Microsoft Policy Shift A Reminder: Indie Can’t Be Ignored

on Friday, Jul. 26th

If there's a lesson to be taken away from Microsoft's latest policy 180 involving their forthcoming Xbox One console it's this: indie game developers can no longer be ignored.

Earlier this week the Redmond giant announced that not only would it be possible for independent developers to self-publish games on the new console, but that the retail version of the console would work as a development kit–a key piece of infrastructure for game making on a console.

Let's be clear: Microsoft isn't leading anyone here, they're just reading the writing that's been on the walls for years. Both Sony and Nintendo have been heavily courting indie developers for the past few years. Sony has gone so far as to give away their development kits–rumored at run $2500 a pop–on loan.

As of right now, there are no dev kits being sold. Sony is sending whatever it has available to favored developers. "All the indies I know got them for free," said one developer. "Sony has been amazing about kits and development thus far." (Source: Polygon)

The use of retail consoles as dev kits is an escalation of the democratization of game development. All three consoles from the major manufacturers will support the popular Unity game engine, a development environment that is the de facto indie standard.

So why all this focus on Indie?

In a word: mobile.

Retail software sales are slipping as online sales rise and the big growth area in terms of sales and brand recognition is on mobile devices. Indie developers were early adopters in the mobile space, and the small scale games that work best on mobile can be tackled by tiny, agile teams.

This segment of the industry has opened up parts of the marketplace no one knew was there just a few years ago. The so-called "casual games space" that consists of mobile and social games. Everything from Angry Birds to Candy Crush Saga. Many of these hits come out of left field. Who would have guessed that the LEGO-esque Minecraft would be a powerhouse used as a selling point in a major console release?

While the first stab at an indie-focused console–the crowdfunded Ouya–has been met with a lukewarm response, the convergence of mobile and console is just beginning. Google announced plans to release an Android powered console the very week that the Ouya, itself powered by Android, began shipping. Future iterations of the Google Chromecast, which allows for mobile device video to be shared with a television screen, could have more robust gaming features.

That speculation is born from a current reality. Apple tablets and phones are able to share the video of certain games with television screens thanks to the Airplay functionality built into the Apple TV device.

We've already seen controller-hybrid devices like Power A's MOGA for Android open up console-style gaming on mobile, and Apple has opened up the door for these devices to enter the iPhone market. A five-way console war has been brewing, and if the traditional console manufacturers can't keep up with the sheer diversity of games available in the casual and indie markets, they become even more dependent on risky blockbuster titles.

That's a strategy that has all but doomed Hollywood to a death spiral of bigger budgets, lower margins and costly flops.

Microsoft's Needed Change

Not playing well with indies for the past few years has cost Microsoft in the gaming press. Seeing indie devs who had exclusive release contracts with Microsoft slag them in the pages of gaming blogs has become regular occurrence.

Being so, the decision they made to open up the system has been met by skepticism.

Gamasutra's Mike Rose is cautious about just how much Microsoft has changed their stripes.

I don't think the Redmond giant had any choice left in the matter, and if the details and execution of their new policies fall short of their competitors they will suffer for it. Not only in the short term, but over the long haul.

You see, it's not just small teams making retro games, narrative experiments and veteran developers bringing dormant franchises back to life in the indie space. There is serious hardware innovation going on as well. The virtual reality movement has caught fire again thanks to the Oculus Rift, and there are other projects on the indie train that have hitched their cars to the Oculus engine. The gaming "treadmill"Virtuix Omni followed in the Oculus's footsteps to Kickstarter success, for one. As soon as I hit "post" on this piece I'm off to see another VR project currently in crowdfunding: the Atlas.

For the major console manufacturers creating a healthy environment for independent development is a necessary defensive strategy.

Follow Noah Nelson on Twitter (@noahjnelson)


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