With the next generation of consoles finally revealed, the lines of separation between Microsoft and Sony's visions for the future are finally starting to show. But among the talk of new technology, used games and online requirements is another topic that is steadily gathering attention: the treatment of indie developers.
Following the PlayStation 4 unveiling in February, Sony is making the effort to be indie friendly and to woo developers. PlayStation 4 game developers will not only be able to self-publish for the system, but also self-price their games. Perhaps even more telling was the presence of Braid creator Jonathan Blow during Sony's event, where he presented his upcoming title The Witness alongside games such as Destiny, Watch Dogs and Killzone: Shadow Fall.
Microsoft's next-gen policies, however, haven't shown as much change on the indie front. After Xbox One's reveal, Microsoft said that it would not allow independent developers to self-publish — a similar policy to that of the Xbox 360. Polygon spoke with several developers, many of whom agreed that the news did not surprise them.
In their current course of action, says Vlambeer's Rami Ismail, Microsoft is essentially telling their userbase that they won't have access to self-published titles. The future of gaming is no longer about AAA titles, he said, something that Nintendo and PlayStation have already begun to recognize.
"Obviously, those huge exclusives for each of the platforms are a big deal, but in the long run those are just a few franchises," Ismail said. "Those big titles are becoming riskier and riskier for the AAA industry and thus safer and safer. The indie scene offers the supplement for that — interesting and novel games."
"Not being dependent on a second group of people allows us to take risks."
The problem of not being able to self-publish goes beyond the issue of barred entry. It's about disabling necessary risk-taking as well.
"Not being dependent on a second group of people allows us to take risks," Ismail said. "No one would've funded Minecraft before it was such a hit."
Ismail praised Sony for its recent connection to indie developers, which he said would lead to more games on the PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. It also helps build good experiences between developers and the company — a race that Microsoft is already falling behind in.
"Microsoft has a terrible reputation within the scene," Ismail said. "A lot of people think that Braid, Fez and Super Meat Boy earning a lot of money on Xbox Live Arcade means that indies will be waiting in line for another go at the platform, but their experiences with dealing with the platform have been enough to scare a lot of developers away from it. We're people that love making games and that are willing to do business and work hard to make games, but we don't have the resources to risk dealing with people that are undependable."
Retro City Rampage developer Brian Provinciano has had his own share of problems with Microsoft, which he's publicly addressed before. The list includes a canceled release of his game on Xbox Live Arcade, tedious approval processes and negotiations, and a pricing mistake that knocked his game down from $15 to $10. Still, Provinciano says that platform policies extend beyond the indie community.
"These policies affect everyone. Indies are simply the ones who most frequently speak out."
"Raising awareness about how platform policies affect indies is important, but what everyone needs to take note of is that there are no indie-specific platform policies," Provinciano said. "These policies affect everyone. Indies are simply the ones who most frequently speak out."
Although independent developers often benefit the most frequently from self-publishing, Provinciano said, smaller and mid-sized studios are affected too.
"Smaller publishers have more options," Provinciano said. "Studios built on work-for-hire projects now can take the leap and try their hand at an idea of their own. Publishers who have capital and a great marketing team, but not deep enough pockets to enter the retail market are able to be self-sustaining when they don't need to use a bigger publisher as a proxy."
"Everyone realizes that because self-publishing is not an option, developers must go through a publisher to release a game on XBLA," Provinciano added. "What most don't realize is that many publishers must go through a bigger publisher to release games too. "
Provinciano said that he "couldn't be happier" with his experiences with Sony, Nintendo and Valve, adding that "it's all about the contrast."
"The positive changes on other platforms and lack of change on Xbox demonstrates it clearer than ever, and my experience with Microsoft helps me appreciate that much more, just how fantastic it's been everywhere else," Provinciano said.
Not everyone agrees on Microsoft and its policies. Capybara co-founder and president, Nathan Vella, praised Microsoft for its support on Super Time Force, currently in development for Xbox 360. Vella was also featured in the presentation video during Microsoft's Xbox One reveal.
"[Microsoft] believed in our game when it was barely more than a three-day jam prototype, were open to us defining how we wanted to work on it, didn't fret the self-funding component and have done nothing but work to enable us to make something rad," Vella said via email. "That's what you want in a partnership."
Speaking with Polygon after the Xbox One reveal, vice president Phil Spencer said he "loves" indie games and it's a scene he frequents. According to Spencer, Microsoft is working to bring indie games to Xbox, though he did no expand on exactly how. When contacted again by Polygon, Microsoft declined to share specific details before E3, but added that it is "committed to ensuring all Xbox platforms are the best platforms to help developers realize their visions."
"It is possible that, in reality, ‘self-publishing' on the PS4 ends up being not that different from ‘not self-publishing' on the [Xbox One]."
Jonathan Blow, who launched his hit title Braid first on the Xbox 360, found the general reaction to the Xbox One and self-publishing "a little weird."
"The Xbox 360 did not allow self-publishing either, so it's not like this is some big change in policy," Blow said. "It is more like, they are sticking with their old policy, and maybe not changing with the times to match what people like Valve and Apple are doing. I don't see that as very dramatic."
Self-publishing is "very important to indie developers," Blow said, especially when it comes to the certification process. However, it's still too early to tell what that process will actually be like.
"We know that Sony says they offer self-publishing, but I don't even know what that is going to be like yet, and I was in their launch show," Blow said. "It is possible that, in reality, ‘self-publishing' on the PS4 ends up being not that different from ‘not self-publishing' on the [Xbox One]."
Sony told Polygon that the process for PlayStation 4 publishing will be no different than that of its current one, which requires developers to register, complete a non-disclosure agreement and application, and sign a developer agreement. Once developers are licensed, Sony said, a dedicated team works to provide support and advice.
"Our focus is first and foremost on the gamer, and we know that indie devs are responsible for making some of the most innovative and creative game experiences out there," Sony told Polygon via email. "Our developer relations team is out there to find those talented devs and help them to bring their content directly to our passionate gamers."
With E3 right around the corner, more details on both Microsoft and Sony's publishing policies are expected. Time will tell how progressive each company's individual steps turn out to be, but Microsoft will still have to earn back ground with developers. Blow said that ultimately he went with Sony because he dislikes what Microsoft does and "doing a deal with Microsoft is an existential risk for your company and game."
"One day they might just wake up irritated, or just get a crazy idea that they want to do something a different way now, and in the process they make your life hell or screw up your game," Blow said.
"I think there are very few developers who will tell you that Microsoft treated them respectfully, though there are a few that do feel that way."
"Microsoft has a long way to go."
Like many others, Muteki Corp. developer Adam Rippon is also fond of Sony and their treatment of the indie scene, but doesn't imagine it would be hard for Microsoft to catch up.
"Sony has been truly excellent about giving indie developers an opportunity to prove themselves, and I can't imagine it would be difficult for Microsoft to implement something like this," Rippon said. " [Xbox Live Indie Games] was a good first step, but without the option to use native code or have games appear in the regular shop categories it was handicapped quite unnecessarily."
The problem, Rippon says, is Microsoft's overall treatment of the indie scene, which it seems to mistake for something else entirely.
"Microsoft seems to confuse 'independent developer' with 'hobbyist developer,'" Rippon said. "I think Sony has it exactly right, I think Nintendo is doing a very good job paying attention to Sony's moves. And honestly, I'd say Steam has fallen behind them now in terms of indie support with their lack of an un-curated category. Microsoft has a long way to go, and would do very well to look to Sony for the right way to do things."
"It's frustrating to me that Sony can get things so perfectly right and the other platform holders haven't caught on yet," Rippon added.