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Indie tides start turning | 10 Years Ago This Month

Microsoft leaves the door open for Sony to take command in the evolving indie space and mobile free-to-play cements itself as a wedge issue among developers

The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, GamesIndustry.biz runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.

Indispensable indies

At the risk of generalizing, indie developers often feel unappreciated. Not just because discovery is a nightmare and their success seems to depend on a nebulous combination of connections and luck much moreso than the quality of their work, but because even when they succeed, the platforms who reap the benefit of that success often don't seem to care.

Take Microsoft, for instance. Upon the Xbox 360's 2005 launch, Xbox Live Arcade was a somewhat unexpected success and, thanks to early hits like Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved and Outpost Kaloki X, quickly became known as a place where games from small teams could reach a mainstream market.

It wasn't perfect, obviously. There were still plenty of platform-holder restrictions like file-size limits and Microsoft's initial insistence on limiting the number of titles that could release on the service any given week. But there were vanishingly few opportunities for indies making core games to get widespread attention in the mid-2000s. Steam only added its first non-Valve game the month before the Xbox 360 launched and kept a tight control over what would appear on the platform for years.

So for a time, the Xbox 360 was the ideal place for indies to launch, a "nice work if you can get it" opportunity that was as close to guaranteeing success upon release as a small developer could get. In 2008, the Xbox 360 release of Braid became a breakthrough reference point for indie success, and there was even some optimism around the newly announced Xbox Live Community Games (which would later be rebranded to Xbox Live Indie Games), a vastly more open portion of the Xbox Live Marketplace where indies using Microsoft's XNA tools could self-publish games without having to worry about pesky irritants like "stringent quality control" or "Microsoft promoting your game or the place where people can buy it."

Braid

Braid

But as with any gold rush, the success of the early movers and the idea of easy money (or easier money, at least) attracted plenty more people, which meant more competition for those slots on the service. Microsoft started releasing more titles into Xbox Live Arcade, which reduced the importance and spotlight any individual title received just for making it onto the platform. And because the competition for those slots increased far more than the number of slots themselves, that pushed up the requisite production values and budgets required to convince the platform holder a game was worthy of the space.

By 2009, developers like Team17 and Hello Games were already grousing about how much harder it was to succeed on Xbox Live Arcade.

Sony was no doubt well aware of the growing discontent among indies and saw an opportunity to capitalize on it. Given the calamitous start to the PlayStation 3 era, it needed to look for opportunities to differentiate itself from Microsoft, and being better for indies was one good way to do that. So in 2009, it launched the Indie Pub Fund, which would match the development budget of indie games in exchange for limited exclusivity on PlayStation platforms, with developers retaining IP rights. Pub Fund would be responsible for bringing games like N++, Axiom Verge, Towerfall Ascension, Guacamelee, and more to Sony platforms.

By the time October of 2011 came around -- this might be a record for the longest we've gone in a 10 Years Ago This Month column before talking about 10 years ago this month -- the shift away from the Xbox 360 was clear.

There were only a handful of indie developers well-known enough to have their name in a headline at the time, and 2D Boy's Ron Carmel was one of them. The World of Goo developer posted results on his blog from a handful of surveys of indie developers about which platforms they were making games for and planning to make games for.

A chart from Ron Carmel's 2011 blog post

A chart from Ron Carmel's 2011 blog post

"As you can see, in 2008-2009 Microsoft had more developers making games for XBLA than Sony had for PSN," Carmel said. "The gap narrowed in 2010, and this year more of these developers are making PSN games than XBLA games. Next year, the number of games this group makes for XBLA will drop again, and PSN's lead will widen as the number of developers making PSN games rise to double what it was in 2008-2009."

Perhaps more concerning for Microsoft was Carmel's assertion that the developers he surveyed were more successful on average than the typical indie on XBLA, including developers behind three of the top five selling games on the service.

