Welcome to the Slaughterhouse: What the new Xbox Dashboard means to developers

At Develop in 2010, Sean Murray from Hello Games described XBLA as a “kind of a slaughterhouse for smaller developers” (his reservations have clearly been overcome as Joe Danger will soon be published by Microsoft Studios). Murray pointed to PSN as a more egalitarian channel for those looking to self publish. Murray isnt alone in noticing the role the dashboard plays in securing the success of download titles on Xbox Live. Before we demonize, we need to understand what role the dashboard plays and the pivotal role of UI.

Xbox Live has always had a fundamental problem. Text Input.

Microsoft has chosen to avoid the input issue by enabling voice search. It works, but doesn’t overcome the primary issue for developers – The fundamental importance of discovery. Potential customers can only search for something they are already aware of, and whilst it makes it easier it is a thousand miles away from a mechanic such as Amazon recommends, or Stumbleupon, which are both highly effective as driving discovery (PSN already utilises this feature).

Controller based input of text is arduous. The solutions are simple (keypad or USB keyboard), but the barrier to discovery (however slight) remained significant. This led to a pervasive influence of the dashboard. This is common to all digital store fronts as iTunes and Steam both have a huge bearing the success of promoted titles. The AppStore and Android marketplace further amplify the problem due to lack  screen real estate. The issue therefore is the consumer, most are passive and  are happy with what is deemed to be ‘preferable’ – ‘The Editors Choice’.  Within a walled garden (as all these storefronts are), promoted content is chosen by the platform holder, based upon potential of commercial  success, platform alignment and fit within the current portfolio. In the case where platform holders are also content creators, the support of Third Party content also has to align with support for First Party titles.

The final piece of the puzzle is paid advertising. XBLA and PSN differ from iTunes and Steam in that they accept advertising. Vocal critics have been vociferous in damming the new Xbox Dashboard as being driven by advertising. These criticisms are a little late in the day, as the previous dashboard was built around advertising, the fundamental difference is the advertising is now more persistent, every slot is currently occupied and clearly labelled. As a Gold subscriber it feels ironic that consumers pay to remove ads from services like Spotify, yet they remain on Xbox Live. The argument would be that the consumer is paying for a subscription service, whereas Spotify is an ad-supported service. That’s a point for another post.

Content creators therefore have a mountain to climb ahead of getting the content live on the service. Awareness. Achievement of supply chain objectives isn’t enough. The chances of success are supported by the few titles that confound sales expectations.

The predefined release schedules of XBLA (usually two titles a week as part of a managed portfolio) provide a focus for consumers, but also create a meat grinder that provides a short window (that is actually reflective of consumers attention spans). XBLA’s pre-requisite for trials for every title, also foster and support a ‘demo culture’ where 90% of consumers are only playing trial versions. This strengthens the platform as it provides a pipeline of free content, and adds value to the platform. This creates a robust consumer offering of varied content that is all try before you buy. A belief this is free to play is misguided as it’s a segment of the full product, whereas free to play is ordinarily a fully realised game, where additional features are purchased for a supplementary fee. XBLA is more akin to being given a free piece of chocolate at the supermarket. The final sale is purely related to the experience of the first taste.

Developers, Independent or otherwise must be cogniscent of the role of the platform and the role of the trial experience they are delivering. A second-rate trial is usually indicative of the quality of the final product. Xbox Live does not owe developers a living, but similarly it owes a huge debt to the content creators who keep the platform alive. Without the content Xbox Live is a server architecture and box of components. Developers can question the restrictive nature of the service architecture and the business models it currently supports, but criticising a platform for being competitive (and therefore destructive) is missing the point, Digital distribution empowers content creators to deliver straight to the consumer, albeit through controlled channels. The alternative is the Wild West of P2P. Ask the Music Industry how that worked out for them …

Whilst there will always be a puppet master, its more about learning how to pull the strings rather than cut them.

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