Shutting out the indies is a big mistake for Xbox One

Indie games aren't just an artistic niche - this is where the industry's creative and commercial future will be written

Since Microsoft's unveiling of Xbox One earlier this week, the company and its shiny new device have been subjected to a number of different criticisms - some of which are a bit silly ("the name sucks!"), some of which deny the basic realities of the industry ("but I don't want a console that does anything except games!") but the majority of which are reasonable criticisms that will need to be addressed by deeds, not words, in the coming months.

"While Sony is making efforts to knock down the walls around its garden, Microsoft is hiring new bouncers and re-grouting the brickwork"

One topic in particular stands out, because it's become the subject of some slightly bitter argument within the industry and its associated commentators. In contrast with Sony's highly developer-focused approach with PS4, Microsoft made no mention of indie or self-published titles during the Xbox One reveal, and in subsequent interviews confirmed that it's going to remove the Xbox Live Arcade and Xbox Live Indie Games channels from the new consoles. Furthermore, it's not going to allow any form of self-publishing on Xbox One; instead, it's planning to work with publishing partners in the same way it always has.

In short, while Sony is making efforts to step back from its role as gatekeeper and knock down the walls around its garden (although it will no doubt still wish to maintain a quality control role), Microsoft is hiring new bouncers and re-grouting the brickwork. It's an approach that runs contrary to the general trend in the industry, where strict curation is very much out of fashion; even Nintendo, usually the slowest of the platform holders to acknowledge wider cultural change in the industry, is now paying lip service to the notion of letting developers have more freedom on its platforms.

The counter to this, which I've seen expressed with varying degrees of force and occasional rudeness in the past few days, is that the sort of indie games that amount from opening up a platform are largely irrelevant. Most of the indie titles on the App Store or similar platforms are rubbish (that's undeniable, though the rubbish titles quickly sink to the bottom of the heap and are never heard from again), and the minority that are interesting are really only of interest to a niche audience of soi-disant game connoisseurs. The implication is that there's a slightly snobby hipster audience for this kind of game, but that their sense of self-importance is eclipsing the fact that what Real People actually want is exactly what Microsoft showed - FIFA and Call of Duty.

It's a disingenuous argument, loaded with an ad-hominem sentiment about critics and indie game fans being disconnected from an audience that's in some manner more Real than they are and swaddled in the sadly populist notion that liking non-mainstream things makes you an aloof "elitist". Still, that's how debate is conducted on the internet and I'm probably guilty of worse at times myself - so instead, let's address the nugget of truth at the core of the argument. FIFA sells a bucketload of copies, as does Madden NFL. Call of Duty sells so many bucketloads that you're definitely going to need more buckets. Isn't indie stuff really just a sideshow - an irrelevance that the press likes to get excited about?

"The flaw lies in the thinking which assumes that audiences are so easily shoved into pigeon holes. We're all more complex than that"

Helpfully, ironically, Microsoft provided the answer to that question in its own Xbox One presentation. In fact, it introduced the answer to that question in reverential tones, in a beat which was clearly meant to be one of the high points of the presentation.

The answer to that question is Steven Spielberg.

To be more accurate, the answer to that question is the generation of movie directors to which Spielberg belongs. Born during or just after the Second World War and coming to prominence in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, the "New Hollywood" generation spans the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Terence Malick, George Lucas and yes, Steven Spielberg. They're a generation of directors who redefined what movies were and what Hollywood did - the language it used and the ways it engaged with its audiences. They're also, it bears noting, a collection of the most commercially successful and wealthy creators of entertainment in history.

The New Hollywood generation came about because of two major movements. The first was film school. Most of these directors studied at film school, picking up on the emerging theoretical basis for film, criticising and analysing the work of earlier directors and engaging with the work of avant garde creators and foreign directors whose work had previously been obscure and unknown in the Anglophone world. The second movement that gave the New Hollywood generation a chance to change the world was a technological one. Their early experimentation with movie-making was made possible by the tumbling price and accessibility of 8mm cameras and film stock, while the rapid rise of television also gave many of them a chance to reach wide audiences without having to take the huge financial gamble of theatrical distribution. Spielberg himself made his early movies, including cult classic Duel, for TV rather than for theatres.

The parallels are relatively clear, I think. The New Hollywood directors were the generation who used technological progress to allow them to experiment with ideas that came from emerging critical theory and a wide swathe of international and niche influences, then used the shifting market itself to allow them to reach wide audiences with their work. This is the kind of exciting generation of creators that video games has been incubating in recent years. We're at the cusp of seeing the emergence of the first generation of creators who have spoken fluently in the visual and interactive language of gaming since childhood; enabled by the accessibility of creative tools, inspired by the slowly coalescing critical theory of games and aware of potential and possibility for this medium which others simply haven't tapped into.

