

  2. Catalin — ClickOnce will be nice for XNA 3.0 (plus the ClickOnce packages will make MSI/WiX installers easier to build for non-ClickOnce installs), but it’s still not a Community Games-like platform. I still don’t think XNA will be allowing redistribution of GfW Live, which precludes distributing games to non-CC-members that use XNA networking or gamer profile support. Beyond that a developer would have to roll their own sales platform or attempt to federate with some existing service(s)…

    Comment by Max Battcher — October 18, 2008 @ 10:40 pm | Reply

  3. Catalin: yeah, I understand the legal side of things would be way more work for Microsoft, for perhaps not much benefit; and I acknowledged that in the post. Even so: the lack of any legal framework (what do I know about contracts and payments?) combined with the compulsory premium charge, is a very real stumbling block for forming community-based teams. I completely understand why the situation is like it is; but it is still very unfortunate.

    Comment by bittermanandy — October 19, 2008 @ 12:06 am | Reply

  4. It is indeed unfortunate. I guess the community-based teams will have to work out a solution.
    One idea was passed around in the xna forums related to this. You could make it clear from day one: instead of saying “this game is going to be free, so you won’t get any money, and neither will anyone else”, you could say “All money made from this game will go to charity, so you won’t get any money, and neither will anyone else (well, except for the charity organization)”. This, of course, implies a great deal of trust from whoever contributes to the game. They need to trust that you won’t keep the money to yourself.

    Comment by Catalin Zima — October 19, 2008 @ 12:32 am | Reply

  5. I think Microsoft just doesn’t want to give away free space for hobbyist-developed video games. After all, Xbox LIVE must be using some of its precious storage space and bandwidth to host a Community Games title and distribute it to others, so it’s not all that surprising that they’d want to get reimbursed for such, as well as possibly make some profit too.

    Also, I don’t share the sentiment that forcing a price to download and play a game will make the quality of the game better. What *might* make the quality of published community games better is charging the person publishing the community game an initial fee. This could also allow Microsoft to recoup their costs for hosting the game on Xbox LIVE before distribution of the game begins, which could in turn possibly let the developer/publisher make the game free to the masses, instead of using a tag from a mandatory price range.

    Comment by Kolo Rahl — October 19, 2008 @ 1:56 am | Reply

  6. Free would be a nice option. I have a couple points.

    1) The Business Case: Microsoft obviously wants to show some effort to recoup some of the financial investment they have made into this Community games enterprise. None of what they have created for us comes free. Afterall they have servers to keep up, employees that maintain and operate them, and the engineers that create the applications that run on them.

    2) Charity: You might think of donating all of the money that you will receive to charity. Any perspective collaborator would therefore expect no monetary benefit.

    3) Price: I beleive Microsoft would be wise to reduce their minimum price for a download. An arbitrarily low price, settable by the developer, would allow a wider variety of products that are somewhere between almost free (1-10 MS point) for simple gameplay/graphics demonstrations to 800 points for fully developed applications. I would probably spend more on XBLA games if they were cheaper overall but I am an extreme cheapskate.

    4) Demo Mode IS Free: There might be an option to use your demo mode to provide almost all of the features of your paid for version. This essentially makes the software free to all. You could even specify in the game that paying for it removes the “buy now” screen and receipts will be donated to the developers favorite charity.

    So maybe there are some options here.


    Comment by zetarcos — October 19, 2008 @ 3:17 am | Reply

  7. What you’re overlooking is that the Live system costs money to run and it costs money to pay the developers working on XNA GS. MS has to recoup that money somehow. Since 99% (or so) of the people working with GS are indies with no money to begin with you can’t expect to charge them for releasing games. Some people are already complaining about the CC fee. MS is already providing all the software you need for nothing. They have to charge for something. TANSTAAFL.

    The other thing is that no one is forcing you to release your games on XBLCG. You’re totally free to release them on the PC for nothing.

    Comment by Jim Perry — October 20, 2008 @ 2:09 pm | Reply

  8. Believe me, I’m not complaining about MS not providing stuff for free. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, what they’re aiming for with XNA GS is amazing, and the fact that so much of it is free is even more amazing. I just want XBLCG to be something that succeeds. Nor am I unaware of their need for income – having worked for MGS for five years, I am very keenly aware of it. I also completely understand that we can release on PC for free if we want to.

    The problem is that the whole thing is starting to look a bit schizophrenic. On the one hand, XBLCG is “democratizing game development” and “the YouTube of video games” (an unlikely claim given the effort involved in even a simple game, but let’s roll with it). On the other hand, the fact that your games must charge money gives you moral and legal obligations (see XNA Creator’s Club homepage). The income from XBLCG is taxable – this means you can’t even just donate the proceeds to charity to avoid the thorny issue of pay, and if you do work together with other members of the community to produce a game, are you now an employer or a small business in the eyes of the law? I just don’t know. This opens up further questions too. If I pay other team members, how do I know if they’ve declared the income as taxable? If they haven’t, who is breaking the law, me or them? If I count as an employer, and I employ an artist to make models for me, but (without my knowledge) that artist steals the models from someone else, and the stolen models appear in my game which then starts to make money – who is legally liable, me or them? It’s a rats’ nest that I for one fear to enter, and a very significant barrier to entry. These aren’t problems we can’t pretend don’t exist.

