Xbox One: Microsoft must prove its indie commitment
Developers and analysts give their take on the significance of everything Microsoft has--and hasn't--said about its new next-gen policies
Microsoft yesterday dropped two big pieces of news about its upcoming Xbox One console. First, it changed its position on allowing independent developers to self-publish their games. Second, it revealed that every Xbox One unit sold could be used to make games. Specific details on those initiatives are being held back until Gamescom next month, but the news is already causing a stir. While it's clear Microsoft won't be winning everyone over anytime soon, GamesIndustry International sought out industry watchers and indies alike for more nuanced thoughts on just how significant this is in the bigger picture, and how effective it will be in countering Sony's previously anticipated advantage on the indie game front. First, the indies, then the analysts:
Guillaume Provost, Compulsion Games (Contrast)
This is a topic we've lobbied hard and repeatedly with Microsoft over the last two years, as I know a lot of fellow indie developers have. It was a big announcement in the studio and our team was excited to hear the news. As to whether it puts them ahead, or on an even footing with Sony, well, my guarded response is that it's an announcement, first and foremost.
From a policy standpoint, it appears Microsoft is solving two of the most important problems facing independent developers: one, it's currently not possible to get access to Xbox One kits without a top-tier publisher, and two, it was impossible to get our games out on the console without - again - a top-tier publisher. Some of us have grown up; we finance our own games and we do our own marketing and PR. Having to give a chunk of your earnings to a third party just to get a 'slot' on Microsoft's platforms was a bitter pill, and it felt like an arbitrary policy that didn't take a game's quality or critical acclaim into account.
"It all starts with people within the organization who are actively seeking to help develop a mutual partnership, and right now I don't know that there is an official channel or person for us to interact with on these matters at Microsoft."
Unfortunately, I don't think policy is the only thing Microsoft needs to fix. Outside the business unit responsible for signing first-party deals, there is currently (to my knowledge at least) no contact person at Microsoft for independent developers. In fact, the only person in the organization that handled those needs of independents resigned last month, and indicated we would not, henceforth, have developer account managers unless we had a publisher. So ensuring there are actually people in place to reach out, evangelize, and educate the independent community about how to get onto their platform is something I would like to see.
This is something Sony does extremely well, from helping us during conferences by supplying hardware, stations and booth space, getting us early access to kits, walking us through the submission process, helping and integrating us with promotional plans. It all starts with people within the (third-party publishing) organization who are actively seeking to help develop a mutual partnership, and right now I don't know that there is an official channel or person for us to interact with on these matters at Microsoft. Sony has built a lot of extremely positive goodwill with the community, and - beyond policy - I think Microsoft still has to show the community that they are committed to working with developers directly.
Finally, my biggest question has to do with how the store will be curated and organized, and whether titles that are independently published will get attention. One of the reasons Steam is largely perceived as a friendly platform to independent developers is that there is - usually - always one or two premium slots reserved for top independent or innovative games. I would hope that Microsoft is able to organize their online store in a way that makes the discovery of such games easier than it has in the past.
Dave Voyles, Xbox Live Indie Game Uprising coordinator
"Microsoft has had problems and blunders with XBLIG, but they are still the only console manufacturer who even HAD something like XBLIG to have problems with."
Daniel Steger, Xbox Live Indie Game developer (Baby Maker Extreme 2, Mount Your Friends)
From my point of view, it's great. Being able to have any indie able to create games for a AAA console and have an easy way to sell them is a good thing. I honestly didn't expect Microsoft to be rushing to do this so soon. Even just having Kinect support for indies is an exciting thing. We'll see all these exciting uses of the Kinect hardware that I don't think we would see if access was only given to bigger studios who are afraid to experiment, or make "smaller" apps/games with the Kinect. Microsoft has had problems and blunders with XBLIG, but they are still the only console manufacturer who even HAD something like XBLIG to have problems with. I'd rather have a slightly broken platform like XBLIG than to not have any at all. I hope Microsoft has learned from the pros and cons of how XBLIG was run when they move forward with Xbox One's indie publishing system.
Billy Pidgeon, independent analyst
Marc Whitten's comments regarding Microsoft's policy changes for independent developers and games sound promising and could lead to more good will between indies and Microsoft. It appears the company is responding to industry and consumer concerns, and Whitten's remarks address big issues for independents: lower barriers to entry including self-publishing, and freedom on pricing and curation to overcome the discoverability problem.
Marketing independent downloadable games is a process that will take time and will require experiments, some of which will surely fail. Creating and marketing appropriately priced quality independent games will require ongoing attention and sufficient resources as well as transparency and communication between industry business partners and consumers.
"The dedicated game platform vendors have an elevated opportunity to get it right, and more to lose in the short term if they don't."
Microsoft's previous attempt to run a community-based independent game marketplace and Apple's App Store give small developers somewhat open access but result in a glut of undifferentiated software of questionable quality and value. Apple's model in particular leads to low quality copycat software where significant spend is necessary to attain the top chart positions that enable developers' success. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo all need to bring more quality and value to their respective downloadable software markets. The dedicated game platform vendors have an elevated opportunity to get it right, and more to lose in the short term if they don't.
Downloadable game marketplaces accessible via phones, tablets and PC/web will improve and the successful players will benefit by forging better relationships with developers and consumers. The platforms with unbalanced downloadable retail outlets attempting to maximize profit through volume-based plays that exploit rather than benefit consumers and developers will lose.
Michael Pachter, Wedbush Securities
Anything that gets tools in the hands of creative people with less friction is good for the business. Essentially, they are making dev kits available for $500, and the approval process is similar to the iOS approval process. I think this is really user friendly and will encourage a lot of people (including a ton of people who have never developed a game) to give it a try. That will increase the number of games developed, and it is likely that a few of the efforts will be really cool.
"Just look at the incredible success of Minecraft on the Xbox 360. Imagine what Microsoft could do for indies if it stopped shooting itself in the foot with onerous terms and conditions!"
David Cole, DFC Intelligence
It definitely makes it more developer friendly. Developers will definitely flock to it. One thing is will they ease their publishing regulations? We don't know. There is always an issue of concern when you open up publishing you get a lot of junk and it can overwhelm consumers. The overall impact on the Xbox business is probably negligible. It mainly means consumers will have access to a bunch of products that are already available for PC and mobile platforms, so it is not really a big selling point to get someone to buy an Xbox One.
Lewis Ward, IDC research manager
I think this is a big deal for smaller developers. Xbox Live, despite its historically high patch costs and requirement that indie developers basically give a share of their revenue to a publisher that may add very limited value, has emerged as the best overall connected console environment in North America. Just look at the incredible success of Minecraft on the Xbox 360. Imagine what Microsoft could do for indies if it stopped shooting itself in the foot with onerous terms and conditions! Well, this is a big step in that direction. This was the last big "philosophical" difference between where Xbox One appeared to be going and where PS4 and Wii U were going in terms of indies. It's too bad that Microsoft had to be dragged kicking and screaming into doing the right - and smart - thing, but, hey, however you get there, you get there. I think this will now allow the Xbox One to have it's share of innovative indie hits in the coming years. Unless this barrier were removed I think Xbox One digital sales would have suffered a significant blow over time.