Monday, June 3, 2013

Where is the perfect indie platform?

(Disclaimer:  This is a post littered with personal opinions and almost certainly a couple factual errors as the landscape changes frequently.  Many of these points are based on my perceptions, and I truly welcome both corrections, and thoughtful advice from those with their own working experiences.)

Not long ago, someone let the genie out of the bottle.  Some say it was Apple, some say Steam, some might say XBLA, but it became clear after more than a decade of large publishers and soaring budgets that it was possible once again to do the unthinkable... to simply make your own damn game.

For years now, as small titles repeatedly made huge splashes with gamers everywhere, I've assumed that there wasn't a power in the 'verse that could put that cork back in that bottle.  Small empowered developers were here to stay.  They tasted success and legitimacy and clearly they were a force for innovation and change.  Surely the decision makers behind the platforms could see that?

I'm not sure anymore.  Though there's an unprecedented array of opportunities out there, it seems every avenue for indies is critically flawed in at least one dramatic way.  It's almost comically so.

I often ask other small developers what platforms they're considering for future projects.  I assume there must be some obvious 'promised land' destination for small teams.  Sadly what I hear is, no, right now there's no clear platform to target as a small dev.  There is no 'easy' call.

One baffling aspect is that there's a huge group of players up for grabs.  I've heard a couple high profile visionaries say that whoever grabs the indie crowd wins the next platform wars, others often bring up 'Minecraft Factor' as a deciding factor for platforms, and I can see some truth in that.

Sony, Microsoft, Valve, Apple, Nintendo, Android... any one of those could emerge as the de-facto homeland for the next wave of great indie games , but all have some work to do.


These are some of the random debate points I hear when a discussion arises about platforms:

Steam - Valve... the visionaries that made PC gaming viable again... they're so close to being our big green pasture.  People actually pay for games on Steam, like, up front!  The race for the bottom hasn't spread there.  From interviews we hear they're in the process of revamping the Greenlight process.  I pray that's true.  Imagine what it's like as a couple developers to sit in a room and decide on a platform for a future project.  Imagine them saying "lets make a game for Steam, it'll be awesome... but we're going to have to roll the dice when we're done and hope our game makes the cut and actually gets launched".  There are some quality games not making it through the filters, some due to being more niche or eccentric, which it could be argued is the goal.  Devs with livelihoods at stake can't take that risk lightly, there's so much curated 'black box' uncertainly to deal with.  I look forward to the future of the platform, but it's not a defacto "go-to" indie target right now for everyone... but it could be.

Apple - They ignited a generation of mobile developers!  They threw yet another hammer through the giant TV screen and all kinds of amazing hell broke loose.  By all objective standards they deserve so much credit for the indie movement and sidestepping publishers.  Right now though (and it's hard to fault them for trends) the lure of the charts means it's more and more improbable to be truly successful unless you're backed by someone burning a couple Ferraris a day on user acquisition.  The big screen is reestablishing itself quickly.  Concrete suggestions for improving the app store are common, but our biggest hopes rest with rumors of the store getting overhauled with the new OS... some have theorized perhaps we'll have a new store area to encourage more premium games so we don't all have to feel like hucksters.  Right now though, as a small developer, it's frustrating to stare at the top charts and know the amount of manipulation and raw resources that goes into being visible.  It's eerily like the unhealthy console market where only the top 10 games are viable financially, the result of which was loads of people leaving console development.  If they can find a way to allow games to be visible that aren't simply paying for it, they too could be the motherland.

Android - They have their advocates and those advocates love their statistics.  I see respected developers saying they make as much or more off Android than iOS... for F2P games.  Many small studios don't buy into F2P though, they want to make games like Sword and Sworcery or FTL and premium gaming is off the table on Android.  When we hear anecdotal piracy figures in the 9-to-1 ballparks, it's terrifying.  Not only that, it reduces any pitches for games that depend heavily on servers and backends, small shops can't push pricey data to 9 pirates for every legit user.  Factor in the challenges with splintered hardware (although being handled admirably by some middleware) and it's more clear why there aren't many Android exclusives.  Success stories abound in Asian android markets, assuming you have a publisher in your behalf and don't mind managing a dozen different store fronts.  There's a billion amazing Android devices out there, but they're sadly relegated to a porting option for many.

