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

Wednesday, 19th 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.

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22 Comments

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  1. naffgeek

    Thanks Pat, really good read.

    The last four weeks have been like a slow motion car crash for microsoft imo.

    I have been xbox for the last 2 generations but pre-ordered my PS4 a day after their conference.

    The Indie issue being the clincher. I have supported quite a few kickstarter/alpha indie games and find that part of the industry by far the most compelling games wise.

    I think the real issue is that Microsoft are going after the mainstream and think that risk averse me too product is all they want. I think Minecraft completely contradicts that line of thinking and surely they are missing the point that today’s indie developer are tomorrows Media conglomerate (Angry Birds).

    I am sure they will do just fine but I for one am glad that Sony seemed to have sided with the gamer and that’s where my money will be going in the future.

    #1 10 months ago
  2. Belazur

    Protip: Buy a PS4 = Problem solved (and I mean the Xbox360-only gamer)

    PS4: Better hardware, better policies, pro-customer, better 1st Party games and no insane PR-Shills/Clueless Suits (business men/women).

    PS4 = It’s all about the games and the gamer!

    Peace out!

    #2 10 months ago
  3. samdroidpaul

    Hey well as a developer myself and a longtime ms user it might be time for me to think about a PS4.
    Its cheaper, and seems to be supporting my industry well if you believe the PR war that is raging….
    Pre E3 i was of the opinion give me forza, killer instinct and kinnect for the kids but now….
    I dont even think they have sold it form me…..

    #3 10 months ago
  4. viralshag

    Not really bothered about indies at all. That’s not what I buy a console for tbh. Occasionally something might pop up that’s worth a play but in the grand scheme of things, generally, I’ll never really bother with that side of gaming on a console.

    #4 10 months ago
  5. mistermogul

    Even Wii U is attracting a growing number of indie devs and in this day and age I’m really surprised MS are not welcoming them with open arms.

    #5 10 months ago
  6. Bomba Luigi

    For me, Indie Titel have become very Important. I reached a Point where I play More Indie Games than TripleA Stuff, because I just don’t like these Blockbuster Mainstream Games that much any more. Most of them, of course there still are Games Like The Last of Us I very, very like.

    So Indie is important for me as a Gamer, but I only can speak for me. And I don’t really understand anything about how Important they are or not are for the Gaming Industrie.
    So PS4 does it right in my Opinion, I just don’t know if that really counts that much in the End for me as Gamer. Because I already play these Indie Games on PC, and PC probably will be the biggest Plattform for Indies in the Future, so I really don’t need a PS4 for that.
    Thats about me of course, but for the Indies it is very Important. Console Market is bigger and they can sell more when bringing Games on PS4 or/and WiiU (don’t forgett them here). Which is good for Indie Games so I’m looking forward to that even when I still play them on PC.

    So… yeah, Indies are awesome.

    #6 10 months ago
  7. adge_uk

    So true. From a pure innovation point of view the Indies are essential.

    But even from a commercial point of view looking in other branches of the arts Depeche Mode and Steven Spielberg came from those indie roots – without the support at the grass roots level they’d never have become the revenue generating machines they are today.

    #7 10 months ago
  8. Kanok

    J Allard and Robie Bach has been created XBLA & Indy Games structure into Xbox brand, but Don Mattrick has been destroyed everything of J Allard and Robie Bach, who’s father of Xbox.

    #8 10 months ago
  9. TheBlackHole

    I appreciate that lots of gamers love indies, but that’s not why I’d spend £430 on a console.

    If I want to play more independent titles I have a PC, mobile and iPad. I can even use big picture mode to stream Steam indies to my TV and use my Xbox controller.

    I’m a ‘big game’ console gamer, for the most part, so not having lots of smaller, independent efforts on console is not a huge loss IMHO.

    Each to their own though – PS4 seems to have a lot of this covered.

    #9 10 months ago
  10. Tech-N9ne

    Unlike Sony, Microsoft has an entire conference dedicated to developers. Microsoft’s developer conference BUILD (formally called PDC) takes place on the 26th. This is where Microsoft normally details all you need to know about developing for all their platforms, from Windows to Office to Xbox. This was where things like XNA Studio were first introduced if I remember correctly and they already said they have things to share on XBox at BUILD.

    Am not going to BUILD this year, but I expect them to detail everything indie developers need to know about developing for the Xbox One, the Xbox One Store and their entire indie strategy.

    If after BUILD there is still no indie strategy then we can start bitching.

