Xbox One's indie program ID@Xbox is solid, says Nuclear Throne developer Vlambeer, but its parity clause is a real threat to Microsoft's olive branch of independence. VG247's Dave Cook chats with Rami Ismail.
Memories of Microsoft's shambolic Xbox One reveal have been screen-burned into the minds of gamers for years to come. In the playground scraps that are forum debates, barbs laced with churlish 'Xbox 180' insults and 'Deal With It' hash-tags have now become meme-like in nature. Let's be honest here; 2013 laid a rocky road before the format holder, forged by the stunted visions of several wealthy men in expensive, tailored suits.
So disconnected did Don Mattrick appear on stage, that it was unclear what, exactly, Microsoft was selling you. Was it a gaming system or a life-choice? If you were the gullible type, you'd be forgiven for believing his promise that Xbox One would change everything. The way you consume music, film, TV and even the gaming hobby would be converged into one black and green package. Xbox One would become the living room gospel.
Most of us didn't buy it. The message had spun so far off its axis that it rolled off into the recesses of space itself. But like star-gazers, gamers and the press whipped out their bullshit telescopes and sifted through the press releases and cleverly-coined marketing material to unearth DRM threats, pre-owned blockers and more. The torrent of negative press was unmatched to this day. It's a permanent fixture in gaming history that can never be removed.
But Microsoft has proven itself eager to rectify the sorry mess of 'Mattrick-Orth Gate,' and the rank neglect of indie developers that followed. It takes a big person to admit they were wrong and an even bigger multi-million corporation to do the same. Apologise Microsoft did, and while the Xbox One is still in a tatty state - the UI is a joke for one - it stands as proof that the people can force a corporation's hand. You're the target customer after all. They want your money. Sony, Nintendo and Valve are no different, it's just business.
What of the indie pack, the people's champs that bleed innovation and fly in the face of the big sharks? Microsoft remained silent on the matter, as if it genuinely didn't give a toss. That was, until, ID@Xbox was announced at gamescom. The program sought to encourage self-publishing on Xbox One, with free Unity and a pair of dev kits for all inductees. Was it too good to be true? As we later found out, no, it's a genuine, frank attempt at bringing autonomy to the brand, and I for one applaud Microsoft and its steward Chris Charla for it.
As did Ridiculous Fishing, Luftrausers and Nuclear Throne developer Vlambeer. That was, until it noticed a silly launch parity clause sticking out of the contract's small print like a red lettered embargo date. It states that all ID@Xbox developers must launch their game at the same time as Xbox One. So if you're one person making a game for PC and you also want to release on Xbox One, you must do so on the exact same day.
Vlambeer's Rami Ismail recently spoke out about the clause, stating that most indies don't have the money, time or resources to launch on all formats at once, and quickly signed an exclusivity deal with Sony to break the contract. The loophole is that the parity clause applies unless you already have an exclusivity deal in place.
Intrigued, I reached out to Ismail to chat about the exact problem and what it's like to be an indie under the wings of Sony and ID@Xbox. We conducted our chat on Twitch, so it was all live and in the air. It was an interesting discussion, one that suggests ID@Xbox is a brilliant, but slightly flawed prospect. First, I asked Ismail why he thinks we're only now seeing such a seismic shift from format holders towards the well of indies out there.
"There's been a lot of new interest in the indie scene," Ismail replied. "I think a lot of platforms are realising there's a large part of gaming that they'd be ignoring if they didn't reach out to indies. I think Steam has really shown that treating developers equally – whether they're triple-a or indies – does pay off in the end. It does make it a richer platform and I think Sony picked up on that a while ago. That team - Adam Boyes and Shahid Ahmad in Europe - started doing active reach-out, which was new.
"Nobody had actively reached out to indie developers to make games for their platforms, and then suddenly here we were; people were interested in indie games on things like the PlayStation and PS Vita. If you look at Sony's E3 presentation, I still think one of the most interesting things is they had like nine screens, and the only moment they used all of the screens was during their indie presentation. Even for their high-profile triple-a titles, they were not using all screens. That was really telling."
