Indies are scorching hot. Maybe it was Minecraft. Maybe it was Super Meat Boy. Maybe it was Journey. Either way, just weeks before the launch of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One it is indie developers who find themselves - whether they like it or not - on the front line of the next generation battle.
The first parties argue they've always loved independent developers, that their consoles have always made the small, quirky and strange welcome. This isn't entirely true. Microsoft made waves by publishing the likes of Braid and Limbo on Xbox 360, but its strict policies have driven some indies to despair. Nintendo's publishing policies for Wii and its Wii Shop Channel were at best baffling, and Sony, now the beacon of hope for indies the world over, well -- when PlayStation 3 launched eight years ago things were very different.
At E3 2013 Microsoft said it was still not keen on allowing self-publishing for Xbox One -- a decision that baffled indies. Then, at Gamescom in August, a surprise but welcome announcement: the ID@Xbox program. Headed up by former indie developer Chris Charla, ID@Xbox opened its doors the day it was unveiled, enticing developers to fill in a web form with the promise of two free dev kits and self-publishing-style policies.
Nintendo, too, has made more of an effort to court indies, but in typical fashion has done so behind closed doors. Like Microsoft and Sony, Nintendo believes in self-publishing. But unlike Microsoft and Sony, Nintendo's indie push is off the PR radar.
And as for Sony, in truth indies have had the option of something approaching PlayStation platform self-publishing available to them for some time now, but the company has still worked to smooth its pitch, contract negotiation and certification processes ahead of the launch of the revamped PlayStation Store. And Sony has, smartly, given indies the kind of exposure they've never had before. This is the company that convinced Braid creator Jonathan Blow to pitch The Witness on stage during Sony's bombastic PS4 reveal event.
There can be no doubt: there has been a sea change in policy at the big three, and it's making waves.
But why? For all the talk of indie games being system sellers, developers Eurogamer spoke to have different ideas. Eurogamer understands Microsoft, following the PR mauling it suffered at the Xbox One reveal event in May, and, a month later, at E3, contacted a number of indie developers to ask them what they'd like to see from Microsoft. Then ID@Xbox appeared, as if it were part of the plan from the moment Xbox One was conceived.
What sparked this change in policy at Microsoft? Did Microsoft finally bow to the pressure put on it by a development community that has for years called for change?
"We put a lot of pressure on both Sony and Microsoft in the very early days to at least have a route forward for people who didn't necessarily want to go via a third party," Jason Kingsley, boss of Sniper Elite developer Rebellion, tells us. "It looks like that pressure -- [UK games industry trade association] TIGA put a lot of pressure on them as well -- has finally born fruit. It's partly because of that, but mostly because that's the way the industry is going.
"It would be crazy for them to say you have to publish stuff physically in a box -- three of them -- before you can think about getting a slot to release your stuff. That was a strategy designed for a transitional period. Maybe we're coming out of that transitional period and they can be more bullish about the possibilities of a pure digital game."
Or was it a PR play designed to spark the kind of positive headlines Sony has revelled in over the past year or so?
"Knee-jerk you say?" laughs Curve Studios managing director Jason Perkins. "It does seem as if the platform owners are using us as a bit of a battleground. Obviously Sony has the high ground right now, and Microsoft are playing catch up."
Or was it in the hope of unearthing the next Minecraft, the best-selling Xbox Live Arcade game of all time?
"If they come across the next Minecraft it's all been worthwhile," Perkins says. But even if Microsoft doesn't find the next indie blockbuster, just getting more indie games on Xbox may boost the bottom line.
"They make money by taking part of the store revenue, so there's an argument with lots of product, albeit priced at a lower price point, not selling in hundreds of thousands but in tens of thousands, there's still good business on the indie side of things," Perkins says.
Phil Gaskell, creative director and co-founder of Ripstone, disagrees with the notion that ID@Xbox is a response to Sony's indie love-in. Rather, he believes Microsoft is reacting to industry trends just as others have -- it's just the gargantuan company is about as agile as a turtle carrying an Xbox.