    #10 10 months ago
  11. ps3fanboy

    let the xbone rot with titles like gears of war, halo and other brown shooters… sony and it’s ps4 will take care of the future of gaming and create new interesting gaming experiences.

    #11 10 months ago
  12. bamn66

    Who cares, indie games suck

    #12 10 months ago
  13. Telepathic.Geometry

    Great read Pat, and nice to hear from a few genuine devs as well. ^-^

    #13 10 months ago
  14. SplatteredHouse

    “and offer every price, starting at a dollar.”

    Sony’s comment that games on PS4 would be priced from 99 cents to $60 really lit my face up :) One of the worst offences of the consoles currently, is their monolithic pricing structure. It’s completely backwards, and cripples anything not at the extreme poles of price, by hacking it at the knees.
    Such an environment can only persist through lack of competition, and Microsoft’s building a greenhouse testament to showcasing just that.

    @11: “and create new interesting gaming experiences.”
    Sony showed, last time, that that was very much their MO. They pushed the likes of Housemarque, Capy, and many more ON PS3. They gave them advertising support to put their games in front of players, they also regularly gave content creators the opportunity to talk directly to consumers, on the regional PlayStation blog(s). From my perspective, it always appeared to me that Sony were, indeed, acting as PARTNERS with these companies, not just using that term as a piece of sly marketing jargon.

    #14 10 months ago
  15. DrDamn

    One extra point on Sony and there approach to indies is worth making. A steady stream of indie titles gives them a steady stream of content to give out on PS+ for the PS4. Many were wondering how the initial period would be handled where there isn’t a handy back catalog of games to utilise yet – here is your answer.

    #15 10 months ago
  16. manamana

    Excellent read Pat. And Naffgeek summed it up a little bit more. It looks just as if Microsoft checks every box to make the new console unattractive for me (absolutely irrelevant while personal oppinion, I know), my RL friends and Indie developers alike.

    I can see buying it, when Microsoft changes their stand, which probably will never happen. I vote with my wallet, always do.

    #16 10 months ago
  17. DSB

    I don’t see how Microsoft can ignore their way through this storm.

    I’m sure most corporate execs are masters of their own delusion and perfectly capable of denying their own failures, but currently analysts expect the Xbone to come in 20% lower than the PS4. They may still sell 10 million plus, but it’s an unequivocal failure for a company that came practically out of nowhere and pwned the biggest console brand in history last gen.

    This was supposed to be their coup de grace, but instead it’s a pathetic display of a previously well run operation completely losing the plot and failing to finish the job.

    #17 10 months ago
  18. fearmonkey

    It looks like between the two next gen consoles, only PS4 will have the possibility of having an app store like system.

    #18 10 months ago
  19. Cobra951

    Nicely written piece. Thank you. This is the first time in my long history with gaming that I feel like a singleminded fanboy. Sony’s upcoming system looks attractive, while Microsoft’s is completely unacceptable. Ignoring small developers is only one of their mortal sins. So, in a perverse way, I’m glad that they are flubbing this. The more trouble Microsoft has in the market, the better, and poor indie support can only help that cause.

    #19 10 months ago
  20. sg1974

    Nonsense. Independent games, while having their benefits, are a minor sideshow to the business of selling things like CoD, Halo, Uncharted et al. Very few people will even consider it when making their console choice.

    #20 10 months ago
  21. misterapathy

    Shouldn’t TRUE independent titles be first released via the XBLIG (Xbox Live Indie Games) category not XBLA (Xbox Live Arcade) which is an entirely different creature?

    I don’t see this as being any different than things are right now.
    Its not any more or less restrictive… and its just another reason to bitch with no real information.

    But I definitely agree with a few of the other commenters, I play indie stuff on my PC, or phone… not my console.

    #21 10 months ago
  22. misterapathy

    Just for those who arent aware of the distinction between XBLA and XBLIG here is the relevant excerpt on the process. Go forth and create games, and have them released easily to that area.
    Expect more of a fight when you want to release to Xbox Live Arcade which yes requires a higher degree of polish, which is great, it draws a distinction between Indie and Mass Market.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xbox_Live_Indie_Games

    Indie Games are created and added to the Xbox Live service by a four-step process:

    Submission – The developer uploads their binary to the App Hub website.

    Playtest – Game is played by other members for a week, to allow feedback.

    Peer Review – Quality control, and content rating recommendation review period conducted by other developers on the service.

    Release – Games that pass the Peer Review are released onto the service.

    #22 10 months ago