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What Games Are: Self-Publishing On Console Will Not Create The Next SuperCell. But Microconsoles Might.

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer, creator of leading game design blog What Games Are and creative director of Jawfish Games. You can follow him on Twitter here.

To the joy of many, Microsoft announced another Xbox One pivot: Rather than try to maintain a fortress of solitude, the console will support indie publishing. You’ll be able to use your console as a dev kit (traditionally dev kit licenses could be very expensive) to make and publish your games. Microsoft even promises to remove some of the category barriers that segregated indie games to a backwater page in the Xbox dashboard.

These moves can be read in two ways. The first is largely as a reaction to Sony. Sony has been flirting with the indie developer community for a while, quietly building up relationships and facilitating the publishing of a number of games such as Journey and Thomas Was Alone. As part of PS4 the company has significant plans to allow small developers to self-publish on the system, although still under a dev kit model. It promises to send free kits to developers that need them.

The second read is to consider these moves in light of wider trends. Outside of giant thousand-man studios and tiny indies, most mid-sized gaming companies are nowhere within 100 kilometers of consoles these days. There’s just no place for them in a sector that values its 20m+ unit hits, and they can’t afford to compete at that level. All of those people have shifted to mobile, tablet or social instead, where they are finding success.

The move to attract indies sits semi-uncomfortably. The console industry is used to acting like a car showroom, developing specific pieces of beautiful game content and then engaging in a large sales push toward success. Fans of consoles (including many developers) are also used to this model, and tend to think of this activity as “real games,” as well as the most economically significant activity in the industry. Much as Hollywood still thinks that box office means something, console game executives tend to be more impressed by stories involving unit sales rather than residuals.

That showroom mentality is what led Microsoft down the path of making Xbox One into a mega-hub, which nobody understood, or Sony make a very similar thrust with PlayStation 3. The pivots away from those big plays may at first glance seem like attempts to atone or to broaden out their relationships with game makers, but I tend to think otherwise. What they’re actually about is developing a few show-bikes to go alongside the show-cars.

Indies vs Independents

There are several meanings of the term “indie.” For some it simply means financially independent, able to make games and revenue and be self-sustaining. For others the term is political, expressive of points of view and meaning. This second version is far more popular in the games press because it has more of an emotional component. Indies stand for something and become heroes fighting an unspecified “man.”

It may surprise you, but in the console-ist view the political kind of indie game is more desirable because it ticks the art-game box. Art games are rarely expected to make their money back, and certainly not to become big franchises. Yet there’s a lot of value in having them. If you can have a few notables like Jonathan Blow talking up your platform, a few Phil Fishes and a few “thatgamecompanys” making signature games, then this is a great story. It aligns you with the kind of story seen in Indie Game: The Movie and at GDC. Most important is that it gets the press on side, which is hugely important in the mutually assured destruction of console platforms.  Appearing to be indie is worth acres of PR.

At the same time, supporting a few such indies allows platforms to retain their essential power. While PC gaming has always reserved much more power to the developer and treated hardware makers as little more than component makers, console gaming has always worked the other way. The console is the main brand and the platform story. The games all appear on the console with the holder’s say-so. The publishing model places the console brand front and center, and the games are in support, and the market tribally responds along those lines.

Taken in that vein, the modern console industry’s understanding of allowing indies to enter into its playpen is pointed but they are not embracing an ecosystem any time soon. From the standpoint of where they’ve been, modest steps to change their model may seem like great leaps for Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. Like TV executives who are still tentative about streaming, there’s a sense of not going too fast for fear of losing everything.

This is why Microsoft’s newfound message of developer liberation is still pretty garbled. The exact plans for how Xbox One will go indie-friendly come across as a bit hazy. They smack of a recent decision at the executive level which will need some thoughtful re-engineering time to figure out on the practical level, so don’t expect it for launch. Also how it reconciles with some other showroom features (like the heavy push on mainstream TV) is anyone’s guess.

Not to let Sony off the hook, its plans for indie liberation are similarly convoluted. Sony still wants some forms of concept approval, which — even though the company promises a speedy turnaround — still sounds every bit as ludicrous as Roku wanting concept approval for movies it streams. It should make any developer pause and think seriously about what it implies.

Yet the bigger issue is that both plans are not enough. They do not represent change real enough that indies in the first sense of the word (financially viable) would find attractive. It’s also woefully out of step with just how far games have come. Developers are far more empowered today than they have been since the days of microcomputers in the 80s and are not keen to sacrifice that freedom.

