Indies are better equipped to handle the transition into our digital tomorrow
The console market has become something of a paradox these past few years. Despite total console sales having exceeded 40 million units over the previous generation, and despite a wealth of powerful new IPs, we've witnessed a veritable avalanche of studio closures and cutbacks. The biggest reason for these failings is the current state of traditional games development, which has grown so bloated and inefficient that even historically successful brands can't meet publishers' outrageous sales projections.
One possible countermeasure is a greater focus on digital distribution, although this would require companies to make radical changes to their infrastructure -- hardly an overnight process. But while the bigger publishers are busy splitting resources, trying to address the physical and digital spaces simultaneously, smaller independent developers will be able to quickly capitalize on this relatively new frontier.
Both Sony and Nintendo have recognized the success of indies on the PC and have taken great strides to make their consoles and handhelds as indie-friendly as possible. Indies possess a pioneering spirit that once drove the entire industry, and since they aren't beholden to any panel of investors, they can take the risks that the big boys are too afraid to attempt.
As the major companies fall further out of touch with consumers, indies will be the ones to reinvigorate the market and shape the future of console gaming.
To be honest, I wouldn't be able to envision any kind of future for consoles if indies had remained locked out. The current retail model is flat-out broken, only leaving room for the biggest blockbusters while squeezing out mid-tier productions. This is shouldn't be a new revelation to any regular Destructoid reader, but the topic will continue to be discussed as long as publishers refuse to alter course.
What baffles me is how publishers believe that a new generation of hardware will magically solve all these problems, that more powerful machines will undoubtedly result in a revitalized ocean of innovation and profitability. The truth is that these new consoles don't address any of the real issues plaguing development and in fact may exacerbate them.
Consider the best case scenario: Xbox One and PlayStation 4 release this fall and immediately match the launch window sales of PS2 and Wii, while every launch title breaks a million units in the same span of time. That's great, except the problem has never been that games aren't selling well enough, rather that publishers have grown accustomed to investing excessively in production and marketing and forecasting unattainable sales targets. And since average development costs are predicted to rise once again, those goalposts will move even further out of reach.
While it certainly may be possible to develop next-gen software without a significant increase in costs, nothing was exactly stopping studios from working smarter and more efficiently this past generation. They didn't because you can't make the next Call of Duty without pouring wads of cash into the money pit.
Some companies do take manageable risks and hold sensible expectations, only to trip over themselves once they catch a whiff of "The Green." When THQ found success with the uDraw GameTablet on Wii, it decided to turn uDraw into a massive cross-platform brand, resulting in a crushing failure that invalidated the financial successes of other THQ properties. Since Dark Souls was a surprise hit, Namco Bandai decided to position the sequel as a "massive AAA title" -- Dark Souls II has yet to be released, but I somehow doubt it'll perform as expected.
Is it therefore any mystery why some of the most prolific developers have chosen to go into business for themselves? Peter Molyneux formed 22 Cans, Warren Spector is investigating mobile development, Keiji Inafune has become somewhat of a gun for hire, three different groups of former Rare staffers went full indie -- the list goes on.
The message is clear: If you desire true creative freedom, you must leave the industry proper.
Thanks to more accessible development tools than ever before, we've witnessed an explosion of indie software on the PC market, which has almost completely embraced digital distribution. Through services like Steam, GOG.com, Desura, and others, indies have been able to properly leverage the viral nature of the Internet to achieve a level of exposure that wouldn't have been possible via traditional brick and mortar channels.
While unequivocal success stories have become rare in the retail console space, it's not uncommon to hear about indie triumphs, even in genres thought to have been tapped out. Games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Telltale's Sam & Max revival, and even Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden -- the sheer range satisfies not only nostalgia junkies but also gamers itching for the type of specialized experience that the big companies have shied away from.
Most importantly, indies are often able to dictate their own prices, offering value in an environment where once we were expected to swallow $50 or $60 tags without question. At such prices, you may feel more inclined to make casual purchases without the worry of buyer's remorse. Since dev costs for such games are relatively small, indies can profit even after a few thousand sales; since most indies choose to self-publish, all that money goes straight into their pocket.
In rare cases, an indie game will find astronomical success -- Minecraft has sold over 10 million copies on PC alone, putting it in the top 10 best-selling PC games of all time -- but that is the exception, not the norm. In fact, a phenomenal sales performance for a digital-only title may be considered underwhelming had it been a boxed release. That's why digital distribution is so appealing: The barriers to success are far easier to overcome.
For all of Microsoft's present miscommunication, the company pioneered digital distribution on home consoles with Xbox Live Arcade and laid down a welcome mat for formerly PC-only devs to bring their wares to a new market. Early titles like The Behemoth's Alien Hominid HD and Metanet's N+ tested the waters and paved the way for more ambitious endeavors down the road.
