So, then! It’s five months late (and, coincidentally, after GDC and after all of the free trial XBLCG memberships expired and everyone had to buy new memberships), but Microsoft has finally released sales data to the creators of XBox Live Community Games. Until this last Saturday, none of us had any idea at all of how well our games were selling, or how much money they were making. The first sign of trouble came when Microsoft enthusiastically announced that the top selling community games have made more money in these 4 months than the average American makes in a year. That number is $30,000 which sounds impressive, until you compare it to something like iPhone game sales; Trism, for example, made $250,000 in 2 months. (Of course, it’s important to note that the iPhone doesn’t have anything on par with XBLA competing with its more independent applications.) When the sales numbers were finally released on Saturday, the first thread on the subject to appear on the official XNA forums was entitled “I got my sales numbers and want to cry thread“.
I got my sales numbers and, fortunately, do not want to cry. In the Pit did OK. Not great, but not terrible. Despite being the #1 most popular community game for a couple of weeks, and the 12th most popular of all XBLA games at one point, I understood that that popularity was due more to novelty than love, so the low sales (at only a 1.5% conversion rate) weren’t much of a surprise.
What was an unpleasant surprise, however, were the sales of Weapon of Choice. Weapon of Choice was one of the winners of Microsoft’s 2008 Dream, Build, Play game development competition, and was created mostly-singlehandedly by Nathan Fouts, who had previously worked as a professional game developer on many of the Ratchet & Clank games before striking out on his own and seeing if he could “live the dream” of working entirely for himself. Weapon of Choice was the first product of that venture, and after Fouts presented an early build of the game to Microsoft as a potential XBLA game, they encouraged him to rework it as a community game instead, to give a good, veteran-developer shot in the arm to the upcoming service. Since then, Weapon of Choice has been the “poster boy” for community games, with interviews on MTV.com and Destructoid. I also liked it lots.
Fouts is the first of those developers who “made more from their game than the average American makes in a year” to post his opinions on the subject, and since it took him over a year to make the game, and he has to pay royalties to writers and musicians, that number is pretty disappointing. Novaleaf Software, who spent $100,000 developing Biology Battle, are preparing their own statement, and I don’t expect it to be very happy.
Meanwhile, the real winners of XBox Live Community Games are Rumble Massage and Fireplace and TV Calibration, non-game “apps” that have been mainstays of the Top 10 sales list, and clearly took significantly less time, money, and effort to develop. Now that we’ve finally received sales data, and based on the responses from a wide variety of developers, I feel certain that there will never be another community game as high-quality as Weapon of Choice or Biology Battle or Carneyvale Showtime. Knowing that a $100,000 game can only hope to make $30,000, developers will lean toward short, shallow, simple, cheap games and non-game apps that can be developed quickly with little to no overhead.
Despite all of this, however, I think that XBox Live Community Games is a success. It was designed to be a way for hobbyist developers to create and distribute console games, and in that aspect it has succeeded admirably. The XNA team has even been surprisingly good about listening to the community and implementing changes they request (including making the Community Games section of the XBox Dashboard easier to find, doubling the trial time limit from 4 minutes to 8 minutes, and, in an update coming this summer, adding support for avatars and update notifications to community games). Microsoft never promised community game developers that they’d make millions (although it was fun to hope for millions). In fact, it’s actually better for community games that the sales figures were as low as they were; $30,000 is still plenty of incentive for hobbyist developers, but if that number had been closer to $100,000 then we’d suddenly start seeing community games by Namco, and Sega, and Capcom, because it would become a platform for making 20% as much as an XBLA game for 0% of the rigmarole and strict approval process of an XBLA game, and the kinds of smaller, hobbyist developers that community games was designed for would get buried under professional games. It’s sad that this means there’s not really a place for games like Weapon of Choice and Biology Battle and Carneyvale Showtime that are more professional than community games but not quite on par with XBLA games (WiiWare, maybe?), but this turn of events does secure community games as the place for hobbyist developers that it was designed to be.