Reaction: Development for The Masses
Posted by Ken Barnes
Self-publishing is the way forward.
Microsoft has announced that indie developers will be able to self-publish their games on Xbox One. Not only that, but they’ll be able to use their standard retail Xbox One as a debug device on which to develop and test their creations before releasing them to the wider world.
To people who only ever purchase blockbuster titles, that won’t mean a great deal – at this stage at least. To everyone else who enjoys gaming in all of its forms though, the significance of self-publishing can’t possibly be overstated.
In short, it means that you can create a game for the Xbox One all on your own and then release it for sale to the world without needing to sign a contract with a publisher. A contract that - if history is anything to go by - would see you signing over a not-insignificant percentage of your game’s potential profits. That’s if you actually manage to land a contract of course, in what is a ridiculously competitive marketplace. The self-publishing model is in place elsewhere of course. PC games can be built and released via various channels without a publisher, as can iOS and Android titles, with the latter also being self-publishable to the lounge via the Ouya console.
The current iteration of Microsoft’s Xbox Live Indie Games service works in a similar fashion. You build a title using the XNA software, then pay an annual fee of $99 to Microsoft in order to submit up to ten games. The titles are peer reviewed to ensure that they work correctly and if they pass, you can charge 80, 240, or 400 MSP for your game. The XNA Studio Connect app essentially turns your Xbox 360 into a somewhat-limited debug station, so no extra hardware is required.
So if that’s the case, what’s different with the Xbox One? Why the big fuss?
The main cause for the hoo-hah, is that Microsoft previously stated that you most definitely would NOT be able to self-publish on Xbox One. That caused all manner of indie game developers and rubberneckers to start laying scorn on the platform holder, telling tales of how the big corporation was trying to stifle creativity and take massive chunks of profit from independent developers that would now have to sign publishing contracts with them in order to bring their game to market. This is – as we’re getting more and more used to – a complete reversal.
On top of that, in the current generation, it doesn’t matter how sharp you are at using XNA, you’re going to be severely hampered when it comes to putting things such as network-enabled features in place unless you have an actual “Debug” Xbox 360 device with access to the ring-fenced “PartnerNet” iteration of Xbox Live to hand. You don’t get a debug unit without being a part of a big-time development team or publisher, or one of the selected members of the press that is allowed one for preview puposes. So without a publisher, it just isn’t happening. Microsoft’s Marc Whitten has said that the company has taken note of this, and fixed the issue by rethinking the way in which things are done. “The fact that indie devs couldn't get access to the Live services was because of the fact that it was PartnerNet, it was dev kits. We had to go back and re-architect those systems to be in a position where we thought we could do this right.”
We’re guessing that indie developers will be able to access Xbox Live features in the development environment, right from their standard Xbox One console. Being able to access the entire feature set of the target machine is a massive, massive deal when it comes to software development. It removes so many of the hassles and so much of the second-guessing, that more time can be spent applying polish to the product as a whole.
Most importantly though, is the acknowledgement that the approach taken by Microsoft to promoting Xbox Live Indie Games was nothing short of a half-assed mess. The fact that most people still don’t know where to find XBLIG on the dashboard means that developers are losing out on sales. There’s next to no promotion of the service anywhere. The lack of any real fiscal remuneration means that a lot of XBLIG developers treat the task as a hobby, rather than an actual way of making serious money. This leads to undercooked products that generally aren’t worth even 80MSP. There are highlights, sure, but they’re few and far between. Some developers have reported sales in single digits, when even the absolute worst Xbox Live Arcade titles shift hundreds of copies.
Again, Microsoft seems to have taken note of that, with Phil Spencer confirming that all games – retail, XBLA, and indie – will be available in the same place on Xbox Live, rather than having the indie game section hidden out at the back of the shop somewhere. Spencer said: “Today I think people think of that indie section of the Marketplace as something that's restrictive, like you're segregated out. In the future think of it as there's one store, and maybe there's an indie pivot, but that's additive to the experience.”
As to how that “pivot” will be promoted in the overall scheme of things, we don’t know, but more details are due to be announced at Gamescom in August.
Sony know that self-publishing is an easy way to win people over, as they’ve announced that indies will be able to self-publish on the PS4, although there aren’t any firm details about whether or not development kits or licences will be required for that machine as yet. Either way, the next generation of game developers could get their start on either of the big two, much as was the case back in the 1980s where the “bedroom programmer” could learn the building blocks of coding games back on the Commodore 64 or Atari ST. Back then, they had the ability to create games without purchasing expensive development kits, but still needed some way of promoting, duplicating, and selling their game in order to make any money. That’s where the publishers usually stepped in and unless you had a decent pitch, they weren’t going to sign you up. In the next generation, no pitching is required, and a large chunk of that outlay that is required in order to get a game to market will have been removed. Buy an Xbox One and you’ll have the ability to make a game for it. Buy some sort of subscription – the details of which are yet to be confirmed – and you’ll be able to sell it in the same way that Activision can sell an XBLA movie tie-in.
As long as we also get some way of filtering out the dross – just look at the Android and iOS stores and you’ll see why this is required – indie games are likely to be a great driver for the Xbox One. The likelihood of seeing more adventurous titles such as Braid, Fez, Castle Crashers, Limbo, and Super Meat Boy has increased significantly in the last 24 hours.
The fact that this is undoubtedly a good thing is something that we can all agree on.