College senior Justin Le Clair may be the most commercially successful Xbox 360 developer of 2009. For four hours of work he's pocketed $60,000 and counting. His creation? An Xbox massage program, the first in a controversial trend.
"I threw it together in class," Le Clair told Kotaku during a phone interview this week. His creation, Rumble Massage, is no game. It's a program that makes an Xbox controller vibrate on command. It was launched in January through the Xbox Live Indie Games program, which enables amateur developers to sell peer-reviewed projects online through the Xbox 360.
Rumble Massage currently sells for $1. Earlier this year, a porn star reviewed it on the G4 network, an awkward detail Le Clair has shared with his mom. "Most people treat Rumble Massage like a joke, which it is," he said. "It's not a joke like it's stupid. It's a joke in that it's not serious."
Since Le Clair shook up the Xbox marketplace at the beginning of 2009, there have been five more massage programs. They've been made by developers in New York, Italy and France. They've been made by developers desperate to fund projects of which they can be more proud. They've even been made by at least one person with a real interest in massage.
The massage apps have also become loathed by a community of amateur game developers who feel the vibrational programs have distracted critical and consumer attention away from the actual video games that are developed and sold in the Indie Games marketplace on Xbox Live.
"I think they really hurt lots of developers who are trying to use the platform as it was intended," Indie Games developer Nick Gravelyn, told Kotaku. He's the 22-year-old Seattle-based creator of a couple of Indie games, including the recently-released Pixel Man. He soured on the massage apps once Le Clair's project spawned successors. "I've talked to people who have never been to the Indie Games section ever," he said. "When I asked why, there was a substantial number who respond with: 'It's all sex games and stupid apps.'"
The scorn from the XNA Indie Games community has registered with the massage-makers. Benedetta Sciacca, a 34-year-old artist who lives near the Mt. Etna volcano in Sicily with her husband and a kennel of pets. "I was not interested in fast money," she told Kotaku. She had tried to make her massage app the best-looking of the bunch and was hoping it could reach the same general audience she targeted with cocktail-making apps she's made for mobile phones and Xbox Live. Her program presents a series of Shiatsu massages illustrated in an Asian brushwork style. She based the massages on her research in Shiatsu and tested the single-player and couples massage with friends over a three week period.
When Sciacca uploaded the app for peer review, she heard the anger. "I'll do my best to fail this…if it get[s] into review," one XNA user wrote on her playtest thread. "Enough with the massage clones!" another wrote, "I'm sure you can make a game that is better and more original than that." She is set to release a game in a couple of weeks, she said.
Shiatsu Massage made it out of peer review and onto Xbox Live in June. It's been downloaded 90,000 times. It sells for $1 and, according to Sciacca, said it has sold through 5,000 copies. (Microsoft declined to confirm any download figures for Indie Games projects. A rep said that the company leaves it to the developers to share.)
The common take on all these massage apps is that they're sex toys. Sciacca excludes hers from that. "It is not intended to be a sexual toy," she said. "It is a real massager, tested to be effective and with instructions to use it properly."
Others encourage the sexual reference. The tongue-in-cheek YouTube commercial for Spectra Musical Massage, a massage/music-visualizer app made by Long Island-area Pow Studios, concludes with a woman putting an Xbox controller down her pants. That was "a way to acknowledge that, yeah, yeah… we know, we know," the program's lead developer, Betson Thomas, 24, told Kotaku.
It's easy to see why some would assume there's a sexual intent in these applications when one features a mode to enable Xbox Live users to rumble each other's controllers remotely. Such a mode is the stand-out feature in Remote Masseuse, the product of a 28-year-old developer who would provide only his or her Xbox Live username, Entrager. His was the second of the massage programs, developed before Rumble Massage and released just prior to Valentine's day. He said he's received "a surprising amount of positive feedback, with several couples e-mailing me to thank me for creating it."
Asked what me makes of the sex toy comments, he wrote to Kotaku, "I developed Remote Masseuse to be used however people wanted to use it. I think it makes a great cat toy. You set one controller next to your cat and make it vibrate with the other." Entrager said Remote Masseuse has netted him $15,000. He's made it for the iPhone as well.
