Red alert: Xbox One’s indie aversion is a serious risk

Wednesday, 19 June 2013 09:03 GMT By Patrick Garratt

Microsoft may find that its costliest Xbox One mistake is a refusal to embrace console indie development, warns Patrick Garratt.

Xbox One may be many things, but it isn’t home to discless development apart from exceptional examples. It’s a direct policy, and one Microsoft may discover to be catastrophic over the coming generation.

Microsoft has been the perpetrator of some terrible Xbox One messaging. We’ve had fudging on Kinect’s snooping nature, the machine’s always-on intentions, first-party DRM, third-party DRM, GPU speed and pretty much everything else related to the project. One thing next-generation Xbox PR has been unequivocal on, however, is the type of game you can expect to see on both the machine and Xbox Live. Indie-friendly Xbox One is not.

Of all the mistakes the Xbox team has made in the last month – yep, it’s less than four weeks since Microsoft began to unveil its forward plan – this insistence to keep Xbox Live Arcade a closed shop may prove to be the worst. Sony’s press conference score against the policy, the showing of a raft of indie games in its E3 conference and a clear message that PS4 is wide open to small development, could signal it’s the only runner in this race that truly understands what’s needed for the games industry’s ongoing survival: relatively open platforms for independent development that have no connection to disc-based retail.

Xbox One’s policy regarding putting smaller games on the platform as downloads is, as far as I’m aware, unchanged from Xbox 360’s. It’s only possible to get a game up on the service if you have a publisher which releases disc-based products. The publisher is designated XBLA slots based on the amount of games it’s released, essentially reserving XBLA for big-name publishers such as Ubisoft. Exceptions can be made, but they’re published by Microsoft Game Studios. Examples of this are Pinball FX2 and Minecraft.

PlayStation’s different. The authentication process for putting a game on PSN is, I’m told, the same whether it’s from a two-man team or one of 200. No publisher is needed. For developers such as Oddworld Inhabitants, for example, the set-up means the only clean way to the console market for JAW’s Oddworld reboots is via Sony. Some of the condemnation I heard at E3 directed towards Microsoft in terms of its policy towards smaller titles was certainly “unrestrained”.

The Xbox detractor’s logic is thus. The innovations that will truly drive video gaming forward in terms of pure design are likely to come from small-scale development, as the triple-A space is risk-averse. Minecraft is a key example. Developed by one man, at least initially, it’s one of the most innovative and influential games on any format in the past ten years. Minecraft changed the world, and it could never have happened if the Xbox ecosystem was the only route to market. Plain and simple, it would never have been published. It’s now proved a huge success away from its native PC audience. Minecraft made it to console via MGS and 4J with a revamped version, but Microsoft was only interested after Mojang had achieved phenomenal numbers on PC.

Platform support

It isn’t just the smallest games that need support from platform holders as the console industry transitions away from discs. The double-A space is being culled as the games it makes, which are by definition less popular than the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefield, have found themselves in an unworkable physical media trap. If THQ – or, at least, the developers it encompassed – had been able to pump its games out via digital distribution on consoles at £15 instead of throwing them to the brick-and-mortar lions for an untenable £40, it may still exist today. Could Homefront have worked as a £20 download? Possibly. Would you have bought Dontnod’s Remember Me for a discless tenner on Xbox 360 day one? Probably.

The answer, very obviously, is to allow mid-sized teams to self-publish on console. Microsoft knows this, and yet it has remained inflexible. It either doesn’t care or doesn’t understand that core video gaming will be forever poorer – and, in the worst case scenario, irrecoverably damaged – by dismissing anything other than the largest titles.

While these games released into a rock-and-a-hard-place environment of console digital prices having to exceed those found in shops, the physical retail of the next-generation is an absolute no-go for anything other than the biggest hitters. If the Remember Mes of this world are to exist at all, then according to Microsoft they must be digitally distributed on XBLA via a traditional deal with the very biggest publishers (those that have earned sufficient slots thanks to their vast range of triple-A disc releases). Xbox One is Microsoft unashamedly turning its back on double-A. The answer, very obviously, is to allow mid-sized teams to self-publish on console. Microsoft knows this, and yet it has remained inflexible. It either doesn’t care or doesn’t understand that core video gaming will be forever poorer – and, in the worst case scenario, irrecoverably damaged – by dismissing anything other than the largest titles.

Sony, demonstrably, does. It is actively engaged with the tiniest developers, and making sure it says as much when it takes its message to both the industry and the public. Supergiant’s Transistor (Bastion needed to be signed by Warner before it could be released on XBLA), Don’t Starve, Mercenary Kings, Octodad: Dadliest Catch, Secret Ponchos, Outlast, Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee New N’ Tasty, Galaxy and others are all coming to PS4. As far as I know, they aren’t coming to XBLA. Unless the developers sign a traditional publishing deal, they can’t.

Microsoft has made plenty of mistakes in the past four weeks, but surely none of them can be as telling as watching brick-and-mortar retail collapse and not relaxing its rules to ensure the entire console development industry doesn’t die with it. At best that’s negligent. At worst it shows a fundamental lack of understanding.

A large part of the future of video games is giant, digitally distributed libraries of content which support multiple formats, all layers of development and offer every price, starting at a dollar. Of Microsoft and Sony, only the latter appears to get the need to support the smaller guy. Xbox One may be many things, but it isn’t home to discless development apart from exceptional examples. It’s a direct policy, and one Microsoft may discover to be catastrophic over the coming generation.

Latest