Sony - Perhaps the toughest to criticize, although I'm ignorant of what it's like to work with them.  There's a lot to love with their seeming commitment to artistic games, self published or not.  I was seriously miffed after the PS4 reveal.  I was hoping for some huge announcements related to indie gaming and store restructuring.  But, it seems to have clicked for them in the following weeks.  Submissions no longer have a concept approval filtering stage, and they recently rolled out an Indie Games category on the Playstation Store.  Working on the games are supposedly much like working with a PC.  Right now though, the unfortunate issue for developers pivots around being at the end of a console life cycle, and the inevitable challenges of embracing a new generation soon.  New tech, dev kits, smaller initial install base, so much to learn...  I know they're working on it, but there's not a broader perception of the PS3 being "the" place to take an indie game quite yet.  Kudos for at least having Jonathon Blow on stage at the reveal though.  I sincerely hope they maintain their trajectory, they genuinely seem to care.  Maybe they'll give us our amazing promised land?

Microsoft - To many, XBLA was an earthshaking step forward.  It was revolutionary to sit on a couch, with a bigscreen, and play a game like Geometry Wars with a real controller.  So many developers started thinking 'dangerous thoughts' then.  But XBLA has always had its challenges.  There's walled garden syndrome, lack of developer control for much of anything, widely publicized rants from high profile indies (not just Phil Fish) about $40K developer costs for updates, quarterly payouts, a dogged determination to make sure we all have a proper publisher taking their additional ~30 percent, etc.  For the XBox One, hearing from developers on various forums and social outlets... man.  It's been a rough couple weeks.  Talk of removing the 'indie' area of XBLA is harsh, but losing Arcade entirely is the end of an era.  Lumping everything together into one online store, Braid beside Madden, Fez buried under CoD?  They say we should all just chill and await news of silver linings though... so, I await E3 eagerly to see if they roll out an indie promised land.

Wii U - I'll admit I don't own a Wii U and have only played with it at a couple conferences.  My perceptions are that it has a very specific target market and your game needs to fit those players if you want to succeed.  The console needs to become widespread and well supported with 3rd party games to be worth targeting for many.  The degree to which their controls are unique means games that truly utilize the hardware are harder to be multiplatform.  I frequently hear negative comments about the quality of the "tablet" portion of the hardware so it's not a slam dunk multi-platform pair with other mobile tablets.  Again though, I admit ignorance in many ways with this option, although I don't see people flocking to the Wii U as a haven for experimental awesome indie-ness.  Bottom line is I'm hard pressed to see myself staking a company or larger project on succeeding there.  Personal perceptions disclaimer applies.


Regardless, two things are undeniably true:

1) Games are evolving unbelievably quickly.  In the time we made a single sequel to a game like Gears of War, an entire industry evolved into a different beast.  Think about life just THREE years ago.  Doodle Jump was a novelty, Free to Play was basically nonexistent, the number one games earned a ridiculously tiny fraction of current earnings, mobile games were all going for one-button simplicity.  We're comparing fish to primates within a span of time typically used to make one iteration of a game.

2) Small developers without publishers are willing to quickly adapt.  If you give us THE place to bring you amazing games, we will flock there overnight!  We're all motivated and willing to.

Right now the solution for many is to release on as many platforms as possible.  Unfortunately that also means dealing with as many platform eccentricities as possible... often simultaneously.  Even if you're up for that, there still isn't a golden "primary" sku to aim for with many game concepts.

Maybe it's unrealistic to expect a single platform to offer so much when 'games' cover such a broad range of definitions and players.  I remain naive and optimistic about that possibility though, considering a couple of these are so close to that achievement already.  Yes, some limitations are due to practical hardware issues or usage patterns (people might not ever want large console games on a phone sized device), but often these limitations seem to revolve around conscious decisions.  I believe someone can get it near enough to 100% right that they attract the majority of indie devs, and can attract a large cross section of gamers as a result.

In closing, I fear this could all come off as whining and criticizing.  I apologize if so.  I give all of the platforms I mentioned major props for their immense contributions to what we have right now.  In truth all I really want is to give a little constructive perspective from someone who regularly has to look at all the options out there.  If you're not an indie dev already, put yourself in the position of a couple indies and ask yourself which platform you would consider your "primary" target.  It's far more of a quandary than it should be.

As always, thanks so much for reading.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Lee, nice post.

    It is genuinely confusing that Sony and Microsoft are so slow to properly unleash the indie crowd. Are they pandering to big publishers? I can't see how EA or Activision would be angry if the console makers opened up their platforms since it would likely grow the install base of the platform. You'd think that anything the could do to sell consoles would be appealing...