Seconds before he angered a lot of people, Jeremy Eden declared that he had figured out how to make a lot of money.
Eden is the leader of a small Texas team of young amateur video game developers. The brash bunch. who call themselves JForce Games, are just getting started in a brash medium. Eden and his team are boastful dreamers who brag that they possess barely a scrap of development experience. They promise to someday make something great.
Jeremy Eden believed this past summer that he had concocted the recipe for a hit. It would be, he and the rest of JForce games thought, their second big success.
This great new thing would be a cheap downloadable Xbox game, of sorts, that would satisfy the public's proven appetite for three things the public had already shown — statistically — it loved: Xbox avatars, zombies and massage.
Then, one day in August, Jeremy Eden made a mistake.
He told the one group of people capable of preventing his game from coming out — other independent game developers who are empowered to get each other's games sold for download on the Xbox 360 — that he was doing this. He told them that he was doing it not for whatever love of art might propel someone to make an avatar zombie massage game. He let them know he was doing this as an easy way to make money.
Instantly, he had enemies, and he was the villain.
A two-month battle began that would see his game repeatedly blocked and that ignited a debate about what a respectable artist should or shouldn't do to make money and about how a community of creators with their own goals should react to an outsider who defines success another way.
Through it all, Eden's sure-fire recipe would get its chance. The world got to try a zombie massage game this past summer. But even with that, there was a twist.
The First Disaster
Behind a keyboard, Jeremy Eden is a natural bad guy. And like all possible bad guys, he is sure he is the good guy.
In August he posted a message on the XNA Creators Club message board, a forum where he would be talking to his fellow independent game developers. These developers were the people who had the power to get his Eden's onto the Xbox 360. He titled his post: So we made another massage game. He introduced his fellow developers to Avatar Zombie Massage Online 2 (there is no AZMO 1) with a letter announcing that his team, JForce Games, was reaching for big dollars: "So yeah, this is the epitome of a shameless cash-grab," he wrote. "here's no doubt in my mind that it'll be a top-seller. Most of you should agree with this."
He cited sales stats for massage games that were released by his fellow creators to the Xbox 360. He cited the performance of JForce's own Avatar game. And zombies. Zombies, he didn't need to point out, were big. Imagine melding the three.
"Point of all this is, you can't get mad at a business (emphasis in the original) for chasing easy money, you should really just be mad at the consumers," he continued. "Supply and demand, yo. Looking at the above data is such a strong indication of the market's demand. We're just giving them what they want. We're making people happy."
To this day, Eden claims that his opening message about his team's zombie massage game was designed to "minimize backlash," even though it did the opposite.
Eden knew that his audience was a sensitive bunch. Launched by Microsoft in 2008, The Xbox Live Indie Games channel, it offers the sole opportunity in console gaming for an amateur developer or team — with the involvement of no big companies — to sell video games that can be bought and played on the same box that runs blockbuster titles from massive publishers like EA and Activision.
The Indie Games channel, however, like the iPhone App Store, has been littered with enough junk to obscure the small gardens of creativity. Creators of the good games, the well-regard $1 role-playing game Breath of Death VII or the slick $1 shooter Crossfire have struggled to get their games noticed amid a bramble of crude games starring Xbox Live avatars, a horde of zombie games and a proliferation of game-controller-rumbling "massage apps" so excessively imitated that even a game about shooting Russians and collecting jelly beans included a massage mode. Some saw the massage apps as glorified sex toys.
Eden's inspiration had been to combine Xbox Live Indie Game's three most base fads. Zombies plus Avatars plus Massage! He was like a television programmer who might believe that combining Jersey Shore with Dancing with the Stars was still one Justin Bieber short of perfection.
"Look, I totally understand if you hate us even more after releasing this," Eden wrote in that original letter to his fellow creators, as he prepared them for the opportunity to peer-review Avatar Zombie Massage Online 2.
As he continued his disastrous letter, he threw in a plug for an unreleased JForce game called Unstoppable that he promised in 2008 would be the best game ever released on the Indie Games Channel.