The original GamesIndustry.biz article on Carmel's survey says those findings "might seem strange in the face of one of XBLA's most critically and commercially successful periods, which gave rise to From Dust, Bastion and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet," but adds that the commenters on Carmel's blog post (which no longer appears to be up, simply forwarding to the 2D Boy home page) are almost entirely supportive of his findings.

Eufloria

Eufloria

Days later, Eufloria developer Rudolf Kremers was expressing similar sentiments, saying it was "impossible" for a developer in his position to afford self-publishing on the Xbox 360 with Microsoft insisting on the game having multiplayer features and the developer using the platform holder's own QA team. Microsoft's comment at the time didn't address those requirements, instead pointing to Xbox Live Indie Games as the place for developers who didn't want to comply with its requirements.

Yes, the same Xbox Live Indie Games was hailed as "one of the worst markets you can use to publish your game" by developers who used it, and the same Xbox Live Indie Games that Microsoft had once tried to hide away in a "Specialty Shops" corner of the Xbox Live Marketplace that was home to so many neglected offerings like Avatar customization items and the ersatz arcade Game Room that a developer likened it to an episode of the VH-1 show Where Are They Now?

Between 2011 and the end of the PS3 generation, indies would give Sony a strong lineup of commercially and/or critically successful games that were either exclusive to Sony platforms or made them their first console stop, including Journey, Hotline Miami, Thomas Was Alone, Sound Shapes, Guacamelee, The Unfinished Swan, Luftrausers, Papo & Yo, Divekick, and Proteus.

Hotline Miami

Hotline Miami

Sony was aggressively pitching itself on being indie friendly. When it announced the PS4, it devoted a section of the event to The Witness, the next game from Braid developer Jonathan Blow. It was arguably the biggest spotlight a platform holder had ever given an indie developer.

Several months later at E3 2013, Sony did it again, devoting a segment of the show to modestly in-depth looks at a lineup of eight exclusive indie titles including Don't Starve, Mercenary Kings, Octodad, Secret Ponchos, Ray's the Dead, Outlast, Oddworld: New n' Tasty, and Galak-Z. It was a step above the standard sizzle reel with blink-and-you-miss-it glimpses of games.

At the same time in 2013, Microsoft was stepping up its own indie pitches with the unveiling of ID@Xbox, which represented a significantly more indie-friendly approach than its previous position by giving out free dev kits and not charging developers to update their games, but the platform holder couldn't completely give up on the control it had grown used to. One particular pain point was ID@Xbox's parity clause, which meant games in the program couldn't arrive on other platforms first and then be ported to Xbox One.

Don't Starve

Don't Starve

"It's problematic for the indie scene at large," Vlambeer's Rami Ismail said at the time. "Having this tilted contract where Sony allows you to launch wherever, and Microsoft only allows you to launch at the same time is problematic for indies who say, 'well Sony has the better deal but I want to launch on both platforms. So we're going to go with the Microsoft deal.' That's problematic because it will essentially force Sony to do the same in return. Well, as indies we should be fighting to get everybody the best deal."

Microsoft's Phil Spencer defended the requirement as necessary to make Xbox "to feel like it is a first-class citizen" with indie games instead of an afterthought. That approach led to Boneloaf's streaming-friendly hit Gang Beasts arriving on Xbox One in 2019 -- a year and a half after PS4 -- which I'm sure did wonders for making the Xbox One feel like a first-class citizen.

Indies would play a prominent role in the beginning of the PS4-Xbox One generation, as Sony's lineup of AAA blockbusters was thin early on. The PS4 launched with AAA exclusives like Killzone and Knack, both of which largely underwhelmed reviewers. But the Defender-like Resogun from Sony's established indie partner Housemarque was a bright spot at launch. And while I don't personally agree with the sentiment, Resogun did well enough that in Wired's six-month progress report on the PS5 this year, it retrospectively listed Resogun as a launch system seller alongside Super Mario 64, Halo: Combat Evolved, Wii Sports, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Hohokum

Hohokum

While new PS4 owners waited for the blockbusters that eventually became the system's signature, they tided themselves over with first-year console-exclusive indies some of the aforementioned games from the E3 showcase, Hohokum, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, Towerfall Ascension, Transistor, Velocity 2X, Sportsfriends, and Rogue Legacy.

