So it’s begun, it really has. Due to bloated budgets in AAA development and the success of indie games costing a fraction to make has begun to have consoles take notice.
Microsoft arguably began this with their XNA development system and XBLIG publishing “free” platform however as we move towards the next generation, the signs of the war coming are about.
Microsoft acted first by .......well announcing they were stopping XNA development / progress and shutting down the XBLIG creators club system. So typical Microsoft doing something stupid then by the looks of it, I hope those Kinect games are worth cutting off your indie credentials for.
The other big two have come out fighting though. Nintendo pretty much hit first as while they have allowed developers to put out Wii Ware games, those never really brought any big hits and Nintendo think they have sorted the issues since then.
Firstly Nintendo have made a deal with Unity meaning from what I can gather developers don’t have to pay the commercial use costs of Unity if they make games released on the Wii U and Nintendo will pay for the liscence use from their share as such. Next they’ve got rid of what was seen as the big requirement, previously developers had to have an office or office space, normally rented or owned for their staff. Nintendo have recently ditched this requirement stating that “the evolving nature of indie development means that plenty of people can work in ‘virtual’ offices connected round the world by the internet and as such it wasn’t realistic to require developers working like this to own an office when their home is their office.” As such now the requirement has apparently been amended to say you have to be able to keep sensitive data safe and nothing more.
Nintendo are also rumoured to be looking into dropping the sales unit threshold which has put many developers off their system. The Basic idea is on the E-shop until a game sold X units the developers see nothing of this, the initial idea most likely was to push developers to not simply release lots of shovelware that wouldn’t sell. The problem is many developers especially indie ones would kind of find a constant flow of cash useful as they don’t want to be waiting potentially more months to see a return on a game they recently released. Hence often indie developers don’t develop specifically for just Nintendo or even overlook the platform. Dropping this requirement potentially, means that indie developers can be just as competitive on Nintendo as other platforms and don’t have to factor in potentially extra months of no income and living off ramen noodles.
Nintendo have even hinted about having no patching costs for indie games on the system, which while also true of XBLIG is not true of XBLA. With Polytron the developer of Fez stating the cost to patch on XBLA beyond the first patch would have cost him $10,000 which was a special reduced rate to fix the game rather than the $40,000 Microsoft normally charge XBLA developers to patch games. The potentially lack of patching cost being similar to XBLIG brings up another little bit of overlooked information, there’s an XNA to Unity conversion kit out there. Having heard from an XBLIG developer about it and his experiences with it, it’s far from perfect however its workable, meaning many XBLIg developers could easily convert existing titles over for the Wii U.
There are a couple of slight roadblocks in place to getting on the e-shop which is first a developer must become a Nintendo licensed developer. From what’s been said by a few who’ve done this, most developers should fly through it as its mostly just a series of practical tests to prove your competence as a developer that most people who have made a game ever will find a walk over. Also after having done that you are essentially Nintendo accredited and get the prestige of having that associated with your games on Nintendo. What this proves at least is Nintendo is committed to an extent to having it’s name still be a sign of quality of some kind. The second is the Wii U development kit which developers have to buy and is priced at “about the price of a high-end PC” which doesn’t sound much but to an indie developer could be a bit of a pain. However in return Nintendo are apparently offering Indie developers a dedicated contact point in Nintendo, a single person they can contact about issues and that person will then contact the relevant people inside Nintendo to prevent indie developers having to chase round after specific people with an internal goal of getting the developer an answer within 24 hours of them asking, or at least telling them when an answer will be coming if it’s a more complex situation.
Nintendo have also stated that indie developers can release at the price they want on the Wii U and do sales almost as they please on their games to boost sales, essentially taking a steam like model to console.
How much is this really worth to developers ?