"We need all the money we can get," Eden told his fellow Indie Xbox developers in that opening August letter. "Our expenses for Unstoppable have risen past $25k now. We're spending quite a bit to overhaul the graphics, plus cutscenes, music, marketing, and of course we're all going full-time now, got bills to pay. Me especially, I owe more than $30k in student loans/credit card debt (it will be well above 50k if I end up paying all the interest) and the payments are only getting higher. And I'm tired of drivin this beat up old car. And I wanna move out of my freakin parents house and get back into my own place. And I DON'T wanna go back to delivering pizza or waiting tables to make extra money, I hate those jobs, plus it only takes away from dev time. So yeah...I NEED MONEY OK? Quit hatin. If you were in my shoes you'd probably do the same thing."
The blowback was immediate:
• One developer: "Why even make this big needy emo kid post about your problems? I don't care, go make whatever you want to and quit trying to rationalize it so you get our approval. You won't."
• Another: " You need to get out of the game development business …. It's pretty clear to me that you have no plan, no long term goals and no idea how to handle a budget."
• And another: "It's one thing to be honest and up-front about your intentions, and quite another to tout the fact that you're making crapware and proud of it. Do you want a cookie?"
Some of the hostility came from the concern that massage games, zombie games, Avatar games and the rest of their ilk were hogging the crucial "new releases" and "top downloads" sections of the Xbox Live Indie Games online store. Xbox Indie developers believe those showcase zones are crucial to a game's success. If Avatar Zombie Massage Online 2 got in there, it might keep better games out of the spotlight and reinforce the view of the channel as junk heap.
Eden swiftly defended himself against his critics, calling some of them "sort of irrational and narrow-minded," which did not appear to increase his support on the Xbox forums.
A couple of months after that letter was published, the relationship between Eden and the peer reviewers deteriorated in ways his proofreader would have predicted. Respected Xbox indie developer and Explosionade creator Nathan Fouts shook his head at the reputation Eden had earned. "The Eden/JForce crew is a hoot," Fouts said in an e-mail to Kotaku. "They're like that one-always-there member of Survivor or Project Runway … they're there for drama and to make drama."
How To Make Enemies While Making Video Games
In the past couple of months Jeremy Eden has been e-mailing me about his travails, initially alerting me to the August Internet proclamation and the ensuing backlash. "We just lost so much respect for doing this and got so much more hate and it's all without reason."
A few weeks later, once he was suspended from communicating with his fellow independent Xbox 360 game developers, he complained to me: "Oh, wow, and now we've just been banned. It's like we're stuck in a nightmare."
He felt he was the victim and began connecting the dots of assumed conspiracy.
Things hadn't gone well between Eden and the other developers in the Xbox 360 Independent Games community. All of them aspire to seize the opportunity afforded them by Microsoft to make games for a console and, through a peer review process, get them onto the Indie Games channel of the Xbox 360's download service.
Microsoft has little say about which of the indie games the community develops go on sale on the console. The company has a few regulations about what Indie Games can't include: "no full or partial nudity", no human excretion ("if it happens in a bathroom, it shouldn't be happening in your game"), no Nazi symbols, no collecting of personal information, and several other basic points.
Eden and his fellow developers depend on each other. They are the ones who determine whether an Indie game makes it onto the 360 by peer-reviewing any game uploaded by a fellow creator. A few fail votes forces a game out of submission, though it can be submitted again. Pass votes get a game approved and onto the download store on everyone's online-connected Xbox 360. The number of pass votes needed varies. "Each game needs a certain number of peer reviews of average strength to pass," a Microsoft spokesperson told Kotaku. "The number will vary based on the reviewers' individual peer reviewer score." If a game is ignored or not reviewed enough to pass or fail over the course of one month, it is rejected.
Eden's game has been failed many times. It's been ignored. His peer developers have given multiple reasons for these actions. And he's vociferously battled them all online.
"We feel like we just can't reason with these people, they're like women," Eden told me over e-mail in late August, before things got even worse. "They really believe our game, a sure-fire top seller, a game that the market clearly wants, will further 'damage the channel' and I just think that's complete BS."
The Ethics Of Cashing In
An Avatar zombie massage game is a simple product, which is why it can be a cash grab. Most of the massage apps offered on the Xbox 360 consist of little more than a couple of meters that allow the user to adjust the intensity of the vibration in the motors built into the system's controllers. Adding support for official Xbox Avatars is simple. Tossing in the character model of a zombie is a cinch.