Over on Xbox One, the AAA exclusives launch were a bit more generous. Dead Rising 3, Forza Motorsport 5, Killer Instinct, and Ryse: Son of Rome constitute a clearly superior launch lineup (in my estimation at least), and PS4's remaining big exclusives from year one (a re-release of PS3's The Last of Us, Infamous: Second Son, and Driveclub) likewise pale in comparison to the Xbox One's lineup (Titanfall, Forza Horizon 2, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, and Sunset Overdrive).

Despite that, the PS4 handily outsold the Xbox One in that first year or so after launch. It wasn't long before Microsoft stopped reporting console hardware sales entirely, saying it was more focused on engagement as a metric but really just making it clear the numbers were never going to look rosy next to Sony's.

I'm not suggesting that indies tipped the console war to Sony entirely on their own. Microsoft racked up enough self-inflicted wounds to seriously hurt Xbox One's chances of success before it even launched. But Sony had clearly made friends in the indie community with its outreach and support over the years of the previous generation, and that paid off in a big way by giving PS4 owners something to play before Bloodborne arrived a year and a half into the system's lifespan.

In the midst of Sony's indie love-in in 2014, I interviewed Sony Worldwide Studios America software product development head Scott Rohde about the company's approach, and what was going to stop Microsoft or Nintendo from copying it and taking away that advantage with indies.

"Sure, it could be replicated by someone else, but it can't be replicated in a corporate-style way," Rohde said. "It's not something you put on your business plan and say 'Let's go make this happen.' It's because the people--Shahid [Kamal Ahmad], Adam Boyes, Nick Suttner, Brian Silva, myself, Shu Yoshida--there's a genuine love there, and people feel that."

In the interest of disclosure here, I'll note that Suttner is a personal friend from before either of us were in any way relevant in the industry and someone I probably can't be objective about. But anecdotally, I -- and I suspect anyone who interviewed indies working with Sony in those days -- heard no shortage of unprompted affection and admiration from indies about that developer relations team and those people specifically.

"Sony no longer even runs an E3 conference, and if it did, it's unclear if it would dedicate large portions of it to indie titles"

But in the decade since, Ahmad, Boyes, Suttner, and Silva have moved on. Sony no longer even runs an E3 conference, and if it did, it's unclear if it would dedicate large portions of it to indie titles like The Witness or No Man's Sky. Its last E3 conference in 2018 was dedicated overwhelmingly to just four games: Death Stranding, Ghost of Tsushima, Spider-Man, and The Last of Us Part 2.

The company has leaned into its blockbuster AAA success like never before, and the love from indies has been a bit lacking of late. Like in June when a handful of developers vented their frustrations over poor communication and restrictive rules around featuring games and lack of control over running discount promotions.

So who's the indie darling now? Despite years of efforts with ID@Xbox, Microsoft was still a deeply unpopular option for indie developers as recently as 2018. In the same survey, Nintendo was overwhelmingly a favorite, likely benefitting from early returns and good word of mouth from devs who made it onto the Switch near launch, but discoverability challenges have been a problem on the platform from very early on and the storefront hasn't changed much to address them.

All three console makers are doubtlessly easier for indie developers to begin working with now than they were a decade ago. But as the disgruntled PlayStation indies this year showed, the expectations for what they can do on these platforms have changed greatly as well, and simply letting indie games in the door doesn't cut it any longer. But for the first time in a while, if you were to ask me which console has the indies in its corner, I don't think I could give you anything approaching a clear-cut answer.

Mobile and free-to-play polarization

We've already talked about apprehension around the mobile and social gaming space in this column somewhat recently, so we won't dive too deeply here, but October of 2011 did underscore just how polarized people's views on mobile and free-to-play games were.

