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Self-Publishing and the Xbox One

The consumer is bound to be forgotten, while a key flaw in Microsoft’s world of woe, Microsoft is not the first company to dictate sweeping changes to a product that angered its core demographic.  I still believe that Microsoft will attempt to win back the consumer with sweeping changes in the next couple years.  After all, it is the consumer who keeps the lights on over there in Washington.  There is another key component that Microsoft is blindly forgetting, a voice that is as integral to its future as the consumer, that also helps Microsoft pay the bills, and that is voice of independent developers.

Microsoft has been on quite the roller coaster ride with the independent gaming scene.  Rewind the clocks two or three years and the summer of arcade contains titles like Limbo, Bastion, and Monday Night Combat.  Microsoft had games like Fez, Super Meat Boy, and Braid, all featured in Indie Game: The Movie, as exclusives early in the Xbox 360’s life cycle.  Microsoft used to synonymous with the independent scene, a console that welcomed new ideas and unproven developers.  These days, the story could have a more different tone.

Microsoft is a global corporation, they have plenty of smart people working behind their doors, so it is safe to say that they crunched the numbers at some point in the last couple years and felt the risk associated with holding these titles up was no longer worth its weight in the gold.  Instead, Microsoft seems keen to gobble up developers like Twisted Pixel and published their games through first-party publishing.  However, as Microsoft does this, it will be interesting to see if these companies can maintain their gusto under the pressure of providing the only independent experience available in the Microsoft ecosystem.

These independent developers are important to the world of gaming in multiple ways.  Most importantly, as AAA development continues to falter with unattainable sales numbers and bloated production expenses, independent development is a more reasonable business model, asking less of a commitment from the customer in price and thus providing less expectation.  This lack of pressure provides artistic stimulus and freedom that most developers crave.  These independent titles also provide important third-party support for platforms, looking to avoid competition with blockbuster games they can be released in atypical seasons, bridging the gap between larger games, while providing cost-effective alternatives for consumers.  Steam’s bread and butter is the indie scene where titles like Kentucky Route Zero, Amnesia, Dear Esther, Cart Life, and Hotline Miami have flourished, Sony continues to court these developers to the PlayStation Vita in a desperate attempt to round out the handheld’s library, and a lack of indie support continues to leave the WiiU a barren mess.  Platforms, developers, and consumers all win when the independent scene is supported.

It should not be a surprise to see Microsoft waver on its support of the independent games scene.  Over the last few years, details have come to light about the difficulty to publish on the Xbox.  Hurdles for developers included a hostile process, with large update fees, and a lack of promotion.  Joystiq wrote an article following Xbox One’s announcement where many independent studios felt excluded from the Xbox One.  That was even  before the self-publishing announcement came.

What Microsoft has yet to clarify is how they will determine who they will and won’t count as “approved” publishers.  Telltale self-published The Walking Dead last year, it would be assumed they would make the cut.  What about Double Fine as they look to establish themselves independently with Broken Age and Massive Challice?  Would thatgamecompany, who is looking to stretch their multiplatforms legs, need to seek outside help to get on the Xbox One?  Would Frictional Games need outside support to bring Amnesia: Machine for Pigs or other future titles to the Xbox One?

The lack of clear cut policy could cause Microsoft to lose out on bigger titles that can be easily translated to the PlayStation 4 and are already on the way to the Steam.  Transistor is a perfect example of a game all lined up for the PS4, but is an unknown quantity for the Xbox One, Warframe and it’s 2 ½ million subscribers are another example, as is Outlast from Red Barrel studios, and the plethora of titles shown on the stage during the Playstation 4 press conference.

Much ado has been made about the PS4 being consumer friendly, but little has been said about how it is also developer friendly.  Microsoft already looks to be starting from behind in the next-gen console race–though we are only in the pre-order phase–it is safe to say they will look to be aggressive and inventive in ways to bring back the consumer.  However, even before bringing back the consumer Microsoft will also have to look at reaching out to developers, ostensibly putting the console in a two front war of which they have to gain ground.  Microsoft has already shown lee-way, admitting their self-publishing terms could change at any time.  As someone who has their pre-order lined up, I hope that it is sooner rather than later.

Josh Hinke is a part time centaur trainer in Hollywood, while going to school full time to be a professional Goomba. In between those two commitments I write about video games and cool things, like pirates and dragons and dragon pirates.