Independent game developers face many obstacles, from limited funding and AAA competition to marketing challenges and getting attention from a distracted press. But those hurdles can multiply when an indie developer decides to release a game on a console. Fez developer Phil Fish highlighted this fact last week, with a widely publicized complaint about being asked to pay tens of thousands of dollars in recertification fees to Microsoft to fix a known issue with the game.
Clashes between Microsoft and indie developers are not a new phenomenon. Since 2008, World of Goo co-creator Ron Carmel polled 200 of his fellow independent developers about their feelings across platforms. Last year’s survey found that developer interest in Xbox Live Arcade was declining, while interest in PlayStation 3 was on the rise. In addition, a 48 percent majority of developers described working with Microsoft on Xbox Live Arcade as “excruciating,” a level surpassed only by individual mobile carriers. Working with Steam, on the other hand, was considered “very easy” by 64 percent of the developers in the survey.
Speaking to Ars Technica, Carmel clarified that those “excruciating” experiences focused on dealing with Microsoft Studios, the in-house publisher that releases independent XBLA games that don’t have an established third-party publisher (such as EA, Activision, or Ubisoft). ). “Contract negotiations [with Microsoft Studios] are drawn out and hostile,” Carmel said. “I’ve heard a lot of complaints about having to work with a producer, and their terms are the worst of any modern digital distribution channel.” (Microsoft declined to comment on this story.)
Going through Microsoft Studios not only means keeping your game exclusive to Xbox Live Arcade for a period of time after launch, but the outfit also takes an additional percentage of a game’s revenue over and above the standard discount for all Xbox Live Arcade titles, Carmel said. “That’s why we see smart console developers like Supergiant [Bastion] and Clay [Shank] go through third-party publishers – those publishers get better terms from XBLA (directly) than a small developer could get from Microsoft Studios, and they can launch the game on multiple platforms at the same time.
Avoiding that exclusivity clause is one of the reasons Zeboyd Games founder Robert Boyd said he hasn’t attempted a full Xbox Live Arcade release for the recently released game. Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode 3. Instead, Boyd adapted the Steam version of the game for the less popular Xbox Live Indie Games channel, which has much less stringent certification requirements, but also receives much less promotion from Microsoft. Boyd said he sees the XBLIG release as a “thank you to our fans” that still allowed the game to be ported to “as many platforms as possible”.
The past is history
Boyd praised Microsoft for doing some “great things” for the indie game community, including creating the Indie Games territory primarily as a proving ground for low-budget developers. But he’s concerned that the company “has stopped moving forward in terms of advancing indie games, while everyone else is increasingly focused on indie development.” He cites Steam’s easy post-launch updates, Sony’s extensive outreach efforts to indie developers, and even Nintendo’s increasing focus on digital distribution as signs that Microsoft is falling behind in this area.
“Certainly, Microsoft has a full schedule for XBLA right now, but if they want to continue to attract top talent to their platforms for 2013, 2014 and beyond, they need to ramp up their efforts and be more accommodating to smaller developers.” Boyd said. “They should at least relax their patch rules. It doesn’t matter how good your QA team is – if you’re making something with the sort of complexity found in your typical modern game, you’re not going to get every bug the first time I’m really looking forward to it [Fez programmer] Renaud Bedard, because I know how frustrating it is to find [out] about a bug and not sure how to fix it [it].”
Not all indie developers are so negative about the hassle of publishing Xbox Live Arcade. Derek Yu, whose cult hit PC game spelunky was recently modified for XBLA, said he went to port knowing full well that there were additional costs associated with doing business on consoles. “It didn’t stop me because I was committed to developing a console game,” he said. “In my opinion, the entire console development process is prohibitively expensive – not just the cost, but also the selection process and the time invested in understanding the platform. You should only do it if you have the resources and are really on a console want to sit.”
But those “forbidden” hurdles to console development don’t even serve a real purpose, according to Braid developer Jonathan Blow. While strict certification requirements (and the associated temporary and monetary costs) may have made sense in the disc-only era, Blow says, the process has become actively detrimental as today’s downloadable indie titles are released.
“The certification processes of all these platform holders were based on the idea that all of these steps that they test are absolutely necessary for software to work robustly, and that software robustness is super important to the health of their platform and customer perception of it. ” Blow said. “But look at iOS. There is almost no certification process for iOS, so according to the Microsoft/Sony/Nintendo theory, the apps should crash all the time, everyone should consider iOS worthless, etc. But in fact, this is not the case what is happening. There is no public outcry about more testing and robustness of iOS software.”
Blow called on console makers to micromanage developers with certification requirements, such as the need to include the ever-present “Don’t turn off their console when saving a game” message. The time spent developing and testing details like this adds up, he said, arguing that it’s better spent working on the games themselves.
“The benefit of both Apple and Valve going forward is that they both genuinely care about the end-user experience and want to make it the best it can be,” said Blow. “Which happens to be where these consoles are handicapped by their corporate culture. Can anyone look at the current 360 or PS3 dashboards and legitimately say that these are products of an entity that cares deeply about user experience?”
While newcomers like Ouya try to remove all the barriers that are so much of a headache for indie console developers, Blow fears the current certification model is too “ingrained in the DNA” of established console makers to be changed any time soon.
“If the way the next-gen consoles work is much like the way they work now, they will be functionally archaic on the market,” he said. “Keep in mind they have to compete with the iPad 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. Any idea what the iPad 5 or 6 will look like, how powerful they will be, what other user benefits they will I certainly don’t.”