The relationship between the console and the indie game developer was one that practised segregation and privilege; the developer was supposed to be ‘grateful’ to have their game accepted on the console’s store, as if it were a favor and not a mutually beneficial deal. As such, developers were treated to ineffective or minimal promotion, limits and restrictions on file sizes and pricing policies, as well as extortionate costs for patches and maintaining good customer relationships. The feeling was that those managing these store fronts were being forced to bring indie games in against their will, rather than actively trying to embrace them and treat their player base to a variety of games and experiences they wouldn’t have had otherwise.
And even more positive efforts such as the Xbox Live Indie Games Store were left to fend for themselves as more restrictions were laid down and any chances of promotion on the part of Microsoft was rejected, forcing the developers to found it on their own accord. Of course, the benefit of this is that these developers were brought together as a community and had to learn a little about marketing in order to push any units, but complete neglection from Microsoft was disrespectful and almost like a damning of the space that they created for indie games.
It was only when indie games started to become regulars on top selling lists for digital stores that they were taken seriously and respected for what they were by these consoles, rather than putting the developers through stress and being constantly looked down upon. This goes across the board for the generation of consoles that we’re now starting to leave behind – the Wii, the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360.
“The only restrictions came not from technology or infrastructures but from the controlling companies who try to appeal to their apparent understanding of their customer base and what their stats tell them they want to purchase and play.”
Sony eventually decided that it may be a good idea to put some effort into supporting indie game development in the PlayStation 3 during its latter years, and have since reaped the rewards for doing so. Last year it was Journey that became the top-selling PSN game of all time. Of course, that game does have some tie-in with Sony’s Santa Monica Studios, but thatgamecompany have indie roots and have managed to maintain them, arguably. Sony noted the rise of indie games citing Journey and The Unfinished Swan as examples of their potential, both monetarily and of their experiences, during the unveiling event for their PlayStation 4 last night. They continue this trend of actively seeking out and working with indie games and their developers with the newly announced console, as Jonathan Blow revealed when he took to the stage to announce that The Witness would have a timed launch console exclusivity on Sony’s PS4.
The message was clear – Sony had a number of indie games lined up that they had snatched from their development cradles and would be promoting them as some of the most outstanding titles available on their console, and probably with the word “exclusive” wrapped around those too. It’s a vastly different approach to indie games from Sony when compared to their previous reveals. Since then, the rise of digital stores has meant that developers of all sizes have a relative ease when going through the process of publishing a game and making it available for potential players. The only restrictions came not from technology or infrastructures, but from the controlling companies who try to appeal to their apparent understanding of their customer base and what their stats tell them they want to purchase and play. While players and and their purchasing habits have changed and smaller developers have gained more power, it has been the consoles that have taken the longest to adapt. Sony now openly admit that they no longer hold the main stake of control, as they said last night, “While we were once changing the consumer landscape, now the consumer is changing us.”
Change Of Direction
And thus begins the race from Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft to appeal to as many indie game developers as possible, so that it may be them that hosts their games and hopefully win over players, their hearts and wallets. The new buzzwords the suited and booted heads of companies and their lead console developers now wave about on stage for our amusement imply an approach that is actually quite the opposite to their practices during the past decade. After disputes with hackers around restrictive hardware updates that deliberately shut doors to those who wanted to open up the console, these companies are suddenly using the same words that they had previously prosecuted against in order to keep up with the trends. While they were previously fighting for control and slamming doors in order to keep their platforms closed so they could protect their power over “consumers,” they now wave the words “access” and “open” before developers, as if a juicy bone.
Rather than fighting against developers to keep them from running code on their consoles and consumers from altering the hardware to suit them, the indication is that this behavior is now being encouraged and embraced to an extent. Of course, these companies still do want to retain some control, and that’s why it seems unlikely that they’ll allow for a truly open platform. Looking at the Wii U, Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita does provide a case, though. Indie developers go through barely any restrictions when approaching Nintendo or Sony about releasing their games on their digital stores, and there are rarely any closed doors to speak of. Similarly, the architecture is more flexible, and while not always ideal, it does allow for developers to port their games and optimize them for the hardware without too much hassle. And the games are now promoted with visible spaces on the store fronts and celebratory measures on the part of the console’s company in order to get the word out are a regular occurrence. This approach seems to be continuing.
“As far as digital stores go, the sales figures generated on iOS and Android platforms are rising while those that the consoles boast are stagnant or declining. They know this and are scrambling for a piece of the pie.”
And what of Microsoft’s effort? They are the last of the three big console developing companies to offer any word about their plans for their next generation console. What we do know is that they are approaching a one-platform-fits-all kind of approach with Windows 8 Apps, which makes publishing a game across their mobiles, PCs and consoles a breeze. First to jump the gun was Skulls of the Shogun, which released across all of these platforms simultaneously. But that was an indie game they had taken in-house to help test this service and prove it works. Regarding the smaller developer, the last we really heard was that they wouldn’t be continuing XNA support. While this may initially seem to be a negative, it’s more likely that Microsoft have another beginner-friendly set of tools for developers to use, and if that’s the case, then publishing games across Windows 8 PCs, Windows Mobile and their next-gen console will be possible with just a push of a button. We’ll have to hang on a little longer to find out if that’s the actual direction they’re taking with indie games, but early signs point that way.
It’s all very positive to see this drastic change in policies from these companies and the embracing of developers in order to allow them to blossom using resources, promotions and technology that was previously locked away from them. But these measures are already outdated, and other consoles are emerging and setting the new pace. It could be that these efforts are too little, too late. As far as digital stores go, the sales figures generated on iOS and Android platforms are rising, while those that the consoles boast are stagnant or declining. They know this and are scrambling for a piece of the pie. People are playing on tablets and smartphones far more than they are consoles these days. And that’s showing in the sales of these static machines that are collecting more dust than ever before. So what do they do? They borrow ideas such as Remote Play, which allows you to transfer the game from your TV to your controller, for example. These mobile markets allow for thousands of games to be published on them every day, and while they may lack the necessary filtering options for players, that’s much more appealing to the growing pool of developers, especially with the player base these platforms tout.
OUYA Wanna Play Hardball, Huh?
Then there’s the OUYA, a console that directly taps into this rapidly growing market and the many games available and re-purposes them for a slightly different playing space. It’s a direct competitor for the TVs that the more established consoles want to dominate – they want to be the brand of technology in your living room. There are already hundreds of games preparing for a release on OUYA in March, and they’ll be available for players to try for free. The console itself is tiny and costs only $99. There are no restrictions in place, the costs are low and developing a game for this new machine seems to be part of the easiest and quickest console publishing system ever.
Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are panting as they try to keep up with all of these changes, and they’re partly being held back by wanting to go back to the days when they dictated the market. Notice in their presentations and reveals that part of their focus in on reminding us of their past, and the memories they have brought us over the years. It’s a form of begging that they’ve masked as brand loyalty and dependency, and they’ll use it to grab your confidence if you let them. When it comes down to it, what these consoles need is games, and developers want to go through the least amount of hassle possible, reach as many players as they can and sell enough units to make a profit. If that’s more viable on platforms outside of the next-gen of consoles, then developers are going to prioritize their time and effort elsewhere.
The power is in our hands now, not theirs. They’re bowing their heads in submission to deliver what developers and players want from a console, not what they think or tell us we want. But for all of their efforts, they’re still being outdone elsewhere. Next-gen isn’t going to be realized in supposed emotional high-polycount renditions of human faces. It’s about access for developers, a diverse range of games and making it easy for the customer to find and purchase the content that they want.