"I want people to know we were here": The fight to keep thousands of Xbox Live Indie Games from disappearing

Three-thousand four-hundred and four games won't quite disappear from existence on Friday, September 29. You'll still be able to re-download 'em later if you happen to already own them. Granted, that would mean you paid about a dollar each for an impressive breadth of ‘massage’ apps that sound way more perverse than they actually are (they just make your gamepad rumble, really). It was inevitable that, one day, Microsoft would turn the lights off on the odd experiment called Xbox Live Indie Games.

Update: After this story's initial publishing, Microsoft officially pushed the shutdown date back a week to October 7.

The service made it (relatively) easy for anybody to publish and sell their own games on Xbox 360's digital marketplace, opening the way for the aforementioned massagers, Minecraft clones starring Xbox Avatars, and a surprising selection of clever projects from new or underexposed developers. But keeping a storefront running is expensive, and the games are only available on a console that Microsoft stopped manufacturing more than a year ago. 

This isn't one of those tragic stories where a gaming service vanishes overnight and all the people using it are left in the lurch; Microsoft gave notice about shutting XBLIG down a full two years in advance. When was the last time you got two years early notice for anything? Pretty generous, relatively speaking. Unfortunately, Microsoft seems to have missed one thing: a way to keep all these games from not-quite-but-pretty-much disappearing when the service shuts down.

To be fair, Microsoft's first announcement said it would work "with game conservationists and creators to preserve the legacy of XBLIG content" over the next two years. But when I asked a Microsoft representative about that effort earlier this month, I was given a statement that referred solely to the fact that current owners will still be able to access their games. No further comment (Update: in the same shutdown delay announcement, Microsoft once again mentioned interest in XBLIG preservation, though it didn't cite any specific plans). Unless there are some plans that Microsoft is keeping under wraps until the service actually goes offline, it sounds like the XBLIG preservation effort isn't happening. At least, not on Microsoft's end.

Giving history a chance

Why do people care if the XBLIG library fades away? As fun as it is to joke about the cornucopia of massage games and Minecraft But With Weirdly Realistic Guns, XBLIG also hosted many classics that would be a shame to lose. Salt & Sanctuary developer Ska Studios' debuted with games like I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES 1NIT!!!1 (whose 13-minute-long, eponymous theme song still occasionally gets stuck in my head). Ancient, the Japanese studio headed up by acclaimed Streets of Rage and Ys composer Yuzo Koshiro, made its independent debut with Protect Me Knight; though at least you can still experience its unique fusion of Gauntlet, Musou games, and tower defense action in Gotta Protectors, Protect Me Knight's 3DS eShop follow-up.

The Best Xbox Live Indie Games

But even smaller XBLIG games remain an important part of the platform's legacy. Cathy Vice, who runs the reviews site Indie Gamer Chick, has spent the last six years championing many of them (and lampooning plenty of others, like bizarre and utterly broken Easter-egg-pushing physics puzzler Choc-a-riffic).

"I love XBLIG, and I love its developers," Vice tells me. "So many of them have come so far since starting on XBLIG, and for me, I know I'm a better writer and a better person because of XBLIG. I don't want to see it fade into the aether. I want people to know we were here, and we changed gaming forever. [To know] that, yeah, XBLIG was a dumping ground for some pretty lame stuff. But it was also overflowing with hidden gems and so much talent and heart. As long as we preserve it, history will have a chance to look it over and say 'You know what? XBLIG was a lot better than anyone gave it credit for being.'"

Escape Goat

As I mentioned earlier, there are 3,404 games on XBLIG. According to Vice's estimates, maybe 10 percent of those are available elsewhere. The other 90 percent isn't all just low-effort junk: more than 100 of the XBLIG games that Vice reviewed favorably fall into that category, for instance. It would be a measurable, cultural loss for them to simply fade away, as they seem destined to right now. That's why Vice started the Indie Gamer Chick Project. Step One is trying to convince every XBLIG developer she can to port their games to other, not-disappearing platforms, including offering help from a team of volunteer coders.

"I don't want future generations to have to resort to piracy to have access to these games"

"For example, I reviewed a game called Aesop's Garden in May of 2012," Vice explains. "It's a wonderful tribute to the classic series of NES puzzlers Adventures of Lolo. I really enjoyed the game, but by the time I found it and reviewed it, the developer was already out of game development and was off the grid. His game was set to become the highest-ranking XBLIG I'd reviewed that I had never interacted with the developer for. When I put out a call on Twitter to help me find him, it took ten minutes for someone to find him and [put me in touch]. I'm happy to say he is planning a port to PC for 2018."

Aesop's Garden

In case the original developers aren't interested in re-releasing their old games, Vice at least hopes to convince them to release their games into the public domain. Once they do, the volunteers can take over the porting process. The final product will be uploaded to an existing platform like Itch.io and made freely downloadable for all. Legacy secured. At least... as long as Itch.io stays online. Such is the eternal struggle of preserving digital artifacts.

"I don't want future generations to have to resort to piracy to have access to these games, which is the only option for 99 percent of all historic coin-op arcade games," Vice says. And you can indeed find archives with big chunks of the XBLIG library floating around on torrent sites. "There's no reason it should need for it to come to that in this modern age."

Preservation now

XBLIG was one of the first platforms of its kind for console games - along with Nintendo's DSiWare, which had a smaller selection of community creations - and it isn't the last. The Xbox Live Creators Program could easily be considered Microsoft's successor to XBLIG; it just released its first wave of games on Windows 10 and Xbox One in August (you can find them on the Xbox One Store under the ‘Creators Collection’ category). It, too, will one day be shuttered. Whether Microsoft makes preservation a priority at that point or not, players and creators will need to be prepared.

"Let's face it, gaming is heading towards an all-digital future," Vice says. "We have to start thinking as a community about what efforts we make to preserve our histories. I don't think any of us want a future where the majority of games are lost forever when a service shuts down. Efforts to preserve XBLIG can be looked at like a training ground for how we'll handle future closures. I really want the community to be ahead of the curve on this one."