"I don't think it's tit for tat," he says. "I don't think big companies work that way. That would be negligent.
"But I do think it's a response to the general change in games. We're now starting to see either these big tent-pole games that have tens or hundreds of millions of dollars spent on them, and then these much more -- to me more interesting -- risky, esoteric indie games.
"It's a response to the way the industry is changing rather than how their competitors are approaching it."
Indeed Gaskell, who for four years worked at Sony Computer Entertainment as an external producer of digitally distributed PSN games for PS3 and PSP, believes Microsoft gets an unfair degree of flak when it comes to indies.
"When you look back at 360 they were the first to start promoting and helping indie games find a digital home," he says. "We do them down a little bit because of more recently what's been going on, but they have been big supporters of indies as a whole. Yes, they've not been as open, but then in the past a lot of the consoles haven't been quite as open, and now they're all starting to open up.
"It's good to see such a big company like Microsoft changing their policies quickly. That's a positive. Normally companies of that size take an age to turn. They've only had one bad press conference, learnt from it and changed their process. And it's changed for the better."
The State of Play
How, exactly, have the first parties' indie policies changed? Most developers believe they're each getting closer to true self-publishing, with only the odd feature here and there differentiating the way they do business with indies.
One developer who has spoken with all three console players -- but is only progressing with Sony at the moment -- is Thomas was Alone and Volume creator Mike Bithell.
"The big shift is they are now available," he says. "There isn't this mysterious process of waiting for the call, which was at least the perception for a long time. It seems in each case there are very visible opportunities to talk to people.
"Shahid [Ahmad, SCEE's senior business development manager] is all over Twitter and very visible. The guys at Microsoft are starting to do the same thing and have really reached out to indies in the last few months. And Nintendo were making a big push at GDC Europe, which is where I spoke to them.
"They're coming to us, which is the big shift. It doesn't feel like we're going, cap in hand, to the console companies any more. The balance seems to have shifted in our favor, which is obviously welcome."
Sony's efforts here are well documented, and were the subject of a Eurogamer investigation published earlier this year. According to Bithell, Sony's processes have remained largely the same in the run up to the release of the PS4, but he has noticed one important change.
"They're putting people in between their processes to save indies time and make it more human," he says. "That's their big shift and actually very welcome, because I've not got to send 10 emails to 50 different people to get something changed. It's a point of contact. It's a communication solution.
"ID@Xbox seems to be -- not an automated process -- but more structured and less freeform. It seems to be more web forms and processes, which is fine, but a slightly different approach.
"And Nintendo seems to be creating a combination of the two. It seems from the outside like a friendly, welcoming environment. Nintendo are talking more about visibility than the other platforms, presumably because their shop exists and is visible. With Sony and Microsoft you're talking about a store that isn't visible yet, so there's always going to be that 'subject to change' element to it."
It's easy to forget Nintendo in all of this. The famously secretive company has never been one to blow its own trumpet, and has so far refused to make a song and dance about indie games on Wii U and 3DS. But behind the scenes developers have been courted -- and many want their games on the eShop despite the terrible sales of the Wii U.
"They've been quiet, but they've not been idle at all," Ripstone's Gaskell reveals.
"We've been having similar conversations with them. They're changing their policies on the technical side a lot swifter. We're launching Pure Chess and Knytt Underground later this year, and on Pure Chess we asked whether we could do cross-platform multiplayer, expecting it to be the typical closed console platform I've been used to working with for 20 years. Within a couple of days they said, 'yep, no problem. You can have other console players playing against Wii U players. You can have smartphone players play against them. No problem.'
"We're still talking to Sony about them relaxing their policies, but we don't think they'll have any issue with it. So when we launch Pure Chess you'll be able to play against Wii U, 3DS, iOS and Android players. And when we patch PlayStation those consoles will be added into the mix as well."