The next challenger of course is Sony. Sony aren’t aiming as much at the absolute bedroom developer however they are going all out for indie games in terms of making sure they get attention. Retro City Rampage apparently got coming soon adverts on the PS store and Sony even apparently pulled out the stops and had the game advertised in US stores by “even having it playable on kiosks at every Walmart, Best Buy, GameStop, Target and Future Shop across North America”. Sony even had a spot at GDC called “The State of Indie Development on PlayStation Network” where they announced unity support on the PS4 and showcased Hotline Miami and Thomas was Alone as titles for the system. Heck with the state of the PS Vita Sony sees indie developers as a possible savior to the system as like the Wii U it had a fair uptake but people have mostly been sitting round wondering what to do with the thing as many bigger publishers don’t seem as interested in it now so indie developers have less competition on there. All indie developers need to do is release one quite good game and due to the lack of AAA games overshadowing it, it will see a larger uptake due to being there and available. Sony and indie developer are even potentially using features such as cross play between Vita and console and even potentially cross buy. According to Brian Provinciano the developer of Retro City Rampage. “They built such a good development kit that [Retro City Rampage] was up and running [on Vita] within a day or so.” “I’ve worked on just about every console and handheld of the past decade. The PS Vita boasts the best development kit of them all.”
A good indie game in the Vita Marketplace on most given months
Sony are so committed to indie games they even loaned out free Vita software development kits to indie developers.
Some developer even note Sony’s “Pub Fund” a fund to help invest in indie developers who don’t wish to sell out to large publishers
So with all the talk on what two of the three are doing right, let’s talk about what Microshaft are doing wrong. Firstly slotting, for those who don’t know XBLA has a set number of games release slots per week / month. Many of the slots are reserved already by Publishers, as such not many remain free for use by indie developers. Its due to issues of slotting that Brian Provinciano apparently had to seek an external publisher simple to release on XBLA due to the lack of slots, slots which for those who paid attention when Retro City Rampage was release were filled with some cheap crappy Kinect games.
It really looks like those publishers are making great use of those reserved release slots
Next Price points. Microsoft are known pretty much for their fixed price points, this is true on XBLA and also XBLIG. On XBLA Introversion software makers of Darwinia claimed that the 1200 Microsoft points release was a mistake and they wanted an 800 Microsoft points price tag but were unable to change it, they also saw huge sales disparities between Xbox on Steam, even claiming Steam sales gave huge sales boosts to their game. However on Xbox it saw sluggish sales and due to the lack of “waterfalling” of the price it was stuck there, with sales being rare and not under their control then the game was a huge flop on Xbox. Even on XBLIG for a while there was a pricing problem as games over 50MB in size weren’t allowed to sell for the lower budget 80 Microsoft points ($1) price tag and were forced to settle for the 240 points ($3) tag, until recently it was changed to allow developers to change their own prices on XBLIG and even do sales of kinds.
The patching process and even XBLIG release system has problems. Now very few outside of XBLIG gaming will know about this problem or even the process behind games releases on XBLIG. It all begins and ends with the creator’s hub, developers submit their games and it’s up to other developers to rate them for things like Violence, Sex and Mature content along with give feedback and pass the game in peer review. Essentially other developers are your beta testers and as such you need developer to play your game out of however many get submitted to get it released. The only incentive as such to peer review is a community spirit to get other developers you’ve peer reviewed to help peer review your game and have it released quicker. It sounds good till you realise that developers are working on their own games too so not many can take huge amounts of time out to peer review other games, so often games don’t get to pick their release and some like recent release Quiet Christmas which unfortunately didn’t get released until the 29th of March and missed their obvious intended release. Now if possible delays like that don’t sound bad enough XBLIG has some bizarre rules which luckily most people ignore but they are still there, such as the rule stating every game must be playable with every possible controller and the game should be programmed to allow it. Sounds fair right ? That is until you realise under the rules developers of platformer games are obliged to program them to also work with the Guitar Hero controller. Even FPs games technically must be programmed to work with the Guitar Hero controller. Now patching can be done, however to patch you have to resubmit your game to peer review and people again have to review it so for many attracting other developers to test the new version of their game, can and has been an issue, some even offering some of their free codes to other developer for whoever gives the most useful feedback.
