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PS4 & Xbox One vs indies: the studios speak - part two

Gaijin Games, Introversion, Hello Games and Brian Provinciano continue to discuss PS4 and Xbox One's indie potential with VG247′s Dave Cook.

If you missed part one of this article, you can play catch-up here. In it, Retro City Rampage developer Brian Provinciano discusses what indies need to exist on consoles, Joe Danger developer Sean Murray talks about next-gen innovation, and Runner2 team Gaijin Games talk about why Valve is doing everything right.

November isn't all that far away and with it, the release of PS4 and Xbox One will trigger another 7-10 year console cycle. Both Sony and Microsoft don't have long to get their houses in order for their respective launch days, but there is already a clear contrast in the way each side is approaching the indie scene.

Sony's message with PS4 has been aggressive, and the company has shouted about each signed indie deal from the rooftops so far. Is this all just chest-beating to detract attention from whatever it is Microsoft is doing, or can this open platform approach truly sustain for the console's life-span?

“If Xbox One really will forego indies in a significant way then Microsoft does so at the cost of innovation, new IP and intelligent ideas. We can’t say for sure until the company sets this broken record straight.”

With Microsoft, the company has scarcely made a whimper about indie developers bringing games to Xbox One. Think: aside from Minecraft, how many indie titles have you heard of that are being brought to Xbox One? They must exist but I'm struggling to come up with names.

These are now two very different companies indeed. Microsoft is chasing the blockbusters; these 'event' games like Halo 5 that only come around every few years. Besides that I look at what Xbox One seems to offer the big publishers - answer: a lot - and what it offers indies - answer: not a lot - and I still struggle to comprehend the strategy at hand.

I might be totally wrong on these points but that's the problem; Microsoft isn't talking about what it can offer indies at all, so perhaps it just isn't interested any more? Why should Microsoft support Unity or self-publishing when it has Titanfall as an exclusive? Why should it invest funds into indie games that may not make much money, when it can side with proven indie hits that have already sold millions like Minecraft?

If Xbox One really will forego indies in a significant way then Microsoft does so at the cost of innovation, new IP and intelligent ideas. We can't say for sure until the company sets this broken record straight again, but for the second part of this article I decided to focus on what both Microsoft and Sony are doing to help indies now, and how the industry might change moving forward.

Microsoft's closed platform

Back in part one we discussed the problem of indie developers being pushed back on the Xbox 360 dashboard. They often get buried under several button presses and panels to the point that less people will see their games. It's not throwaway complaint given the ludicrous costs Microsoft slaps on aspiring Xbox Live devs and the red tape they have to fight through.

The opening moments of Indie Game: The Movie summed this up best for me. They show Super Meat Boy developer Tommy Refenes staring at Xbox Live in shock as the game fails to appear on its featured slot as promised by Microsoft. He looks like he's about to be violently sick, and it's no wonder, given the months of tears, passion and personal funding that went into his game.

“Sony expect you to 100% hit your dev timescale or they’ll pull the plug.  Microsoft, in our experience, keep pushing to get the best quality product, but don’t back it up with any marketing support.”

This picture is wrong on so many levels. It should not happen this way.

Introversion Software developer Mark Morris ran into many problems when trying to get Darwinia+ on Xbox Live, and he was more than happy to tell me about them on record when I interviewed him last year.

During the chat Morris told me Microsoft charged him $30,000 for quality assurance and it took over four years to finally get the game certified on Xbox Live. Once there it wasn't given any post-launch support and was buried behind the dashboard menus where no one could see it. I spoke with Morris again after the reveal of PS4 to see if his view had shifted in the face of Sony's indie-friendly approach.

"To be honest, I don't care," he said. "I think the most exciting developments over the last few years have been on PC with crowd-sourcing and pay what you want sales, combined with Valve's continued stellar performance that really make me question why anyone would want to jump into bed with Microsoft or Sony at the moment.

On Microsoft specifically, Morris continued "Basically their certification requirement is too big a barrier and they don't work to promote the title post launch.  It's too much of a risk, with very little chance of recovering from a failure." He added that in his experience, while the platform holder has been eager to get indies into bed with it in the past, Microsoft's interest wanes rapidly once a studio's game has launched.

"The individuals are - generally - quite on board and keen," he stated, "but the big corporate gets involved and are unwilling to share any risk. Sony expect you to 100% hit your dev timescale or they'll pull the plug. Microsoft, in our experience, keep pushing to get the best quality product, but don't back it up with any marketing support."

Gaijin Games co-founders Mike Roush & Alex Neuse – of Runner2 fame – offered me a series of joint statements on their experience of being approached by not just Microsoft, but Nintendo and Sony as well. As they see it none of them are without issue, but some are handling the indie ball better than others.

