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The Perfect Console for Indies

A new console generation is finally arriving. In this article I take a look at what would make a console perfect for indie developers – from hardware to software, from Kickstarter support to age ratings.

With the announcement of the Xbox One and the PS4 and the launch of the Wii U, the next console cycle is approaching fast. At the same time OUYA is getting into gear, Android has become a viable platform and iOS is stronger than ever. The PC is in permanent renaissance, the Mac App Store established gaming on the Mac for the masses and Steam came to Linux. The 3DS is picking up speed and Vita has the most impressive lineup of left field titles in history. There is an unmatched wealth of platforms today. For agile indies, this is the best ecosystem imaginable. Do the new home consoles fit into this picture at all? With a patchwork of personal opinion, research and after several discussions with fellow indies, I try to give the answer to this question[1].

To Wish Impossible Things

The requirements for indies are in some places contradictory to the desires of AAA studios (and the landscape is so diverse that no one can even speak for all indies). Here's an example: One of the reasons why iOS took off as a games platform for independents is that the development hardware is an actual usable device. The iPhone is a serviceable smartphone and the Mac you buy for Xcode is a platform you can run your whole business on. In the worst case you end up owning every geeky Apple device out there. The hardware is perfectly compatible with the "Occupy Starbucks" lifestyle 99% of the solo iOS-indies live. It's a win-win situation. For a traditional developer, using a development device as a telephone and being obliged to buy overpriced workstations is most likely out of the question. Using the consumer hardware as a development kit is a huge draw[2]. It mitigates the cost of acquisition and it allows the developer to live the lifestyle that comes with the device without having to buy extra retail units. A lot of iOS games embrace the lifestyle that comes with a smartphone. Also, usually independent games do not make use of the increased processing power and memory size that comes with a dev kit in the first place.

Hardware revisions during the lifecycle of a product are a challenge for indie developers. Predictable hardware cycles are, as proven by the lively iOS and Android ecosystems, manageable. Changes in the aspect ratio and the resolution of the screen are the worst, because graphics are often outsourced and toolchains are temporary.

It gets more complicated when it comes to software. Independent studios are small and have very limited resources. While some have excellent coders writing their own tech, most of them are bound to work with third-party engines. Both of these groups love standard libraries. I'm not only talking about having CURL and zlib available. A standardised graphics library on a console would be a huge boost for indies. Due to the low graphics requirements of most independent games, an OpenGL wrapper for the bleeding edge graphics library that powers the console would do the job. File access, inter-process communication and networking are other areas that require a lot of porting work. It's a mystery that they have to be reinvented for every new console. If there have to be platform-specific libraries, documentation is silver, but communication is gold. Being able and allowed to talk about problems and solutions online is one of the reasons why Unity and iOS are so successful. The walled garden of Apple has less walls around it's software library. It is openly discussed and there is no NDA in place to present you with legal threats when you spill the beans. There is are StackOverflow boards for Android, Unix/Linux and Windows Phone. iOS-related programming tops pop up on every corner of StackOverflow, too. Existing hierarchical communication solutions in the console space, like newsgroups, favour experienced developers and present a barrier of entry for newcomers. No one thinks twice before he asks a newbie question on StackOverflow. Last, but not least, a wealth of easy to integrate first-party libraries that support platform-specific features is on the software wish list. too. The platform is more than just the hardware. Dedicated matchmaking, cloud storage, pattern recognition and other high-level input handling, user management, achievement management. These are all features that a modern gaming hardware/software solution should readily support and make as accessible as possible. SteamWorks shows the way.

The area where home consoles have to catch up most is distribution. New development models like open betas and Kickstarter demand a more open approach to distribution. Currently, Steam is the only major platform that supports these new styles of working broadly. What does it offer that PSN and XBLA don't? You can sell games with Steam keys on any platform you like – the Humble Bundle is one example. You can run an open or closed beta on Steam, e.g. via Early Access. You can sell the game on your own website, thereby growing your own community, and still have it tap into the player base of Steam. You can run a Kickstarter and give away or sell as many copies of your game as you like in the form of Steam keys. Android allows for a lot of freedom, too and on iOS you at least have total price control. For independent developers, it is of utmost importance to gift as many copies of a game as possible to journalists. The game itself is the most important marketing asset and not being able to distribute it freely severely limits an indies' marketing capabilities. Sales experiments like the recent BitCoin Bundle are another marketing method that is limited to PC/Mac/Linux and Android so far. Last but not least, it is a huge thing for an indie to be able to point to a web link to the place where a player can actually buy the game. Sounds like a simple thing but it is not possible on all console marketplaces yet.

