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Microsoft drops update fees for XBLA games. Could they be courting indie developers?

If you follow our Xbox Windows Phone editorial coverage, then you know I’ve often been critical of the Xbox certification process. Microsoft created a set of certification policies back in the Xbox 360’s early years that were intended to ensure the highest quality game releases and discourage the release of buggy games. These same policies were then extended wholesale to subsequent Xbox platforms, including Games for Windows Live (PC), Windows 8, and Windows Phone.

Problem is the aging and restrictive policies weren’t designed to reflect the changing nature of the games industry, and certainly not to account for the differences in development between consoles and platforms like Windows Phone. Modern game development isn’t about shipping a game and then trying not to ever update it. No, games these days (whether they have In-App Purchases or not) are updated continuously throughout their life spans.

Indie hits like Minecraft and top smartphone games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope would never have remained as relevant as they are without the constant stream of updates and support from their developers. And the Xbox certification policies dating back to 2005 have been nothing but an impediment towards that kind of support. BUT it turns out that Microsoft discreetly relaxed their policies towards updating games earlier this year – on the Xbox 360, at least.

Cost prohibitive

Iron Brigade for XBLA and GFWL

Double Fine's Iron Brigade for GFWL couldn't be updated due to both the restrictive Xbox certification process and its costs.

The existence of title update fees first came to public light at the beginning of 2012 when Tim Schafer of indie developer Double Fine revealed to Hookshot that Microsoft charged approximately $40,000 for game updates:

“But the indie community is now moving elsewhere; we’re figuring out how to fund and distribute games ourselves, and we’re getting more control over them. Those systems as great as they are, they’re still closed. You have to jump through a lot of hoops, even for important stuff like patching and supporting your game. Those are things we really want to do, but we can’t do it on these systems. I mean, it costs $40,000 to put up a patch – we can’t afford that! Open systems like Steam, that allow us to set our own prices, that’s where it’s at, and doing it completely alone like Minecraft. That’s where people are going.”

Consider that many XBLA games sell less than 20,000 copies and a sales figure of 100,000 copies is considered a smash hit. Whether a game sells for $10 or $15, Microsoft automatically takes a slice of 30% or so off the top (as does any digital marketplace), and then the publisher which Microsoft requires for games to even get Xbox status takes another chunk of the change. So a $10 game that sells 20K copies only brings in about $100,000 for the developer. Spending 40 percent of your profits to fix a few bugs just doesn’t make sense in that scenario, and so many games go without updates.

XBLA opens up

Fez for XBLA

Yesterday Eurogamer reported that Microsoft has stopped charging for Xbox 360 title updates. Spokesperson Larry Hyrb (AKA MajorNelson) soon provided partial confirmation via Twitter:

“FYI for those asking: Microsoft eliminated fees for Title Updates on Xbox 360 Arcade games in April 2013”

So far, it looks like the removal of updating fees applies only to XBLA games, not retail Xbox 360 titles. Much remains unclear about the policy change, such as whether it applies to games published before April or not.

Phil Fish, developer of XBLA hit Fez (pictured above), famously declined to issue a second Fez title update last year when a save data corrupting bug slipped through in the game’s first patch. Since then he has become an outspoken critic of the Xbox certification policies as well as the lack of promotion Microsoft provides for third-party games it publishes. He has, however expressed interest in producing the long-desired second update to Fez IF the lack of update fees retroactively applies to existing XBLA games.

Tight lips can sink ships too

Day Z mod for Arma II on PC

DayZ (Image credit: Bohemia Interactive)

Day Z might come to Xbox One if Microsoft drops update fees on their new console as well.

Dropping XBLA update fees was unquestionably a smart move, but Microsoft dropped the ball slightly by not publicizing the change. Put simply, nobody (who hadn’t submitted an update during that time) knew about the change for three months.

Xbox platforms are widely perceived as unfriendly to indie developers, and advertising a friendlier update policy for downloadable titles could only improve that perception. Developers who have previously chosen to avoid Xbox or leave it behind might even be swayed to come onboard. And assuming the change is retroactive, existing games in need of updates like Fez could have been patched by now.

The delay in acknowledging the update policy change is evidence of two problems we’ve been lamenting for a good while now:

One, the culture of secrecy within Microsoft means that its staff is often too afraid to reveal meaningful information outside of the company even when there is no conceivable harm in doing so. Yeah, it’s perfectly logical to try to obscure information that would help competitors or make the company look bad in some way. Information that makes Microsoft look good, though? They should want those details out there, working in their favor.

Secondly – and this sort of grows out of the first problem – Microsoft’s gaming-related PR needs a lot of improvement. I’ve explained at length the weaknesses in their promotion of Xbox Windows Phone and Windows 8 games. And just think of the Xbox One DRM policies that received so much ire from the console reveal event all the way through E3.

Those Xbox One policies actually carried some innovative benefits to internet connected consumers, but Microsoft did very little to sell the benefits to the media or consumers. The public discussion focused on the policy’s negatives (no arguing how bad the internet requirement would’ve been for certain users) when it could have centered on the advantages of disc-free installs and a generous family sharing plan.

