The industry, like most industries, grows from the ground up. It is one of the most important things to remember, and not just in video games. The companies and ideas that define our world today were not dreamt up in corporate offices, they were founded in basements and garages. The same is true with games. It is very rare that a AAA game creates something truly unique, as mainstream pressure and focus testing generally prevent any major leaps to occur at such a high level of game development. The true innovation in video games comes from the bottom, as people construct ideas that gripped them as youngsters, or pursue new ways for games to communicate with their audiences.
That is why the self-publishing announcement from Microsoft earlier this week was so important, even more important than their announcement in June where they decided to drop their always-online policy. Microsoft yesterday confirmed that each Xbox One console could function as a dev kit and debug system. Ostensibly opening the floodgates to developers of all sizes, a far cry from their stances earlier this year.
On its surface, the announcement seems like a nice step in the right direction for Microsoft. As much heat as the company has taken in the last few months, it is good to see that they at least designed the Xbox One to respond rapidly to the demands of an ever changing market. Of course, things will be a little more set-in-stone upon release, but hopefully this shows that Microsoft isn’t simply providing lip service when they talk about how they listen to their fans.
While many writers and pundits have stated that they believe this move puts the Xbox One closer to the PS4 in independent support, it is important to note the difference in strategy between the two. Xbox One is taking a page from the Apple playbook, rather than from the PS4, not courting established independent developers, but opening their platform to a wider array of interested parties and aspiring game makers. Instead of waging a war with the new PlayStation over which could grab more independent studio, Xbox One is opening up and letting the developers come to them. It is risky strategy.
The one thing that is not discussed in-depth is how Microsoft plans on curating this system. A question that they could not even answer as corporate Vice President, Marc Whitten, told Polygon, “It’s how we architectured the [Xbox One]. But it won’t all be there at launch.” With the platform essentially open to everyone, it is a little unnerving to think about how many games–good or otherwise–might find their way into the fray. Great games might get buried in the avalanche of crap and turn some of the better developers off from that experience. It is difficult to imagine that Microsoft won’t have some way to combat this possibility, but the silence on the issue and the vague description of its functionality continues to example Microsoft’s lack of direction.
It is refreshing, nonetheless, to see that Microsoft is aware of their public perception and the problems that accompany that perception. It is obvious that E3 sent a strong warning shot across the bow of the Seattle campus and the company is scrambling to rectify the situation as quickly as possible. However, it is important that as they attempt to makes these changes in the shadows of the impending console launch, that they do so with a plan of attack. This is what is still missing from the Microsoft strategy. They know what they need to fix, but they must make sure they fix it the best way, not the fastest.
Unfortunately, it looks like the strategy remains a mystery. Microsoft is looking to change public perception, rather than making the significant internal changes it most likely needs. This strategy is not without merit. There really isn’t enough time to cook up something than Microsoft has already brought to the table. At this point they have to move as many consoles as possible and then make larger changes along the way, post-release.
The importance of independent video games has been discussed ad nauseum. Games like Journey, Super Meat Boy, Fez, Braid, Bastion, and many others have come to define a large a large portion of this generation and has drawn a dedicated following. Hitting the right indie game can be harder than it appears, but these titles represent massive returns for the right game at the right time. It will be interesting to see what strategy Microsoft employs to use their wild west development to get a slice of this pie.
The decision to open the Xbox One to self-publishing is a wonderful move from Microsoft, it proves that they are listening to the industry and reacting accordingly. They also have made a smart move to separate themselves from Sony in their strategy. What remains to be seen is how that strategy will actually come to fruition. Instead of bringing in established indie developers, Microsoft is looking to find their own. It will be interesting to see if/how those artists arise to the top and if they have a different story to sing than the developers who have come before.