You don't spend much time making this kind of thing, which makes it a viable side project for a crew like JForce. The team consists of Eden and his brother Jonny, a close friend Ty and a few other friends who come and go. The core trio's ages range from 22-25, according to Jeremy Eden. Jeremy says that he dropped out of an online college that used to depict its game designer students creating games by holding controllers in their hands. Jonny is a computer science major. Ty studies theology. Jeremy laments that he has "the worst of both worlds: a bunch of debt and no degree!"
Above: Eden, on right, with a fellow member of JForce in a promotional video.
Last March JForce released a simple Avatar combat game called Avatar Showdown, the kind of game the more ambitious and art-minded developers in the Xbox Indie Games community sneer at. A page on the JForce website tracks the profits from that game. As of the first of October, the team reported that Avatar Showdown had been downloaded 315,000 times as a free demo, paid for 76,000 times for a profit of $52,000. For the Indie channel, that's a hit.
In defending Avatar Zombie Massage Online 2, Eden often refers to Unstoppable and the $25,000 to $30,000 he says he's invested in the game so far. From a trailer released for the game on YouTube, it appears to be a top-down shooter pitting hero against crowds of bad guys.
The official trailer promises a superior game and is unusual in two ways: It explains that the graphics will all change; it proclaims, as an apparent positive, that it is being made by people who lack game design experience.
In Eden's mind, Avatar Showdown and zombie massage apps are pit stops before greatness.
To others, such as James Silva, one of the more successful Xbox Indie Games creators, they confirm that JForce are the bad guys.
"As someone who spent most of his childhood — since Megaman 2 anyway — dreaming of making videogames, seeing people try to retrofit the dream into a get-rich-quick scheme is pretty disappointing," Silva said in an e-mail.
For Eden, cashing in was an acceptable step for a game developer. For Silva, it was an outrage.
"There is no honor here," Silva wrote in a post on his blog in late September (emphasis in the original). "Perhaps the term 'honor' seems a bit antiquated what with seppuku being out of fashion and honor killings being outright worst-thing-ever-and-not-in-a-funny-way, but I think honor —or the lack thereof — is precisely the concept that irks the heck out of hardworking indie game developers who are, you know, doing things the hard way."
Silva illustrated his distinction with a cartoon:
"The guy on the left is Archibald Wintersfield. He sells children to sweatshops, acts as middleman for blood diamond sales, and just put Avatar Zombie Massage Online 2 into peer review. He's an opportunist.
"The guy on the right is Kip Skyler. He's inventor who hopes that technology will solve everything, ever, and makes up for his small stature with ingenuity, even though his inventions typically lack mass appeal. He's an idealist."
Eden responded in the comments section under Silva's blog, of course, saying he wasn't going to wait tables if he could instead fund the creation of Unstoppable with a zombie massage game. "You've just decided that it's honorable to make games you want to play," he wrote, "and not honorable to make games for money. What gives you the right to make up this standard and then criticize other devs for not living up to it?"
How Many Times Can One Zombie Massage Game Be Rejected?
There is no Microsoft rule that bans Xbox Indie Games from creators who tell the world that their game is a craven cash-in. There is no rule that allows peer-reviewers to fail a game just because they don't like the mouthy game developer who helped make it.
Despite that list of official obstacles, JForce's massage application has, since August, failed to get through the peer review process several times. It's been blocked repeatedly. The peer reviewers, many of them the same who have been arguing online with Eden about his notorious cash-in letter, cite what they feel are valid problems with the game. Eden, defending his game in post after post, refutes this and says his team is being unfairly stymied.
The game initially failed to get past the peer reviewers in late August. Some of the critiques were dull and technical and presumably easily mended. For example, in the review thread, one user observed that portions of necessary error-message text in the game were cut off on his or her TV.
As negativity mounted — and as an unrelated zombie massage application did make it through — JForce pulled the game and re-submitted it without zombies. They renamed their certain hit Avatar Massage Online.
"Instead of "zombie massage" we have "hot girl Massage" and "yo momma massage," Eden described to me in a late-August e-mail. He said the two modes would feature "the hottest avatar we could make and the ugliest avatar we could make."
