The Xbox One doesn't need self-publishing indies

In the race to accrue the good will of gamers as they transition into the next-gen, Microsoft seems to have shot itself in the foot. I too was aghast that the hour-long Xbox One press conference only had room for a handful of triple-A titles, and even those seemed to take a backseat to TV connectivity and voice-recognition wizardry. So when I read that the Xbox One won't allow self-published games, I hopped on the bandwagon with those who assumed Microsoft was giving the finger to every indie dev out there. But this might not be the greed-fueled, visionary-crushing move you think it is.

I'm not saying that it can't possibly hurt the Xbox One's potential in the long run. The assumption is that Microsoft, which used the XBLA platform to promote many an indie game in past years, is turning its back on the studios who could be making the next big thing in the form of a console downloadable. And without daring, innovative projects to challenge the oft-formulaic nature of big-budget sequels, gaming would crawl forward at a snail's pace. What I am saying is that you ought to reserve your judgments, because only time will tell if this is the Xbox indie extinction event that people seem convinced of. Microsoft--more specifically, Microsoft Studios--has yet to show its hand.

The uncertainty for what lies ahead is just that--uncertainty, where neither good nor bad convictions make much sense. "Just because Microsoft hasn't opened up their platform to be a free-for-all app store, doesn't mean they aren't going to continue courting indies, funding projects, [and] supporting the community," says Michael Wilford, studio director at Twisted Pixel Games. Twisted Pixel is now a part of Microsoft Studios, so take Wilford's comment with a grain of salt. But without the support of Microsoft Studios in years past, oddities like The Maw or 'Splosion Man might've never made it into the limelight.

Christian Meyer, a designer at Capybara Games whose works includes Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, has a refreshingly diplomatic stance on the matter. "The impression I have about the Xbox One is that Microsoft isn't ignoring indies, they just haven't gotten around to thinking about them specifically," says Meyer. "Their reveal conference seemed very focused on making a big splash outside of the game space...[but] I'm sure that, in time, we'll hear about Microsoft making a big push to court indies to the Xbox One." 

Turning the Xbox One marketplace into a gated community flies in the face of recent efforts from Nintendo and Sony. The Wii U supports the Unity engine and common programming languages like HTML5, while Nintendo's eShop lets developers set their own prices and patch their game free of charge. With the PS4 on the horizon, Sony is making a huge push to be as inviting as possible to indie developers. The newly minted Indie Games section of PSN provides a showcase for the little guys, and the Pub Fund program gives indie studios funding in exchange for timed exclusivity.

But Microsoft has already tried--and ultimately failed--to enable the self-publishing route. Though the 360's Xbox Live Arcade prohibited self-published games, any and all were invited to try their luck in the Xbox Live Indie Games corner of the marketplace. This seemed like a win-win scenario for everybody: developers could get their product on a widespread platform with minimal costs, while gamers could choose from a wide variety of unique, affordable experiences. Sadly, the reality was a jumbled, unorganized mess that exposed flaws in the idea of an indie free-for-all on consoles.

Self-publishing is a gamble. At its core, the idea behind self-publishing is to cut out the middleman--in this case, a video game publisher. The risk is your initial investment; with no company at your back, there's no one to shoulder the costs of developing your game. You also have to do all the promotional legwork yourself. Rewards come in the form of earnings--that is, you keep a much greater percentage of what you make. Money is the bottom line, because even the most avant garde developer needs to turn a profit if they want to sustainably make games for a living. XBLIG should've offered indie devs a chance to get that first foothold in the climb to industry success.

In short, it didn't. Instead of promoting creativity and diversity, XBLIG devolved into a dumping ground, where quality games got buried beneath dating sims, Minecraft clones, remote-controlled screamers, and Avatar dollhouses. Thomas Steinke, owner of DigitalDNA Games and one of the few XBLIG success stories, has discussed at length how Microsoft's previous self-publishing system created such a toxic indie environment over time. "By putting your game up in front of millions of people, especially with something quirky and a catchy box, you could easily get a few thousand dollars," said Steinke. "If you were savvy, you realized that you were far better off making a 'Crapplication' every two weeks and getting $2000-$5000, than spending two years on a project and getting incrementally more."

The XBLIG annex of the marketplace will be no more on Xbox One. Talking to Eurogamer, Microsoft corporate vice president Phil Harrison explained that "with Xbox One and the new marketplace...we don't make a distinction between whether a game is a 50-hour RPG epic or whether it is a puzzle game...[they're] just games." Rather than relegate indies to a poorly curated hodgepodge, as with XBLIG, Harrison says that the new marketplace will use "search, recommendation, what your friends are playing, [and] game DVR" to you help you discover the indie games that would most appeal to you.

Word of mouth has always been the most powerful ally to an indie developer; without it, I would've struggled to sift through the XBLIG trash heap to find gems like VolChaos, Escape Goat, and WizOrb. With this new marketplace algorithm, the hope is that the indie cream will still rise to the top by simulating word-of-mouth renown. "We don't give up the ability to put a spotlight on the products that we think are going to be exciting to our user base," states Harrison.

