A rumour has recently sprung up proclaiming that Microsoft will likely be allowing, to a certain extent, self-publishing on its console. As far as I can tell, it is still firmly in the ‘discussion’ stage, with no certain deadline as to when we might hear one way or another, but while we wait for the ‘yay’ or ‘nay,’ perhaps it would be wise to reiterate just why Microsoft really needs to allow self-publishing… and, unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the hardcore gaming market.
Don’t get me wrong, we gamers stand to benefit as well, but if Yusuf Mehdi’s confident prediction that going ‘broader’ than a game console will increase the number of units moved, or Xbox MVP’s Marques Lyons’ insistence that small business owners could absolutely use the device as a conference and networking tool, it does look like Microsoft is doing to the Xbox One what EA did to Dead Space 3. In other words, trying to redesign it from the ground up so that it can appeal to people who might not have looked twice at its predecessors.
Now, whether or not this actually succeeds is certainly debatable. Despite Microsoft insisting that this is an all-in-one multimedia box, it is somewhat unlikely the average consumer is going to look at it as anything but a game console for the first handful of years, if only because of its pedigree. In addition, by trying to compete as an all-in-one multimedia box, it is essentially declaring capitalistic war on the makers of other multimedia devices and SmartTVs, who aren`t going to make it easy for Microsoft to establish dominance in their market. I’m not even mentioning the other multimedia, game playing, all-in-one box, also known as a ‘PC.’
However, let’s assume for the sake of argument that Microsoft succeeds in expanding the Xbox One’s install base to a market that doesn’t consider itself your traditional gaming crowd. Let’s be equally zany and say that the number of TV-loving adopters is so large, it rivals size of the gamer base.
Now, should a large number of people purchase it without the intention of ever buying a disc-based or sixty-dollar title that doesn’t include the word ‘Kinect’ or ‘Dance’ somewhere in the name, then indie games have the potential to tap into a truly vast market.
Indie games could offer the same thing that has given mobile games such broad appeal; a potentially unique and enjoyable experience, with a very reasonable price tag to go along with it. Such titles as Journey or Eufloria offer a kind of experience that major productions simply cannot fit in, especially considering more than a few of the larger publishers want multi-million dollar sales or bust; a quirky, sci-fi/flower petal strategy game really isn’t going to mean blockbuster sales. Even side-scrollers such as Castle Crashers, or cheaper third-person shooter Steam games like God Mode, (which, no, is not coming to consoles as far as I know,) have the potential to reach markets that simply have no interest in the next blockbuster Halo game.
Of course, one advantage mobile games have had it, well, mobility, and as a result indie games are unlikely to reach quite that level of broad appeal. However, with Microsoft seeking to make the console the ‘center of the living room,’ it would give the average consumer more exposure, and easier access, to such games, without even needing to take that first step of installing Steam. They can even function as gateway titles, slowly but surely ‘converting’ TV-lovers into game lovers, which could someday result in them expanding their purchases to include innovative AAA titles.
Though, once again, this is assuming their gamble pays off in the first place.
On the other hand, a company looking at its bottom line might consider the above just as poignant a reason to keep their policies exactly as they are, to better profit off what could prove to be a bountiful market. After all, these policies have served Microsoft and publishers very well in the short term, because they ensure independent developers do not become, well, too independent.
An indie developer wishing to have their game sold on XBLA must sign up with a disc-based publisher, so that they can use one of the publisher’s ‘slots’ to sell their game. These slots are given to the publishers by Microsoft, and essentially represent the only means an indie dev has to ‘get their game out there’ on the Xbox, short of throwing it into the Indie section and watching it get swallowed up by dating simulators. Securing a deal with these publishers, according to some, can take months, requiring lots of phone tag, looking over paperwork, and trying to hash out the nitty gritty details while fighting back the inevitable onslaught of bureaucratic madness. Even worse, some publishers will not sign you on unless you agree to make them your publisher across all platforms, meaning they would get a cut of your revenue on every platform your game was sold. Every publisher will also insist on getting to decide exactly when your game is released on the XBLA, taking even that decision out of your hands entirely.
In the event you cannot work something out with a publisher, then you have the option to sign on with Microsoft directly. This ensures that Microsoft takes both a publisher and a platform cut from your revenue, and they will usually include a period of timed exclusivity for the platform, meaning that for however long is specified you absolutely cannot release your game anywhere else.
So, immediate and noticeable profit for all involved, particularly for the main publishers, as they stand to directly benefit from any success the indie market has in the future, all while risking very little. Why then should Microsoft give up the golden goose? It worked fine during the current generation!
Well, unfortunately for them, it really didn’t, as it has put them at a considerable disadvantage going forward. The PS4 will not have the same Rubix Cube of a processor that its predecessor did, meaning that Microsoft’s platform will no longer be the easiest system to work with. Several developers have already made it abundantly clear that they will not be releasing their games on the Xbox One until such a time as the policy is revoked, only adding to the storm cloud of negative PR that’s buzzed around the console.
Sony, on the other hand, is aggressively courting a number of indie devs, which includes loaning dev kits to developers who cannot afford to pay for them. Indeed, they even intend to provide certain development schools their very own PS4 dev kits, as part of an Academic Development Programme that would allow students of game development an early chance to work with the tools.
Microsoft’s competition is building a solid foundation with which it can gain a lot of ground in the years ahead, and unless the Xbox One further loosens its restrictions to remain competitive, it stands a very good chance of being left behind. Even Microsoft’s most recent outreach to indie developers, its partnership with Unity, was something already accomplished by both Nintendo and Sony months earlier.
Sony spent the past generation dragging their way back to parity after arrogance and self-assurance crippled them at the beginning of the PS3′s generation. The Cell processor was an embodiment of that, because rather than work with the third-party developers who would be producing the bulk of their content, they simply decided these devs would Deal With It and work with what Sony gave them. This move proved disastrous as many cross-platforms functioned far better on their rival’s more accessible hardware. The price was another, as Sony famously expected people would ‘Get a second job’ to acquire the hardware.
But, though they may have learned rather slowly, Sony has indeed learned, and has no doubt spent years working out exactly how to get off on the right foot this time. The PS+ program allowed them to insert pay-to-play multiplayer with a minimum of fuss by incorporating the subscription more than a year earlier, and Sony is being very careful not to make the same mistakes… mistakes that Microsoft’s come close to making itself.
If Microsoft is counting on their Xbox brand, and their previous success with the 360 to translate to success with the Xbox One, they should remember that the Playstation 2 still has the highest number of sold consoles in history, and that didn’t save the Playstation 3 from an initial flop. If they expect smaller developers to simply flock to their platform when there are more profitable, and more open alternatives, then they might be in for a nasty shock.
Microsoft may be competitive as a multimedia tool, but so was the PS3, with its Blu-Ray player and no paywall placed around video streaming services. If the Xbox One wants to succeed, it needs to become considerably more competitive as a gaming console, because it does not have many of the 360′s advantages anymore; early Call of Duty DLC will only get it so far, and Halo will only be a major selling point to existing fans of the series. For those with no experience with, or interest in, such titles, Microsoft will need an extensive and varied library to draw them in instead, and it’s not something that large publishers will be able to guarantee.
Finally, if you think that I’ve been exaggerating on how Microsoft’s current policies restrict indie developers, then I encourage you to view the video on Gamasutra below; while there are tidbits comparing releasing on XBLA compared to other platforms throughout the video, the most startling illustration can be found around 33 minutes in, when the developer provides a series of graphs comparing both the reward, and the cost of releasing on the various platforms.
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This article was first posted on July 21, 2013