In hindsight, Microsoft announcing that the Xbox One would have always online DRM was the best thing that could’ve happened, although it didn’t seem like it at the time.
They felt unstoppable. They had the power. They thought they could do anything.
In the end, they learned that customers and developers won’t just “Deal With It”.
They wound up the hockey team, accidentally shooting the puck into their own net over and over, and now must work extra hard to try and win the game.
While it was ultimately the post-PR disaster sales forecast which initiated the real change, the change happened nonetheless. Microsoft finally began listening to what consumers and developers want, or at least, attempting to match what their competitors were doing, which happened to be what consumers and developers want.
Now that they’ve had a wakeup call, they’re back to scrambling to do everything they can to try and win. This mentality goes all the way back to the launch of Xbox, then 360. The original Xbox was a deliberate financial loss, a trade-off for gaining market share. The 360 launched prematurely resulting in the infamous RROD in order to launch before its competitor. When the going gets tough, they’ll fight tooth and nail.
It’s been a long time coming, but we’ve finally won. There are still many questions to be answered, but it’s a start.
While they’re late to the party, this week, the news came out that Xbox One would have a self-publishing solution. Several days later, more news came that an Xbox 360 game would be self-published in August. This is good news, although the full story has not been told and we must wait for the fine print.
For a rundown on just how severe the bottlenecks have been, watch my GDC lecture on the subject, here.
WHY YOU SHOULD QUESTION THE XB1 SELF-PUBLISHING
Look at it like this: There will be two groups of titles for Xbox One. Published titles, and later, titles which can be built on retail systems, submitted and sold through a process like Windows Phone/Windows 8 apps. While the XBL store can promote both of these, they are certainly not the same.
They already promote XBLIG games on the XBL store next to other games, but they are labeled as “Indie Games”. There is a reason, and it is in the differences.
Published Xbox titles must for example, have ESRB/PEGI/USK/etc. ratings and must be developed to strict platform guidelines. These guidelines are not the simple iOS AppStore checklist.
[BLAH BLAH BLAH BEGIN...] They include everything from the exact menu items an XBLA title must have (what they must be named and in what order), to how often and when leaderboards may be accessed, checking the region/user’s age, what must be done if load times exceed a certain amount, mandatory achievements, localized and to spec, a How To Play screen, and so forth. You must account for a large number of special cases. Others include user sign-in and sign-out, storing sound and music volume in user profiles, memory cards being removed/inserted, displaying a message and pausing the game when the controller is disconnected, muting the music when the dashboard is up, and on and on. [...BLAH BLAH BLAH END]
As I mentioned, I outline these in the GDC talk I did earlier this year. Long story short, it can take 1-2 months of work to make an otherwise complete game certification ready.
If the platform requirements are nearly eliminated for self-published titles, what will published ones gain by abiding by them?
WHAT’S NOT PROVIDED?
Published games gain access to full devkits, developer support, and an account manager who can help you arrange ideal release dates and work on landing promotion opportunities. Sounds great, right? Well, keep in mind that all competing platforms provide developers with these same perks in addition to self-publishing. Not to discount this solution, but do note that it’s not equal here.
Full devkits, include additional RAM. Developers, especially larger teams, can focus on building the game without constantly having to optimize it early in development. They can use every bit of the system’s RAM for the game, and the extra RAM for hot loading assets, debug data, analytics, even their level editor. Anything else needed. With a retail unit, they’d need to set aside some of their game’s RAM if they need any debug data or such.
If suddenly there exists an equal group of games which sit toe to toe with published titles, promoted indistinguishably beside each other, why would publisher go through the long way? Why would they spend the development budget on the full (many arbitrary) platform requirements when there’s a streamlined version? Why would they spend the time and money on game ratings (which could exceed $10K if they targeted an absolutely worldwide release)? If there exists a simpler standard AppStore-like contract, what would keep publishers from simply switching over to that one? What benefits will developers have who have already signed publishing deals for XB1 titles? What value is left at all in the original published model? Would those in the third party publishing division in Microsoft be rendered obsolete?
These games and apps will surely be somewhat grouped together and you’ll no doubt be able to perform a “search all”, but they won’t be indistinguishable.
RACE TO THE BOTTOM… INCOMING
The other big concern is that a completely open platform where users are free to set their own price will result in a race to the bottom. This happened with iOS and of course, XBLIG. What’s worse, on iOS, $0.99 became premium, with free as a huge competition. Now, while this created an ecosystem where most developers struggle to get their games noticed and generate profit, iOS still has rich opportunity. With over half a billion iOS devices out there, there’s a large enough market to potentially make good revenue, even selling at $0.99. On something like Xbox One, even if the console sells, let’s say, 20 million units in the first year, unless you’re the next Angry Birds, you won’t be selling 20 million copies. Even on iOS, a moderate success generates around $200K. On consoles, $1M. After all, that price point might require you to sell 10-15x the units.
Consoles have had the advantage of a higher price point. RCR, for example, has sold twice as many units on Steam, but still generated more revenue on PSN because console gamers aren’t as trained to wait for sales.
I strongly believe that today, there’s less risk releasing a quality console title than a mobile one, because you have a higher price point, less saturation, more control over launch promotion, higher probability of strong store placement, a more focused audience. With iOS, for example, you’re reaching everyone from kids to grandmas. On consoles, you have a large core gamer install base, so if you’re making a game for that group, you’re in the right place.
Minecraft doesn’t represent what XBLA games sell. Angry Birds doesn’t represent what iOS games sell. They are exceptions which represent a ceiling, but are not the bar.
Looking at the big picture is important. Focusing on the exceptions is what causes gold rushes and a saturation of shovelware. This creates a stigma of the overall marketplace, much like that of XBLIG. I’m sure even those who believe in XBLIG would agree that their platform has a poor image.
Always online reversal. Used games. Patch Fees waived. Open platform. These happened because we spoke up. We raised our concerns. The press listened, and the press shared our thoughts with the rest of the world. While it took post PR-disaster sales projections for them to open their ears, they took action upon the issues we spoke loudest about. A lot of us have been pushing for change for a long time.
It’s a great shame that the feedback we were giving behind the scenes caused zero change, and it wasn’t until after a loud public outcry that change happened. A public shaming, really. Their PR would be in much better shape had things gone the other way. However, the positive changes happened one way or another, and that’s the most important thing right now. While I personally can’t quite forget the past and my experience working with Microsoft, for those still holding the dream of releasing a game on Xbox, this is good news.
Before ending this off, I’d also like to highlight the importance of being objective and always pay attention to spin. As a recent example, Microsoft announced that they would be providing free Unity licenses to Microsoft Studios published Xbox titles. Sounds good, right? Except that only a handful of games each year are published directly by them, and even fewer use Unity. The number could be as low as two a year, or even zero. Paying for licenses is standard for publishers, but to the average reader, this sounds like huge support from Microsoft. It’s press releases like this which demonstrate why you can’t jump to conclusions without the whole story. (Keep in mind, Nintendo DOES provide free Unity licenses to all Wii U developers)
…But, this goes to show, speak up for what you believe in.
That’s a lesson here.
…That, and, wait for the whole story. Keep a close eye on what’s missing.
One more anecdote. During my time pitching to publishers to find the right fit, I spoke with around a dozen. The offers were all over the table, but in the end there were three good potential fits. One had the best offer off the bat, the other two required various amounts of negotiation to match. In the end, I decided to go with the one which offered the best offer off the bat, as to me, it represented the most good will. I made the right choice. So with that being how I live my life, it won’t surprise anyone that I’m getting a PS4… and developing a PS4 game.