On the one hand, Minecraft developer Marcus "Notch" Persson did not mince words on the subject, saying "The idea is to find a model where there basically is no cap on how much the player can spend, then try to encourage players to spend more and more money. Various psychological traps like abusing the sense of sunk costs get exploited, and eventually you end up with a game that's designed more like a slot machine than Half-Life 2."

Rockstar's Dan Houser was similarly unimpressed by what he'd seen, telling Famitsu, "This is my personal opinion, but I think a lot of people in the general mobile industry are more focused on making money than making good products... Focusing on nothing but business is depressing to me; it's boring. I want people to understand that we make games for more than just to make money."

Spicy takes, but Houser was partly responsible for the 800-pound gorilla Grand Theft Auto franchise, and Persson was an indie developer with a breakout hit on his hands that would soon be worth billions. Surely other people with less financial security would be more measured with their assessments?

"So stupid. They're not fun at all"

CyberConnect2 CEO Hiroshi Matusyama on social and mobile games

Maybe not, if you go by CyberConnect2 CEO Hiroshi Matusyama's interview with Gamasutra in which he decried social and mobile games as largely "junk" and "rubbish." He particularly took issue with Gundam Royale and Kaito Royale.

"So stupid," he said. "They're not fun at all. But, I have to play it. The reality is that it has over 3 million users, and it's true that they're making money."

At the same time, there were plenty of people from the traditional side of the games industry that saw potential in the fields, even if some of their fans and employees had borderline allergic reactions to the concept.

Bungie was taking cautious steps into mobile with its Bungie Aerospace initiative, while BioWare's Ray Muzyka said mobile was basically the future.

"Mobile's going to be one of the dominant platforms going forward," he said. "It's going to be right up there with anything else -- it already is in a sense. In terms of dollar share, maybe not yet, but we're just starting down the hill on free-to-play on mobile devices. That's a big thing right now. So yeah, we take mobile pretty seriously."

Blizzard said it was simply investigating the possibilities in mobile, laying down the groundwork for a smooth expansion into that market without causing an angry uprising from its fanbase. That plan would come together perfectly a year and a half later with the debut of Hearthstone, but also somehow implode spectacularly seven years later with the announcement of Diablo Immortal.

Mobile gaming has come a long way and core gaming experiences like PUBG and Fortnite have likely done wonders to improve the perception of the market in core gamers' eyes, but many of the qualities critics complained about in the first place -- that the games are designed around unlimited player spending and psychologically manipulate players in the way casinos do -- are not only still around but have actually become entrenched in the console and PC markets as well.

Odds n' Ends

Just a few fun facts to give you a backdrop for the industry circa October 2011:

  • EA shipped Battlefield on the Xbox 360 with an option for lower-resolution assets because in 2005, Microsoft launched the Xbox 360 in packages with and without a hard drive. While a vanishingly small portion of the Xbox 360 user base lacked a hard drive (especially by late 2011), developers still had to ensure their games could run on those systems.
  • Sony confirmed that downloadable Vita games would release day-and-date with retail from the very start, making it the first console or handheld to launch with that policy.
  • I was considering qualifying the above distinction as "the first major console or handheld" just in case someone pointed out some obscure platform I had overlooked, but then I'd have to defend Vita as a "major" system, so now we're just letting it ride.
  • Sony announced a Vita launch date of February 22 in Europe and North America, and in an odd twist I can't recall happening before or since, it offered a pricier "First Edition" bundle that would release a week early. Perhaps I should have taken it as a sign when those early bundles didn't sell out right away and most of the people I spoke with seemed unaware they even existed.
  • Rockstar Games formally announced Grand Theft Auto V, which is somehow now its most anticipated release of 2022.

Good Call, Bad Call

GOOD CALL: Original Diablo designer and Gazillion Entertainment president David Brevik was one of the people correctly predicting how the emergence of mobile would impact consoles, saying, "Being able to access the same game from anywhere is really compelling. I can be on a car journey and, say, check on auctions, or interact in some way because I've taken this trip a zillion times. It's that new horizon... The console companies understand this, and they're going to have to change. They know that."