If this renovated marketplace is as new and improved as Harrison claims, then Microsoft Studios will hold the power to vault indies onto center stage. In order to compete with Sony's Pub Fund, the Microsoft-owned publisher will need to make just as strong an effort to court indies to release their game on the Xbox One. Their next-gen endeavors have yet to be revealed, but their track record is full of impressive, hand-picked games which they helped finance and highlight.

Mark of the Ninja, Pinball FX, The Dishwasher, Dust: An Elysian Tail, Castle Crashers--all indie standouts, all made possible in part through funding from Microsoft Studios. It's too early to count Microsoft out of the indie game, because if their endeavor to promote excellent indie games becomes even stronger on the Xbox One, there will be nothing to fear.

When I read what bigger indie developers have to say about the Xbox One on Twitter, I can't shake the feeling that the people who "made it" are complaining about the lesser profit prospects of the Xbox One. I can't blame them, either; why make games for a system that pays them less for their hard work? But these are the developers who have already found success in the indie community--they've graduated away from being the studios that desperately need help getting their games attention. If Microsoft Studios takes pains to find and support the next wave of quality indie studios, then the future for a thriving indie scene on Xbox One is not in danger. For right now, all we can do is wait and see.

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.

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  • Squirrel - May 28, 2013 2:08 p.m.

    Between the Wii U's great atmosphere for indies and Sony's new indie focus, why would a small developer choose still choose XBL? Especially for exclusives, unless Microsoft directly funded them. Just because indies can self publish on the Wii U and PSN doesn't mean quality indies cant seek publishers still if they wish, or need the help. At least now on the Wii U and PSN they get to decide whats best for them. And if there is a horrible quality problem Microsoft can review the games before release several times just like Nintendo does. Or just simply have restrictions like no more than 8 games a year, or more than one a month. No quality game would be bothered by such broad restrictions while it would cut down on Crapware. It's not that tough to solve. otherwise indies get a worse environment due to the fear of bad games.
  • shawksta - May 27, 2013 1:25 p.m.

    I can see your enthusiasm Lucas, and we can wait but Bladedfalcon just explained the situation.
  • Errrrbo - May 27, 2013 6:10 a.m.

    The response to this news from indie developers was overwhelmingly negative, and I think they know better than you do, Lucas. Of course Xbox One doesn't need indie self publishing, but Microsoft's reason for doing this is undoubtedly greed fueled.
  • Shinn - May 27, 2013 12:24 a.m.

    Michael 'Rage Quit' Jones makes the 360's indie platform worth the effort.
  • drew-pfaff - May 26, 2013 8:05 p.m.

    I definitely agree with what Bladed Falcon said, because there is a lot of assumptions that need to be used in order to come up with this, and until MS says something about this, we don't know if it is true, and with what they have been saying about the newest Xbox, I don't think they will care that much about indie devs, because they apparently don't care about any thing game related.
  • BlueScorpion91 - May 26, 2013 4:53 p.m.

    I agree with your views, Lucas. I see it as a massive deal that Microsoft are willing to put indie developed titles in the same place as the AAA-titles. If I was a developer making small games, I'd happily take less of a profit to have my games be right there next to multi-million dollar games. And if their game is so good, it really shouldn't have a hard time getting a publisher.
  • BladedFalcon - May 26, 2013 6:13 p.m.

    Yes, because downloadable indie titles sit right next AAA titles and have just as much exposure and marketing as they do in XBLA, uh huh. Not to mention, that downloadable games in XBLA get practically the same kind of treatment in the PSN or other platform's networks, so I fail to see your point there. Also, since when have publishers been more interested in inherent quality rather than mass appeal or making a quick buck? If your statement was true, big ass publishers like Activision , Square Enix and EA would constantly be publishing and releasing titles that are timeless and new and universally praised, instead of releasing half cooked crap like say... The Walking Dead: Survival Instict, all of the recent James Bond titles, Final fantasy: All the bravest, Final Fantasy XIV, and the shameless releases of say, FIFA and MADDEN 13 for the Wii, which are exactly the same game as last's year only re-skinned. So yeah, I have a hard time understanding your logic here.
  • BlueScorpion91 - May 27, 2013 4:59 a.m.

    Out of the millions of 360 owners how many do you actually think used the indie section? 1-3 million? That's less than 5% of the user base. But if you take the games out and put them in the main marketplace, you're broadening that protential audience to 90-100% of the Xbox ONE's users. And concerning your other point - Their are publishers out their that will support a game that they know won't sell tonnes. If games like Catherine or Lollipop Chainsaw can get a retail release, which has all the baggage of having to get the discs press, print the case covers and get shipped, then games that will appeal to that original 1-3 million will have no problem finding support for a much cheaper digital release.
  • BladedFalcon - May 27, 2013 5:49 a.m.

