Looking back with Silver Dollar Games on the weird and wonderful world of the Xbox 360’s defunct indie platform
The Xbox 360’s Xbox Live Indie Games service (XBLIG) was unlike anything that has ever appeared on console. The walled garden that is the console space is one associated with careful curation and management. It makes those ecosystems feel well-defined, clean, safe. To venture into the Wild West that was XBLIG was to have those conceptions smashed. This was a place that felt chaotic and untamed. A place where you could frequently find games that would make you exclaim, “What the hell is this?” It was eccentric, it was strange, and it was, occasionally, brilliant.
XBLIG grew out of Microsoft’s XNA game development tool – a free piece of software that offered a great way into game development for the likes of Silver Dollar Games, who published around 60 titles for XBLIG. “XNA got us interested in programming,” Silver Dollar Games’ Jon Flook tells us. “It made a lot of things possible for the amateur programmer that previously would’ve been too difficult to do. We started looking at XNA in 2007 and made our first game using it. We got excited when we heard about a service on Xbox 360 that would use XNA and allowed indie developers to self-publish.”
That service was Xbox Live Indie Games and it continued in the spirit of XNA, offering a low barrier of entry to developers. “At the time it was really the only place we knew of where we could self-publish on a console,” explains Flook. “It wasn’t difficult and it was a lot of fun. We had total creative freedom. Also, we were able to make games with no budget, which meant they didn’t have to be financially successful, and boy, they sure weren’t. But we were making games for the joy of it.”
The idea of an indie developer being able to publish relatively easily on console seems anything but revolutionary now that indie games have become such an important part of console gaming. But remember that XBLIG launched in 2008, just as indie games were starting to make waves in the console market.
Even then, the kind of games you could play on XBLIG weren’t the kind we can so easily access on Xbox One today, nor the more upmarket Xbox Live Arcade at the time. With XBLIG, you didn’t need the approval of Microsoft to get your game on the console, just a handful of peer reviews from other developers. This meant that you could find all sorts of bizarre, rough-around-the-edges oddities that would have no chance
“Allegedly, the reason Four Winds Fantasy looked like it was drawn by a child was because it was”
of making it onto console today. Take Four Winds Fantasy as an example. The game was a weird little RPG with artwork that looked like it had been drawn by a child on MS Paint. There’s no way it’d be taken seriously by a platform holder today. We’re not quite sure this is true, but, allegedly, the reason Four Winds Fantasy looked like it was drawn by a child was because it was. Either a kid drew the art and his dad made it into a game and XBLIG gave them a way to get it on Xbox 360, or there’s a myth around this weird little game that’s entirely untrue and impossible to verify thanks to the obscurity of this curio. Either way, there’s something wonderful about that.
What helped make XBLIG work was that its low barrier of entry applied on the consumer side too. The games
“We’ve played action games with 1,000 times the budget that aren’t half as much fun as One Finger Death Punch was”
on the service were cheap, costing either 80, 240 or 400 Microsoft Points, which worked out at about £0.68, £2.04 and £3.40 respectively, making it a great way of using up the Microsoft Points you’d typically have left over after a pricier purchase. Additionally, all games had a trial period of eight minutes, allowing you to get a taste of anything that was available on the service with no financial risk.
The low barrier to entry obviously had some downsides. XBLIG was full of questionable content, including a vast array of slimy dating games with scantily-clad women, weird chat-up simulators and ‘massage games’ that would make your controller vibrate. We’ll leave it up to you to imagine where you were supposed to put your vibrating controller.
Then there were the clones made to capitalise on whatever trend seemed to be selling best. You could find a swath of Minecraft imitators on the server, such as
FortressCraft and CastleMiner Z. Plus countless zombie games, and avatarbased games like Avatar Ninja and Super Avatar World.
All this unsavoury, derivative and cynical content inevitably gave XBLIG a bad reputation. It became known as a repository of trash. Though we would argue that there was still something fascinating about exploring that ‘trash’ – flicking through all that garish, amateur cover art that invited you to ponder who the person was that made this stuff and what they hoped to achieve – we won’t deny that that reputation was deserved to a degree. However, it also obscures what an interesting place XBLIG could be if you took the time explore it.
Take Silver Dollar Games’ own output as an example. Browsing XBLIG might lead you to one of the games that they made as a joke, such as Why
Did I Buy This?, “a game about getting owned by a telemarketer” where a telemarketer spends the entirety of the game’s trial period trying to persuade you to buy the game with progressively more aggressive tactics. You might find something more contemplative, like Game 35: The
Experiment, “a game about trust and forgiveness” that “looks like a generic jumping game, but ends up being completely different”.