Last but not least, there are platform requirements that show potential for modernisation. Small things, like acquiring age ratings and mandatory localisation steal away time that could have been invested into the game or marketing. Console makers can not change the laws that govern the markets, but they can provide a streamlined process for independents if they want them to thrive on their platform. Apple did that for age ratings and gives developers complete freedom when it comes to localisation. And why is it so hard to have an online manual updated after releasing a game.

The Big Picture

If you look at all the platforms described above, it all comes down to how much control over your game you want to retain. All gatekeepers are curators and they are eager to work with you if your game shows promise. Yet "promise" might be defined differently for each of the discussed platforms. Large organisations are conservative. If a behemoth like Microsoft supports your game early on, you would probably be successful without them, because your game is not a risky proposition in the first place. Sony is currently eager to pick up outstanding indie titles and Nintendo also shows initiative in that direction. Valve is known to rely on metrics for as many decisions as possible. Steam Greenlight is just one more metrics for their decision making – this time they measure the market potential of indie games. OUYA's hiring of Kellee Santiago is a sure sign for their interest in the indie segment. Apple might not take games very serious as a medium but it offers a market nearly as free as Android.

All of these platform exert a certain amount of control over the content they publish. They curate the content. Yet depending on the platform, more or less control might have to be handed over to the distributor. The amount of platform-specific requirements also varies greatly. There are platforms that require mandatory features to be built into your game that make hardly any sense for an indie game[3].

The bigger picture is: Indies need different formalities than AAA companies. We don't have a huge localisation department. We don't have a complicated hierarchy of decision making. There is simply not enough time to fill out form after form when you should actually work on your game. If a large company's complex bureaucracy shapes the process of getting your game on a platform, an indie drowns in paperwork. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Quality Assurance is an important part of game development. While Apple, Steam and Android offer very basic quality control only, the big console companies have professionalized this area. Though these are highly streamlined processes, reform needs to happen here, too. In an age of constantly updated content, of games as services, established practices of quality assurance have to be adapted. One of the side effects of the rise of the indies – and of the rise or quality games journalism and community-building – is that a gaming brand is associated with its author more than a few years ago. This also means that lack of quality reflects back to the studio more than it does to the console manufacturer nowadays[4]. If the console itself crashes during a game it's seen as the fault of the console and, technically speaking, rightly so. Yet if a game crashes, the game and the studio take most of the blame nowadays. I have no solution for the problems that come with constant update and notoriously unstable releases but the easier and cheaper it is to push an update into the store, the more likely it is that a bug gets fixed.

It looks like the three big console makers are on the best way to incorporate some of these features into their future devices. To help this process along, I'll finish this article with a management-friendly bullet point list of wishes of an indie console developer. I can not speak for every independent games maker out there, and even less for non-indies, but I'm doing my best to paint a big picture. Here's a list of what console makers can do to please independent developers:

  • Support continuous development - from beta to Kickstarter to patching
  • Reduce platform requirements
  • Make the consumer device the dev kit
  • Stay away from exotic core hardware components
  • Support standard libraries or provide wrappers
  • Allow open discussion of technical details of your platform's hardware and software
  • Allow for alternative ways to sell and gift the games, e.g. via developer website
  • Offer help for navigating the rating process and other bureaucratic nightmares
  • Reduce bureaucracy to a minimum
  • Bonus item: Allow third-party cloud & server solutions or provide data access from outside

A console platform that supports all these features is nothing else than a highly streamlined distribution and promotion platform for the games of independent, small companies, cast in hardware and software. Not more. Not less. I would love to develop games for that platform and conquer the living room with games.

[1] I leave out most of the business side of things. Otherwise this piece would have become even longer. But, yes, market size is key in the platform decision.
[2] Sony brought that to consoles first, as far as I know.
[3] Detailed information about what each platform requires are easy to find out once you're an accredited developer. So in a way you could know these requirements in advance.
[4] Granted, I have no proof for that.

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