Very few shooter make sense with guitars
The Hoops for XBLA. Many developers have stated that Microsoft are hard to create for. The developer of Braid claimed it was almost hellish and seemed as though Microsoft were seeing how far they could push him. Brian Provinciano stated after criticising the lack of steam lining of the process and the amount of seemingly pointless things he was having to do, found his games release pulled entirely and was told for no apparent reason other than Microsoft being dicks that he had to resubmit the game and start the entire application process from scratch.
The cut. In early XBLIG days (not so much XBLA) Microsoft charged rather a large portion for the open platform nature of XBLIG. Firstly it began with you needing a creators club membership at a cost of $100 a year. Next XBLIG games released for a time only got a 33% cut of sales with Microsoft taking 66% on claiming it in fees, administration and even and most infuriatingly claiming part of that cut was for advertising, because apparently being on the “featured” section in the inde games section was highly valued advertising according to Microsoft. Even then Microsoft have been known to run late with paymet to XBLIG developers, so much so during the previous scheduled pay time Microsoft ran nearly 60 days late on payment with their policy being to not even talk to XBLIG developers about delays until after they are 60 days late on payment. That’s 60 full days late from the end of the payment window time during which any time in a window of just over a week Microsoft could pay out. Luckily now Microsoft have changed to a 33% cut with developers getting 66% but that it wasn't how it began as Microsoft really made people pay for that open platform.
Many indie developers who have made XBLA titles have stated they never wish to work with Microsoft again, even developers like Ubernet who released their title Monday Night Combat during the Summer of Arcade special promotion have said about their reluctance to work on titles for Xbox again due to the issues both before and after launch with dealing with Microsoft.
The question is why wouldn’t a company want to court the indie developer. With Minecraft topping something insane like $374.7 million dollars total so in sales (that’s total sales not net profit and not accounting for various cuts taken by platform owners etc) it’s pretty good. It should also be noted that with AAA development costs going through the roof and publishers failing to hit insane sales targets they even seem to be turning their attention to add pressure to the console makers. With Activision famously claiming it should get a cut of Xbox Live subscriptions because without them people wouldn’t be buying Xbox Live so much to play with friends on their runaway series. Another such example is that of Ubisoft delaying the release of Rayman Legends on Wii U to release multiplatform possibly due to Nintendo being unwilling to pay extra for exclusivity. With publishers acting like this and not just seeing consumers but the very consoles an companies they rely on as sources of extra revenue to make up for bloated costs and missed sales targets, upset investors and overblown return promises, it seems mad to not care about indie developer. Heck Microsoft even showed with some indie developers all you need for them to happily have exclusivity deals for a year or so is a far lower amount of cash and some free advertising or promotion for them. They just want to see their game out and give it a chance so indie developers won’t be as demanding as AAA publishers and you can more easily secure timed exclusive or even just straight up exclusive console versions more easily. Even the 6th best selling XBLIG game of all time has surpassed sales figures of $3million, and that’s an XBLIG game, one of the most looked down upon marketplaces by people who often won’t look twice there when they can pay $1 for a fancy avatar hat instead.
I’m very interested to see what happens when the next generation hits as with everyone predicting the doom of the giant publisher and a second market crash, already there are developers ready to carry on through this who don’t rely on publishers and are willing to try something different and risky rather than needing to play super safe to cover the cost of 600 people along with 150% returns on investors’ money.
I’m really interested to also see who’s approach comes off best: Nintendo’s far more hands off approach but coming very much with the “You’ve made it yourself and we want to say we see it as quality and will lend a bit of our prestige by putting a seal of approval from us on it” ; or Sony’s far more hands on “Let us help you with this” approach. It will be interesting to see where developers go and how many want Sony helping and how many want to be able to turn round and essentially go “We are independent and we did this all ourselves pretty much” with Nintendo making it more about streamlining and a little bit more open and Sony more about actually giving helping Hands.
So the question is who will win the war of independents ?
Also will Microsoft actually try to come back into this fight or will the end of XNA be their white flag of surrender putting them more at the mercy of the AAA publishers ?