Ripple effect

Galak-Z for Playstation 4

One effect of all that secrecy is that we still don’t know how the change in title update policy affects other parts of the Xbox ecosystem. We can’t say for sure whether or not retail Xbox 360 title updates still require a fee, though it seems likely they do since Major Nelson only mentioned downloadable Arcade games in his tweet.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the change either currently applies or will soon apply to Windows Phone and Windows 8 games as well. Games for Microsoft’s mobile platforms are inherently downloadable and basically the equivalent of XBLA games in most ways. Microsoft could have eased restrictions on their Xbox phone and tablet games already without telling anyone. We’ll do a little prying and see what turns up.

At this stage, the platform that stands the most to benefit from relaxed update policies might just be the Xbox One. Remember, Sony has come out very strongly in favor of indie developers on the Playstation 4, wooing away developers like Phil Fish and 17-BIT, the makers of Skulls of the Shogun (that's their PS4-exclusive Galak-Z above). Meanwhile, the perception that Microsoft is unfriendly towards indie developers has caused other small developers like the creators of Day Z (who specifically mentioned barriers towards updates) to favor Playstation 4 over Xbox One as well.

If Microsoft opens the Xbox One up more for indies – including dropping title updates fees (which actually benefits game makers of all sizes), they can start repairing some of the bridges that have burned down in recent years. And launch consoles need all of the software support they can get. We don’t want Playstation 4 getting praises for its strong indie offerings and variety of software while the Xbox One sits by with a smaller arsenal of games.

Source: Eurogamer; Thanks to Jigar for the tip!

Paul Acevedo is the Games Editor at Windows Central. A lifelong gamer, he has written about videogames for over 15 years and reviewed over 350 games for our site. Follow him on Twitter @PaulRAcevedo. Don’t hate. Appreciate!

