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Blog posted by Ste Pickford on Mon, 25 Feb 2008
Subject: Pickford Bros.

Ste Pickford

We've never had any significant contact with Microsoft's Xbox division. Most of our games at Zed Two were primarily aimed at Sony or Nintendo platforms (we had existing relationships with people at both manufacturers when the Xbox first appeared), and since going 'indie' John and I have mostly had our heads down at home working on Naked War, then our new game, without really being 'out there' doing deals or forming business relationships.

Despite this lack of direct contact, it would seem that Microsoft still managed to demote us last week.

As indies we're no longer potential Xbox Live Arcade developers, we're merely 'hobbyists' now. Microsoft have launched a fantastic new channel, XNA, designed for amateurs, hobbyists and students, which gives an unprecedented level of access to a console's hardware and its associated audience for new game developers. At the same time they've basically kicked indie developers out of Live Arcade (their existing download service for smaller scale games), and pretty much given exclusive control of this channel to established publishers (who, of course, already control full price / retail games).

It looks like the doors to the 2nd class carriage have been closed in the face of self-publishing indies, but Microsoft have attached a new 3rd class carriage to the end of the train, and we can all squeeze in there if we like for a hundred dollar ticket.

Of course, this is all just rumour at the moment to people like us who don't currently self publish on XBLA, but developers in the know aren't denying it, and I've read about a number of indie devs who are already worried enough to change their planned target platform based on this rumour alone. Microsoft aren't saying much officially, so maybe there's a chance for them to rewind this bizarre decision, if true, in the face of developer opposition?

I think the XNA concept is brilliant. At last there's 'way in' for new developers to try out ideas, to express themselves, both on real console hardware and in front of a console audience. This could be the best thing that's happened to video game development for decades. We could see a return to the levels of experimentation and innovation, and the explosion of ideas we had back in the days of the Spectrum and C64, and at least one commentator is describing it as the most important announcement in gaming ever!

I've got nothing bad to say about XNA at all. On its own it's a wonderful thing. However, timing the announcement of XNA with the changes to XBLA leaves a bitter taste.

I don't think XNA is going to be a place where people can make a living. That isn't really its purpose of course, but where does it leave those of us making indie games who do need to make a living? It leaves us needing a publisher again.

One of the main reasons John and I decided to go indie a few years back was that we're primarily game designers - we come up with new game ideas, new concepts, new game mechanics, or new twists on existing genres - and the publisher-run mainstream video games industry isn't well equipped to handle new ideas. It's too focused on risk reduction, on strictly defined genres, on familiarity, brands and franchises. We spent 20 odd years fighting to do the kind of work we're good at in that environment, and it just wasn't possible (not unless you were lucky enough to have had a big hit). That's not a complaint about publishers. There are plenty of good reasons why the mainstream business is the way it is, and why publishers behave the way they do. It's just not very compatible with what we do.

But if the publisher-run mainstream business wasn't the best place to nurture and develop new game ideas, then maybe the growing, publisher-free indie scene was? We were prepared to sacrifice a good, steady income to give it a try.

A healthy indie scene is a good thing for the industry. It's a place where people like John and I and the other experienced refugees from the mainstream industry, as well as talented newcomers, could work on more risky but interesting and original game ideas. Sure, we'd sell fewer copies, and make less money, but we'd have the freedom to experiment a bit more, and could even afford to fail now and again. And if our ideas were successful, they could be adapted into full price video games for a mainstream audience by established publishers (we've reduced the risk for them), making us all a bit of money, and making the whole industry a lot healthier by providing a 'route to market' for risky new ideas.

All that's required is that the indie guys make enough money from their smaller, experimental games to make a living.

XBLA has been seen by many of us as the best hope of making this living: a way to access a large, captive audience through a channel seemingly designed for smaller scale, low budget games, which shouldn't need brands or licenses to sell. Although the purchase price was low and sales numbers were very low (compared to retail), self-publishing developers were getting a decent cut of the revenue, so even modest sales could keep the indie developer running for long enough to make their next game.

We understand that last week's changes now mean that existing, established publishers selling games on XBLA continue to get the high royalty rate, but the little guys - the indies, the self-publishers, the innovators and the risk takers - get half that rate, creeping up by pennies if sales are very high.

XBLA wasn't being looked upon as a way to get rich for indies like ourselves. The real big sellers making most of the money were still branded or licensed games, in the main. The costs of entry were still high: certification fees, and expensive, time consuming console-level testing and QA procedures were required. For original or innovative games, XBLA was looked at more as a way to ensure that break even was theoretically possible - that taking a risk was just about financially viable in the first place. XBLA looked like the perfect launch pad for new, original, low budget games by indie developers.

With the revenue for indies now halved, it's simply not worth the risk any more.

Indies have been priced out of the best indie game channel ever devised; the first place on consoles where it was possible to try out new ideas and new game concepts relatively risk free. The publishers will be running it now, and the one thing publishers aren't good at is originality or innovation. I guess we'll see fewer Space Giraffes on XBLA now, and more Yarises.

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding the changes to XBLA, or perhaps the rumours are untrue. I certainly hope so. From my perspective it looks as if the publishers want to deny small developers even one little corner of the industry where they can operate successfully on their own, and Microsoft don't want the hassle of dealing with little guys any more.

We've never had any significant contact with Microsoft's Xbox division, and perhaps now we never will. I think that would be a real shame.


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