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Tales from the trenches: how Microsoft is losing the battle for indie developers

Tales from the trenches: how Microsoft is losing the battle for indie developers

It has never been a better time to be a smaller developer. Steam allows you to reach a huge number of PC gamers, and upcoming consoles like the OUYA give you more outlets to push your titles to a hungry audience. The iOS market is thriving. Both Nintendo and Sony are making strong plays for smaller developers, and both companies have taken steps to make it simpler to get content onto their hardware, while giving the developers more control over pricing and release dates.

Microsoft, on the other hand, seems stuck in an antiquated way of thinking when it comes to the Xbox Live Arcade, developers are suffering due to patch fees and the requirement to work with large publishers, and the abundance of ads on the Xbox dashboard is hurting the discoverability of smaller games.

The stories of Microsoft's hostilities towards smaller devs are beginning to pile up. This is what people are saying.

Super Sony

“It’s astonishing what Sony is doing right now. They are doing some very aggressive movements, and I love it.” Devolver's Nigel Lowrie told the Report. Hotline Miami is coming to Sony platforms because Sony saw it before it was released, called Devolver, and made it happen. Lowrie said that he’s often in friendly competition with Sony over signing interesting indie games, a situation that seems to make him happy. More competition for smaller, more interesting games is a good thing.

On the other hand, the company doesn't have a relationship with Microsoft, mostly due to the policies of Xbox Live Arcade. “We don’t have a formal relationship with Microsoft, because you have to publish retail games to be awarded Xbox Live slots, and we don’t do that. So anything we release on XBLA needs to be with a partner,” he explained.

Sony recently held an event at GDC just to celebrate its relationship with indie publishers, and to show off games like Sportsfriends and a wide variety of indie content. They had a slide mocking the Xbox Live Arcade “slot” system, and went to great lengths to show how hard it used to be to get a game onto a Sony platform, before saying most of the roadblocks have been removed.

“We took the process, and I literally have a slide in my presentation that shows the 64 steps that it took to get your content out, and we're trying to take big chunks of that out and squish it down to one or two steps,” Adam Boyes, the VP of Publisher and Developer relations at Sony told the Report. “It's just been about taking the entire process, post-morteming it on a regular basis, and making it easier and better.”

Boyes also sits down with the developers to ask what “pisses them off” about the system. “If you can't sit down with developers and listen to what they have to say, and tie that back into the fixes, you can't succeed,” he said. Developers can self-publish their games on Sony's devices, and in many cases the deals signed include promotion at events at shows like GDC, or prime placement on the PlayStation Network.

Boyes leads a team of eight people who pay attention to the indie scene, and they're proactive about getting the games with a large amount of buzz or that they believe in, and signing the content for Sony platforms. They can offer indies an advance against royalties through the PubFund. They've offered to set developers up with dev kits, and to wave the patch fees if “asked nicely.”

Sony's GDC was filled with smiling indie royalty, including Retro City Rampage’s Brian Provinciano, QWOP and Pole Riders creator Bennett Foddy, and Spelunky creator Derek “Mossmouth” Yu, not to mention Johann Sebastian Joust creator Douglas Wilson and Vlambeer's Rami Ismail playing Joust, for the first time, at an official Sony event.

Sony employees walked the floor beaming, playing games, talking to the press, and introducing everyone to developers. They're not co-opting indie culture as much as they're becoming entrenched in it. Everyone I spoke to seemed to be a true believer.

Nintendo steps up

Nintendo has never been transparent about its business practices, but a recent interview with Nintendo’s Dan Adelman outlined many of the changes the company has instituted to make things more friendly for small developers. Developers now get paid from day one, they don’t need to wait until sales hit a certain threshold to get a check. There doesn’t need to be a retail publisher to release a game on the eShop. Developers are no longer required to work out of physical offices.

“Developers set their own pricing for their Wii U and Nintendo 3DS content. As one example, Little Inferno launched at $14.99,” Adelman stated. “They did a sale for $9.99, and it went so well, they decided to make that price change permanent. It's completely in their control.”

One developer I spoke with said this change in policy may have come a little late for Nintendo, but it's still a step in the right direction. Being able to control your own pricing, pick your release date, and the affordability of dev kits (Nintendo described the cost as the same as a high-end PC) are all moves that make Nintendo consoles much more attractive to developers.

On the other hand, I spoke with one of the developers working on the upcoming Space Hulk title, and he talked about bringing the game to the PC, Linux, a version for iOS, and he said they’re looking at consoles, but it’s a prohibitive process, especially on the 360.

“For Microsoft you need to have an XBLA slot, and those are hard to find. Hard to get onto. I don’t understand it, but those are the rules. I’m really small, and I’m never going to get a retail slot before an XBLA slot,” he told me. They’d have to partner with a publisher who releases retail games, which has its own downsides.

Uber Entertainment recently discussed its history with Microsoft, and the story is a laundry list of how backwards the company has become when dealing with developers. “Uber fixed some bugs and packed up new content to send out to its fans for free, but Microsoft's certification process destroyed the timeliness of the release,” Polygon reported.

“It took 35 days from the time we submitted to the time it showed up on people's Xboxes,” [Uber's] Ekanayake stated. It wasn't a one-off situation either. Uber worked on another update during this time, which actually made it through the certification process quicker. “It only took 34 days this time”

A public feud over patch fees also erupted around the bugs found in Fez. A number of sources have since come forward to discuss the difficulties of dealing with Microsoft if you’re a smaller developer, although few were willing to go on the record with their particular stories.

Developers can bring their games to Steam, or to Sony's platforms, or iOS, or the OUYA, or Nintendo, or some combination of those platforms and others. Each company is making big plays to look more attractive and open to developers, and it's never been easier to get your content onto many different services and be supported by the platform holdes.

It's possible Microsoft will soon make similar moves, but for now the feeling seems to be that Microsoft is acting like a dinosaur, watching all these small animals with fur wandering around the countryside, hoping that they won't go extinct.