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Whilst Microsoft, after its disastrous PR mistakes at the Xbox One reveal and at E3, have been playing catch up with its ID@Xbox scheme in order to attract those who may have gone solely to Sony.

The irony of Microsoft’s recent actions regarding their treatment of indie games is that the Xbox 360 is often credited with the creation of the modern indie game and its subsequent early success. Braid is seen as the breakthrough title of the current indie game movement, with the games creator Jonathan Blow revered for his opinions on what the potential of indie games can be and how they can continue into the future.

Blow’s journey was a key part in the 2012 documentary Indie Game: The Movie which focused on three different indie games, all at a different stage of development. In addition to Blow’s Braid which was released in 2008; were Super Meat Boy by Team Meat (Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes) that was priming for its 2011 release, and Fez by Phil Fish which was still a couple of years off its eventual 2012 release. All of these games were released first on Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) before eventually being ported to other systems. Yet all of the developers have since expressed their dissatisfaction with working with Microsoft and its platform.

Phil Fish
Indie developers (such as Phil Fish, above), closely tied with the games they create.

For indie developers, being “indie” is all about freedom and with the increased connectivity of consoles to the Internet has allowed them access to an audience in a way not previously possible. However despite the technology being in place to allow this freedom, the processes of the past are still present and are a hindrance to the potential of the technological changes. On consoles if a developer didn’t have a publisher, and couldn’t convince the platform owner to be their publisher, then their game would remain outside the reach of the console audience. Meanwhile such restrictions were not present on the main PC game distribution services, such as Steam or GOG, where developers were free to submit their game without the backing of a publisher. Furthermore publishing a game on these services currently do not require the acquisition of an age rating form a national/regional ratings body, a requirement which is not going to be removed on consoles.

Small studios like Dutch developer Vlambeer espouse the necessity for self-publishing, with the co-founder Rami Ismail arguing that true self-publishing can allow for a better game on every platform that it is released for. This was in response to further clauses coming out regarding the requirements of being part of Microsoft’s ID@Xbox scheme. This clause required that games releasing on the Xbox One had to have launch parity with releases on other platforms. Such a clause puts additional stress on developers to have their games ready for different systems at the same time, as opposed to being allowed to stagger releases so that each version of the game performs at its best.

Sony has not implemented such a requirement and instead allowed an amount of freedom more akin to what is available with PC based services (with the exception of games published by Sony in which different clauses are in effect). This highlights the implementation of Microsoft’s ID@Xbox being equivalent to a more streamlined approach of having games published directly by Microsoft. The issue is Microsoft appear to be supporting indie games in order to appease criticisms such as the Xbox One being primarily a media device, whereas Sony have realised the financial value that indie games bring to a platforms ecosystem.

This has been especially evident with its handheld platform, the Playstation Vita, which despite poor sales has found a level of success in large part thanks to its support of indie games. The indie developers in turn have found the platform profitable for them irrespective of the low user base. One indie developer, Brian Provinciano, stated that compared to the ‘intimidating corporate vibe’ of Xbox, Sony provided a generous amount of support. This entailed notable promotion, which was at no cost to Provinciano, as well as platform exclusive deals such as the cross-buy scheme which means that a single purchase includes both the PS3 and Vita copies of the game, as well as the ability to share save data between the different versions.

PlayStation Cross-buy
Pay once and receive both versions.

Sony recently announced that 48% of games sold for the platform are digital, and whilst there is a trend of overall digital software sales now surpassing physical sales, the Vita is currently ahead of the curve. This also highlights the prominence of indie titles on the platform as they are only obtainable via the PlayStation Network (PSN) store. These indie games, which are often made by small teams rarely bigger than 20 people, are considerably less expensive to make than the AAA companions for Sony, regardless of whether the game is internally developed, published, or self-published and provided with some promotional support. This is a crucial distinction as the cracks are starting to show in the foundations for the AAA game segment of the industry.

With AA games becoming increasingly obscure, especially in the West, the video games industry has become overly reliant on AAA games. It is only recently that indie games have helped to bring a sense of balance to the industry, a balance which Sony has been smart to support. Previously when the industry was comprised of a variety of different sized studies developing a broad range of games, the amount of success a studio needed to generate was not anywhere near as high as is required today.