You Are Free To Do What We Tell You

It used to be imperative to placate Sony, Nintendo or Microsoft for any game to have a chance of being published. This was expensive between  concept approvals, extensive technical requirements and laborious quality assurance and certification processes. But what could you do? They were the gatekeepers, it was largely a relationships business, and that was that.

Even when they moved into digital markets they were choosy, taking an active role in content selection and publishing. Games were released on schedules to give a window for sales to build and platforms were managed like topiary. Not too many games of one genre or another, just a few key ones and a heavy sense of curation. All very bonsai.

Then Apple and Facebook upended that model with something more organic and irrevocably changed how developers thought of success. Success was no longer to be like Jonathan Blow or Ubisoft. It became being like SuperCell. The console industry has never been able to fully understand the depth of that shift.

The way that developers approach making games on Facebook, iOS and Android is radically different to how things used to be when console platforms (and PCs) was all there was. They just do it, no dev kits, relationships, publishing schedules or concept approvals required. They may need to pass some curation (particularly from Apple) but those conditions tend to be far narrower in scope than anything the console industry ever imposed. Essentially don’t crash, no porn, no defamation and you’re good to go.

That new model is the one that breeds true independent game development success. The bonsai  paradigm of consoles prevents developers from expanding too much, meaning that a thatgamecompany gets to make cool games but not really grow (if they want to, of course). Whereas the iOS/Android/Facebook model gives birth to Rovios and Zyngas (in happier times perhaps). When platforms get out of the way and let software be software, software becomes wildly successful and the platform itself grows.

Obviously Rovio is an extreme case, but many other smaller studios have managed to forge their own destinies in a similar fashion. Studios like Spry Fox and NimbleBit make the games they want to make, how they want to make them, with whatever business model they desire, and it’s no big deal. So they are free to innovate and they do. Same for us at Jawfish.

Enter the Micros

Console makers do realize that they’ve painted themselves into a corner, want to change and get some press goodwill. Yet not to the extent that they detonate their existing business. Especially not when many of their fans prefer to cheer for stasis and buy into predictable franchises over innovation.

I don’t envy them, but that gap is why microconsoles are a real threat. OUYA, GamePop, GameStick, Mad Catz and whatever Google might be cooking up are relatively unencumbered by old constraints, and therefore able to empower indies in the first sense. The fact that they’re mostly using a common operating system helps, but their main advantage is the potential flexibility and the focus that being simple provides.

The first generation of microconsole hardware is less than stellar. Of course it is. The idea is brand new and still finding its way. The OUYA’s joypad, for example, isn’t good. The processors for most microconsoles are probably underpowered, and there are lots of early firmware and operating system issues. Look past these early-phase issues, however, and take in the longer view.

Microconsoles can iterate on hardware quickly, like phone makers, where Sony is stuck with a fixed spec for the next seven years with PS4. Big consoles have to be static because big publishers (like Activision) need the spec to be stable enough to master in order to make the next Call of Duty. A SuperCell, on the other hand, doesn’t. An iPad doesn’t. Indeed most every other form of electronics has figured out how to move to an annualized cycle except console makers.

Beyond hardware issues the next issue is the customer. Who are microconsoles for? Everyone. Everyone who likes to play games cheaply, for fun, with simple controllers and low (or free) prices. As we’ve seen on phone, tablet and Facebook, that translates to a hell of a lot of people. And before we get too worried about TV being somehow special in this regard, consider that that is a self-cyclical piece of thinking born of consoles being pretty bad as devices. They are only now getting into the idea that maybe they should have power/resume states like every other device you’ve owned since the turn of the millennium. Part of the reason why they have that special gamer aura is because they are a hassle. There’s no reason for micros to follow the same path.

Power Shifts

The future that I see for console gaming is one where hardware incrementally cedes power to software. Pushed by microconsoles offering a vastly cheaper option on the one hand, and developers of incredible games with the right business models on the other, the prospect of all three current console platform holders being reduced to only vertically satisfying their core fans is very real. The prospect of big publishers taking a bath is also very real.

It will take a couple of iterations to get their hardware and business models right. It may take the entrance of a big player like Google or Samsung to validate it (much as Amazon did for ebooks). There will also be that initial flurry of press coverage that will swamp all channels with talk of PS4 vs X1 (and ill-advisedly lamenting Nintendo) for the next 18 months. That will cover over the real story to an extent, allowing OUYA et al room to breathe and pivot.

But in the medium term? The new SuperCells will not be coming from these revamped “indie” console offerings. They’ll come from a very different kind of device entirely.

(If you’d like to hear more, come see me talk about microconsoles some more at Casual Connect this week in San Francisco.)