"In our case, we've almost always been the one initiating the communication," they revealed. "Certain console holders are incredibly bitchy about whether your game has been on another platform first, so they rarely go out of their way to approach you if you've released a game on another platform first - even if the fans are screaming for it.

"The pitch process isn't super difficult, but it's a pain in the ass in unique ways with each of the three console folks. Luckily, most of them have done away with the pre-development pitch now, and depending on which platform you're on, it's incredibly hard to turn a profit.

“Microsoft have taken some amazingly bad decisions with closing Windows Phone and Windows 8 to developers. They have a huge opportunity to get things right with the next Xbox.”

"These console folks truly do not know how to woo their audiences towards downloadable games in any meaningful way. And this is something they need to figure out. If they don't, all indies will just stop trying and will decide to do business solely with Valve."

Retro City Rampage developer Brian Provinciano has had - largely - a smooth ride with console developers so far, but omitted Microsoft when discussing his experience. "It’s common for people to assume the grass is greener on the other side, whatever side that is," he said.

"I've personally seen the grass from all sides, from the business to the production and development, on all platforms. When all’s said and done, I had a great experience with Sony, Nintendo and Valve. From my experience, the grass is very green there. I lost track of how many other developers I've spoken with who share the same perspective."

Sean Murray of Joe Danger studio Hello Games has published his studio's games on many formats, and championed the use of open platforms and self-publishing where applicable. However, he slammed Microsoft's approach and suggested the company has a chance at redemption in net-gen.

"It’s difficult to generalise because everyone has a different situation," he stressed. "Joe Danger has been really successful for us but it’s really tough out there for all developers. But what I can say is that on PC, iOS and PSN, you can just publish your own game.

"That’s great for indies, but it’s not how it is on 360, and even since then, Microsoft have taken some amazingly bad decisions with closing Windows Phone and Windows 8 to developers. They have a huge opportunity to get things right with the next Xbox. We’re seeing so many devs moving to iOS and PC.

"We’ve had an amazing experience releasing Joe Danger Touch. Apple are so different to work with, and I think they know the value of making a platform that developers find attractive because they’re doing incredibly well from now having thousands of developers making apps for iOS.

"Microsoft really need to see that closing their platforms is a real mistake. It will sideline them from the best indie developers and the most interesting games."

Is Sony getting it right with PS4?

It's a key question, given the amount of chest-beating coming from Sony about its proactive approach to signing indies to PS4. So far the library of independent titles is impressive and looks set to grow moving forward, thanks to the platform's support of Unity, the ability to self-publish and Sony's attempts at striking a clear dialogue with the indie community.

But one more time, I asked my interviewees what they thought about this aggressive approach from a developer's perspective, instead of making assumptions on the matter. The team at Gaijin offered another joint response on the matter, and so far they seem sold on Sony's keenness to invest time in the indie market.

"This is the first thing that Sony has done in a long time that's really exciting," they said. "The PS4 truly sounds like it wants to be a platform for games first and foremost. And that's great. It could give Sony some leverage in the next generation of consoles for sure.

”If Sony really can provide a home console platform for small projects to find considerable success then together both independents and PS4 are going to create a new place for creativity and prosperity to thrive.”

"We just hope that while they are supporting more indies, they also help to find an audience for those indie games on their new console. And speaking about the less noisy [platform holders], yeah, Nintendo is doing a much better job at this than they did on the Wii. They are shaping up to be very good to work with in this regard."

Provinciano was ready to champion both Sony and Nintendo as well. "Both Sony and Nintendo have had platforms open to indies for a very long time," he stated, "but as with all platforms, there were barriers of entry. Both have taken huge steps over the past year to reduce the barriers and streamline the process.

"Sony's indeed doing a lot of legwork to support indies interested in bringing games to their platforms though. They provide more hands-on help than a lot of publishers, yet you never receive a bill for their services. It’s incredible."

It seems that - so far - Sony has the right strategy when it comes to addressing indie talent. I've spoken with many games industry professionals who feel that the volume of big, triple-a titles will decrease moving forward, simply because they are becoming so expensive that failure could prove ruinous to any company unprepared for the blow. Many companies don't even have that kind of spend to begin with.

While there's no secret formula to becoming the next Minecraft or Angry Birds, the last ten years of game development have shown us that thanks to digital console markets, as well as PC, tablet and mobile storefronts, a single person or handful of coders can make just as much money as some full console games. The key here is that they do so without the expensive outlay and without a publisher taking a cut.

It's an attractive proposition for indies, and if Sony really can provide a home console platform for small projects to find considerable success then together, both independents and PS4 are going to create a new, vibrant place for creativity and prosperity to thrive. The question is; will Microsoft want in on the action once it sees just how viable this market can be?

That all depends on where the company's focus truly lies.

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