Independent game development, it’s the uncharted frontier in gaming. More and more teams are choosing to bypass the rank and file rat race in favor of realizing their passions on their own. But even the independent route has its share of pitfalls and obstacles that are just as disheartening. While it can be very fulfilling, it’s still a very difficult area to achieve success, and even more rare for sustained success.
Indie developer, Polytron, is one of the lucky few to deliver a smash hit called Fez exclusively on Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA). But Polytron recently Initially, Polytron posted a patch (i.e. an update which resolves glitches) which fixed many existing glitches but it also created an entirely new one that corrupted saved games. A few days later, Microsoft (and Polytron) decided to pull the patch citing that this new problem could be resolved by clearing the console’s cache (basically deleting cookies from your console) which returned the game to its earlier version. But now, Polytron posted a note indicating they would be re-deliver the original patch, but it would not correct problem with the corrupted save files. This decision is based on the amount of money (“tens of thousands“) needed to re-certify the game through Microsoft. Additionally, the bug affected such a small amount of people, not making worth Microsoft’ time nor Polytron’s already empty wallet. It’s not as though Microsoft is being completely inflexible and open to working out the issue. Regardless, it still appears Microsoft is the big, greedy bully that won’t play fair and give the little guy a break.
Now let’s look at this situation. Most games need to be patched after they’re released. Every bug isn’t going to be captured in a standard QA cycle. And from my understanding of the XBLA certification process, developers not only need to meet certain AAA standard but also have a fair amount of income to be allowed on stage. On the one hand, I understand the Microsoft’s stance. If Microsoft were to waive or cover the re-certification costs, they would have to do this with the literal hundreds games on XBLA. That cost starts to add up very quickly. It may be that Microsoft designed the certification process and fixed costs in a way that weeds out less committed developers. But once you stumble upon a critically acclaimed game that’s proven to have a solid base of fans, it may be worth re-visiting for some indie developers. When considering the amount of revenue and traffic Bethesda games (Fallout, Elderscrolls series, etc.) brings to Microsoft, it almost seems moot. Granted Bethesda is a major developer with a large bank, their games constantly patched on a regular basis.
Many would say Polytron should have known what they were getting into before deciding to go exclusively with Microsoft. Fez is a platformer that is more suited for a console gamer. And given the large segment of Xbox owners, this makes it a very lucrative opportunity as opposed to going with other avenues such as Steam. And while Steam is great, you’re just not gonna catch as many flies, no matter how good the honey is. At least not in today’s market landscape. Despite delivering a massive hit, this puts them in a crappy situation. On the upside, Fez is out there and garnered a great amount positive buzz. On the down side, the game still has a potential game breaking glitch they can’t afford to patch, despite steady game sales. And on top of that, they can’t option out the game to other distributors. But these situations are popping up more and more, and there are no shortage of stories about the Microsoft’s tumultuous process getting your game posted on XBLA / XBLIG (Xbox Live Indie Games). So other alternatives are needed.
Enter the player Ouya. This $99 console is designed as a Android based gaming system that will offer F2P games (Free 2 Play). And honestly, it’s something game publishers need to take more seriously. As of now, many people across the industry are blowing it off as vaproware or doubting it’s viability in the market. But take a moment to consider how much of a game changer (no pun intended) this could be. A system that will allow developer to produce their own games without as many hoops to jump through and minimal costs of entry. Not to mention on the consumer end, being able to play games at a more affordable cost. As of now, most of the titles being thrown around are more geared toward the uber-casual gamer (more of the Farmville & Cafe World). But they’re also attracting major developers as well (despite its hardware specs). People also doubted Steam and it has proven to be a very solid and sustainable business. The important thing to take note of is that, allowing more players like this is good for the gaming business. It could help stabilize the ecosystem. As I said before, traditional gaming is real danger. Production costs keep increasing but sales have flattened and starting to dip. More, cost conscious, alternatives could help re-invigorate the playing field.
I can’t stress how important the indie game market is to the future of gaming, especially in economic sense. Game companies are essentially leaving a ton of money on the table in this space. The problem here, just like the app market, is that it’s flooded with too many imitators and pure waste. Once someone figures out a way to separate the chaff from those key few apps / games that are worth investing and promoting, then the business will start to see more maturity and growth.
I believe the Ouya could work despite the naysayers valid doubts (how will developers make money? will real hardcore gamers find value in it? How will it scale in the future? etc.) We’ll just have to wait and see. Even if it fails, it can still provide a valuable learning point for the future. It is a risk worth taking. Until then, more situations like Polytron’s will occur again. And you know what, that’s totally fine. It’s just one of the pains that comes with a relatively young industry. I love gaming and despite how childish the culture is at times, I believe everything will balance out eventually.