Creatively, that's important. Commercially, that's absolutely vital. Remember that while Spielberg may have been engaged with a wide variety of niche interests which informed his work, his first full-budget theatrical feature was Jaws. George Lucas was obsessed with Akira Kurosawa's foreign-language historical epics, but without that obsession - and the experience of making cult classic THX 1138 - he'd never have made Star Wars. We're not just talking about a generation of creators who usurped the conventions of their artform to critical acclaim from snobby art types; we're talking about a generation of creators who usurped their artform to create the modern blockbuster, and whose bank accounts frequently run into billions.

"Were Microsoft a movie studio, 50 years ago it would have been telling Steven Spielberg to take his 8mm camera and go home"

Is that the destiny of indie game creators? For some of them, ultimately, probably, yes. This combination of interactivity, visual art, audio, narrative and myriad other factors, this frankenmedia, is a very young artform and one whose conventions and ideas will be usurped many times in the coming years. Often, this will only happen to rapt applause from a niche group (but then again, if you have enough great niche titles on your platform that adds up to a very successful platform overall), but on occasion it will create a break-out, genre-defying title that's also a blockbuster commercial success. Right now, Microsoft's strict approach to gate-keeping is effectively saying that they don't want the kind of people who make those games in its garden - or that it will only tolerate their presence once their game has already proved its commercial chops elsewhere.

Besides, in the rush to try to define the industry in terms of the niche audience of hipsters who like indie games stacked up against the teeming masses who just want football and man-shooters, we seem to have forgotten that those things aren't mutually exclusive. The biggest FIFA fan in my life, painfully addicted to Ultimate Team, was enraptured by Journey. One of the regulars in my Xbox Live parties for several iterations of Call of Duty was someone who not only loves arty, thoughtful indie titles, he actually made a critically acclaimed one. There's no cognitive dissonance to either of these people enjoying games from both sides of the divide; the flaw lies in the thinking which assumes that audiences are so easily shoved into pigeon holes. We're all more complex than that, every member of the audience a one-person niche who won't be wholly satisfied by the diet assigned to them by their emotionless assignation in a convenient demographic box.

In the end, though, the reason indie games actually matter, beyond any daft, invented culture war between "jocks" and "hipsters", is because this is where the break-out hits of the future - and the creative forces that drive the video games of the future - are going to come from. In the end, Microsoft's refusal to countenance a new business model for indie developers on its platform boils down to this; were Microsoft a movie studio, 50 years ago it would have been telling Steven Spielberg to take his 8mm camera and go home. You say "indie niche"; I say, "the future".

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Latest comments (28)

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development8 years ago
Well, that's a real shame. I was desperate to stop selling games by the million on mobile so I could swap to this and make a few more pence.
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Lee Walton Co-Founder & Art Director, No More Pie8 years ago
Best article I've ever read on this site. I'm a Fahey Fanboy (Fahnboy?) for life now....!

A few thoughts... maybe some suits at Microsoft have invested in Ouya and want it to succeed? Maybe Phil Harrison is "the inside man" on dismantling the Xbox domination? I seem to recall Harrison when at Sony, being a real advocate of embracing 3rd party developers (indies are simply this) to make a console successful. Xbox execs clearly want to move away from the indie market, they are comfortable for tablets, Ouya, GameStick, SteamBox and good old PCs etc to fight out the indie scene amongst themselves, while Xbox racks up sales at Walmart? Also- don't forget where most indie games are played... on a Windows PC. Win win for Microsoft, in terms of the big picture?

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Lee Walton on 24th May 2013 9:25am

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Isaac Kirby Studying Computer Games Development, University of Central Lancashire8 years ago
A very well thought out and argued article, thankyou.
I must agree wholeheartedly, Indie development may bea kind of "kiddie pool" of development, but it's from this "kiddie pool" you eventually get Olympic Athletes emerging.
It's where the unemployed can hone skills, develop close to heart projects, and hope to impress. A true cauldron of creativity fueled by a want to entertain, not (primarily) money to awe the Producers. Lucas originally planned Star Wars as a saturday morning Kids TV show, and developed into something more. Much of the Indie Scene can follow this route, some episodic/small content eventually being sold as a series/bundle. Or it impresses enough to get bigger players involved.
As a Student the Indie scene is where i can seem my side projects heading, and the news of X-One cutting it away is a shame, but i look to PS4, Steam, App Stores, and i hope here, my dreams take flight.
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Show all comments (28)
Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee8 years ago
Sorry guys...

