Xbox Live and PSN: the digital disparity between the tortoise and the hare

By Stace Harman, Tuesday, 17 December 2013 08:21 GMT

Stace Harman examines the strengths and pitfalls of Microsoft’s ID@Xbox scheme on Xbox One and the free-wheeling but potentially lackadaisical approach Sony’s PS4 digital strategy.

”It seems bizarre that Microsoft should wait until three months before Xbox One’s worldwide launch to announce such a programme and open it up to developers. While some developers were no doubt included in the consultations process, it opens Microsoft up to the wider criticism that it’s simply reacting to Sony’s own initiatives.”

The announcement of the ID@Xbox programme at Gamescom this year constituted a strong statement of intent from Microsoft. On paper, the scheme has a number of very positive perks: along with the licence to self-publish on Xbox One come a number of free development kits and zero fees for the certification process or for the deployment of applications and updates.

Developers can now publish without the requirement of a pre-existing retail deal and while established teams will be most readily brought on board, ultimately anyone can apply and accepted on to the scheme.

What’s more, the toolset that’s made available to a behemoth digital team at Ubisoft will be the same that’s on offer to a two-person team in Uzbekistan. Trending, recommendations and Spotlight options are available to help aid discoverability through the community, while Kinect, Smartglass and Cloud functionality can be incorporated into any project. To top it all off, developers with an existing Unity licence will be given the Xbox One deployment add-on for free.

This embarrassment of riches highlights why ID@Xbox constitutes genuine progress on Microsoft’s part. In theory, the scheme will be a boon for the platform holder, for development teams of all sizes and for gamers, who can expect to see the breadth and depth of Xbox Live’s digital offering increase exponentially.

But not yet. And that’s the rub, because the output of the scheme will not start to materialise until 2014 and beyond, which begs the question: why wasn’t this all put in place sooner?

When VG247’s own Patrick Garratt spoke with Microsoft’s Phil Harrison shortly after the announcement of ID@Xbox, the corporate VP said that the scheme had been a part of the firm’s plans “…since the earliest architectural decisions on Xbox One, because we designed our platform, hardware, operating system, Cloud, Live services with this in mind”.

This sentiment was later echoed by digital portfolio director Chris Charla, when he refuted the notion that ID@Xbox was conceived in response to Sony’s high-profile drive to court indies, “We’ve been planning this for a long time”, Charla said back in September.

That being the case, it seems bizarre that Microsoft should wait until three months before Xbox One’s worldwide launch to announce such a programme and open it up to developers. While some developers were no doubt included in the consultations process, it opens Microsoft up to the wider criticism that it’s simply reacting to Sony’s own initiatives; a storm that the Redmond giant’s global PR teams have been weathering throughout much of this year.

It also suggests that independent publishing is low down on the list of priorities, which in turn could be interpreted as Microsoft being reluctant to give up its role as omnipotent gatekeeper of Xbox Live.

This is indicative of the biggest problem with Microsoft’s approach as of right now because it has propagated the perception that while it has been busy getting its house in order, putting teams in place to facilitate this positive programme and publicising its far-reaching plans for ID@Xbox, Sony has been busy getting things done.

Now, just a few short weeks after two strong console launches, the disparity between the breadth of offerings available for PS4 on PSN and those available on XBL for Xbox One is already quite striking. As Compulsion Games founder Guillaume Provost commented to Dave Cook a couple of weeks ago when discussing the release of PS Plus offering, Contrast, “I think there was a realisation at Sony that if they wanted to capture independent developers they needed to break down the perceived barriers of entry.”

Provost went on to say, “Being a small team we try to do one thing at a time. It’s just the reality that Sony was more proactive in wanting to get us on their platform for launch, and that’s mostly the reason we went for the PS4”

So, Sony’s concerted efforts to be more developer-friendly seem to have paid off, in the short term at least. However, there’s something else here that Provost alludes to and that is highlighted by the release of Contrast on PC, PS4, PS3 and Xbox 360, but not Xbox One.

Several developers have been very vocal about a particular clause in the ID@Xbox contract that states that where no specific exclusivity deal exists with another platform holder, Microsoft requires launch day parity. Basically, to be allowed to develop your title as part of the scheme, you have to have the Xbox One version ready to go at the same time as the others.

For me, this is a curious barrier to entry and while on the surface it may sound like a broadly reasonable stipulation, there are several problems with it. Not least of these are to do with Microsoft’s past publishing policies and the eleventh hour nature of the ID@Xbox announcement, which means indies might have been more likely to start work on other versions of their games under the assumption that the rules for publishing on Xbox One would be the same as for 360.

The first that many of them would have heard contrary to this would have been in August, by which time they would have had a console project that’s part way through development. Then they’re faced with the choice of delaying their project to start work on an Xbox One version or forge ahead and forego that version entirely.

There is a caveat that states that those that have a timed exclusivity deal in place on another platform will be addressed on a “case-by-case basis” by Chris Charla and his team but, perversely, this means that if you haven’t formally tied yourself to another platform then you’re going to find it harder to bring your game to this one.

As Sanatana Mishra of Aussie developer Witch Beam recently summed-up, “Overall I think the ID program is very developer friendly and light years ahead of what Microsoft were doing even six months ago. But it’s also coming in late with a clause that punishes those who have been developing on other platforms that were readily available for the past year, and that’s something they need to fix before it’s a viable option.”

While many developers have spoken out in support of the strides that Microsoft has taken to make their lives easier, it seems that there are more dissenting voices heard in response to Microsoft’s policies in this area than there to Sony’s. Indeed, Ridiculous Fishing developer Vlambeer noted in the comments thread of this news article that Sony has no such equivalent of the launch day parity clause.

Microsoft finds itself stuck between a rock and a hard place. It’s clearly working hard to improve the viability of getting more content on to XBL, with 32 developers recently signed-up to ID@Xbox during the first round of approvals and yet many of its problems appear to be of its own making. Until the dust settles on the finer points of its ID@Xbox scheme and we start to see the results next year we’re left assessing Microsoft’s intentions and wondering aloud at its direction, rather than evaluating the fruits of its labour.

On a brighter note, Microsoft’s work now should pay dividends in the future. The ID@Xbox scheme is a fundamentally strong and positive programme that has the capacity to be a more transparent and streamlined process than Sony’s seemingly ad hoc approach. As interest in publishing on both platforms grows, Sony is going to need a robust system in place in order to efficiently handle the influx of requests and it’s unlikely that it will be able to continue to go out and court developers solely on a one-to-one basis.

ID@Xbox has all the makings of strong long term plan, then, it’s just one that has begun slowly and has been somewhat left in the dust of Sony’s speedy start, but that’s very much the here and now of it. This generation is just beginning and Microsoft has a very long time in which to capitalise on the solid groundwork that it is laying and to turn a slow and steady start into longer term success.

There’s room for each platform’s digital offerings to flourish and no reason why both shouldn’t emerge winners but in an industry obsessed with competition, metrics and who won what, Sony would be wise to heed the tale of the tortoise and the hare.

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