A lot has happened since Microsoft's last E3 media briefing, in which Phil Spencer appeared on stage wearing a Capy Games shirt, introducing the Toronto-based independent studio's Below as one of his personal favorite games in development. Much of Microsoft's strategy and messaging have been overhauled in the past year. The company's always-on vision for the platform was abandoned within weeks of that E3 showing. Don Mattrick jumped ship in favor of Zynga, and Spencer himself is now running the show. The Kinect camera, once considered an essential part of the Xbox One experience, has been relegated to a peripheral, stripped out of the basic hardware offering in order to offer a lower price point. And while Below is still a ways off, Capy remains a productive development partner for Microsoft, this month delivering Super T.I.M.E. Force exclusively on the Xbox 360 and Xbox One.
You might expect a developer making games exclusively for a platform holder to be chagrined by that sort of instability, but speaking with GamesIndustry International last week, Capy Games cofounder Nathan Vella seemed to think each of them was a step in the right direction. Vella was excited by the prospect of the Kinect-less Xbox One bundle ("Anything that gets more people playing Xbox One is great"), and downright vulgar in his approval of Spencer's appointment.
"Phil is the best case scenario for Xbox, by a f***ing million miles," Vella said. "To me it's inconceivable that he wasn't doing it before. I have a lot of respect for the guy and he's been a huge supporter of the studio."
In both cases, Vella considered the moves a sign of the times.
"There's a lot of power in the hands of players," Vella said. "And in some cases, you've got to listen to what they want. Even if you're only listening to the most vocal 20 percent or whatever, that's still a huge audience of people. And those people wanted a Kinect-less Xbox One."
According to Vella, Spencer's willingness to engage with that audience is one of his big strengths, and one that brings him in line with the shifting expectations of gamers.
"He's a guy who will actually listen to people who tweet at him or message him on Xbox Live," Vella said. "He'll actually read it, and that's not that normal. But now it is normal for both Microsoft and Sony. And I think that's very interesting. That's them working in the present, living in the time we're working in. And I think that's going to be nothing but positive for both platforms... Both platforms have done way better than anybody expected. Part of that reason is because people are excited about new games, but the other part of it is that there are reasons for them to be excited. There are things they asked for that are in there, changes that got made when they asked them to be made."
"Promotion and marketing has changed so much. It's so much less dictatorial."
The aforementioned Microsoft reversals are well documented, but Vella said Sony has also been responsive to consumer feedback, even in cases without incessant media coverage. He pointed to Sony's recent decision to let users turn off HDCP to allow video capture through HDMI.
"Promotion and marketing has changed so much," Vella said. "It's so much less dictatorial. It's not us telling you why you should like our stuff. It's you telling us why you like our stuff, and us trying to give you more of that."
It's a sea change from just five years ago, when Capy was trying to break into the console market and struggling just to get the downloadable puzzle game Critter Crunch released on PlayStation 3.
"It took a while and it was hard," Vella said. "We had people, specifically one person, who really had to put his neck on the line to get us through there. And now it's the exact opposite. You show something rad and you can get on Xbox One, PS4, Wii U, Steam, iOS, Android, Ouya, I could just keep listing and listing all the way down the line."
These days, an indie game like Super T.I.M.E. Force can launch with ads all over the Xbox Live dashboard.
"In all cases, getting your game discovered is the biggest challenge, on Steam, on the App Store, on consoles, on toaster ovens...Those big f'n banners are important. They matter a lot more than people are willing to admit."
"That is really, really important," Vella said. "That's a big piece of the puzzle. There are a lot of games coming out, and getting in front of eyeballs, removing barriers for consumers who aren't on the Internet reading NeoGaf or reviews of games is super important. The fact that both ID@Xbox and third-party at Sony have proven they're willing to put [indie] games on the front page is a big step. I hope that continues as the number of games on each platform grows. It's easier to do when there are fewer games at the beginning of the console cycle. But hopefully the games do well enough [to] convince them to keep pushing... In all cases, getting your game discovered is the biggest challenge, on Steam, on the App Store, on consoles, on toaster ovens. It's all a challenge to get that prime space. Those big f'n banners are important. They matter a lot more than people are willing to admit."