One big mistake ^.^
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd8 years ago
Clinging to a policy so out of step with the way the world is moving is irrefutable proof that video streaming and advertising empty suits have taken over the project.

Indie games aren't a sideshow any more. Minecraft isn't a niche being played by chin-stroking hobbyists, it's the talk of the playground. The Xbox One (much like Windows Phone) is now doomed to be the follower, only ever picking up things that have been successful elsewhere after the masses have already played them.

It's certainly the kiss of death for Kinect. Mainstream games will continue to need to be cross-platform, and there will be no equivalents of J.S. Joust filling the void.
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Sam Brown Lead Audio Programmer, TT Games8 years ago
Well, at least you can get Kinect for PC as well, so there'll always be some indie development for it. Not letting those games reach the wider audience Xbox One hopes to reach is a bit silly though.

The more I read about Xbox One the more I have to ask, how have they got things this wrong? It's so wrong you can't help but wonder if there's something more to all of this that will suddenly become clear sometime before Christmas.

On the other hand Microsoft is capable, like all big companies, of getting it very wrong indeed. The original Xbox controller was mentioned on GI a day or two ago, and I remember being at the first UK Xbox dev con where they let us have a feel of it for the first time. I still remember the presenter's face gradually falling further and further as we each held it and proceeded to express our disappointment and concern. Now, that controller had been through and presumably passed a lot of focus testing and yet it hadn't produced a product that was fit for purpose and market. Has something similar happened this time?

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Sam Brown on 24th May 2013 12:17pm

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@sam , I too was excited to hear about the kinect for the pc, if for no other reason is that it may be a logical controller to go along with the Oculus Rift.

as far as the xbone, why bother getting one, I 'll just add "the clapper" to my cable box and save myself 400 bucks.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 24th May 2013 3:21pm

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Pier Castonguay Programmer 8 years ago
I've read the whole article and I don't understand it. What are the facts that make you say that they "shutting down the indies"? Why would it be different than the previous XBox? Why would Sony be any better? Seems like it's based on speculations.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Pier Castonguay on 24th May 2013 3:35pm

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Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital8 years ago
@ Pier: Sony and Nintendo will let you release anything on their platforms, provided that you meet certain quality criteria. Microsoft won't even bother turning you down. They don't care. They are after AAA (disc based AAA, as well as indie AAA), but a sleeper hit has zero chance to get to XBLA.
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Christopher Thigpen Lead Producer, Kiz Studios8 years ago
When greed is your drive, what would you expect from these out of touch Executives??
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Gary Lucero QA Analyst, Senior 8 years ago
Indie games are important, no doubt. But as someone who has bought many indie games on the Xbox 360 and has played few of them, I don't know if I want them on my TV set. I definitely want them on my Galaxy Nexus smartphone and on my Nexus 7 tablet, where games typically cost a dollar from indies and most publishers, and maybe ten or more from big publishers who want to try their luck. On the Xbox One though, do you really want thousands and thousands of games that cost a few bucks? Can't you just play the indies on your iPads, iPhones, PCs, and Macs? And on your PS4s and Wii Us I guess?
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Jim Perry Programmer, head geek of indie studio Mach X Games 8 years ago
"but a sleeper hit has zero chance to get to XBLA"

Not true. Ask James Silva, Dean Dodrill, and other indies that are on XBLA.
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Jim Perry Programmer, head geek of indie studio Mach X Games 8 years ago
A few clarifications, based on my understanding:

"in subsequent interviews confirmed that it's going to remove the Xbox Live Arcade and Xbox Live Indie Games channels from the new consoles." - yes, because all games are going to be lumped together. That doesn't mean XBLA and XBLIG games won't be on the new console.

"Furthermore, it's not going to allow any form of self-publishing on Xbox One; instead, it's planning to work with publishing partners in the same way it always has." - again, doesn't mean indies can't get on the new console. It could mean just what it says - XBLA and XBLIG games have to go through the current process in one way or another.

Why can't everyone just settle down until after E3 and possibly Build, when more info is given? :\ The more misinformation is spread based on quotes taken out of context and possibly misinterpreted the worse it's going to be for those indies that you're supposedly trying to help.
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Jim Perry Programmer, head geek of indie studio Mach X Games 8 years ago
"Since the Xbox One is nothing more than a DVR that can also play games"

And that's worse than the 360, how exactly? And why is the PS4 better?
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Nick Parker Consultant 8 years ago
Bruce has been very quiet over all of this.
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Robert Nzengou-Tayo Independent. 8 years ago
Jim, I get what you're saying, but the point is that this is the info that Microsoft has offered. They knew what their audience wanted to know at the reveal and decided to either sidestep them or give insufficient information. That's remarkably bad PR. So we're speculating as to why they figured that how they conducted their reveal was a better move than answering the pressing questions.

