According to Oddworld Inhabitant's boss, Microsoft should cull its Xbox One team and start again. Lorne Lanning speaks out on Redmond's great next-gen indie disaster.
"Out of Washington, we see a pretty good understanding of who makes really expensive great games, but beyond that there's not really any insight into how people get there from nothing... I'm not sure who they're listening to. Whoever their PR people are, whoever their marketing agents are, they should fire them all. That's where they should start."
E3 left "Microsoft" and "indie" as immiscible as oil and vinegar. Phil Harrison did his best to make Minecraft look like the future of smalltime console games, but Sony presented something infinitely more sensible with its swathe of independent variety. Xbox One won't allow self-published games and PlayStation 4 will. Microsoft's backpedalling so fast it's had to turn its handlebars ass-ways, but without another major policy u-turn it seems next-gen Xbox, baffingly, is refusing to acknowledge the importance of indie development to the future of video games consoles.
"I've watched them make this mistake before," Oddworld boss Lorne Lanning told VG247 in LA last month. "I'll give you a true story. When they were launching the first Xbox - and we were a launch title on that - it was an exciting time as well. We did a European tour before Xbox released, and I was with Peter Molyneux and other designers of note, and we met with the press in Germany and France. We could not talk about the games. The press were so irate about the price point, about the way they were handling the euro in different territories, and we couldn't talk about the games. We couldn't get in that discussion, and they wanted to hammer on Microsoft.
"We get back to the States and we were like, 'You've got a big problem. You're sinking, tanking in Europe.' 'No, no, no, no. You don't understand. We've got our numbers covered.' We could not get them to avoid the train wreck that was right in front of them. You know what this feels like? Déjà vu."
Lanning was one of eight indie developers on stage at Sony's E3 press conference with Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty, and was "floored at how open Sony's been, and, in my opinion, really smart and prophetic they've been. The indie aspect is going to be a big thing. But just being there was winning enough."
A new generation of problems
While Lanning's relationship with Sony means PlayStation owners will have easy access to Oddworld's games in the future, Microsoft has proved to be a puzzle the creative, and his UK partner Just Add Water, couldn't crack.
"At the business level, Microsoft isn't acknowledging people like us," said Lanning. "It's as if we don't matter."
Microsoft's stance towards indies with Xbox One is a continuation of problems encountered in the current generation: Lanning and JAW boss Stewart Gilray tried for over a year to get Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD released on Xbox Live before ultimately failing.
"The target kept on moving, and eventually we couldn't get clear answers for 15 months. We don't have five biz dev guys and two attorneys and some PR people to send up there to roll out whatever carpets you have to roll out to get attention.
"We were like, 'Look. We're on seven other networks. It's been no-brainers on all of them. We're not asking you for money. We're not asking you for advertising."
Lanning added: "We're little guys, we have to release. We can't get a straight answer. Then we release on PSN, and we get a mail the next day that says, 'Oh, you released on PSN at a lower price point, you didn't meet our margins, sorry you can't be on the system.' Boom. And that was it.
"We're not on the radar. We're little guys. It doesn't seem like any of the little guys are on the radar. When we listen to them talk, we have to laugh. It's pure rhetoric."
Refusal to change
The problem Microsoft is presenting is this. For an indie to get published on XBLA, it needs a publishing partner as self-releasing on Live is prohibited. This partner may be Microsoft itself, the most prominent example of this type of deal being Minecraft. This means the indie has to give up a revenue share to get onto XBLA, whether it's to Microsoft or a third-party like Warner, the publisher of Supergiant's Bastion.
“We’re not on the radar. We’re little guys. It doesn’t seem like any of the little guys are on the radar. When we listen to them talk, we have to laugh. It’s pure rhetoric.”
In the last generation Microsoft held plenty of cards, but Xbox 360 released in 2005 and the world has changed. The truth Microsoft must now confront is that it is wrong to force publishing deals on independent developers when faced with enormously popular self-publishing platforms such as Steam and the App Store. Sony clearly understands it can never be prudish on the subject of self-publication again. This isn't even an ethical issue: financially, larger indies like JAW and Supergiant simply don't need Xbox any more. Millions of sales are possible through other platforms, and as a result Microsoft appears to be both draconian and out of touch. For a tech company, especially one in a market as fast-moving as video games, that's unacceptable.
"In order for us to give up the revenues we depend on as a share, they have to be bringing something of value to our sales," said Lanning. "We haven't been doing badly ourselves. Maybe we'll be able to say, 'Hey, we'll be on Xbox too,' but right now people like us are clearly not in Xbox One's business model. And there's nothing we can do about that."
It isn't just the here-and-now in which Microsoft is making life difficult for itself. Lanning warned that by stifling indies and their innate creativity, Xbox's policies show a gross lack of understanding about the formation of future hits.
"Ten years from now, the biggest banners out there, the hundred million dollar games, are going to be what happened in the indie community. That's the only place we're seeing real innovation because that's the only place people can really afford to. You can't do it on a hundred million dollar title because you have to be dialled into what that audience really knows and wants.
"Someone's going to be burning the next hundred million dollar properties here, and it might be the least likely guy that was on that stage at the Sony conference. But that's where it's going to come from, and the smart people know that. I don't see any indication of that foresight up in Redmond. They do not seem to be listening to their audience."
Lanning was blunt about solutions.
"Quite frankly, out of Washington, we see a pretty good understanding of who makes really expensive great games, but beyond that there's not really any insight into how people get there from nothing.
"It's a bit puzzling. It's clear they're not listening. I'm not sure who they're listening to. Whoever their PR people are, whoever their marketing agents are, they should fire them all. That's where they should start. There should be a big, mass firing and they should publicise that. Then they'd get people saying, 'Hey, maybe there's going to be a good change.' But if they keep the rhetoric flowing, obviously everyone's looking at it saying, 'This isn't real.' How are they going to keep what they've got today? That's a big question."
Microsoft is in the middle of one of the most difficult periods ever experienced on the Xbox project, and while Xbox One pre-orders are outpacing those seen for Xbox 360, there are great risks involved with shunning such a powerful market sector as that of the indie. Redmond needs to start making the right noises, and soon. Either way, it's doubtful the likes of Lanning will hang around to listen.