The redesign did not endear JForce to the Xbox Indie peer-review crowd. The reviewers zeroed in on a contest embedded in the game. Some said it was illegal. Eden's team said they were merely enticing customers with offers of free Microsoft points and that they were using a new Google service to let people sign up for JForce tweets by texting to a specific account. Some of the peer reviewers, however, saw in these elements violations of Microsoft rules for collecting personal information and running a contest that could be unlawful in some jurisdictions.
During the arguments in the review thread, a reviewer called the game's contest "illegal content." A JForce rep, possibly Jeremy, responded :"if you fail for illegal content, we will take action."
The reviewer failed the game anyway. The game was rejected.
Avatar Massage Online returned again in early September with revised legalese and some other tweaks. This time, JForce's official review-thread submission notes included a section that named two of the peer reviewers who failed the game the previous time. It chided them for "improperly" failing the game the last time. As this is not part of the playbook of How To Win Friends and Influence People, the move angered the peer reviewers.
Some of the problems seemed small. Some of them, Eden argued, had not held back other games. His attitude, though, hadn't helped.
"When a developer outright announces ‘I am abusing the system,'" James Silva said to me of Eden's crew. "he's basically asking to get the book thrown at him."
In the first week of September 4, the game failed again — and JForce were hit with two-week bans. They returned in late September, their game back in peer-review and their contest whittled away. Reviewers complained that promotional screenshots for the games referenced other games from JForce, a possible violation Eden said hadn't gotten other games failed. By late September, JForce's Avatar Massage Online had failed once more.
Eventually, the problem was sex.
The late-September fail, the game's fifth failure to get past peer review, was accompanied by a letter to JForce from Microsoft. The note cited the game's two fail issues. One involved: "Acts of sexual innuendo or mildly explicit sexual descriptions or images or sexual posturing." The letter quoted a peer reviewer who objected to this content. That reviewer had written: "Online vibrating 'massage' is a clear sexual innuendo and is inappropriate for Xbox Live. 'Hot Girl Massage' is sexually suggestive and is therefore a prohibited use of avatars."
Shrinking with humility, Eden wrote to Microsoft, acknowledging they were "on thin ice" and pleading, "please help us." About the accusation of sexualized content, Eden sent Microsoft a link to a clip of the Hot Girl Massage.
Eden believed his game was being picked on. Microsoft replied to Eden saying they couldn't overrule the peer review.
Preparing for his sixth try a few weeks ago, Eden told me the team was going to drop the word "hot" from the game, restore the zombie and try again. "We'll see if that gets by. If not, we'll just have to cater to every one of their demands entirely. It's so frustrating because they're in complete control, they can fail for pretty much whatever they want and we're unable to do anything about it."
In the first week of October the reviewers failed it once more. Among the problems: " Trial-mode does not showcase the game, as you are unable to do anything online in Trial Mode" and " . The description alludes to your Xbox controller being used as a sexual device. The wording 'A perfect solution for long-distance couples' and 'lonely singles.' This is pushing the bounds of XBLIG."
Six tries. Six failed attempts.
The Avatar Zombie Massage Game That Made It
As the peer review saga unfolded, one piece of feedback appeared to infuriated Eden more than most of what was being written about his massage app. The offending line was written on the the original peer-review thread for the first zombie version of JForce's game by the developer of the acclaimed indie game Breath of Death VII, Robert Boyd. He wrote: "Passed… the other avatar zombie massage game. At least he seems to have done it as a joke and isn't bragging about how smart he is for doing a blatant money grab."
That other zombie massage game was Avatar Zombie Massager Extreme, and it was approved by Boyd and others just as Eden was making enemies. The game was created by Matthew Mitman, a 24-year-old from South Carolina. Mitman is the best person to say whether Jeremy Eden's get-cash-fast zombie massage scheme would even have been profitable. He knows whether the controversial cash-in would have cashed in at all.
"It wasn't a failure," Mitman told me in a recent e-mail, "But neither was it the runaway hit that a number of people seemed to think the concept would be. It's been out for about five weeks now, and has had 26,134 trial downloads and 1,460 purchases, translating to about $990. Like most XBLIG games, after it fell off the lists, sales went way, way down; it's currently getting 1-4 sales/day."