Ripstone's extra effort with the Wii U version of Pure Chess may come as a surprise given how few own Nintendo's console. If EA can't make a return on investment on the Wii U, what chance does a small indie publisher have? But Gaskell views the situation from a different angle. In fact, he sees it as an opportunity.
"When I read about people like EA pulling out of the console, I perk up because I think, well, if they're not serving the audience that exists with games someone needs to," he counters.
"I know by looking at some of the statistics that while Wii U doesn't have a huge audience right now, that audience has a voracious appetite for content. And if no-one's going to serve them games, well, Ripstone will, without a doubt.
"Indie games don't need huge audiences They're often personal and niche creations. They only need niche audiences to be profitable."
Can you see me?
Ask any indie developer what concerns them most about self-publishing on console and they'll tell you it's discoverability (well, that or the cost of a Unity license). Indies are worried gamers will struggle to find their creations on Microsoft and Sony's new digital store fronts, that they'll be lost in the sea of triple-A promotion, drowned out by the BRRRRAP of Halo and the BOOOOOM of Killzone.
Microsoft, which has ditched Xbox Live Arcade and Xbox Live Indie Games for an all-encompassing, "games are games are games" approach with Xbox One, has a number of systems in place to tackle this issue, and Europe chief Phil Harrison ran through them in a recent interview with Eurogamer. Top of the list: trending. That is, the theory that if your friends are all playing the same game it'll "bubble" up to the digital shop front as hot topics do on Twitter.
Developers, though, are somewhat skeptical of this approach.
"I do worry that throwing it all into the same hat, while that's ideologically cool, and while it's awesome that Halo and Volume are the same, I do worry that Halo isn't the same as Volume. Halo will be seen more, because everyone will be playing it," says Bithell. "Any kind of trending system, you're going to see stuff drowned out. Any system that is 'what your friends are playing' is actually 'what your friends are buying'.
"Things like the Amazon Kindle Store, that's all one big pot. But that doesn't mean the weird esoteric books are just as visible as the John Grisham books, because that's just not the way culture works. Actually, there is an argument for highlighting.
"We'll see," Bithell ponders. "The visibility Thomas was Alone was given on PlayStation Network was fantastic, and went above and beyond the business imperative of it. I imagine Sony made a lot less money by putting a Thomas was Alone ad on the front page for as long as they did than they would have done by putting an Arkham City or Killzone ad.
"The thing with Sony is, I don't think it's a coincidence the department dealing with this is called Strategic Content. This is not just a business system for them. They want to be seen to be doing this kind of stuff, and that carries a certain cache for them, which is important beyond just what's selling."
Curve's Perkins shares Bithell's concern about Microsoft's trending system, which he reckons could end up simply reflecting the triple-A dominated charts.
"From an indie perspective we want to get to just one click away, so you're straight into indie releases," he says. "There has been talk of potentially some kind of system where, say for instance a successful YouTuber might be selecting titles, if you like games this guy reviews then they will be pushed out to you. It's almost like following certain people. Again, this could be problematic, but it might be one way of doing things slightly differently.
"The share stuff that's going on on PS4 could work quite well. If you can see what your friends are playing, then maybe you're one click away from being able to buy it.
"But you just feel, typically, after your launch week you seem to slide down a little bit. I don't think there's an easy answer."
Gaskell, though, believes that because more will download big budget games on next-gen consoles than do on current-gen, indie games will benefit from sitting side-by-side with their triple-A rivals. It could be a sort of reflective glory.
"It works in two ways," he says. "Now we're starting to see the big retail games also available on digital, that brings a slightly interesting set of consumers who may stumble across some of our cool little indie games."
A brave new world
It's clear Sony has worked long and hard to make sure there is a raft of indie games available to buy for the PS4 at launch (Housemarque's arcade shooter Resogun is arguably the PS4's killer app). As for Xbox One, Capybara's Below was revealed back in June, but as Microsoft has admitted, we'll have to wait until next year to see the fruits of Charla's ID@Xbox emerge from the rebooted Xbox Marketplace.
