Xbox One: Your next dev kit

Xbox One: Your next dev kit
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

August 8th 2013 at 10:45AM

Indies respond to Microsoft's new self-publishing policy on its hybrid next-gen console

[This feature was published in the August 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]

Independent developers have reacted with cautious optimism to the fact that Microsoft will now allow self-publishing on the Xbox One, which will also be able to function as a devkit.

Microsoft initially kept its publishing policy under wraps – a decision which caused much umbrage among the indie community, as it was assumed that the firm would not allow self-publishing. However, the company has now issued a statement that confirms that self-publishing is allowed.

“Our vision is that every person can be a creator. That every Xbox One can be used for development. That every game and experience can take advantage of all of the features of Xbox One and Xbox Live,” said Xbox Corporate VP Marc Whitten, in the statement Microsoft shared with Develop.

“This means self-publishing. This means Kinect, the cloud, achievements. This means great discoverability on Xbox Live.”

ALL IN THE DETAILS

As a result numerous indies have expressed a new optimism towards the Xbox One, though many are calling for more detail, which is expected to come during this month’s Gamescom in Germany.

“I am itching to get my fingers on a machine with that much power,” Adam Sawkins of ProjectorGames told Develop in response to the news. ProjectorGames made a name for itself on XBLIG with its world building game FortressCraft. “The new FortressCraft has been designed with high-end PCs in mind, so it should be exceptionally happy on the new consoles,” he added.

However, describing himself as the “last of the great cynics”, Sawkins offered a much-echoed sentiment with regards to how Microsoft will continue to support indies.

“I was incredibly happy and enthusiastic about XBLIG and XNA, yet Microsoft treated us as the black sheep of the family,” he claimed. “Their goodwill and communication – and their team – disappeared over the years. Let’s say I’m cautiously optimistic, but with a long memory.”

“I guess I would still like to hear the details,” agreed Thomas Steinke of DigitalDNA Games, which became a star of XBLIG with the CastleMiner franchise and Avatar Paintball. “Microsoft created a great publishing system with XBLIG, but then sort of chose to ignore it, and stopped supporting the platform tools that their most loyal developers were using.”

Elsewhere, other indies were more explicitly positive, such as Chompy Chomp Chomp developer Utopian World of Sandwiches, which has released its games  on XBLIG as well as many other indie-friendly platforms.

“We’ve been optimistic all along,”  the studio’s co-founder James Woodrow told Develop. “We expected they would announce something when they were ready. They have been encouraging indies towards Windows 8 for some time now, so it’s not surprising that they had something in store. They are unifying all their products, PC, mobile and tablet. It makes sense for the Xbox One to follow suit.”

Elsewhere, Imre Jele, co-founder and creator-in-chief at Surgeon Simulator 2013 outfit Bossa expressed a view common to many indies.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Jele to Develop. “Everything we’ve heard so far sounds great, but the real proof will be  seeing self-published games succeeding on the platform.”

From Jele’s perspective, the two biggest challenges for Microsoft are to address changing its company culture to support the unique needs of independent studios, and to create a digital game store which offers discoverability that puts indies on a level playing field with triple-A studios.

“With a system where the next Call of Duty game has the same exposure as the next breakout Indie hit, it creates a very interesting world for indies and big publishers alike,” added Steinke on the matter.

“If the platform is really set up to provide this even footing, it may mean some interesting changes to the way we are used to seeing games, particularly big games get published.”

INNOVATIVE TIMES

There’s also much optimism about the kinds of games indies will be able to create using the Xbox One’s distinct features, as typified by comments from Woodrow.

“We’ll see some crazy and innovative uses of Kinect and the cloud if indies are able to take advantage of them,” he said. “The ability to use Achievements makes me optimistic that there will be no segregation between indies and published titles. The discoverability is going to be the most important part.”

There has also been a generally optimistic response to the concept of using the Xbox One as a devkit itself.

“It’s an absolutely brilliant idea,” offered Jele.

“And it was about time too. Anyone who has ever worked with devkits knows how cumbersome and expensive they make games development, for no real reason really. Using the consumer console as a development platform is a huge step forward as making games for consoles won’t be the privilege of a selected few any longer.”

But not all are convinced that the console’s status as a devkit is that important. As Sawkins was quick to point out, XBLIG, iOS, and Android already let developers use the destination devices as development hardware.

“People seem to be talking a lot about this like it’s important, and it confuses me,” he said.

Others, however, saw the return to the approach seen with XBLIG titles as reason to be more hopeful.

“This model of having to buy $10,000 development kits just doesn’t work for indies, and just isn’t necessary,” said Steinke on the subject of the Xbox One’s potential as a devkit.

“In my past I had spent many years as a professional developer doing console dev, and the XBLIG system worked better than any of the pro set-ups. It was a joy to work with. I hope they learned something from that.”

Furthermore, there is a sense among indies that the initial denial of self-publishing and subsequent U-turn overall may have had a positive impact that reaches beyond the confines of games platforms specifically.

“Ultimately them dragging their feet on this issue was good for us,” revealed Steinke. “It forced us to look at relationships with other companies and publishers, which has been very positive for us.”

A BRIGHT FUTURE

Jele, meanwhile, is not alone in being hopeful that the new policy could also serve consumers  – and the Xbox One itself – very well.

“If handled well, this move might just propel the Xbox One forward and make it truly next generation, instead of just an iteration on the last,” he offered.

“Replacing the desire for control with the will to enable developers makes consoles more attractive for indies. That means more and better games for our players. And ultimately that’s what makes a platform successful.”

“Microsoft needs this to succeed these days,” added Steinke. “This is truly the ‘era of indie’, and I don’t believe old publishing models alone will be enough to carry this box.”