(Reposted from my blog at crystallinegreen.com )
The big three console manufacturers have all been making lots of noise recently, espousing their indie credentials and how they are now open to all comers. Having just successfully released my first game on the OUYA, I was keen to find out how genuine a contender for "most indie friendly" they each were. Both in competing with OUYA, and as possible targets for my own game heading cross-platform.
So last Friday, I headed down to London, to the headquarters of UKIE, for the "Indie Collective" event, where each console maker set out their respective stalls and pitched their platform to the 100 or so assembled indie devs.
(I should make mention that Amazon and a number of other speakers were also at the event, but interesting as those talks were, my game is designed for console, so that was my main focus for the day).
This talk was less about the actual process of getting onto the PS4, which in a way was quite nice. There were some interesting points made by the Sony rep, Shahid, about (what I'd term) the stratification of game development into AAA on the one hand and indie on the other hand, with the hollowing out of the "double A" studios in-between.
One thing mentioned, when asked about Sony's motivations for reaching out to indies was that Sony had always been a B-to-B type of business; somewhat implying that they viewed indies as closer to consumers than other businesses. Which is probably fair enough when you consider many indies don't have teams of lawyers, marketeers and PR people, and in many cases, aren't even incorporated.
Another area highlighted as of particular importance to Sony was the idea of "credibility" of a game developer. This idea that it isn't necessarily the number of titles shipped or size of team, but how genuine and credible they think you are in terms of ultimately, being able to come up with the goods. This extended to indies spending time networking, going to events, getting their face out there, so that Sony know of devs from more than just a few tweets and emails.
This point was extended when (somewhat controversially), it was suggested indies do their own PR, rather than rely on a company. Drawing on this idea that the indie game dev is the most important asset (after the game itself), when it comes to selling the game.
Other things included the emphasis on Vita (there were a couple of free Vita's being given away during the talk). Presumably, since Sony have had some success reviving the Vita's fortunes by turning it into a sort of indie platform, they want to continue that. And also perhaps might prefer unknown devs to start there and prove themselves, so as to reduce the number of "My first games" appearing on PS4.
Equally, there was a certain amount of sales pitch around Sony's proprietary tools and SDKs, which again can be rationalised: They want you to ideally make exclusives for their platforms, and tieing you into their tech is part of that.
Overall though, the Sony talk comes from the same hymn sheet as what I've seen and read online coming out of the company over the last 6 to 9 months or so.
This was very much more about the process of getting onto Xbox One, and the speaker from Microsoft, Phil Waymouth, made the point a number of times that while him and his team heard this stuff every day, it was easy to forget not everyone else had heard about it. So his mission was very much to help educate people about that.
Microsoft have come under criticism that maybe their ID@Xbox campaign looks a bit rushed and "me too" ish. And reading between the lines about the above, you can see why Microsoft have been somewhat irked by that accusation.
Meantime, the process itself was presented as a simple 1. 2. 3. step affair: Initiate Contact -> Pitch Game -> Publish, though each step in itself appears to be complex and involved.
The point was made that creating games was hard! And this was also reflected when I checked out the ID@Xbox site after the talk, which talks about professionalism and has a sign up form where you can list all the titles you've shipped, how many years experience you have in the industry etc.
As with Sony and the Vita, the hint from Microsoft is that Windows 8 apps are a good way to prove your self in terms of quality and the "credibility" factor that Sony spoke about. The idea that you're a known quantity to Microsoft if there is an app or two that you can point to on the Windows 8 app store.
As if to push that home, there was quite a bit of talk about the Kinect and how developers could access the full HD camera and the array of microphones that allow the Xbox One to know where sound is coming from in the room (and/or from which player). All of which, without wanting to be too disparaging, is probably beyond the capabilities of the average indie.
Conversely, I was very excited to see Microsoft address the problem of discoverability head on (something I feel passionately about). Microsoft analogised themselves as providing the easel, paint brushes and gallery for the game dev "artist", and the gallery seems to learn from the mistakes of app-stores past: Single store (no ghettoized XBLIG/XBLA marketplaces), and for curation, a mix of hand-picked "spotlight" featured section, and using technology in the form of trending and a recommendations engine.
Other mentions went to the fact they fully support IAP and f2p/freemium models, but they also use the wholesale model. As an indie, I wasn't really aware of this before, but it was explained quite well, and makes a lot of sense when you think in terms of the legal and tax aspects of selling games.
