Okay, sure, you could say there are still multiple problems with the Xbox One, like say, the always-listening Kinect, $499 price tag and the inability to transfer your arcade library from the Xbox 360 to the Xbox One. For now, I’d like to focus on one serious problem that, despite Microsoft’s latest game-changing move, has still gone largely ignored. It’s an issue that Microsoft has been shying away from lately, for some reason or another, even though they were a vocal advocate for it in the past.
I’m talking about indie games.
The Xbox 360 used to be a bastion for indie developers. After a substantial makeover when the Xbox 360 launched, thanks to a gargantuan push by Microsoft, Xbox Live Arcade quickly became a consistent source of inventive and high quality arcade games like Castle Crashers, Bastion, Geometry Wars, Limbo, Braid and numerous other critical and commercial successes. It was a great time to be an indie developer, especially if your game was displayed on the Xbox dashboard where it could be seen by millions of gamers.
Since then, something has gradually changed, and the result has been a steady migration of indie developers to Apple, Sony, and Steam.
At Microsoft’s pre-E3 press conference last Monday, they showed a myriad exciting video games, including an impressive arsenal of exclusives. They had to after the console’s poor unveiling the month prior. However, when it came to exciting indie releases, outside of the atmospheric rogue-like Below (which looks amazing by the way), Microsoft’s showcase was alarmingly sparse.
That same night, Sony showed off their stuff in their own media briefing, which included a plethora of indie games like Octodad, Transistor, The Witness, Secret Ponchos, and — perhaps most exciting of all — high profile horror games Outlast and Daylight, both of which will be coming exclusively to PC and the PS4.
So what happened?
From the outside looking in, it seems as if indie games just aren’t a focus for Microsoft right now. In the beginning, things were great. There were continuous promotions, including Xbox Live Arcade Wednesdays, Game Feast, and Summer of Arcade — now, the Summer of Arcade remains, but there’s not much else.
For the indie indie releases, Xbox Live’s Indie section was hidden in a recent dashboard update, making it significantly more difficult to find.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Microsoft does not allow indie developers to self-publish on the Xbox 360, and this policy won’t change with the Xbox One. This means an indie developer either needs to put their game in the sometimes capable hands of Microsoft who will have full control over when that game releases and what kind of marketing push it gets, or a third party publisher. If the dev takes the latter route, they’ll need to pay the publisher.
None of that is good news, but wait a minute, it gets worse.
Whichever path the indie dev takes, once their game is on XBLA, there will probably be problems with it. Bugs happen all the time, and even huge quality assurance teams often miss even critical, game-breaking bugs. Thankfully, that’s why the gaming gods gave us patches, to remedy these issues.
On the Xbox 360, releasing a patch can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Most indie developers don’t have that sort of money at hand and the few that do tend to need that for their game. This caused problems last year, when Fez developer Phil Fish was unable to fix a save bug in his game, because he simply couldn’t afford it.
“It wasn’t an easy decision, but in the end, paying such a large sum of money to jump through so many hoops just doesn’t make any sense. We already owe Microsoft a LOT of money for the privilege of being on their platform. People often mistakenly believe that we got paid by Microsoft for being exclusive to their platform. Nothing could be further from the truth. WE pay THEM.”
It’s a ridiculous situation, and we’re starting to see a steady trickle of indie developers who are moving away from Microsoft’s platforms.
Sadly, Microsoft hasn’t shown much interest in indie games with the Xbox One. They’ve promised it’s still something they care about, but we have yet to see any real proof. Indie developers still can’t self-publish their games, and there are still plenty of hoops for developers to jump through in order to see their games on Xbox Live.
It’s an unfortunate situation. I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on Xbox Live games crafted by indie developers. Some of the best games I’ve ever played have been arcade titles I’ve downloaded off Xbox Live.
I hope this really is an important issue for Microsoft, and more than that, I hope they show us how much they care about indie developers in the near future. Otherwise, it won’t matter if your console has the same DRM policies as the PlayStation 4, I’ll still choose Sony’s platform, because it’s more open and welcoming to the developers I’d like to support the most.