A problem that is currently unraveling is that publishers of AAA games no longer feel that it is safe to take the kind of risks they might have done in the past. This is exacerbated by the massive development and marketing costs that are now necessary for AAA games released today. Therefore in order to continue producing the subsequent iterations of a series, the titles have to achieve substantial sales to recoup the prodigious investment made, as well as a suitable amount of profit to facilitate continued support. Now the levels of success required has grown exorbitantly. As despite achieving sales of 3.4 million, a traditionally impressive amount, Tomb Raider was considered a failure by its publisher Square Enix who thought that the game had the potential to sell at least 5-6 million units.

Recently Christofer Sundberg, founder and creative director at Avalanche Studios (which has previously developed a title for Square Enix and has another unannounced title in production), has voiced his concerns about the AAA business calling it ‘unhealthy’. This is due to budgets continuing to grow and the increased risk that emerges as a result which relies on the game at least breaking even. As well as adding that even though games and technology have evolved, the way in which many of the businesses operate are not too dissimilar to how they operated 15 years ago. The way in which publishers dealt with AAA games no longer makes sense and this situation is leading to stagnation which is constricting both developers and publishers.

Another side effect of the massive investment required for AAA games is that it reduces the amount money it has available to spend elsewhere on other titles. This is particularly apparent with publisher Activision (best known for the Call of Duty series), which has been shedding superfluous studios and games over the past few years and concentrating on just a few key titles. The problem with this strategy is that the company is wholly dependent on the continued success of these few titles, which could potentially be disastrous in the long run if they don’t reinvest some of their time, effort and money into new IPs (intellectual properties). The detriment of this approach is starting to become visible in its sales figures for 2013, with its revenues down almost 6% year-on-year and its profits also down by 12% . This was especially telling with the last three months of the year which saw net income fall 51% .

Activision has a lot riding on the success of this game.

With no significant new titles, Activision depended on its existing franchises to remain profitable during 2013, yet its previous lack of commitment towards risk highlighted the weakness in both its business and the wider AAA industry. However this year Activision will be publishing the new IP from Bungie (the creators of Halo), Destiny. A game which Activision CEO Bobby Kotick stated that: ‘We expect Bungie’s Destiny… to be Activision Publishing’s next billion dollar franchise’. Bungie has a 10 year plan for the series and Activision clearly expects the series to take off, but there is a lot of pressure for the first title in the series to be successful. In addition with the launch of new AAA IPs from Ubisoft (Watch Dogs) and EA (Titanfall, which is developed by the creators of Call of Duty) there is even more competition in the increasingly crowded AAA market.

Indie games may be helping to balance the industry, but it is not the sole solution to the structural issues the industry is facing. The industry needs variety, and this does not just apply to creative variety, but potentially more important, financial variety. There is a place for indie games, but not just as an antithesis to AAA games. Edmund McMillen has underlined his concern about the current trajectory of the sector saying that: ‘I feel it’s lost sight on what its foundation was – just making games the mainstream isn’t able to make due to risks – and [has since] become a social scene that’s become split. Things used to feel united but now it feels very segregated.’ This has been exacerbated by those moving in from the AAA sector, trying to emulate similar games but on a smaller budget. The indie sector was never meant to provide such titles; this was for the domain of the AA, a domain that needs to return. Indie games are helping to balance the AAA dominated industry, but for true stability an AA sector is needed to fill in the widening gap.

  1. Great article and the references to what developers themselves think are on point.

    I agree with this. Indie developers are pushing just as many, if not more, boundaries than the larger developer-publisher units. We definitely need to continue supporting them, and both Sony’s and recently Microsoft’s approach have been commended.

    Is there anything in particular gamers can do, apart from to financially back indies by buying their games?

  2. Indie games are receiving a good amount of support. Although the amount of competition is rising considerably, but as the titles are often smaller in length and are more affordable, the market is able to support itself. What gamers really need to do is to support the more obscure AA games. For example Remember Me, whilst on the whole wasn’t radically unique, but it did experiment. The game had some minor flaws, but then again it wasn’t a AAA game, and nor was it constrained to the levels of an indie game. Sony has given it the most support by including it as part of PS Plus for a period.

    An example of a good move by a big publisher is Ubisofts decision to allow Blood Dragon to be made. Smaller team and budget, used pre-existing resources. But managed to create a small unique game that took the good attributes of AAA games.

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