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Indies on Xbone: Where's the beef? Exclusive

Indies on Xbone: Where's the beef?
May 22, 2013 | By Mike Rose

No matter what you've read about the newly-unveiled Xbox One, I'll wager you haven't seen much mention of the role of indie developers on the new console.

The reveal event bigged up plenty of consumer features that may well have whetted appetites, but when it came to talking to the people who can make or break a games platform -- the developers -- there was barely any mention of what devs should be looking forward to.

Dig deeper, and you'll find that the future for indies on Xbox consoles isn't looking any smoother than it has been before. As with the Xbox 360, Microsoft has confirmed that developers cannot self-publish on the Xbox One, and must release their game through a publishing deal either with Microsoft Game Studios or a third-party.

If Xbox does end up walling up its garden even more, it is potentially blocking out the same developers who have been reshaping the landscape of the video game industry. If mobile and PC have taught us anything the last few years, a platform holder needs to acquire a critical mass of content creators by providing them with the means to try new ideas, giving them the venue to distribute, and do its best to curate the best games. And guess what, "triple-A" and "indie" are proven to coexist in harmony on such platforms.

It's a stark contrast to how both Sony and Nintendo are going about their business. Microsoft's two main rivals have seriously upped their games as far as indie support goes in recent times, and Sony in particular is gunning for indies in a big way.

Where Sony has launched a special indie games section on its PlayStation Store, for example, Microsoft is doing the opposite, and actually closing down its Xbox Live Arcade and Xbox Live Indie Games sections, making the Xbox One marketplace a games free-for-all instead.

So who is making Xbox One games, then?

Of course, this could all be a smokescreen. With E3 approaching rapidly and Microsoft promising games, games, games at their big E3 reveal, perhaps indie developers will feature heavily.

From the various chats I've had with prominent indie developers over the last 24 hours, I'd say that's looking rather unlikely.

After the Wii U reveal, I contacted numerous indies to find out who was working on what, and received a large number of responses back. When the PS4 was revealed I did the same again, and received the same level of correspondence.

After the Xbox One reveal, I went ahead and did it all over again -- but the reaction has been rather different this time around. In the same space of time that I waited for responses to my Wii U and PS4 pieces, I've received just a handful of replies, most of which said they weren't working on Xbox One games.

It could be that I've simply contacted the wrong indies. My train of thought was that Microsoft is most likely going to be working with indie devs that it has worked with before, but as of yet I've come up with past Xbox 360 devs telling me they aren't working on Xbox One games.

Joel Kinnunen from Frozenbyte (Trine) told me, "We keep an open channel to Microsoft and there are some thoughts going on, however right now we have nothing to announce for Xbox One."

He later clarified, "Generally, from a console online distribution channel, we're looking for the ability to self-publish without publishers, and to a lesser degree things like free updating and reasonable certification process."

Even more worrying is that a number of indie devs have said that they've tried to get in on the Xbox One action, but as of yet haven't received any additional information past a simple introduction.

Rami Ismail at Dutch studio Vlambeer, for example, said that Microsoft actually got in touch with him about development for the platform, and then never got back to him when he made contact. The Super Crate Box developer hadn't heard of any other European devs who were looking into creating Xbox One games either, and he's a fairly well connected guy.

And Young Horses' Phil Tibitoski (Octodad) had a similar experience, in which someone at Microsoft responded to a request for Xbox One development information, and then was never heard from again. It would appear that getting in contact with Microsoft to actually build games for their new console isn't exactly easy. [UPDATE: moments after this article went live, Microsoft did in fact get in touch with Tibitoski.]

Meanwhile, Gaijin Games' Alex Neuse (The BIT.TRIP series), another indie "in the know", said that him and his studio "haven't seen the kind of effort to reach out to smaller developers the way that Sony and Nintendo have - but of course, that doesn't mean that they don't have a plan for developers like ourselves." Gaijin hasn't talked to Microsoft about Xbox One development.

That's not to say that there aren't any indie developers working on Xbox One games right now. Nathan Vella of Capybara Games (Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP) featured in a video during the console's reveal, and elsewhere I've heard murmurings that Minecraft's Mojang are currently in talks with Microsoft (although Markus Persson was unable to confirm with me whether this was the case.)

And again, this could all potentially change come E3 -- perhaps Microsoft is keeping its hand to its chest, and will sprout forth many a developer when it's time to reveal the games.

For now, at least, the prospect of indies launching their games on the Xbox One is looking roughly as hot as launching your game on Xbox 360, with as closed a marketplace as it ever was (of course, now you can't use Xbox Live Indie Games either, as that isn't being carried over to the Xbox One, and XNA has been canned.)

But why does any of this matter? Why does Microsoft even need indie developers, or a more open platform than the Xbox 360's Live Arcade provided?

Put simply, providing a platform that anyone can publish to without the need for a publisher, or at least providing the means for them to get their game onto your platform more easily, potentially leads to more games on your platform, more development engagement, and an expanded market.

In today's tough retail game climate, these things truly matter -- and with so many other potential platforms for indies to develop for, including Microsoft's two home console rivals, you have to wonder what the Xbox One is offering the small (but highly important) independent developer.

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