Indie dev to Microsoft: Be more like Sony on self-publishing

By Ozzie Mejia, May 22, 2013 2:00pm PDT

A chunk of the indie gaming sector observed the Xbox One presentation (either live or secondhand, via channels like Twitter) with a sense of disappointment. Given that Sony's PlayStation 4 unveiling put game development at the forefront to the point that indie darling Jonathan Blow was given a forum to speak, some indie developers had hoped for more from the Xbox One event.

With a new console generation came hopes that Microsoft would relax their strict standards for indie developers, who currently must have a publisher in order to see their product on a Microsoft console. That does not appear to be the case.

Paul Taylor of Mode 7 Games (Frozen Synapse) is among those turned off by Microsoft's stance. "In terms of what it means for us as an indie, I think Microsoft's approach to developers is much more important than the console itself," he added. "We'd love to see a more proactive attitude to indies, reducing the red tape and difficulty involved with getting a title onto Xbox Live: I don't think it would hurt to emulate Sony in that respect."

"Right now, there's no olive branches being given," Nathan Fouts from Mommy's Best Games (Serious Sam: Double D) added. "Microsoft has stopped supporting XNA, which doesn't necessarily mean 'no XBLIG' for the next Xbox, but doesn't help the odds either. Sony has definitely been aggressively reaching out to indie devs, ourselves included, which doesn't seem to be the same way with Microsoft."

Andy Schatz, the man behind one of this year's breakout hits, Monaco: What's Yours Is Mine, is similarly dismayed by the publishing giant's continued stance on indie titles. "While I loved working with our publisher (Majesco) on Monaco, I don't think this is a good policy," he said. "The game industry can't expand the pie via closed platforms. New is risky and publishers hate risk. Expect games like Minecraft, FTL, and Don't Starve to continue to launch on other platforms."

"It seems like Microsoft isn't really trying to get the freshest or most original content, only the biggest established names," observed Sean Velasco of Yacht Club Games (Shovel Knight). "Luckily, the Xbox One controller will work on PC, so you'll still be able to play all the cool indie games with it. Maybe smaller devs are a part of Microsoft's future plans. If they would like to reach out, we'll be here!"

The indie sector does understand many of the ins-and-outs of business, however. They can understand the reasons for their approach for yesterday's event. "It looks like Microsoft is really positioning this as a media center and super-mainstream games machine," said Taylor. "As a business approach, I think it's probably a strong differentiation from Sony's more game-centric ethos--that probably is a good thing for the market as a whole. Both Sony and Microsoft seem to be playing to their strengths this time around."

Shovel Knight

That isn't to say they were completely unimpressed. The hardware and entertainment capabilities of the new Xbox One left some indie devs impressed. "As a developer, Xbox One's coolest new feature is the redesigned d-pad, which is reportedly clicky and wonderful," said Velasco.

Graham Smith, co-founder of Drinkbox Studios (Guacamelee), added, "On the hardware side, everything looked great. It appears to be a fairly powerful machine, comparable to the PS4."

Fouts was among the disappointed. "As a gamer, since this press event didn't reveal a lot about the console in relation to new games or how to play new games, it didn't speak to me much," he said. "I understand they'll talk more about the games and related features at E3. While I'm sure they have interesting reasons for leaving games primarily out of their big reveal, it did leave me tepid. I have my entertainment needs already fairly well-met when it comes to TV and movies, so these things didn't interest me a lot, though it looked nice enough. I look to new console reveals to usher in the possibilities of dramatically higher-quality simulations of reality, as that requires a lot of processing power. From this power other interesting, non-realistic worlds can be made. But watching the bits about the sports games, and the Call of Duty, it sadly didn't seem like this console generation has jumped as much as one might think. Things could definitely improve, but I think that let me down a little."

Given that Microsoft is saving many of their game-related announcements to E3, some are opting for a wait-and-see approach. One is Mike Bithell, maker of Thomas Was Alone. "It's a bit too early to pass judgement on it, as this presentation was more focused on the TV, sports and mo-capped dog features of the console," he said. "It is a little troubling that indie games and their creators didn't even receive a cursory nod, beyond the opening developer montage. Until we see more, I think it's hard to call it. It does look like great tech, I just want to see some games."

Schatz concurs and notes that it speaks to Microsoft's overall philosophy. "The reveal didn't talk about much that is relevant to indies," he said. "It's a little premature to say what they will or won't do in terms of game development since they've held so much back for their E3 presentation. That said, it's clear that their priority competitors are Apple and Google rather than Sony or Valve."

There's hope for the best at E3, not just for the indie sector, but also for interesting games, in general. According to Fouts, the time is now to combat ideas like franchise fatigue. "I think the sports games, movies, and Call of Duty focus leans towards their core demographic for the Xbox 360, at least, the early adopters," he said. "That makes sense to aim for them. This is obviously only based on what little I've seen so far, but the problem is what they're showing, I feel, doesn't look so amazing that most gamers will naturally be compelled to want it, but they'll buy it because extensions of franchises are simply stopped on the 360, and now on the new one. Ready for E3 to prove me wrong and this thing to knock it out of the park for consoles. I love console games! Let's have new, good, and interesting ones!"

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