Le Clair, the starter of this trend, said a sexual use of Rumble Massage was not intended back when he hatched the idea. "I didn't want to pander to that," he said. But he attributes the success of his program, downloaded as a free demo 300,000 times so far, to two things: 1) His decision to give almost all of its contents except for its highest vibration setting away for free and 2) "Obviously it has to be because of the whole vibrator thing."
Whatever made the massage apps popular fueled some of the later entries in the field. French Indie Game creator Pascal Ginda admits he simply needed the money he thought a massage app could provide. Petank Party, the first Indie game from his team at UFO Games, didn't make enough money to keep his group going, he said in an e-mail to Kotaku. "So we looked at the best selling apps and two massage games were in the top 10. After downloading them, we thought we could do better." He made and released one called A Perfect Massage (pictured at the top of this post). It has sold well enough to both enable his team to test a new engine and, Ginda said, to "take a big risk and make a bigger game." Ginda's honesty about cashing in has rankled some XNA Indie Game developers.
The massage makers, however, are not completely at odds with the game creators. Entrager, the Remote Masseuse developer, agrees with the likes of Nick Gravelyn that the apps have been too much of a distraction from real games. "I think Microsoft should provide a clear separation of the two so that people that want games can find only games and people that want apps can find apps," he said. Within the Indie Games section, the massage programs are included in an "other" section, along with virtual fish tanks and birthday-card-makers. That makes them still a sub-set of "games."
Gravelyn, the one non-massage developer interviewed for this story, admits the confusion has provided some motivation. He said he'd come to think that he'd either have to wait out the trend or "have something so cool that it beat out the massage game fad." His Pixel Man game has already sold well enough to make it into a Major Nelson top 10 list of weekly Indie Games sales and it's netted him more than $1,000, motivating the daytime contract developer with a decent profit and level of awareness for a game that took about a dozen hours to make.
So much for separation of massage app and games, though. The massage trend has spawned a new phenomenon: Developers are now including massage modes in games that might not appear to need them. Minneapolis-area stand-up comedian Pat Susmilch got together with friends this year to develop Cold War Commander, a simple side-scrolling action game requiring players to collect jellybeans and avoid Communists. "Towards the beginning of production for Cold War Commander, during a 'creativity session,' I jokingly said that our next game should just be something that maxes out the rumble so you can put it on yourself," he told Kotaku. "We all had a good laugh, because that was the dumbest thing ever … A month later Rumble Massage was released and we learned that lots of people were stupid enough to buy that. We included it in the game to both garner more sales and lift a middle finger to everyone who already bought Rumble Massage."
The ploy failed, and the game has sold just 120 copies so far. Public reaction has been muted. "I usually just get messages on my Live account saying that the game sucks and I should be ashamed of myself," Susmilch said, "Without any mention of the massager."
The 2009 surge in massage games may be subsiding, not just for those sticking the mode in a Cold War platformer.
The massage programs don't chart as highly as they did earlier this year, when they regularly clustered near the top of the best-sellers list for Indie Games. Pow Studios' Spectra Musical Massage, released in August, has been downloaded only 3,765 times and purchased 117 times — 83 times in the U.S., three times in Japan, once in Italy — according to its developer. That has profited Pow $200.
Thomas said his team didn't sign up for Indie Games to make massage apps, "but we felt it could help us gain some exposure." He said the app was "de-evolved" from a music-gaming project Pow still hopes to create. "Like everyone else, we were ... trying to figure out how to be successful in this environment." Pow's true focus is on a musical-based shooter the team is developing called Muzikaze.
That original massage-maker Le Clair is also looking forward to life beyond the trend. He promises he's done with the genre. In fact, he's using his earnings to pursue his dream. He and a couple of friends are moving to New York to set up a company called ZXB Games. He wants to make a modern-day pirate-hunting game and the cushion of cash made more comfortable by that well-massaged $60,000 means something important to Le Clair. "We can bootstrap it," he said.
To borrow a term from the massage world, that's one way to get a happy ending.