Or perhaps Office Affairs, a game inspired by Flook’s time working as a temp in an office where an office worker tells you about his repetitive dead-end job while he falls from a building, asking you to make choices about his life for him on the descent. You might also discover a stone cold classic, like Silver Dollar Games’ best XBLIG title, One Finger Death Punch.
“OFDP started off as an ultra-difficult game called Your Kung Fu Is Not
Strong,” says Flook. “One hit or one mistake and you’re done. It was brutally hard and ultimately not that much fun. So, we tore the game down and started over from scratch. We came up with the one vs many concepts from the final scene of the film The One,” Flook continues. “In that scene, Jet Lee is atop of a pyramid fighting off a seemingly endless wave of enemies. We wanted to recreate that action in our game.”
The result is a thrilling two-button game where your stickman character is swarmed by enemies attacking from two directions. Despite its simple controls, it’s a surprisingly deep game with some clever ideas and a satisfying rhythmic flow. We’ve played action games with 1,000 times the budget that aren’t half as much fun as it was.
Of course, Silver Dollar Games weren’t the only ones releasing cool games on the service. Mount Your
Friends is a multiplayer classic made by Stegersaurus Games where two players take turns controlling musclebound climbers, scaling an evergrowing tower made of those same burly gentlemen. Hidden In Plain Sight pioneers an idea later picked up in the
Assassin’s Creed series’ multiplayer: one player controls a sniper’s crosshair and the others have to try to act like AI characters so as not to expose themselves to the sniper.
Escape Goat is a fantastic puzzle platformer full of devious puzzle rooms. Top-down shoot ‘em up I MAED
A GAM3 W1TH ZOMBIES 1N It!!!1 was an early XBLIG hit that helped kickstart the career of Ska Studios, who went on to make The Dishwasher: Vampire
Smile and Salt And Sanctuary. The point here isn’t just to insist that XBLIG had some fantastic games
in amongst the rubbish that caused many to unfairly write it off. The point is that XBLIG ran the full gambit. It had terrible games. It had ingenious experiments built around clever ideas. It had games with dodgy sexual content. It had clones. It had surreal curios that would leave you furrowing your eyebrows in confusion. It had amazing multiplayer experiences. That diversity of quality and content was a big part of its charm.
In this unfiltered, messy, unique place, you never knew what you were going to find. It had a capacity to surprise that’s been lost in a world where console indie games are held to higher standards and often afforded the same attention as their bigbudget counterparts. In some ways, that is a good thing, but it also means you’ll never get that feeling you had on XBLIG. That feeling that you might just find a hidden gem that no one’s discovered yet.
Should we judge Microsoft too harshly for shuttering XBLIG in October 2017? After all, the system did have its faults and, again, Silver Dollar Games provides a perfect illustration. “OFDP took a year and a half to make and something like $50k worth of assets,” Flook explains. “I think it made something like $5k on XBLIG, so that didn’t work out too well”. Flook doesn’t hold this against XBLIG, saying that Silver Dollar knew OFDP wouldn’t be a hit on the service. He argues that XBLIG was simply a different kind of market suited to certain types of games. We still feel that it’s an injustice that games like
OFDP didn’t get the financial success they deserved, but Flook resists the idea that XBLIG should be thought of as a service that failed to honour some preconceived standard of what represents quality. For him, it wasn’t what XBLIG was about.
“I don’t think Xbox users were like, ‘where are all the quality games?’, because they always had Xbox Live Arcade,” Flook argues. “But I’ll tell you, a studio probably isn’t publishing many games on Xbox Live Arcade with a budget of just $100. And that’s why XBLIG was so amazing. Even if you had nothing you could give it a shot.“
We are inclined to agree. XBLIG’s unique brand of egalitarian chaos made it special. It allowed for a kind of experimentation and playfulness that created a space unlike anything ever seen before or since on console. Perhaps its time was up, but we will still mourn its passing. XBLIG, old friend – we salute you.
above The prospect of stumbling across an incredible game like Bleed while sifting through XBLIG made it a fascinating place to explore.
Above Lightsaber levels where kamikaze stickmen charge towards death at the hands of your glowing blade are supremely satisfying.
Top You are a goat. You have been imprisoned for witchcraft. You need to escape. Now you know Escape Goat’s story.
Above Ignore the big swinging dongs and believe us when we say Mount Your Friends is a game of skill and strategy…