But although PS4 has emerged as the industry's new indie-focused darling, Ismail stressed that Sony didn't always 'get' the indie scene. "I think the biggest and most telling thing is that, now, the big players like Sony and Microsoft are also going after indies. I think Sony just instantly got it right. They were awful to work with, honestly. They were awful to work with back in the day when we started Vlambeer about three and a half years ago now. They didn't respond to anything, they didn't have a team in place to handle it and quite frankly, Microsoft's program wasn't great either, but at least it responded to your emails.
"They were obviously completely uninterested in anything smaller than a 'Castle Crashers.' At Sony what I know is that people like Shahid are big indie gaming fans, and as time goes on thee are more people playing indie games, and some of those people will, naturally, end up in positions of power at companies like Sony and Microsoft. I think that's literally what happened.
"I think some people said, 'You know what? There's interesting things happening in the indie scene, and I think we should have it on our platforms.' So they started to look at how they could bring these indie games to their platforms, and eventually they approached it like Microsoft did back in the days of Braid. Which is just to treat them as any other triple-a developer."
Ismail conceded that treating indies and triple-a studios as equals is an error, given the canyon that exists between their budgets and team sizes. Enforcing similar rules on both ends of the development community simply doesn't work unless you're Mojang or Rovio. They're rare examples in a market currently being battered with an influx of new, self-published IP. Sony realised this however, and its first step was to remove its ludicrously convoluted certification process.
"I'm not even kidding," Ismail explained, "the certification process they had, if you made a flow chart out of that you'd need four poster-sized pieces of paper to draw it. There's no way an indie developer can go through that, because we can't just say, 'You're the project owner, you're the project manager, you're the accountant, you're the bunch of lawyers, go deal with it.' We have to do it ourselves.
"That's time that is taken away from developing a game, so Sony started streamlining. They streamlined their submission process and the way people get in touch with them. Instead of having large teams that all do separate things, they gave every project a face to work with like Shahid, and suddenly it was doable for an indie. We could say, 'right, we want this and this, can you make that happen?'
"A funny anecdote I love telling is, how we signed Luftrausers to Sony. We were in a bar with Shahid and he basically wrote the contract on a coaster and said, 'So what do you need, and what do you want?' We discussed it, and within a week we had everything we needed to start developing. We got the contract the day after we got the hardware, not the other way round like 'sign this and then …' No, this was just he trusted us, we trusted them. Done.
"That's the way we want to work, because that's the way indies work. It's a trust thing. We help each other because we trust each other. It's not a contract thing, although we still sign contracts to be sure. But, this is how business is done in this age, it's not trying to screw each other over. It's trying to be a convenience to one another and help each other out. That's how the best things happen."
Microsoft wasn't exempt from this process of course, but Ismail genuinely feels that while ID@Xbox is a step in the right direction, there's still that initial console reveal linger in the mind. "Microsoft saw that Sony was obviously doing something right," Ismail stressed. "If you look at the Microsoft announcement of the Xbox One, that was a train wreck if I've ever seen one. It was impressive. The amount of stuff they did wrong was just frankly amazing. I think that will be in handbooks for students for the next hundred years as one of the biggest disasters in management."
After the 'Xbox 180' u-turns, the last area for Microsoft to address was self-publishing. How could it convince indies that its format was the right choice, an open avenue from which profit and notoriety could be earned? Enter Chris Charla and his ID@Xbox program. Vlambeer is now a member of the scheme, but it too has found some issues with the now-infamous parity clause.
Ismail continued, "Microsoft forcing indies to have a publisher didn't work, so they started ID@Xbox which is led by a guy called Chris Charla. Chris is a good guy, he sincerely cares about indie games. He loves this stuff. He knows about games and if you ever spoke with an indie who worked on Xbox 360, who didn't hate their experience, the reason for that is because they probably talked to Chris, instead of somebody else at Microsoft.
"Chris's heart is in a good place and he set up ID@Xbox. Now, the program is good. We are in ID@Xbox, and it's a good program. You get the dev kits, it's standardised. There's no big surprises anywhere except for one thing, and that's launch parity. That's the one thing that's still there and a problem at the moment, because like you said before, a lot of indies simply don't have the resources.