Across all the seventh-generation consoles, we've seen small developers make a name for themselves. Thatgamecompany scored with flOw, Flower, and Journey on the PlayStation Network; 2D Boy and Gaijin Games dominated WiiWare with World of Goo and the Bit.Trip series, respectively; and XBLA continued to expand, eventually receiving a console version of Minecraft, which quickly became the highest-grossing XBLA title ever.
The significance of such games is not to be trivialized. Even if they don't necessarily pull in AAA sales numbers, greater content variety builds a healthy ecosystem in which success is not merely reserved for a small cluster of high-profile studios with money to burn. And as consumers dive deeper into the digital domain, the ease and attractiveness of indie games will incentivize the big publishers to address their own failings that much sooner.
The overwhelming support for the OUYA Kickstarter campaign and the anticipation for Valve's Steam Box demonstrate that consumers value the relative ease and comfort of dedicated gaming hardware that plugs into the TV and offers access to the kinds of titles previously enjoyed on PCs and mobiles. The major console manufacturers would do well to serve this space with renewed effort going into the next generation.
Sony has been ramping up its indie outreach over the past few years, which the company hopes can bolster not only the PS3 and PS4 but also the lagging PS Vita. At the Game Developers Conference this past March, SCEA Vice President of Publisher and Developer Relations, Adam Boyes, explained how Sony's former 64-step software submission process has been streamlined thanks to constant feedback from developers, with the goal to get new titles approved in a week or two rather than in months.
On a surprising note, Boyes also revealed that Sony has not charged indies for game patches in over three years. Contrast this against Microsoft's policy to charge upwards of tens of thousands of dollars for XBLA patches, and it's clear to see which company has taken the more proactive approach towards developer relations.
Perhaps the most attractive reason to develop on Sony hardware is the Pub Fund, a "good faith" agreement that provides indies with up-front royalties in exchange for limited exclusivity, through which Sony has been able to acquire titles like Hotline Miami, Blacklight: Retribution, and Guacamelee! With such benefits, it's not shocking to learn that indies prefer working on Vita over iOS or Android.
Sony may have had a head start on the indie trail, but Nintendo is catching up quickly. Developing for WiiWare was less than ideal thanks to some backwards rules, such as requiring a separate office or having to hit a sales threshold before you could collect royalties. But over the past year, Nintendo has rewritten the book to make eShop development as pleasant as possible.
NOA Manager of Business Development, Dan Adelman, also attended GDC this year and outlined Nintendo's eShop policies, which likewise streamline the approval process and allow indies to set their own release dates, prices, and discounts. On top of that, Nintendo won't require platform exclusivity for any reason -- a hitch that even Sony's otherwise wonderful Pub Fund demands.
Because this is a recent shift for Nintendo, many devs are still ill-informed regarding the eShop. For this reason, Nintendo needs to aggressively court devs and attend more events like the recent iDÉAME in Spain. We are already starting to see the fruits of Nintendo's campaign, and I'm certain that both the Wii U and 3DS will soon be on equal footing with the PS3 / PS4 and Vita when it comes to indie support.
And then there is Microsoft, which doesn't seem too concerned about cultivating the kind of robust environment currently found on Sony and Nintendo machines. Microsoft President of Interactive Entertainment, Don Mattrick, insists that Xbox One will offer some form of independent creator program, but we won't know the details until at least E3. It would be a shame if the company that first extended the olive branch towards indies concedes the space to its competitors.
The eighth console generation will be a transition period in which many of the old guard become even more wound up and and insular, cutting back on their yearly release schedules to try to maximize the profit potential of their shrinking output. As a result, they will further rely on "safe" ideas that do little to attract new consumers outside of their regular base. It'll thus be up to the digital storefronts to direct those underserved consumers towards a burgeoning catalog of smaller, original titles.
I'm not foolish enough to think that any individual indie title will outperform the biggest names in the retail space -- not in the immediate future, at least. However, the PS4, Xbox One, and Wii U are all aiming to grow their online audience, which necessities a robust digital catalog. And as Thomas Was Alone creator Mike Bithell implied, you never know where the next Minecraft will appear.
What I predict we'll see in the coming years is one of the major publishers offering the use of its IP to an indie. This is something I could see Nintendo doing, considering all its third-party licensing partnerships in the past: Capcom with The Legend of Zelda, SEGA with F-Zero, Team Ninja with Metroid, Namco with Star Fox and currently Smash Bros., etc.
Can you grasp the significance of a small, three-man team working out of a garage being trusted with one of Nintendo's legendary properties? Not only will that affirm what the enthusiast market already knows -- true talent can be found anywhere -- it will send a message out to every corner of the industry that the small dogs can stand on equal footing with the big dogs.
The future should give major publishers every reason to sweat.