Xbox One owners will, hopefully, be in for a treat. At Gamescom Charla told me Microsoft's hope was that ID@Xbox would result in new types of games, perhaps even "something crazy". And creating crazy, according to Bithell, is what indies do best.
"No-one's ever going to take away the awesome open world games, the first-person shooters or the racing games or the genres that work well on console," he predicts. "They're doing well. What we can provide though is everything else. We can provide a bunch of games to keep you going through summer, so summer isn't a drought any more. As a gamer that excites me.
"And price point," Bithell continues. "We're all used to spending £40 on a game, or a little bit less if you wait. That's not the case with indie games. Indie games, because most of them are digital only, are more available in sales and discounts and bundles. So you can get good deals and buy lots of games and have lots of different experiences.
"That's what indies have brought to Steam. Steam still sells well with Call of Duty but it broadens peoples' tastes. A lot of people who buy Call of Duty every year also buy 10 indie games in the sale for 50p a go. It's great for everyone."
Charla also hopes indies will make use of Xbox One's exclusive features, such as Kinect and the actuator motors in the triggers of the new Xbox One controller. I have to confess, I was skeptical of the claim at the time.
"Kinect interests me," Gaskell says, surprising me. "As long as Xbox One remains a single SKU that always has a Kinect camera, there are some interesting gesture-based interactions we can do with some of our games. You can imagine Stick it to the Man using your actual arm to control the spaghetti arm.
"But the one that pips it is the DualShock 4. As a designer by trade, that has me thinking about how tactile I can make a game now I've got something in the player's hand that's both touch and twin stick. We're working on a number of titles at the moment that I guess you could call evergreen game experiences but are now being made much more tactile because of that touchpad."
According to Gaskell, indies are more likely to make use of console exclusive features, such as Kinect, than triple-A developers because the big boys "can't afford to take a risk."
"They have to do something to support it, but isn't essential to the experience. You don't want to alienate half your Assassin's Creed audience by making them physically trying to climb and jump to play the game.
"So small indie games can go, you know what? Let's just do a game about being a pink spaghetti arm and let's just make it 100 per cent Kinect and you have to put your right hand above your head and pretend it's protruding out of your brain!"
Everyone's an indie
Microsoft intends for every retail Xbox One to, eventually, act as a developer kit. It's a lofty goal that could put a powerful development platform in the hands of a huge number of people. And with the eye-catching Project Spark, there is software at launch that's all about creation. But it's clear that for indie developers, the present is more important than the future.
Questions remain about ID@Xbox, about how it will work, about how, once indies have been accepted onto the program, Microsoft will work with them. As Stewart Gilray, boss of Oddworld developer Just Add Water recently put it to me: "We still don't know what Microsoft are doing. We still have some concerns."
Microsoft is only now getting back to indies who applied to ID@Xbox back in August, so pretty much everyone's in the dark, but Bithell hopes the competition between the first parties will, eventually, result in a greater digital marketplace for all.
"Essentially, what will happen is Microsoft and Sony will launch their stores and they'll both steal from each other and we'll end up with something better and brilliant from the combination," he says. "The worst possible outcome would be one console wins, as much as the fanboys would like it. It will never happen, which is great. You want that competition. It can only be good for indies if there's more than one platform doing good stuff in this area."
Looking further down the next-gen console lifecycle line, some have predicted, even called for, true self-publishing. The hope is that the PS4, Xbox One and Wii U will, at some point, work similarly to the most open platform of all: the PC.
"I would welcome the ability to control my own store page and engage with the audience directly, and own my own mistakes, effectively," Gaskell says, perhaps tempting fate.
"There's nothing more frustrating than when something gets published through, for example, PlayStation Network, and it doesn't get published right. Maybe the price is wrong, or maybe the wrong trailer has been published. Human error occurs, but I hate it when it's not my human error.
"I've no control over that, and I want control."
The future is, as always, difficult to predict. But one thing is clear: whatever the result of Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony's battle for indie developers' affection, it is gamers who win.
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