"You can't just launch on all platforms at once, because no, we can't. It's hell getting a game to work on PC, it's awful getting it to work on PC, Mac, PS4 and Vita. Adding another format on top of that is insane. With Nuclear Throne, we're launching on PC first, then focusing on other computer, platforms, then focusing on PS4 and Vita. Then after that, Xbox One after we dodged the parity clause by being jerks [laughs]. That was funny by the way, I had so much fun doing that. When I figured out I could play around with the contract that way, I had a good time."
If Charla is indeed as switched on as Ismail suggests, is it possible he's fully aware that launch parity is potentially damaging? "I think even Chris sees that," he offered, "but I can't speak on his behalf. I think the main thing is, I can see why they'd do it, because they obviously need indie games to not be later on Microsoft's platform. I think the way they're going about that is the wrong way around, instead of making their deal better they're making it slightly worse.
"We have a good relationship with Sony and we do not like punishing Sony for having the better deal. So if next time we have to take the parity clause, if there's no way around it, it might better to just not bring our next game to Xbox One. It's one of those things were the launch parity clause doesn't achieve what it needs to achieve, and probably won't achieve what it needs to achieve.
"Exclusivity is not necessarily a bad thing. It's not something that should always be shunned, because like we said, we can't always have the games launch at the same moment on all platforms. So sometimes it's really beneficial to have exclusivity, as it gives indies breathing room to make a game for one platform, fix all the problems on it and then port it over."
While Sony does offer exclusivity to indie devs in exchanged for enhanced promotion - Vlambeer's Nuclear Throne featured on stage at gamescom 2013 in exchange for one month's exclusivity for one - Ismail's issue with parity is that it's being enforced by default. Part of being independent is, of course, having the freedom of choice. In this case, the ability to choose platforms freely should be granted as standard.
"Conversely," Ismail added, "the thing with Microsoft is, they assume this as a default, so there's nothing we can do to negotiate for it. It's just, 'this is it, you don't launch on another platform before you launch on ours, except for when we make an exception.' Now, that's great for us at Vlambeer because we can get that exception. If we talked to Microsoft and said, 'either this or you don't get the game,' they're not going to say, 'never mind, we don't want your game.' My problem is, I know there's a lot of indies out there that would love to bring their games to PS4 and Xbox One that just can't do that. They don't have the influence or the library to make that happen.
"That's when it becomes problematic, but it's not problematic for Vlambeer. It's problematic for the indie scene at large, and having this tilted contract where Sony allows you to launch wherever, and Microsoft only allows you to launch at the same time is problematic for indies who say, 'well Sony has the better deal but I want to launch on both platforms. So we're going to go with the Microsoft deal.' That's problematic because it will essentially force Sony to do the same in return. Well, as indies we should be fighting to get everybody the best deal.
"It ought to be level, and I understand that ID@Xbox is a pilot, I understand they're still working on it, and I am really, really impressed with the program. I have my dev kits right here. We got them really quickly after signing the contract.
"Chris has been super-helpful, he's been proactive, he's been calling us every now and then. That's been wonderful, it's just that launch parity thing is problematic enough that we should probably speak up against it. I think technically we've broken some NDAs, but you know, things happen."
In closing, Ismail told me that he's still behind ID@Xbox and Charla's work despite the parity clause, and explained that it's a rule that is simply a hangover from old Microsoft clauses. He stated that it has always been there. "It's important enough that Microsoft doesn't want it to fail," he concluded, and later agreed with me that both format holders now want to be seen as the company reaching out to indies. He added that it's now about PR first and money second, something that should definitely be taken as a positive.
"What changed is, back in the day platform holders were a necessity," Ismail continued. "You needed them. What changed is, now they are a convenience, because the games are the stars. There are millions of games coming out but having many games on your platform is a valuable thing. Sony has so many coming out of the pipeline right now already. You can say that this worked out for them, having more games worked out for them.
"So publishers and platforms have to be a convenience. They have to help developers make games for them, instead of simply letting developers make games for them. I think Microsoft is slowly starting to get that as well, and I think ID@Xbox is a great step forward. If they could just get rid of that launch parity, if that one thing could get dropped, then I would we 100% behind the program.
"I think What they're doing is good, and I think if Chris had the power to change the parity thing, I think he would. Again, I'm not speaking on his behalf because I don't know what Microsoft is like internally, but I think eh would get rid of it."
What's your view on ID@Xbox launch parity? Let us know below.