Despite the proliferation of platforms and the increasing amount of attention paid to the little guys (be they fans or developers), there is one part of the industry conspicuously exempt from the trend of dispersing power and influence. Even with the arrival of online retailers to rival it, Valve's Steam service is nearly synonymous with PC gaming.
"It's very hard to think of a more deserving, or earned, monopoly," Vella said. "Because it lets us focus on development of a video game, and not anything around it...As a developer, that's how we want to make games. Normal business head Nathan would say there should really be someone nipping at their heels so they do something better, but I can't really think of what they're not doing better. And that's kind of f***ed up to think about, that so many people would unanimously be willing to accept that. And I'm sure a lot of people would think this isn't good, but I can't see it."
Perhaps the most contentious recent move of Valve's has been its effort to achieve community-based curation of its online catalog, starting with the Greenlight process.
"I have to admit we're in a position of massive privilege never having had to do it, so I can't comment on it much beyond saying if that's going to be their misstep, if that's the biggest mistake Valve has made with Steam, that's pretty awesome," Vella said. "Greenlight is a giant, massive step in a direction for any platform to take, one that no one else has really ever taken at all. iOS and Android kind of started that way, but they started that way for completely different reasons with completely different goals. And the end result of that for mobile is completely different. In the end, Apple and Samsung want to sell devices, while Valve only wants to get cool games out and keep players entertained and coming back. I don't think anyone has tried to do anything like it, and if they're going to make some missteps along the way, I'm still going to be stoked they're trying."
As for Steam Machines and the company's play for the living room console market, Vella wasn't convinced of its success, but deferred to the company's track record when it comes to long-term thinking.
"Giving PC players more options and console players more familiar options is never going to be a bad thing. Will they smash millions of units of sales? Who knows. They could. I don't think they will, but that's based purely on gut. When Valve launched Steam, all of us, communally everyone, was like, 'I don't know. I don't really get it. I don't know if I really want it.' And it didn't really take that long for it to become synonymous with PC gaming. So I think we'd all be very wise to not immediately downplay Valve's ability to make something that people will at some point look at as the norm."
One other criticism Steam receives is for the role its seasonal sales and weekly promotions may be playing in the erosion of game pricing. And while Vella insists that many developers are aware of and taking action to prevent that from becoming too big a problem, they are ultimately beholden to consumers.
"It's very easy for us to chastise Steam sales or be critical of Humble Bundle, and I think some of the arguments do hold water," Vella said. "Yes, there is definitely a chance some people who would have bought it at full price know it's going to go on sale and they'll save their $5 or $10. But how many of those people exist is an estimation. And we work in an industry where we can do our best to make it better for consumers and developers at the same time, but we also have to admit when consumers have voiced their opinions. And sometimes you just have to eat that."
"I would hate for developers to do PS Plus or Games With Gold unless they really wanted to get the game in tons of players' hands."
Steam sales are still very powerful tools for developers, Vella said. If 10,000 people pick up a game during a promotion, even if only 10 percent of them become fans of the studio, that still creates rippling positive effects for everyone involved. And while he thinks some of the fears about price erosion are overstated, certain aspects of the problem are simultaneously not getting the concern they should.
"I don't think it's good when developers are approaching their players and fans, giving them something for no charge when they really feel it should have had a charge associated with it," Vella said. "I would hate for developers to do PS Plus or Games With Gold unless they really wanted to get the game in tons of players' hands. If you just want to get it out to as many people as possible, that is a noble goal and I would never fault anyone for doing it. But if you're doing it because you're thinking you can make a bit more money this way or this is going to be totally worth it for you, I think that's a bit of a scary proposition just because it doesn't necessarily value your work as highly as I think people should value their work."
Perhaps counterintuitively, as the hand-wringing around price erosion has intensified, the acceptable price range of a downloadable indie game for consoles has greatly increased. When Braid debuted on Xbox Live in 2008, its $15 price point was anathema to many gamers. According to Vella, Capy released Super T.I.M.E. Force at $15 without batting an eye.
"I definitely think times have shifted because quantity and quality have shifted," Vella said. "There are more smaller, downloadable game, but there are also more great smaller, downloadable games. Transistor at $20? No one even thinks twice. And $20 used to be like, 'No way an independent game can be $20. That's crazy!' And now it's pretty common, pretty accepted, pretty comfortable. And deservedly so."
Nathan Vella will be giving the Indie keynote address at this year's Develop Conference in Brighton.