    If MS really feel they can’t let us release games for free, which is after all their choice and their right as platform holders, they have to provide better support for the legal side of things. Contract templates, payment dispute arbitration, and the ability to share payments in specified proportions among more than one account, for example. I don’t mind too much releasing a game on my own and declaring the income as taxable, it’s just a bit annoying. But if forming a team with other people might make me legally liable – for their actions, or for failing to fulfill my obligations to them – well, I just don’t need that kind of trouble in my life.

    All these problems disappear if we are allowed to release the games for free, but that’s not an option. And that makes the whole of XBLCG less appealing. No skin off my nose, I could release on Windows instead, nobody’s forcing me to release on Xbox – but MS won’t make any money at all if no-one releases any XBLCG games.

    I guess what I’m saying is… they’ve gone this far in opening up the 360, and made it this easy by providing free stuff. If they stop here, with these serious issues remaining… it all seems like such a waste.

    Comment by bittermanandy — October 20, 2008 @ 6:36 pm | Reply

  9. «The income from XBLCG is taxable – this means you can’t even just donate the proceeds to charity to avoid the thorny issue of pay»

    I am not a lawyer or accountant, but it’s taxable only in the case that is income to an individual or for-profit company. Charities take “taxable income” all the time, for instance where volunteers work for an amusement park or ball field to raise money for their charity. (Not only do the charities not pay taxes on what would be standard/minimum wages, but often the “employer” takes write-offs in other areas of taxes as well…) Basically, if a team wants to donate any income from XBLCG to a charity any large charity should have legal staff or accounting staff that should be able to take care of whatever tax forms are necessary. Smaller charities will probably have access to some charity-charity organization that can lend them legal/accounting work that they need, and if not you should be able to find one (often big cities will have non-profit helper sub-division as a civic service).

    There shouldn’t be any reason that the money could not be donated directly to charity, and if you are worried about there are people you can contact to assure you that things can be taken care.

    Now it might be nice if Microsoft adds a quick “send the money to charity” option in the Community Games system, and considering that the system hasn’t launched yet who knows it might be a feature or a late suggestion to make it into the next release… I could see that happening, particularly because it can give Microsoft additional opportunity to, for example, match those donations and include them in larger philanthropy initiatives. I could not see them posting any of the suggested legal documents you mention, mainly because no company likes to give unpaid legal advice, particularly because more often than not some Bar Association somewhere would get angry (and possibly sue)…

    Comment by Max Battcher — October 27, 2008 @ 7:44 am | Reply

  10. First: There is a great book out there hat covers many of these legal issues.
    Which I found useful.

    To cover yourself legally speaking you can always form an LLC. (LegalZoom for paperwork). In a contract with an artist, specify “original content clause” that states that if you verify it is not the artists “original content”, the contract with him in regards to compensation is null and void.

    You could always form your community group as a 501(c) [US]. This would allow you to be deemed as a Non-Profit Status Group and just donate as an intermediary.

    To develop a game for the 360 costs a tri-monthly ($40) or annual ($99) fee. It is nice of a 360 Indie developer to be well off enough to offer it for free. Reality is hardly ever that kind. It is also a small way to recoup some of the costs of the membership. This also gives it more “resume-
    usable” status. A game published on XLCG has more oomph, then “free game” at this URL that may or may not be working or may have not been renewed. (Not to denounce free games). Just think of it from the Hiring Manager’s P.O.V.

    ***A case study (all things being equal)***
    The guy who made and published a “free-title”:
    *How many people downloaded?
    *played this because it is free or because it is good?
    *Are the respondents being honest?
    *Where are the stats?
    *Is the site even active?
    *Will the site contain a virus? Will my identity be safe? Will I have to register to download it?

    The guy who made and published a “XLCG”:
    *Can tell how many people have tried it
    *Can tell how many people payed for it
    *Can get more reliable feedback (people who spend money tend to be more honest)
    *Can see that they have insight on how to make a game that gets numbers for sales. (Games after all are a business)

    Community groups… It seems some of the most successful seem to be when a group of friends comes together to achieve a goal (read: Rooster Teeth). working with those you trust as opposed to complete strangers. Still “only a fool leaves themselves exposed…” (legal or at the very least notarized contracts).

    ***That is my $0.02

    Comment by Joe Ortega — December 5, 2008 @ 2:40 am | Reply

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