It does feel silly to get all worked up over this, but I'm a PC gamer all through, so this doesn't bother me much. I'm just curious to see if we're going to have a Dreamcast moment.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Robert Nzengou-Tayo on 24th May 2013 7:02pm

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Andy Payne Chair/founder, AppyNation8 years ago
As usual a great article from Rob.

Look on the bright side, you can never keep the real talent down, thankfully. With a really vibrant PC scene and an ever more crazy, mad and energised mobile scene, the talented games makers will rise like punk titans. Valve built a service called Steam and it is truly loved by gamers and games developers. Not just liked, but truly loved. Sony, Google. Amazon, Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Ouya, Gamestick, Nvdia and loads more will want to be loved. Not everyone can be, but just like real life it's a 2 way street, that love stuff.
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Wojciech Mroczek Brand Development Manager, Klabater8 years ago
I blame corporate inertia. It's not really a lack of vision that assures me of that. It's the fact that the vision that seems to emerge from Microsoft's announcements seems very random, misguided, and based on many false assumptions--all this is quite characteristic to overgrown corporate projects.

It's a shame, really. My wife got me a 360 for my 30th birthday and I've been a great fan of that console ever since. I think that technology-wise Microsoft is a bit ahead of Sony, and some of the things they achieved with the new Kinect are simply mindblowing. Still, I'm afraid it all be lost with the uninspired and random business model, no real support for markets outside US and UK, and the strange direction in targeting their marketing is taking. Right now, I'm leaning towards PS4 in the upcoming console generation. Indie support is a big factor in this as well.
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Axel Cushing Freelance Writer 8 years ago
It does feel silly to get all worked up over this, but I'm a PC gamer all through, so this doesn't bother me much. I'm just curious to see if we're going to have a Dreamcast moment.
Robert, it will be impossible for this to ever lead to a "Dreamcast moment." The Dreamcast was a genuinely awesome console.
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Cale Barnett Animator 8 years ago
So Minecraft on XBLA meant nothing to Microsoft???
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Adam Coate CEO & Founder, Coate Games8 years ago
Microsoft has lost sight of why they even exist today. It's all because Windows was an open platform that allowed many people to make great software to sell on it. If Microsoft tried this back in the day they wouldn't be around anymore. They are moronic.
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Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd8 years ago
@ Andrew it's already confirmed that none of those hundreds of XBLA games will be available on XB1. It is not backwards compatible at all. Tell your friends to rethink their purchase decision.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 8 years ago
The indy scene did not emerge, because working for big publishers on AAA titles was all sunshine. Kickstarter did not emerge (for games) because getting projects funded with publishers was easy.

Why would a monolith embodying big publishing like no other suddenly change that? Because of a few developers creating multi-platform titles? MS might buy what they think they need for an exclusive, but multiplatform independent developers are not attractive unless 10 million people pop up who buy nothing else from week to week.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 8 years ago
I've been hoping that Microsoft was going to make some big sweeping changes for their Indie games, starting with either getting rid of the patch fee or lowering it to something more reasonable like $100 or so. I also thought that the last 2 years would have clued them in that they need to do a better job at working with their Indie partners in promoting their games and giving them better release windows. But it looks like they may still be ignoring all of that. Maybe we'll hear something to the contrary in the future but Microsoft should keep their Indie game business growing, especially since they put so much effort into it during this gen.
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game8 years ago
I don't know the current situation, but last September, a MS evangelist indicated that XNA would be replaced on the new Xbox, with Windows 8 (i.e."Metro") apps. So it is possible still that the XBLIG channel will be swapped for the Windows 8 store, we know there is a Windows 8 layer used for Web browsing and Skype. This at least would allow use of C++, and Javascript, presumably, alongside C#.

But then this is yet another thing that wasn't clarified.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Andrew Goodchild on 26th May 2013 10:55pm

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Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me Up8 years ago
If true, I fully expect this will change along the way, much in the same way the Vita and Sony ended up capitulating to the industry trends in mobile for its survival. The big screen wont be off limits for long for mobile devs wishing to develop for the living room/bedroom. Some one will provide the solution and the others will have to soak it up.
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Shane Sweeney Academic 8 years ago
Well I bought an Xbox 360 for braid and castle crashes oh so many years ago.
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It could be also that, in the initial instance XB1 could wish to cultivate a curated selection of brands and titles to present a strong lineup. And once that is established to roll out a whole range of measures. And as such, without giving the game away, have choosen not to clarify this point?
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