    Okay, first of all, XBLIG WAS very marginalized in the 360's menu and yes, you usually couldn't even find it unless you knew what to look for, but that was entirely MS's fault to begin with. Finding indie or downloadable titles in other platforms like PSN and the 3DS shop is pretty simple, and divided only by one category easily found in the menus. Secondly, you're assuming that Phil's Harrison comment meant that they would mix retail and indie games all in a single menu or category to browse from, and I don't think that's what he meant. For the sake of argument though, let's assume that this is what happens. Your first mistake is assuming that the vast majority of users buy digitally on consoles, or even browse the digital store at all. A significant ammount if not the majority of people still buy at retail,meaning that your so called "Potential audience" still won't more than actually 40-50% by your criteria. But THEN, let's add the fact that Indies and downloadable titles will still be easily recognizable by their price tag alone, and there still the stigma among a lot of people that a lower pricetag equals a lesser experience. This is false of course, but still, that immediately reduces the "potential" customer even more. And lastly, Indie/downloadable titles don't get nearly as much exposure as AAA titles, and I assure you that a good chunk of people that download a game they want simply type it on the search bar instead of actually browsing the store, reducing the potential buyers even lower. Sure, all of those things I mentioned are also a problem in any other platform, but the point I'm trying to drive home is that EVEN if they merged the indies with the AA in one category, (Which is unlikely IMO, but still.) it won't help nearly as much as you seem to think. As for my other point... Dude, you're seriously using Catherine and lollipop chainsaw as examples? First of all, the reason publishers even pick titles like taht isn't for quality but because, mate, simply LOOK at the cover of both titles, both were marketed and sold on sex appeal, and in Catherine's case, it was confirmed that the main reason the game sold well was because of sex appeal. And also... Lollipop chainsaw is actually a crappy to mediocre game at best, so you're doing argument no favors whatsoever. And have you even taken a look at kickstarter games? There's a ton of those that are brimming with potential, but that they probably would have never found a publisher because they are either too weird, or too niche or old school. Games like Shovel Knight, Cryamore, Chasm, C-wars all look pretty fun and fantastic, but I can guarantee you that no modern publisher would have been willing to fund them, NOT because they look crappy, but because they lack mass appeal. And, all of those titles? they can easily appear on the 3DS, and some even on the PSN, but I can guarantee you that the last platform they'd consider because of MS's restrictions would be the Xbone.
  • Firepunch - May 27, 2013 6:33 a.m.

    *Clap Clap Clap*
  • PatHan-bHai - May 27, 2013 8:14 a.m.

    ^^ Ditto
  • shawksta - May 27, 2013 1:19 p.m.

    All 3 of your comments are just pure justice.
  • BladedFalcon - May 26, 2013 4:22 p.m.

    ...I'm sorry Lucas, but your arguments are full of holes. First of all, let's look at the most obvious and blatant issue: PC, Sony and Nintendo, are all opening their doors to indie titles and allowing them to self publish without extra cost, the only one that isn't doing that, is microsoft. And that alone marginalizes them in the mind of any Indie developer looking for consoles to put their games in. And it's not like giving into MS's demands give them any particular advantage in itself. The main reason why the 360 was able to get away with this, was because the indie scene was only starting to flourish and EVERYONE, not just MS, was putting restrictions on them. That, and the 360 had a pretty big and attractive install base that was what made many want to get their games there even if it meant being bullied my MS and their policies. This coming console cycle however, the field is leveled once again, and it's unknown how big the XBone's install base will be at first, or if it will be even bigger than the one the Wii U and the PC already has. That alone won't attract any indie developer that has already found success in those two markets, and pay for the demands MS is asking for. Lastly, using XBLIG as an example of how self publishing doesn't work is a poor one. Yes, it didn't really work, but that's because there was zero quality control involved, and that's entirely MS's fault. Just because you can self publish, doesn't meant there can't have quality control measures in place. Take Steam's greenlight for example. It's not a perfect system, but it certainly helps in cutting the fat and keeping most outright crappy games at bay without putting outrageous conditions on the indie developer. Lastly, all those big name indie developers that tweeted negatively? whether they have already made it big or not is irrelevant, what matters about that is that it's very likely that most of them won't even try to get their games on the XBone's market, and that alone will be a big blow for MS's indie selection. Basically, the one thing MS has going for them is using the studios they already have for dowloadable games, and snatching those desperate enough t want a publisher. But again, if the install base of the Xbone isn't as large as it was for the 360 in the first years, they are DEFINITELY going to regret not allowing self-publishing indies. Specially if the AAA market eventually comes crashing down as many journalists and gamers are predicting will happen, because then Indies will be the lifeblood of the industry.
  • Firepunch - May 27, 2013 6:31 a.m.

    * Slow Clap for genuine cleverness*
  • Bloodstorm - May 26, 2013 2:04 p.m.

    The indie games section of Xbox Live became a dump for utter crap that shameless people put up daily, just like android app stores, and any place else that doesn't have an inkling of a vetting process to filter out the garbage. I stopped looking at the indie section mere weeks after it's conception because it started filling with things I didn't even consider games.
  • PatHan-bHai - May 26, 2013 1:55 p.m.

    The oxymoronical article I've ever head hurts :S
  • ParagonT - May 26, 2013 1:32 p.m.

    I think the whole premise of this article may have been muddled up with all of the mixed messages given within it.