This Week In Indie: Xbox One May Not Be Indie Friendly
Welcome to a special edition of This Week In Indie. In this edition, news revolving around the Xbox One and Xbox Live are analysed in regards to indie developers, and indie self-publishing. The way in which next-gen consoles incorporate indie games into their marketing schemes is an important one. Whilst Sony, Valve and Nintendo are moving forward with their approach to indie, Microsoft appears to be stuck in the past.
The success of indie games on the Xbox Live (XBL) Marketplace has always been a mixed bag, and some indie games have been relegated to the bottom of rankings in the marketplace to face an uncertain future. Most of the popular indie games on XBL only make profitable sales if they are featured on Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA). Indie games like FEZ, Braid, Limbo and Super Meat Boy have all been popular because they were featured on XBLA and were not published without the help of a publishing deal. Indie games which are self-published on the XBL Marketplace, are featured in the indie section of the marketplace and don’t receive the attention, and number of sales, that an XBLA featured game does.
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This is a very different case on other digital platforms such as Steam and Desura where indie games can be self-published, and freedom is abundant. Developers who develop games for distribution on Steam can change release windows for their games and price their games however they see fit. This is the beauty of indie and Microsoft’s archaic method of publishing, and managing, indie games has left much to be desired. One of the biggest problems with publishing indie games on XBL has been the high price of updating a game as an indie developer. Microsoft is known to charge huge sums of money for critical updates, and this has been evidenced by many indie developers including Phil Fish, the mind behind Fez, who was vocal with distaste at the cost of implementing a critical update for Fez. This is an experience shared by many indie developers who have had to deal with Microsoft. This is an entirely different story on other platforms. Digital distribution services like Steam and Desura have become all the more attractive to indie developers, as they work in favour of the interests and gains of the indie developer, instead of purely in the interests of the digital publisher.
You would think that Microsoft would learn something in the way of adapting to the market and encouraging indie developers to find a home with their newly announced console the Xbox One? Simply put, Microsoft would prefer to stick to an archaic method of publishing indie games and deepen their control of the publishing rights of indie games released on their consoles. Much like the current Xbox 360, the Xbox One will not be embracing an open self-publishing model for indie games and will instead stick to its old rusted guns. When Matt Booty, general manager of Redmond Game Studios and Platforms, was asked if indie developers will be required to have a publisher to release their game on the Xbox Live Marketplace he had this to say:
As of right now, yes. We intend to continue to court developers in the ways that we have.
Booty further added:
I would also expect that for this new generation, that we’re going to continue to explore new business models and new ways of surfacing content. But Microsoft Studios is a publisher that works with a wide range of partners, as do a lot of other people, to bring digital content to the box.
This development in Microsoft’s philosophy of not promoting and supporting indie games as other platforms would was made more apparent by further news that Xbox Live’s Marketplace would no longer have XBLA, or an Indie Games channel to speak of. Phil Harrison, one of Microsoft’s Corporate Vice Presidents, had this to say in regards to the closure of XBLA and the Indie Games channel:
Right, so let me take that, because I think there’s a very important point to make here. In the past we had retail games which came on disc, we had Xbox Live Arcade and we had Indie Games, and they had their own discrete channels or discrete silos. With Xbox One and the new marketplace, they’re games. We don’t make a distinction between whether a game is a 50-hour RPG epic or whether it is a puzzle game or whether it is something that fits halfway between the two–
Harrison’s argument is that games on Xbox One should not be differentiated and that you will “discover the games you want to play” and also for some reason the “challenges that independent developers face” will be diminished because by some mysterious power particular indie games will “magically” be purchased by some unidentified audience. The whole point of the Indie Games channel and XBLA was to bring indie games to prominence on the Xbox 360, and many of the indie games featured on XBLA have delivered good sales. To integrate both indie games and AAA titles into one marketplace with no discerning categories will make it harder for indie fans to find the games they want, and the console indie audience that Microsoft is magically seeking will be further dissuaded by such a move. This audience will be playing their indie games through open platforms like Steam and Desura.
The point is that indie is more strongly supported and priced more effectively on efficient platforms such as Steam, where indie games are squarely at the forefront of Steam’s marketing and sales. The audience for indie games is far more varied than the audience who primarily play AAA games. Finding ways to make the indie audience’s lives easier is a great way of making money and logical sense in a games market that is gaining market momentum. Understanding the staying power of the indie scene is something that Microsoft is lacking when it comes to their approach to indie games for next-gen. Ironically, this is something that both Sony and Nintendo understand and now with the PS4 Sony are encouraging an open console platform, that will be behind supporting indie self-publishing in a great way, whilst Microsoft seems to be less concerned with the market potential that the indie scene has to offer.
If you are an indie gamer, it might be the right time to consider moving to PC and getting yourself a Steam and Desura account. If consoles appeal to you as a gamer, then the PS4 may be the answer. Jonathan Blow, the creator of Braid, sure does think so. Information about next-gen plans for indie will become clearer once E3 hits. It is just a waiting game then.
Remember to check back next week for more indie news and topical discussions.