  • Wow. This has so far been a good day for current and potential/future devs for the windows ecosystem. Well done MS. Now just fix up that archaic XBL cert process and you are onto a winner.
  • You can't make thus stuff up how Microsoft screws themselves and their customers out of good things. Skulls of the Shogun is only a few months old and MS already chased away the developer. Its a wonder they're still in business.
  • What do you mean? Chased away the dev?! Is he done devving for WP/W8?
  • Final section of the article.
  • That's sad... Seriously. Skulls of Shogun is one of the most impressive games on WP, imo.
  • Developers, Developers, Developers, Developers... Why so prevalent on the PC, phone, web, but not Xbox? Also indie games, how do they work on Xbox? Why does everything have to be Xbox branded on the Xbox and phone to be considered worthwhile? That's not true on an other platform.
  • I don't understand your first question. Indie games on the 360 are called XBLIG. They have extremely poor visibility (due to bad store design) and don't tend to sell that great, with some exceptions. They also carry the annoying restriction that they can only be played while connected to the internet. For the third question, I've written so much on that subject that I'm pooped at the thought of repeating myself. But I will point out that all Playstation 3 (and presumably PS4) games can support standard PSN features like Trophies without going through some restrictive process, so there is no second class citizen tier of gaming there. Unless you count PSN Minis, which are kinda-sorta the equivalent of XBLIG except they are designed with the PSP in mind and run on both PSP and PS3. If Xbox-branded games didn't have to jump through prohibitive certification hoops and didn't require an established publisher (huge impediment), we'd have a much closer situation to Playstation systems, Game Center games on iOS, and Steam games.
  • I'm glad there are hoops to jump through for a game to have Xbox Live / Achievement status. I'll take quality over quantity any day. But that doesn't mean I don't think there shouldn't be an easy path for indie games to make it to the Xbox platform.
  • A second-class tier of games does little to attract developers to Microsoft platforms. Nobody wants to be in the second class, they want the first class. Treating all games equally, in contrast does nothing to hurt platforms that do do it like Steam, Playstation 3, iOS, Wii U, and Android. Also note that Microsoft's definition of indie is a publisher that has not shipped a retail title. However, many decent sized and respectable developers fall under that umbrella. There is no benefit to forcing them to sign up with an established publisher other than reducing the number of games that get published. If you blindly espouse "quality over quantity" then maybe that sounds like a good idea, but again, in other platforms, lots of games come out and the quality titles still find their way to the top through a combination of platform holder support (featured games, etc.), word of mouth, and other factors.
  • The "Publisher" requirement really is a "Punishment" requirement.  I have never understood what value requiring Indie developers provides to the process outside of lining publisher's pockets and reducing the potential for indie developers to grow.  I imagine most indies use the revenue generated by the previous game to help fund the next.  Requiring a publisher just delays their ability to deliver new product, further reducing their ability to generate revenue.  It's no wonder that Indie developers look elsewhere.
  • Really, achievements ate all over the place for all devs as it is. Avatars, friends and multiplayer should be standardized. Achievements need better rules across the board. Indie games gave bad visibility, but that doesn't mean much. I mean you never hear about indie games on Xbox. No one knows how to promote. How is that that MS' fault, outside of store design of course. I also meant cost wise. What's the difference between an indie game on Xbox and steam?
  • Oh, cost-wise, indie games on Steam sell for as little as $3 or as much as $50. And Steam regularly has huge fire sales in which games that sell for cheap to begin with might go for as little as $1.49. XBLIG games sell best at the $1 price point, but the more complex ones can sell for up to $5. You have to remember that the market for downloadable games on 360 isn't that huge. A lot of consumers just ignore XBLA despite its relatively high profile. Those people get on my nerves, but what can ya do. An XBLA game that tanks might move less than 5,000 units; it's not unheard of. And a sales ceiling of 100K or so (other than maybe Minecraft and State of Decay, both of which did unusually well) is not that high. Then with XBLIG you have only a fraction of the sales potential I just described. Partially it's due to lack of consumer awareness and poor store visibility. The other part is that Xbox 360 gamers really want those Xbox Achievements. XBLIG games don't have them and thus Achievement hunters wouldn't buy them even if they had identical visibility with XBLA. Like I keep saying, it's a second class citizen situation.
  • Good points.
  • Seriously, Microsoft's PR department needs gutted. I can't recall a company going through this many blunders in such a short time span. At first it was comical, now, not so much. I actually liked the original plans for XBone. This is good news, but FAR overdue. Also, where in the blue HELL is Scrabble????
  • Can you give the name of the games from the pictures?
    I'm curious about the space and the last one.
  • Oddly, our app doesn't show captions. When viewed from the website, you'll see them. In order of appearance: Iron Brigade, Fez, Day Z, and Galak-Z.
  • The third pic is actually a picture of the knock-off WarZ (Or Infestation: Survivor Stories as it's called these days), not DayZ.
  • Dang, my image search failed me. I'll change it.
  • Pro-consumer and developer policies ensure everyone is happy. Charging thousands for updates is stupid. Problem fixed. Putting Netflix and Hulu behind a pay wall (gold membership), also stupid. The same goes with requiring gold for "free to play" games. I've been a gold member for 8 years however some people can't or won't subscribe. Charging for online multiplayer is OK with me if the game features dedicated servers for multiplayer. Otherwise, what am I paying for?
  • A year of Gold Membership goes on sale every year for about $30 at least once. Yesterday it was on sale for $35. If you cannot afford less than $3 a month, maybe your money should be spent elsewhere.
  • Learn to read. I state that I've been a member for 8 years. Also, Ive never paid $60 for Gold. "I" am NOT complaining. I'm playing devils advocate. There are many people that don't see the value in Xbox Live no matter how much or little it costs. I'm partial to Microsoft products and love Xbox Live. Microsoft doesn't get everything right and sometimes competitors have policies and products that are better in certain ways. Its OK. I was just be objective and critical. Yes, im buying an Xbox One.
  • I suppose this is good news. I've never really cared for Indie games much, never touched that section of the dashboard, too much junkware. I've always kind of appreciated the cert process making sure XBLA were of good quality. Outside that, I mostly want AAA Xbox titles. I see a lot of what hits Steam and think "Really? People pay for this crap?" Good for those it matters to though.
  • update fez and cs:go then please
  • There shouldn't be an update fee period. This isn't rocket science. Why do they insist on screwing over developers like this? Steam doesn't have update fees.
  • Microsoft is biggest money hungry in the gaming /software biz. Its disgusting what they do to developers.this is why no one wants to develop for them. Every dev wants to get as far away from MS as possible. Xbla games wont be the same on xbx1 due to ms charging developers $40,000 per patch or update. Plus a ton is cert fees.
  • Read the article, they dropped the update fees 3 months ago. Agree about the rest though.
  • PC Gaming FTW!
    1) ARMA
    2) Project CARS
    Need I say more?
  • Meh, project Cars isn't a big deal. Its just a pretty face with little substance underneath. I still have hope they can pull it through.
    Plus you know they are going to port it to consoles, right?
    And yes, unfortunately, I am a backer.
  • Yes I know it's coming to consoles. But you can upgrade your PC anytime, but new consoles come out every 7 or so years.
    Why do you say Project CARS has little substance underneath?
  • 40k patches WTF!!!! Iam truly shocked
  • To be fair it wasn't 40k though a few other developers came out and stated it is much less then that, it all depended it your updated failed certification and a few other factors.
    Regardless this is good news and from what I can tell (i know this article says no confirmation) its across all 360 retail and future xbox 1 titles as a few smaller developers who released retail games stated they didn't pay to put a patch out
  • But can they self publish? that was the other issue for indie developers. that was the other issue that is still withstanding from what i remember reading. I want DayZ so bad on my Xbox. not a pc gamer. The other half doesn't like me hiding in the office anymore than i already do.
  • We can only hope this is a step towards self publishing.
  • DAMN! I had no idea that Microsoft charged that much to release a patch/update for a game.