RET­RO­SPEC­TIVE: XBLG

Look­ing back with Sil­ver Dol­lar Games on the weird and won­der­ful world of the Xbox 360’s de­funct in­die plat­form

XBox: The Official Magazine - - CONTENTS - Paul Walker-Emig

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.

Good vi­bra­tions

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.

Punch­ing up

“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.

XBlocked

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…

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