Second screen also got a fleeting mention, though personally, I think second screen gaming has huge potential, so disappointed, but not entirely surprised it got glossed over.
Microsoft seem like they want to make a distinction between indie and Independent developers, with their preference very much for the latter. But that they can't say that out loud
Arguably the most interesting of the three talks, it was prefaced by the event host describing how once upon a time, it was not uncommon to travel all the way to Kyoto in Japan and actually meet with Nintendo bosses in person. The point being, things had come along way since then and the company was changing. It was also noted that many of the things mentioned in the talk were not being discussed openly (or at least not under NDA) until very recently. While I appreciate it kinda sucks to then have someone like me splurge it all out over the internets, hopefully, this will assist other indie devs and Nintendo themselves in opening up.
In fact, I was lucky enough to have a chat with one of the Nintendo reps during lunch, and the way it was put to me, going back to the motivation behind companies doing these talks, was that in the last generation, Nintendo had broadened their customer base and the spread of demographics (casuals, women etc). Now the intention was to do a similar thing for their developer base.
Nintendo admitted that wiiware hadn't exactly been perfect, but that they were really starting to get there with the current eShop. Off-device eShop browsing was mentioned as being in the pipeline, though like much in the talk, it was "when it happens / but I can't talk about that".
As for being featured on the eShop, there are no paid featured slots, with everything being selected by the editorial staff. The permanent indie feature slot on the store was highlighted. Interestingly, there was a suggestion that niche games were a favourite amongst editors.
IAP and freemium / f2p were all fine, and unlike Microsoft, the eShop worked on the agency model. Too much manipulating of the prices though, and/or attempts to game the system were deemed "inadvisable".
Another point raised was that there was no minimum threshold before developers get paid. That was interesting for me when comparing it to my experience on OUYA, where there is a $150 threshold before they pay up.
In fact, much of the Nintendo talk seemed to be aimed at clearing up what they had identified as common developer misconceptions. No exclusivity requirement, and no requirement to use specific bits of hardware. Working from home, they had recognised, was fine, so long as there were reasonable guarantees that you didn't leave your door unlocked and wide open for anyone wandering down the street to poke their head in and knab your Wii U devkit.
On the subject of the devkit, Nintendo made the reasonable point that, as much as they were willing to make things financially easy and provide as great an assistance as possible for free, the devkit pricetag, represented a reciprocal serious committment on the behalf of the developer.
Process wise, Nintendo made no pretensions about their eight odd steps to get games from inception to sitting on the store. Sign up to their dev program, get a devkit. Then after that, quite some emphasis was put on getting an internal game code / id number for your game. Without having gone through the process myself, I interpret that as being the starting point for your game competing with others for internal marketing resources and attention within Nintendo. That it enabled the Nintendo rep championing your game to fight for its cause.
Now here, more than anywhere, I might be guilty of reading way too much into what the Nintendo guys were saying, but the message was that although you can get a game code any time, the earlier in the development cycle you can get your game on Nintendo's internal radar, the better
Another strong signal I got was that after QA and Price Setting, came the point that localisation was highly recommended. Again, without wanting to over-emphasise things, it seems this step is one that corporate would in the past have insisted on. They might drop it for indies, but the impression I got was that if you want to work with, rather than against the system, it would be better not to skip it.
As for the "which flavour of the month bit of tech should your game use if you want to sell to us as platform holders", the answer was Miiverse and off-TV gaming. Admittedly, I have never heard of the latter, but fortunately, the emphasis was on Miiverse. This was covered in quite some detail, with particular pride shown by the Nintendo guys about how developers could interact with their fan base, and customers/players could, through the miiverse, discover what was trending or what their friends were playing through a more organic feeling, human-face recommendations engine.
A throwaway comment was made about local multiplayer gaming also being good, which I find interesting, since OUYA, more by luck than by design, seems to have ended up with a really good slew of local multiplayer games. (I really feel OUYA should be targeting the Nintendo, mum&kids end of the market, not the PS4/Xbox One hardcore segment).
Finally, if you really want to get Nintendo's attention, in their words, make a game to "Surprise people and put a smile on their face."
Realistically, these are commercial organisations, and are not entirely doing this out of a purely altruistic love for the art. However, if you have a game that you truly believe in the quality of, there's probably never been a better time to get your game onto consoles.
As for my self, I've sent off introductory emails and/or filled out the forms to apply for each of the three respective developer programs. It'll be interesting to see what they all come back with. (Hopefully I won't be able to tell you, if you catch my drift).