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Xbox One's self-publishing problem is bigger than it sounds

Gamasutra's Christian Nutt digs deeper into Xbox One's restrictions on self-publishing. This isn't just a problem for small, "indie" developers...

Christian Nutt, Contributor

May 29, 2013

8 Min Read

A lot went wrong, in the eyes of a whole mess of people, regarding Microsoft's Xbox One unveil. You know that by now. But one thing strikes me as particularly significant -- even more significant than has been so far recognized: the inability to self-publish games on Xbox One. Whereas Microsoft completely ignored independent developers, Sony put Jonathan Blow and The Witness on stage for the PlayStation 4 announcement. Focusing on that symbolic gesture obscures a more important truth: you don't have to be Jonathan Blow to publish your game on Sony (and Nintendo!) platforms with a minimum of fuss, right now. With Microsoft, you cannot. This issue certainly affects indies in a profound way, but it's a much, much bigger issue than it appears to be if you limit your view to "indies."

How it works today

Yes, Microsoft exec Don Mattrick has fed Kotaku some platitudes. But with details unspecified and with developers telling me things are status quo, these nice words are, to be charitable, vague. Let's start with how things actually work today. All games published on Xbox Live Arcade -- the system's primary download service -- require a publisher. As those who have been paying attention know, any games which you might think were self-published by their developers -- say Castle Crashers, or Spelunky -- are actually published by Microsoft Studios (as is Minecraft, Mr. Mattrick.) Even an IGF grand prize win doesn't mean Microsoft will publish you (what's up, Monaco?). Bastion, which is one of the biggest indie games of the generation, went with Warner Bros., at least in part to get onto Xbox Live Arcade. Of course, that's not the only reason to work with a publisher -- there's marketing, PR, and other benefits -- but the point is: on Xbox, you do not have a choice. To boil it all down to the essential point I want to get to, an experienced indie developer recently put it to me like this: "Microsoft has no concept of a digital publisher." What does that mean? To get an opportunity to publish a digital game on an Xbox platform, you must publish retail titles. I had thought that this was one-to-one -- meaning for each retail title a publisher releases, it can also release one Xbox Live game. But I recently spoke to someone who worked at a publisher with a two-to-one ratio. "Two digital games for each retail release?" I asked. Nope. It worked the other way around: Two retail games released meant the publisher got one digital download slot. And someone from another publisher told me that to even be allowed to publish games on Xbox 360 in the first place, the company had to slate three retail games up front. While policies do evolve over time and the dimensions of these agreements do change, to some extent, from publisher to publisher, you can see how hard it is to get involved in the Xbox publishing ecosystem to begin with -- and how impossible it is for any company whose strategy does not revolve around retail games.

A challenging ecosystem

Then, of course, is the fact that most big publishers aren't set up to care about today's digital games. It's just not in their genes (or, more importantly, their business models). Minecraft aside, $10-15 games result in pocket change caught between the rock of $60 retail titles and the hard place of free-to-play mobile games. No matter how big, publishers have limited attentions. That is just reality. Even if a publisher does love digital -- take Capcom as an example -- it probably already has a strategy in place. The new Phoenix Wright game for 3DS, which hit retail in Japan, is a digital-only title in the West. Sure, if it were for Xbox, Capcom would have a slot to put it in. But that would also mean even one fewer slot to potentially give to someone else's game. Smaller, hungrier publishers don't get as many slots, like I mentioned, and if they focus on niche titles, they're probably increasingly looking to go digital with their own stuff. Finding a publisher is going to be increasingly challenging. So I think it's fair to say that the Xbox ecosystem is extremely difficult for developers who aren't attached to publishers and will only get worse. As of last month, Microsoft has quietly dropped patch fees for downloadable games. That seems to be as far as the publisher is willing to go in catching up to 2013 with its policies on digital-only titles.

This doesn't just affect small 'indies'

But here's the clincher: if you think that only 'indies" are going to be harmed by draconian rules around digital publishing, you are simply not living in 2013. To start, you have to stop thinking about "indies" in that convenient shorthand that calls to mind Phil Fish and others like him. It's not just tiny shops with tiny games who are going digital-only these days. Minecraft is huge on Xbox Live Arcade, but Mojang did not put it there. Will DayZ end up on Xbox One? Who knows! Even if it does, just like Minecraft, it will not be the same as the PC version -- players will miss out on the alpha and be segregated from the larger community. Who knows what else will be different? Yes, a game like a standalone DayZ will ship as a retail title, eventually, even on PC. But for a long time -- a fun-filled time for its fans and developers, and a profitable one for its publisher -- there would be no way to get it onto Xbox One. This alpha is a period that its project lead considers literally essential to the creation of the game itself. Do you think he is alone in developing games this way? For how long? And what of CCP? Its Dust 514 is a PlayStation 3 exclusive, so far -- because it's a digital-only release, and probably also because it talks to CCP's EVE Online servers (another no-no according to the Xbox camp, at least not without very special permission). Dust 514 may be flawed, but to dismiss what it represents would be an error. CCP is not ever going to publish a retail game on an Xbox console, I'd wager. The only way you can buy EVE Online new in a box at this point is to order an insane collectors edition direct from Iceland. Sure, CCP could find a publishing partner if it wanted to, as it has in the past, but... why? There is no reason. These are all examples of what's happening now. Right now. Extrapolate.

The relationship machine

Think about how much things changed between 2005, when the Xbox 360 was introduced, and 2013, when the Xbox One will go on sale. Games evolve quickly -- the games themselves, the business that surrounds them, and even what they are or what we think they are. All of that is changing all of the time. How can Microsoft's digital policy be essentially unchanged since Call of Duty 2 came out? It's time for some real talk: It is my belief that the Xbox One is primarily a device designed so corporations can have relationships with each other: Comcast and Microsoft and Activision Blizzard and the NFL. It is a device created by a company that venerates the creation of devices, and will come packed with services that sound good to companies that like to sell services to attractive demographic targets. The reason developers weren't really on stage except in prepackaged video segments prepared at the behest and for the benefit of these corporations is because Xbox One is not primarily about them. This may actually turn out to be a winning strategy for Microsoft, no matter what the naysayers believe. I simply do not know. As people who believe in the system are quick to point out, Microsoft has a whole lot more market research and focus testing at its fingertips than we do, and me and people like me are not really its target audience. But Microsoft's apparent attitude says something to me: I firmly believe the company is making a deliberate choice of a specific path. It is not an accident that the Xbox One is no more developer-friendly and, in fact, probably even less developer-friendly than the Xbox 360, which at least had Xbox Live Indie Games, as maligned as that service generally is. I don't think Microsoft is closing the door only on the small games it seems to no longer care about. It is excluding itself from what is already a significant, vibrant part of the market. It is cutting off potentially world-changing games, not just the next beloved boutique "hit" that gets more traffic on Twitter than downloads. I don't know the terms of its deal with Mojang -- but not directly creating the Xbox 360 version of the game was a deliberate choice on the original developers' part. The developers of the next Minecraft may not want to have to go that route -- but they will have no choice.

About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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