The last generation of consoles had many critics when it came to the treatment of small developers in the early years of the indie revolution.
Console manufacturers had never given such a spotlight to this sector before, but thanks to digital, they were able to open up their online marketplaces to accommodate an industry forever changed by smartphones.
The transition wasn’t smooth though. Microsoft may have won plaudits for Xbox Live Arcade, but indies on all platforms were soon aggrieved by the high costs of developing for consoles, the significant amount of red tape and excessive update fees.
Fast forward to next-gen, and the way console manufacturers approach indies is completely different. Nintendo has already ushered in a new way of thinking with Wii U, allowing developers to update their games free of charge and introducing HTML5 development platform the Nintendo Web Framework as it looks to entice mobile devs.
Nintendo of Europe business development manager Ed Valiente tells us the firm has also worked on streamlining the drawn-out process to become an authorised developer on its systems, and is also set to implement “step-by-step large improvements” across all parts of the process, from first contact to product release and beyond.
Sony, meanwhile, teamed up with Develop to host a special PlayStation Developer Day in October at SCEE’s London HQ as it becomes more open about its submission process and what the manufacturer can do to help, and more of these events will be held across the UK next year.
The console giant has also streamlined its submission and approval process, ditching its regional two-stage process for a single-stage global one, and has a team of account managers on hand to help with queries. SCEE has also promised Develop it is working on making things even more streamlined and globally aligned in future.
Finally, Microsoft has launched the ID@Xbox program headed by Chris Charla, and has promised Xbox One retail units will eventually work as dev kits.
But, in the face of gaming’s blockbusters Grand Theft Auto V, Assassin’s Creed IV and Call of Duty: Ghosts, why are indie developers so important now to console manufacturers, and why has it become such a key battleground for the big three?
“In the current market, the traditional triple-A game concept may lean towards conservatism, for a multitude of business reasons,” says Valiente.
“Indies on the other hand can practice auteur game design, as in a sense they are free from many conventions and business constraints, so they can focus on the creative vision for their game. This is an incredibly powerful motivator and we’re seeing indie games becoming a driver of innovation in modern games design.
“That spirit, paired with the broad access to development tools nowadays, results in fantastic new game experiences developed in a frequency never seen before. Such new experiences are what the industry needs to deliver consumers in order to grow further."
SCEE’s Shahid Ahmad, who is in charge of snapping up indie games for PlayStation platforms, agrees that it is this unrelenting creativity from small developers that sits at the heart of what makes these titles so crucial in the modern games industry.
“At PlayStation, we’ve involved developers not just on the software side, but with the design of the hardware itself,” he says. “In the last few years, we’ve seen an indie revolution. The smallest developers have become empowered to create all kinds of games, to take on risks that others just can’t take. So indies are important to us because we’ve always been a platform that encouraged innovation, and we always want to be on that leading edge not just with technology, but with ideas too.”
Taking centre stage
There is also a strong push from console manufacturers to not just appease indies during the submission process, but right through to post-launch and promotion.
For its part, Sony is offering promotional opportunities on the main PlayStation Store, the PlayStation Blog, a special indie section on its online marketplace and through social networks, with Ahmad a keen and frequent evangelist for the latest indie titles.
He explains there are a number of factors that make a successful marketplace, and that indie titles can help create that much needed vibrant ecosystem.
“Quality, visibility, choice, value and creative expression are all key to a successful online marketplace on consoles,” he states.
“Sometimes, an indie is quite capable of ticking not just the ‘creative expression’ box, but all of them. I think there is a perception held by a minority that indie cannot equate to quality.
“I think over the last few years, we’ve begun to see that this equation is a fallacy and that indies can create a depth and quality of experience that is no different to any other type of game.”
Indies can practice auteur game design, as in a sense they are free from many conventions and business constraints, so they can focus on the creative vision for their game.
– Ed Valiente, Nintendo
Nintendo has also made room for a special indie section on its eShop, and often shines the spotlight on indie content it thinks its users will enjoy, and Valiente says developers have been able to use this to great effect. He offers similar pillars for a successful marketplace place as Ahmad, explaining while Nintendo itself aims for quality, indies can provide another avenue to attract consumers.
“I think that the key element to a successful platform is content and quality; if there are interesting, creative, innovative and fun games, consumers will come,” he says.
“Nintendo always strives for this type of content on its platforms, and through indies it is possible to have another way to have this type of content. I think that having a breadth of high-quality games ultimately makes a system and its marketplace successful.”
With indies so key to a vibrant digital store for consoles, and the big three doing so much to promote them and fight for indie favour, does this mean they can be system sellers?
Valiente says that on their own, given the non-exclusive nature of many indie titles, they are not necessarily driving console sales, but he is confident a healthy ecosystem could prove enticing to consumers.
“If we take indie games as a general offering and outlet of creativity, their growing relevance could be the difference between someone investing in a new platform or not. In the end, good, high-quality content is part of creating a successful system,” he says.
Ahmad similarly believes indie games can provide the tipping point to make consumers fork out their cash, and offers a number of examples as to why this could be the case.
“I’m buying a PS4 to play Resogun. I know I’m not the only one,” he states. “People came up to Mike Bithell at the Eurogamer Expo and said they’d be buying a PS4 to play Volume. People will buy a PS4 to play all manner of games and enjoy all kinds of experiences, but there’s no doubt that the thing that could tip them over the edge to actually buy a system in the future, might well be an indie game.”
A new kind of publisher?
Given all this attention, and Nintendo Microsoft and Sony’s willingness to streamline the submission process, provide constant assistance throughout the development phase and support the post-release push to sell, you could be forgiven for thinking the big three had taken on the mantle of publishers.