While it wasn't a hit, it was cost-effective. "By my estimates, I spent around 10 hours across a couple evenings writing AZME," he said, "So when you compare how it sold to the time spent on it, its quite easy to say it was successful, but that's nowhere near the #1 spot people seemed to expect something like this to hold."
The most unusual thing about Mitman may be that he's a developer who sees a silver lining in his low sales. "I find its relatively low numbers quite promising actually. To me, it seems to indicate that XBLIG is moving out of its eye catching apps phase, and starting to favor real games that took more than a weekend to make."
The parallel dream of an avatar zombie massage game was serendipity, the two creators say. Mitman said he made his massage as a joke and Eden appears to harbor no animosity toward him. Mitman and Eden say they were unaware of each other's massage apps before each was submitted for peer review.
Mitman laments his competitor's struggles and is suspicious of the reaction an outsider like Eden got. "I think JForce could have been less confrontational over how they presented their massager app initially, though I'm not convinced they actually intended to come across that way. However, it seems to me there's something of a witch hunt that's sprung up surrounding them. Every time they make changes and submit to peer review again, they seem to get failed almost immediately for reasons that sound questionable to me."
Where do you after making the certain zombie massage hit? Next for Mitman is a Halloween pumpkin-carving app called Pumpkin Chop 2, a zombie fishing game , and a hard short-session platforming games called "Death N Failure."
The Outsider, The Community And The Seventh Try
Robert Boyd, who so infuriated Jeremy Eden, does not regret passing on his opportunities to review Eden's massage games and for only approving the competition. Ignoring JForce's work was within the rules, he says. It exacted a penalty he felt appropriate upon a victim who was spoiling a scene.
"Xbox Live Indie Games was originally called Community Games and to many developers, a strong sense of community is still very important," he told me. "When a developer like JForce Games that only cares about themselves and flaunts this fact comes up on the service, it rubs a lot of people the wrong way.
For all of Eden's animated behavior though, the arguing, the naming of names, the acknowledged crassness, he stands on the outside of the Boyd's community with a simple complaint, one often heard from outsiders who reject the idea that insiders would reject them. He wants respect without having to retreat. He wants cooperation without having to conform.
Microsoft has stayed out of this. While the quality and shamelessness of JForce's applications are topic for debate among Eden and his rival developers, the company behind this whole program says it will not be a judge. It won't say "yes" to avatar zombie massage apps. It won't say "no" to them.
"Microsoft does not participate in the review process, so we can't comment on the quality of games that are approved," a spokesperson told Kotaku. "What's important to us is that Xbox Live Indie Games remains an open distribution channel where gamers can explore the variety of games created by independent developers."
In the grand scheme of Xbox Indie Games, Microsoft's hands-off approach still matters. For JForce, however, it is moot. On October 14, the seventh try worked and the peer reviewers passed Avatar Massage Online. The "Hot girl massage" mode had become "Super Model Massage." A screenshot ad for JForce's previous game was removed. The contests were gone; the zombies were back. Eden described the successful passing of the game as a dramatic scramble, a race between the developers he was convinced would fail it again and sympathetic developers from whom he was able to lobby and extract a positive vote. The final passing vote, he believes, was from Mitman the other zombie massage maker. Mitman told me: "I was starting to think it might never make it out."
The game is finally on sale.
Jeremy Eden and his crew finally made it in. Along the way, they barged into issues of honor and craft. Zombie massage was supposed to be a cash-in. But it proved to also be a flashpoint around which swirled questions of what an artist might do to make the money that can finance a dream. It showed how the depths a creator sinks, as he or she caters to the hunger of the crowd, can cost the support of their peers.
Avatar Massage Online is not the JForce dream game. We will now at least see if it can pay for the one that is. As it begins to earn JForce money it is already ahead in earning JForce enemies. Jeremy Eden now knows how to make foes with his fellow independent game developers as many of them can now put his name on the problem that vexes the open development platforms from the iPhone to the Xbox.
So much for minimizing backlash and squashing the frustration of creators who believe they know what quality is and what deserves a chance to succeed.
"I think my plan backfired," Eden wrote to me back in August. Even then it had been clear he'd stirred a hornet's nest rather than stomped a hornet. "I guess I went about it totally the wrong way?"