BAD CALL: Brevik was also one of the people predicting the Diablo 3 real-money auction house would go swell, saying, "Gamers are a little bit aghast by this, but everybody knows these are the same people that went and bought the [Diablo 2 item Stone of Jordan] on eBay. At first people are going to be a little, 'Oh my God! They're draining us of our money!' But it'll turn out that they're not draining you. It'll take a little while to sink in, but it will."

The auction house launched in June of 2012. Blizzard announced plans to scrap it a little over a year later.

BAD CALL: EA Sports executive (and future EA CEO) Andrew Wilson talked a big game about the company's big sports games in this interview with us, saying, "our focus is football, and American football, and golf, and hockey, and absolutely basketball -- we are investing big there to come out with a bang next year."

That bang was more like a poof of smoke as NBA Live was cancelled in 2012, making it three straight years that EA failed to ship an entry in its annualized hoops series. It would snap that streak the next year with the launch of NBA Live 14, a game it publicly apologized for three days after release.

NBA Live was also benched in 2016, 2019, 2020, and 2021, although EA insisted this summer it is working on "next-generation HD basketball projects," so maybe we can pencil it in for PS6 and Xbox Whatever Terrible Name Microsoft Comes Up With.

Financially, EA's done very well in the last decade largely because of its sports games and their loot box Ultimate Team modes, but its investments in basketball have had an astonishingly poor return.

BAD CALL: Gabe Newell gets a two-for-one bad call in here, saying, "I suspect that Apple will launch a living room product that redefines people's expectations really strongly, and the notion of a separate console platform will disappear concurrent with Apple's announcement."

With all due respect to Apple TV, not only did Apple not release such a product, but the resulting end of consoles -- a long-time favorite Bad Call second only to "We've finally crossed the uncanny valley" -- has not come to pass.

BAD CALL: Unity Technologies co-founder Nicholas Francis was curiously skeptical of developers' demands for more power, predicting the mobile tech arms race would slow down because creators wouldn't know what to do with all that power.

"Having something that's much more powerful than an Xbox in my cellphone? What am I going to do with that? It's a small screen, I'm playing on the bus, everything is shaking, there's light coming in," he said. "With mobile, I can see a point in making them two or four times as powerful, but after that it's diminishing returns."

Apple had launched the 4S a few days before that story ran. It rolled out the twice-as-powerful iPhone 5 in 2012, and the iPhone 6 was billed as twice as powerful as that upon its launch in 2014. According to Geekbench multi-core benchmark tests, the iPhone 13 Pro Apple released last month is about nine and a half times faster than the iPhone 4S.

The pace of processor improvements has indeed slowed in recent years, but the need for that power and the demand for more remains, both from the developers of the games and the makers of the operating systems on which they run. Francis wasn't sure what the point would be of a phone more powerful than the iPhone 6, but games like Genshin Impact recommend an iPhone 8 Plus at minimum.

Oh, and because something was apparently going around that month, Francis also predicted that consoles will survive for one more generation (which would have been the Wii U/Xbox One/PS4 generation), "and then that will be it."

BAD CALL: At BlizzCon, Blizzard aired a video with Cannibal Corpse's George Fisher talking about World of Warcraft's Alliance faction and using (bleeped out) homophobic slurs, something Blizzard president Mike Morhaime would later apologize for.

"We realise now that having even an edited version at the show was counter to the standards we try to maintain in our forums and in our games. Doing so was an error in judgement, and we regret it," Morhaime said. "The bottom line is we deeply apologise for our mistakes and for hurting or offending anyone. We want you to have fun at our events, and we want everyone to feel welcome."

In case you were wondering whether Blizzard learned from this mistake and prevented any kind of unpleasantness from marring BlizzCon ever again, it did not.

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