Ahmad says the lines between developer, publisher and platform will inevitably become blurred as consoles shift toward the digital space and developers move into creating games as a service.
“Given that context, we see a bright future for publishers, but everyone is going to have to keep on adapting as the parameters continue to shift, and we are surprised as the boundaries of the possible continue to be pushed,” he explains.
“There’s no doubt that the collapse of the double-A space has left a sizeable gap in content. The ecosystem is changing. We’ve worked closely with developers and publishers to bring titles that otherwise might not have made the jump over to PlayStation, like Thomas Was Alone, Hotline Miami and Spelunky and in doing so, we’ve hopefully started some great relationships.”
There’s no doubt that the thing that could tip them over the edge to actually buy a system in the future, might well be an indie game.
– Shahid Ahmad, SCEE
However, Valiente says definitively that, at least from Nintendo’s point of view, console platform holders are not effectively taking on the role of the publisher.
He says it is Nintendo’s job to ensure its marketplace provides consumers a plethora of content they are interested in, and its main responsibility on the marketplace lies with them, rather than the developer.
“Once the product is out, we are the shopkeeper, and our main responsibility actually turns towards the consumer – offering them content they are interested in is the only way to run the shop successfully. As a consequence, indie games often take centre stage on Nintendo eShop,” he says.
“One thing that differentiates us very clearly from being a publisher is that on the Nintendo eShop, the developer is in control of the pricing of their products at any one time; they decide at what price to sell, when, and how to change it.”
Regardless of whether or not Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo are essentially becoming modern day game publishers, one thing is clear. The lines have now been drawn, but it may take a long time before we see the real results of the console reaction to the indie revolution, and who in the console space will win favour amongst indies – particularly in the face of PC and mobile.
The indie view
Nyamyam’s Jennifer Schneidereit
UK developer Nyamyam is working on artistically-styled point and touch adventure title Tengami for the Wii U.
Studio co-founder Jennifer Schneidereit says so far, the self-publishing process for the console has been smooth and Nintendo has assisted the developer to overcome any barriers, and says the console giant provides “a level of contact that just doesn’t exist when working with Apple”.
She says that signing up to Nintendo’s developer program only took a matter of days, and soon after had access to the developer portal, tools, documentation and quickly had two Wii U dev kits sent over from the US.
She adds that at present, there does not seem to be any restrictions or barriers that will keep independent developers away from making games and releasing them on the Wii U – particularly now that there is no longer an office requirement, meaning Nyamyam can develop Tengami from their home. However, Schneidereit believes there are areas Nintendo can improve on.
“Ideally there wouldn’t be a territory separation and you would just sign one set of contracts, do one certification process and so on and be able to release your game in the Nintendo eShop worldwide. The territory separation makes the process a bit more bureaucratic than it should be in my opinion.
“Nintendo Japan’s stance on self-publishing for indies is not quite clear to me at the moment and I would like to hear more about this. In the best case scenario they follow in the footsteps of Nintendo US and EU and adopt a company-wide, unified approach across the territories.”
Previously working at EA Maxis and on titles such as Spore, Chris Hecker was laid off from the studio in 2009 and went indie to work on his own title, SpyParty, which is currently in development.
Hecker says that long before Microsoft announced its plans for Xbox One indie initiative ID@Xbox, he had been in discussions with Chris Charla to help brainstorm what the new indie self-publishing process could look like, offering an insight into how the computing giant reached out to developers as it prepared its plans – revealed long after Nintendo and Sony had shown their hand.
“I think all three big console platforms are really starting out very indie-friendly this time, which is awesome,” he says.
“There are really great people at Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo now who understand indie games development and what our goals are, and they all seem genuinely interested in helping push the art form forward. It’s never been easier to get an indie game on any of the big consoles. It’s still a tonne of work to make a console game, but all of the contractual and business roadblocks seem to be gone or in the process of crumbling, which is awesome."
Hecker believes however that the next big step the console manufacturers need to focus on is discoverability, as Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo curate their marketplaces less and accept more titles.
“The iOS App Store is a disaster on this front, for example,” he says.
“I don’t think consoles will ever be as crowded as the App Store, simply because there is a pretty high technical bar to getting a game through the console certification process, but I predict discoverability is going to be the big challenge going forward.”
Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail
Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail, whose studio has developed titles such as Super Crate Box and Ridiculous Fishing, says Sony and Microsoft have made huge strides with indie support compared to the last generation, and highlights some key benefits offered by the console firms.
“While PlayStation 3 allowed for self-publishing, it was an extremely convoluted process aimed at companies that had the resources to just throw some accountants, lawyers and project managers at the process,” he states.
“In the last year, Sony has made remarkable strides to create a streamlined process – something that benefits absolutely everybody in the games industry, besides those accountants, lawyers and project managers. Xbox 360 never had a self-publishing deal – so ID@Xbox is a huge improvement as well.
“The interesting difference at the moment is that while Steam seems to slowly be opening up with hundreds of games passing through Greenlight in the past months, and iOS has traditionally been open to anybody that can afford the development costs, Microsoft and Sony continue to offer curated platforms. That comes with different challenges and different opportunities.”
There are some other aspects Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo could improve however, he says, and that includes further streamlining certification and the technical requirements checklist.
“That process has a lot of arbitrary delays and waiting time, and improving on that could help a lot,” he explains.
“At the other end, the ability to develop for consoles as a tinkerer is something that platforms should probably invest in in this age of increasingly democratised development tools. There are obviously arguments to be made for why things are that way, but seriously: it is sort of insane that in 2014, dev kits are still going to be a big deal.”